Sri Lanka’s President Pushes Reconciliation

In a continuing and dramatic departure from the decades of oppression and civil war that devastated Sri Lanka, the country’s new president, Maithripala Sirisena, has vowed to pursue reconciliation efforts with Sri Lanka's benighted Tamil minority, tens of thousands of whom were exterminated by the Sinhalese-majority government during and after the end of the conflict.

Sirisena defeated the former strongman Mahinda Rajapaksa in polls earlier this year with overwhelming support from the Tamil and Muslim minorities. The new president has committed to inclusive governance and to punish the war criminals although Tamils continue to be suspicious of his statements.

Sri Lanka's new Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has said a "political settlement" with the minority Tamil community is a prerequisite. "If you want a stable and secure country, we must have a political solution with Tamils and move forward," Wickremesinghe said in an address in the Tamil-dominated Jaffna peninsula last week.

While it should be noted that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam – the Tamil rebels – committed a murderous, scorched-earth campaign of their own during the war, the Sri Lankan Army faces allegations of committing genocide during the end of the conflict. The US and other nations have continued to insist on UN investigations of military war crimes. According to UN estimates, up to 40,000 Tamil civilians were killed by security forces during Rajapaksa’s regime after the end to the war in May 2009.

However, neither the government nor the United Nations has completed any investigations to apprehend the guilty. A recent preliminary report of a UN investigative panel confirmed that the Sri Lankan troops deliberately targeted civilians, hospitals and aid workers, arbitrarily executed prisoners, and committed mass rape, all contrary to the Geneva Conventions, which were ratified by Sri Lanka.

Although Sri Lankan troops committed war crimes during the final phase of the Tamil rebellion, the Tamil Tigers aggravated the atrocities by using civilians as human shields. Between January and May 2009, at least 7,934 Tamils died, of which 550 were children younger than 10, although real figures probably amount to tens of thousands. No one has been held accountable.

The political branch associated with the Tamil Tigers, the Tamil National Alliance, has now renounced its secessionist claims in favor of a federalist state. Nonetheless, persecution of Tamils by the Sinhalese government continues.

Sri Lanka has not signed the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. As long as there is no accountability for the massacres that occurred during the Sri Lankan civil war, there can be no sustainable peace among the ethnic communities. An international Commission of Inquiry should investigate the atrocities committed by both sides in the conflict, and the Sri Lankan government should arrest and try those who committed war crimes.

However, it is becoming more likely that, however late, the current Sri Lankan government will make such a commitment. Recently hundreds of Tamils in Sri Lanka's former war zones for the first time openly commemorated their loved ones killed during the civil war as they marked the sixth anniversary of the end of the conflict.

Northern Province Tamil Chief Minister C V Wigneswaran chaired the main commemoration event, joining hundreds of Tamils as they lit lamps in the honor of their war dead in the face of a police order to prevent remembrance events from taking place. Wigneswaran, however, said the court order was limited only to prevent holding of processions. Wigneswaran, while addressing the people at the event, said the government together with the international community must come to a decision regarding the political aspirations of the Tamil-speaking people.

Tamils held remembrance events elsewhere in the Tamil-dominated northern and eastern provinces, a marked departure from the days of former president Rajapaksa's rule, under which such commemorations were disrupted by security forces in Jaffna. The police, however, said that they would not tolerate anyone attempting to hold remembrance events for the LTTE.

Prime Minister Wickremasinghe recently visited the Tamil heartland in the Northern Province in a bid to strengthen the government's efforts to bring about reconciliation among the communities, meeting with people in the north in the Jaffna district secretariat.

Wickremasinghe said his government is committed to uplifting the communities in the war-torn Northern Province and will work towards providing basic facilities. The government, he said, also intends to provide electricity and clean drinking water to the people in the entire peninsula and would also focus on health and education to improve their standard of living.

"The war is over, but we do not have unity among ethnic communities. Tamils have shown their willingness to ensure reconciliation. We must have a political settlement and move forward, protecting peace and stability," he was quoted as saying in a statement released by his office.

Wickremasinghe also said the government will restart industries that were destroyed during the war to provide employment to the people in the area. Accordingly, the cement factory in Kankasanthurai at Elephant Pass, the Paranthan chemical factory and many other large scale factories will be rebuilt. The Prime Minister said 400 youth well versed in Tamil will be recruited as police officers to solve daily law and order problems.

Meanwhile, Rajapaksa and his allies are applying tremendous pressure on the Sirisena government to delay justice and eventually get rid of UN sponsored investigations into military war crimes. They are trying to influence Tamils both in Lanka and Tamil Nadu, the Tamil-dominated state across the channel in India, saying the investigations and even punishments are not going to get back those murdered by the military, and that the issue should be dropped. Tamils, it appears, are afraid that the Lankan military will resort to repressive measures unless the investigations are stopped.

Some rich Tamils in Colombo say Tamil Nadu parties are fomenting trouble between Tamils and the Sinhalas at a time when New Delhi, on the other hand, is doing considerable development work, building houses and laying railway lines in the stricken north. Tamil Nadu politicians are agitating on a daily basis for India to take stern action over Sri Lanka’s human rights abuses.

The international community is looking forward to seeing that Sirisena deliver due justice to Tamils. Governments across the globe and the United Nations continue to urge that the crimes not go unnoticed and war criminals not stay unpunished.