No Reconciliation After Sri Lanka’s Civil War

Column: No reconciliation after Sri Lanka's civil war

By Jonathan Manthorpe
Vancouver Sun
August 13, 2010

A little over a year after Sri Lanka's civil war ended with an orgy of bloodshed on the island nation's northern beaches, there are no convincing signs the government will address the ethnic frictions that started the conflict over 25 years ago.

There is intense international skepticism that President Mahinda Rajapaksa is at all inclined to embark on the kind of reconciliation and reconstruction program many believe necessary to overcome the sharp divide between Sri Lanka's ethnic Sinhalese majority and the minority Tamils who make up about 18 per cent of the 22 million population.

Rajapaksa's unwillingness to thoroughly address what happened at the end of the war in May last year when thousands of civilians died, victims of being used as human shields by Tamil Tiger fighters and targets of indiscriminate shelling by government artillery, has led to confrontations with the United Nations, the European Union and the United States.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's appointment of a three-member war crimes panel in June has been dismissed by Rajapaksa as an infringement of Sri Lanka's sovereignty.

He has ignored pointed suggestions by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that Sri Lanka take part in the UN inquiry, and do more toward reconciliation and accounting for human rights violations.

And last month the EU said Sri Lanka will lose its preferential access to the European market, worth $150 million a year, unless the government gives written undertakings to improve its human rights record.

In response Rajapaks a insists his own commission, which held its first hearings on Thursday, is all that is required to explore what happened in the latter stages of the civil war. But this commission has been dismissed by human rights organizations and observers at home and abroad as ineffectual and biased in its mandate.

The commission's mandate is, indeed, narrowly defined. It is to explore only why a ceasefire brokered by Norway and signed in 2002 by both the government and the Tamil Tigers collapsed in 2005.

Although both successive Sri Lankan governments and the Tamil Tigers, who are designated a terrorist organization by many countries, including Canada, have appalling human rights records, the 2005 collapse of the ceasefire is one of the few recent events that can be pinned on the Tigers exclusively.

The breakdown of the ceasefire led the Colombo government to decide to use military means to end the war once and for all.

Four years of intense fighting saw the slow and methodical subjugation by the army of the quasi-independent state created by the Tamil Tigers in northern Sri Lanka.

In May 2009 the war ended on the northern beaches when the army surrounded and destroyed the remaining Tiger fighters as they made a last stand among over a quarter of a million civilians. Tamil Tigers claimed the civilians were loyal supporters while government forces said the people were conscripted by the rebels to act as human shields.

The UN says 7,000 civilians died in the final assault, while other organizations such as the Brussels-based International Crisis Group say upwards of 30,000 people were killed as the result of war crimes on both sides.

Little that has happened since gives much reason for confidence that Rajapaksa intends to be either magnanimous in victory or to use the opportunity that war-weariness provides.

About 250,000 people captured by government forces at the end of the fighting were kept in detention camps for months as the authorities hunted for remaining Tamil Tigers.

International outrage at the detentions and the conditions in the camps were largely ignored.

In January this year Rajapaksa ran for a second four-year term as president and won conclusively in a disputed contest with Gen. Sarath Fonseka, who led the army in the final assault on the Tigers and then resigned to enter politics.

Not content with beating Fonseka in the election, Rajapaksa has now accused him of plotting a coup and the former general is facing a court martial.

Meanwhile Rajapaksa and his followers just failed in April's parliamentary elections to win the two-thirds of seats that would allow an unopposed change in the constitution.

The president's opponents speculate he wants to shift executive power to the Parliament, which would allow him to become prime minister and thus avoid the two-term restriction on holding the presidency.

In any event, Rajapaksa and his brothers already directly control 70 per cent of the government budget. One brother is the Speaker of Parliament and another is minister of state security with a special brief to develop state-owned property in the capital. A third brother heads the ministry of tourism, nation-building and investment. And Rajapaksa himself is also the finance minister.