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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Human Rights in Sri Lanka – A Perennial Question Mark

 Twenty years ago Mahinda Rajapaksa was a fiercely dedicated human rights lawyer and, along with Mangala Samaraweera, a pillar of strength to Mrs Sirimavo Bandaranaike who was heading the Mothers’ Front in southern Sri Lanka.
The latter was a frontal organisation to fight for justice for the thousands of Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) members killed by the Sri Lankan Army and police in their successful campaign against the Sinhala nationalist-terrorist force.

Among his many qualities like an unbounded energy to work, simplicity and friendliness was his remarkable proximity to the Tamils, and still more remarkable was his easy flow of the Tamil language. He was a rare Sinhala politician who had consciously cultivated his relations with the Tamils.

Today’s situation is a complete reversal of the above. More than Presidents J.R. Jayewardene and Ranasinghe Premadasa, it is President Rajapaksa who is being increasingly and widely perceived as a fearsome embodiment of Sinhala nationalism, packaged as Sri Lankan nationalism, and a far worse perpetrator of human rights violations. While dictatorial practices have traditionally distorted democracy in Sri Lanka, the extent of human rights violations being witnessed under the present presidency—irrespective of the ethnicity of the victims— is unprecedented.

However, as far as the present government’s conscious failure to go ahead with the reconciliation and rehabilitation process in the aftermath of the conclusion of the ethnic war is concerned, it should be borne in mind that there are precedents in Sri Lankan history. The last bout of prolonged peace took place during 2002-04 when the war was no longer raging and the government in Colombo had plenty of opportunities to reach out to the Tamils in the the north and east.

Nothing of the sort happened. It was inexpli-cable that the longest lasting peace did not yield normalisation of life in the war zone. The Sri Lankan Government continued with the same arrangements as during the hostilities (which amounted to treat the north and east as hostile territory), and, the most surprising of all, the media in the south did not make moves to report on the kind of life being led in the north and east. A handful of Sinhala academics and practitioners of performing arts (such as intrepid theatre groups) ventured into Tamil land trying to build up and expand bridges of friendship, cooperation and understanding. Quite a few of these honest citizens are now suffering the displeasure of the Sinhala establishment.

WHILE the government remained unresponsive to the continuing opportunity to reach out to the Tamils in the north and east, it allowed Sinhala nationalists at the same time to make well-planned inroads into the area to strengthen the case for a de-merger of the provinces. For obvious reasons, Sinhala Sanvidhanaya, the strongest nationalist organisation, began a signature campaign in Trincomalee in mid-July 2003 to urge the demerger. The organisation said that the temporary merger in force since 1987 under the India-Sri Lanka Accord should be cancelled and two provincial councils for the north and the east should be established. Within a month the then President Chandrika Kumaratunga (who headed the Sri Lanka Freedom Party) issued a warning to the effect that she would not hesitate to demerge the north-east province if the United National Front Government (led by her arch-enemy Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe) failed to quell the violence and restore peace in the east.

This was the period when the Norwegian mission to monitor the ceasefire was being increasingly perceived as openly favouring the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Thus, the merger of the north and east under Indian pressure, which was never accepted by the Sinhala commu-nity, became a tool with dual roles to thrash the political rivals in the south and to prepare the Tamils for an eventual de-merger.

The last major opportunity to heal the Tamil psyche came in the midst of the devastation caused by the tsunami on December 26, 2004. While the Indonesian Government and the Aceh rebels cooperated in rebuilding the tsunami-devastated areas in Indonesia, there were hopes that a similar joint effort by the Sri Lankan Government and the LTTE might usher in a period of reconciliation and reconstruction. In the latter case, however, the villain of the peace proved to be the LTTE which, alarmed by the excellent rescue operations carried out by the Sri Lankan defence forces in the affected areas, was determined to stymie the growing positive sentiments among the Tamils and Muslims. Six months into the posturings and negotiations, the government was seen to have lost its sense of urgency in rebuilding the devastated areas. The last opportunity to bring the Sinhala and Tamil communities closer to each other was then irretrievably lost even though Kumaratunga initiated a comprehensive peace plan in 2005, but by then Sri Lankan politics had rendered peace prospects much murkier.

ALL these factors no longer exist with the end of the war and collapse of the LTTE and Rajapaksa’s unchallenged sway over the country. It is truly tragic that the return of peace has also coincided with the flowering of a repressive and intolerant regime from which all the communities now suffer. Even a brief recounting of the measures taken by the government that qualify it to be branded as such suffices. All those in Sri Lanka who have publicly campaigned to highlight the atrocities committed during the last phase of the war are now in serious jeopardy as they have been virtually identified by the state media as “traitors”. For intrepid media-persons, however, risking their lives for exposure of lawless actions by the government and ruling party has been traditionally part of their careers. Some have escaped abroad but others are still in the country and face grave consequences. The repression is clearly aimed to silence human rights workers and mediapersons.

As for the situation in the north-east, reports say that the zone is being increasingly placed under still tighter Army control, thus fully ignoring the recommendation of the government-appointed Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) to demilitarise the area. The government’s explanation that it cannot risk another rebellion there does not facilitate the return of normal life for the indigenous population. Settlement of Sinhala Army settlers from the south is on in full swing. This is being accompanied by the construc-tion of Buddhist stupas in the region, the logic being that Sinhala settlers (mostly Buddhists) need facilities to perform their religious rites.

On the other hand, the immediate necessities of Tamils like housing, farming, small trading and education are being ignored. Soon it will be three years since the end of the war, and the government has not yet prepared a satisfactory list of missing persons in the north-east.

Colombo’s sole emphasis appears to be on economic development of the north-east, which is obviously one of the urgent needs. Unfortunately, Tamils view this priority as more to facilitate Sinhala settlements than to rebuild the broken lives of Tamils. There is now increasing fear that in the wake of the adoption of the US-sponsored resolution on the war crimes committed by the armed forces, the extent of repression would intensify.
Apratim Mukarji Special to Salem-News.com


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