In 2006 the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) drastically stepped up its military campaign to defeat the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The abrogation of the Cease Fire Agreement (CFA) by the GoSL marked the beginning of what has arguably been the bloodiest phase of the 30 year war that has devastated the country. The conflict was called many things particularly "Sri Lanka’s fight against terrorism" by the state, and "Eelam IV" by the LTTE; but the truth of the matter is that it was a war on the people of Sri Lanka particularly those of the North and East where armed combat between the state and the LTTE has raged for decades. Years of real grievances including language and education policies, which ultimately resulted in disadvantaging minority groups, spawned Tamil militancy. The Tamil militant movement took on a totalitarian nature, eliminating all non-aligned Tamil voices, with the help of a majoritarian state unwilling to denounce chauvinistic policies. Challenges to a political solution abound and threaten to burry the country in political strife for decades to come. I seek to outline some, but by no means an exhaustive list of the challenges that face the country today.
History of Failed Promises and Lack of Implementation
The country has witnessed a history of failed promises beginning with the Bandaranaike – Chelvanayagam Pact (1957). The pact signed soon after the adoption of the Sinhala Only Act in order to protect Tamil interests and allowing for devolution in the form of regional councils and recognition of the Tamil language; was abrogated due to protests by the principle opposition, the UNP, and Buddhist clergy.
The Tamil Language (Special Provisions) Act, No. 28 (1958) allowed for the use of Tamil in education, public service entrance exams and administration in the Northern and Eastern provinces however due to a lack of political will the act was not implemented.
The Dudley – Chelva Pact (1965) called for action to be taken under the Tamil Language (Special Provisions) Act, No.28; proposed the establishment of District Councils and addressed land issues in the North and East namely colonization schemes. Again opposition, but this time from the SLFP and its left allies, mobilizing support based on the false assertion that concessions to the Tamils would result in division of the country, led to the failure of the pact.
The 13th Amendment to the constitution, which sets out the formation of provincial councils under the Indo-Lanka Accord (1987), failed to be implemented for over 20 years. The All Party Representative Committee (APRC), formed with the mandate of proposing a solution to the national question with participation from all political parties, unearthed the amendment as an interim recommendation. The 2-page report of the APRC that culminated from 18 months of negotiation was more than disappointing to most and called only for implementation of relevant provisions1of the constitution not inclusive of key areas of devolution such as police powers, land and finances. Further the 13th Amendment has been criticized for not being truly devolutionary in nature.
Culture of Impunity
Abductions, disappearances, extra judicial killings and unlawful arrest and detentions are common features of the Sri Lankan landscape while state forces and state aligned paramilitary groups have been fiercely accused of these brutal acts. Since the beginning of 2006 at least 14 media workers have been murdered2, the most recent and widely publicized fatality being that of Lasantha Wickramatunga, editor of the Sunday Leader. Sonali Samarasinghe Wickramatunga, journalist and wife of Lasantha, revealed in a letter3 to the Inspector General of Police that despite the statement of the Minister of Foreign Employment Promotion and Welfare, Hon. Keheliya Rumbukwella, that the government had information about her husband’s murderers; no further information has been released and there has been no progress in the investigation of his death. Feed by this same culture of impunity, The Presidential Commission of Inquiry (CoI) established in 2006 in order to investigate serious violations of human rights, investigated only 7 out of the 16 cases set out in its mandate; none of the commissions reports have been released and no action has been taken based on commission findings. In more than half of the cases, violations have been alleged to have been committed by Sri Lankan government forces4. Numerous Commissions of Inquiry have existed since the early 1990s, many of which have identified alleged perpetrators in cases being investigated however few prosecutions and even fewer convictions have resulted.
Lack of Political Will
The International Independent Group of Eminent Persons (IIGEP), fully formed in late 2007 in order to observe the work of the CoI, released its final statement on April 15th 2008 announcing its self-termination and citing, ". . . an absence of political and institutional will on the part of the Government to pursue with vigour the cases under review with the intention of identifying the perpetrators or at least uncovering the systemic failures and obstructions to justice that rendered the original investigations ineffective."5The progress of the CoI was wracked by allegations of witness harassment, lack of independence and transparency and the conflicting role of the Attorney General. The course of 2008 witnessed not only the departure of the IIGEP, but also the resignation of several Commissioners and finally on November 4th 2008 the retirement of civil society from its standing before the Commission, based on the factors mentioned above as well as lack of progress in the work of the Commission and continued de facto absence of video conferencing.
