Hope Fades for Sri Lankan Justice for Rajapaksa

The election of Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena’s last January to presidency gave rise to hopes for all sections of the island nation, especially the Tamils and Muslims as major minorities who had very high expectations from the new president they happily elected.

Elections in January when Sirisena defeated the increasingly authoritarian Mahinda Rajapaksa in his quest to win an unprecedented third term and August parliamentary polls, combined with the recently passed UN Human Rights Council (HRC) resolution on Sri Lanka, have presented the country with some real hopes for better treatment of minorities even if they are not given preferential treatment in jobs and other domains.

Upon assuming office, Sirisena declared reconciliation with Tamils as one of his main premises of governance and he promised proper action on former president’s war crimes. However, he has not undertaken steps to realize his objectives. Recently he said the year 2016 will be the year of building of the economy of the country. He said a lot of programs will be implemented to bring about prosperous lives to all people in this country. “The government has entered into the program to bring about prosperous lives to the people by doing required political reforms and saving the people from poverty,” Sirisena said. However, he did not refer to UN probe into war crimes.

Sri Lankan Tamils have barely come out of the shock they received because of state sponsored massacres of the Tamil community under pro-Sinhalese Rajapaksha government. Tamils are worried if Sirisena is insincere as he is silent about his promise of reconciliation. Accusing fingers are pointed at him by onlookers for trying to save the former ruler. Thus far, Sirisena has been reluctant to take even small steps to reach out to the Tamil community. That needs to change if he were to be sincere about reconciliation.

Year 2015 was to herald the rising Rajapaksa’s eldest son Namal, who was obviously being groomed for a larger political role, but it turned out to be bad, indeed it spelled doom for Rajapaksa’s autocratic political career and he thought he was finished but he is now a Member of Parliament and has close links with President Sirisena.

Sirisena knows that Rajapaksha is likely concerned now about protecting himself and his family from criminal prosecution as well. Ensuring that Namal, who is also a member of parliament and stays politically active is probably a priority for the former president too. Ideally, Rajapaksa wants to preserve his reputation amongst Sinhala people as a war hero who finally defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and ended a war which ran from 1983 to 2009.

Tamils feel Sirisena is just rhetoric, that he does not seem to seriously think about justice for Tamils maybe, possibly because he, like his ministerial colleagues, might consider such a move to upset the majority Sinhalese community that "enjoyed" the military genocides of Tamils. But the fact is that no positive action to assure the Tamil minority community of their right to exist in the island nation certainly would not go against Sinhalese people.

Under pressure from the Sinhalese-Buddhist majority, the president is undecided about how to punish the criminal elements among the ruling elites who perpetrated or promoted crimes in the name of democracy, patriotism and security.

International actors, including states, nongovernmental organizations and UN special procedures mandate holders should keep pressing Colombo to include them in the process. The international community has made it clear that it’s ready to help Sri Lanka at every step of the way. The Sirisena government should try to explain to the Sinhalese population why independent mechanisms are important, and why a significant degree of actual international participation – beyond monitoring, advising, offering finances and training – is important to ensure independence and effectiveness of transitional justice mechanisms

Sinhalese are the overwhelming ethnic majority in Sri Lanka, most of them Buddhists. They dominate the country’s institutions, including the military. Nationalist elements, like Rajapaksa, would try to thwart the new government’s proposed reconciliation agenda, giving human status to the Tamil community that had first served the British rulers and later the Sinhalese Buddhist people after that.

Rajapaksa has problems with the latest HRC resolution on Sri Lanka, which is designed to promote human rights, justice and reconciliation in the divided island nation that’s still recovering from a civil war that spanned nearly three decades. He doesn’t want to see meaningful international involvement in the country’s transitional justice process

The government is not allowing the UN probe to succeed and is yet to punish the criminals for their crimes. That the Sirisena government in Colombo is staffed by military and political officials who played lead roles in the bloody final offensive against the Tamils and LTTE does not bode well for punishment for the criminals. It appears the Sirisena government is designed to shift Sri Lanka’s economic and strategic orientation away from China and towards India and the USA – both themselves involved in crimes. Indian communist parties seem to have abandoned even their cynical, tactically-motivated criticisms of the Sri Lankan government’s oppression of the Tamil masses.

Since the conclusion of the HRC’s 30th session in Geneva, Colombo has been making it clear that there is no hybrid accountability mechanism in the works and that what’s called for in the latest resolution on Sri Lanka is a domestic mechanism

The government may be tempted to deprioritize the more controversial war crimes matters.

Nonetheless, failing to recognize that transitional justice, including accountability for wartime abuses, is an essential part of the government’s broader governance and institution-building agenda would be a significant mistake.

It appears the government would like a local inquiry as a formality to fool the world and close the issue. No justice can be expected from any such formally fake enquiries by the government without real intent. Lankan judges are likely to be reminded of their “patriotic duty” to protect the Singhalese criminals and government from punishment, stating that any punishment of military or politicians that would be an “insult to the nation.”

The logic is simple. No government can take steps to punish the criminals who belong to the majority or belittle majority populations because such true justice would let the minority populations live with honor.

Sri Lankans from all walks of life – irrespective of peoples’ ethnic, religious or social background – should be allowed and encouraged to truly enjoy life. President Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe should recognize the importance of working together for national unity and acting upon this unique opportunity to help move the country from a post-war or post-conflict society to an inclusive society where majority and minorities live in peace.

The main challenge now is for Sirisena is to have political vision and courage to be transparent and honest about intentions and plans and do the correct thing, even if it may not be the most popular among the majority Sinhalese and politically convenient.

Abdul Ruff Colachal is an independent analyst and columnist.