Tamil women in Sri Lanka (Photo Credit: Gayatri Parameswaran, creative commons)

By Miriam A. Young

Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war ended in May 2009 when the Sri Lankan military defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). For more than 25 years, the LTTE had been fighting for a separate state for the nation’s minority Tamil population.

The final five months of the conflict was a “War without Witness”. The government forced humanitarian organizations and independent media out of the war zone.  In its eagerness to crush the LTTE once and for all, the Sri Lankan government showed no mercy to the hundreds of thousands of civilians caught between the advancing army and the rebel fighters. The LTTE was accused of using civilians as human shields. The government was accused of launching attacks into civilian “safe zones” and shelling hospitals.

When the war ended, there was a sense of relief that the violence and killing were finally over. The time had come for healing and reconciliation.  Yet, almost three years later, an essential element in the reconciliation process, accountability, is nowhere in evidence.

Lack of Accountability and Political Progress

For the survivors, many of them women and children, it means trying to rebuild shattered lives and livelihoods all the while not knowing what happened to loved ones who went missing during the final months of the war.  It means having no access to psychosocial counseling which is prohibited by the government task force which must approve all rehabilitation and reconstruction programs of non-governmental organizations.  It means not being able to congregate for family or community events or conduct any civil business without the permission and presence of the military.  For the women-headed households in unfinished huts with no locks on the doors or—in some cases—no doors at all, it means living in fear of night visits from nearby military camps.

The second important factor for reconciliation is a political settlement to address the grievances that gave rise to the armed conflict in the first place. Yet, despite public promises to the international community, the Sri Lankan government under President Mahinda Rajapaksa has continued to assert itself as the triumphant victor over terrorism. The government has shown no willingness even to enact existing provisions in its constitution that would devolve provincial and local power to the minorities in the north and east. Its focus has instead been solely on reconstruction, the rebuilding of roads, schools and businesses in the former war zone. While physical reconstruction is necessary, there is deep concern that businesses are increasingly being run by the military or given to majority Sinhalese businessmen.

Pursuing Justice

Since the government has continued to keep a tight lid on dissent (abuses such as disappearances, attacks on journalists, and torture continue) it has been left to human rights activists and the international community to pursue justice under international law.  A United Nations panel of advisors produced a report that alleged crimes of humanity had taken place on both sides during the final five months of the war.  It estimated that up to 40,000 civilians may have been killed during that period and urged an independent international investigation.

Sri Lanka set up its own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) in response, and promised that the LLRC report would put international criticism to rest.  The report was completed in November 2011 and contains valuable recommendations which, if implemented, would go a long way toward resolving the key grievances of the Tamil minority and healing for victims of the war (some as simple as calling for the government to publish a list of all detainees). It falls short on accountability, however, accepting the government’s explanation that any civilian deaths were unavoidable.

International pressure on Sri Lanka’s leaders has resulted in the few small steps the government has taken to date to address the critical issues of justice and reconciliation. Until they demonstrate genuine commitment through concrete actions of their own, that pressure must continue.

Miriam A. Young has two decades of experience working on human rights, humanitarian and conflict resolution issues in South and Southeast Asia, particularly in Sri Lanka.  She is Director of the US Counsel on Sri Lanka, part of an international network that seeks to express the concerns of Sri Lankan civil society to the international community and to inform policy.

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  • Sri

    This is a good precis of what happened in the closing stages of the war and its aftermath. But the LLRC was inherently flawed because of its composition which consisted mostly of serving government officials and ex-officials whereas what could have been expected was a quasi-legal process including members from the judiciary, whether serving or retirees, well known for dispensing justice and fairplay in Sri Lanka . It was a whitewash to cover up the “sins” of the government on the crucial issue of crimes committed by the government side to the conflict. What they have inferred on social and political disconnects and of deliberate government failures have been well kwown for decades. True, at least they stated the obvious.

    The rogue nature of governance was exposed even by the LLRC as even their interim recommendations had not been acted upon by government even after a year thereby confirming the outcomes of recomemendations of predecessor Commissions on other subjects which had all been shelved and forgotten by governments which appointed them. The rogue and failed nature of governance has not changed one bit. If at all the present government is possibly the worst in that regard.

    One must agree with the thesis that continued external pressure must be maintained via the ongoing UNHCR session in Geneva to hold that government to account by first ascertaining the truth of what happned at the end of war by appointing an International Commison of Investigation as recommended by the UNSG’s Panel.

  • Michael Tacchia

    Thank you to Ms. Young for delineating to present situation in Sri Lanka. It is clear that the only thing that will lend substance to the LLRC is to make real the threat of prosecuting the aforementioned crimes against humanity. This appears to be the only ‘external pressure’ likely to yield true accountability and render this into a ‘War With Witnesses’.