Ineffectual commissions formed usually at the behest of domestic and international criticism is a familiar occurrence in Sri Lanka including eight presidential commissions of inquiry to investigate enforced disappearances between 1991 and 1998; a commission of inquiry into the alleged establishment and maintenance of an unlawful detention and torture facility in 1995; a commission of inquiry into the killing of 27 Tamil inmates of the Bindunuwewa Rehabilitation Centre in October 2000; and in 2001, the Presidential Truth Commission on Ethnic Violence covering events of 1981-1984. Little justice resulted from these commissions and the Presidential Commission of Inquiry established in 2006, and disbanded in mid June of this year, can be added to these ranks.
One of the reasons for the establishment of the 2006 CoI was to deflect attention away from the call for an international monitoring presence in the country due in part to the ineffectiveness of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). In blatant disregard of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution which has remained inoperative since 2005, the President directly appointed members to the NHRC, thereby sacrificing the independence of the institution. The 17th Amendment, passed in 2001, was an attempt to depoliticize key institutions including the National Police Commission, the Human Rights Commission and the Attorney General’s Office by requiring that nominations to these bodies be agreed upon by a Constitutional Council composed of both ruling and opposition party members. Since 2005 the President has made appoints to several key institutions including the Attorney General. This lack of political will to maintain just and independent institutions has drained any remnants of faith left in them.
The APRC, mentioned above, is yet to produce a final document outlining a solution to the national question. The approaching end to the Peace Secretariat, which also operates as the APRC Secretariat almost certainly guarantees that a genuine solution is far from the horizon. The sabotaging of the APRC process, and therefore recommendations for a genuine political solution, reveal the unwillingness of the current government to address the underlying causes of the conflict in Sri Lanka.
Many point to the Sinhala Only Act of 1956 as the catalyst of the long-standing political conflict in Sri Lanka. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, who campaigned on the platform of the act in an effort to make political gains, implemented the act after his landslide victory, making Sinhala the only official language. One result of implementation of the act was that all non-Sinhala speaking government employees lost their jobs. Tamil was made a national language in 1978 and an official language in 1987; however on the official languages, the current constitution reads, "The Official Language of Sri Lanka shall be Sinhala, Tamil shall also be an official language." The inferior status of the Tamil language as evidenced in the wording of the constitution is also visible in the difficulties faced by non-Sinhala speakers in corresponding with state institutions; and even the availability of documents, notices and signs only in the Sinhala language. The lack of political will to implement the provisions set out in the constitution has ultimately made the status of the Tamil language, as an official language, superficial. The flexing of nationalist muscles also enshrined Buddhism as the state religion.
"I am not worried about the opinion of the Jaffna people… now we cannot think of them, not about their lives or their opinion… the more you put pressure in the north, the happier the Sinhala people will be here… Really if I starve the Tamils out, the Sinhala people will be happy."6 A quote from then president J.R. Jayewardene during the 1983 riots is revealing of the toll that majoritarian politics has taken on the country.
However, the most difficult challenge to a resolution to the conflict in Sri Lanka, is the deeply entrenched division and psychological damage that decades of conflict has produced. The militarization that has equipped Singhalese youth with AK 47s and that has popularized the phrase "one only opens one’s mouth to eat" in the North, has sown and bread the seeds of hate and violence over the many years of civil war in the island nation. Today both Tamil and Singhalese nationalism exist threatening a peaceful settlement to the conflict. One can only hope that one day freedom and democracy will prevail.
1Groundviews. February 3, 2008. Creative Common License. Accessed July 18, 2009 [http://www.groundviews.org/2008/02/03/the-aprc-process-from-hope-to-despair/]
4Amnesty International. June 11, 2009. Amnesty International. Accessed July 15, 2009. Twenty Years of Make Believe – Sri Lanka’s Commissions of Inquiry. [http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/info/ASA37/005/2009/en]
5 IIGEP Statement, April 14, 2008 – The Members of the IIGEP Submit Their Concluding Public Statement on theWork of the Commission Of Inquiry and Find A Lack Of Political Will to Support A Search for the Truth.
6 Daily Telegraph, July 1983