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A long road to reconciliation

Sri Lanka
01.09.2016-road-to-reconcilliation-590.jpg

Still wary: a Muslim woman peers around a gate in Aluthgama, a town 50 kilometres south of Colombo. At least three Muslims were killed there in 2014 in a clash with a rightwing Buddhist group. © Eranga Jayawardena/AP/Press Association Images

Thurairaja Kanagamma hasn’t stepped foot on her land for 29 years. She lost her home in the Jaffna peninsula in 1989, when fighting escalated between government forces and ethnic Tamil insurgents. The Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam (LTTE), known as the ‘Tamil Tigers’, waged a 26-year war to try to establish a state in the north and east, independent of the succession of largely Sinhalese Buddhist governments. Although the civil war ended in 2009, Thurairaja is still living in a camp for internally displaced people.

‘I came to this camp when my daughter was three,’ she says. ‘She’s 26 now.’

Thurairaja is one of nearly 400 people who live in the Chunnakam camp, close to Sri Lanka’s northernmost city, Jaffna. Effectively a long-term refugee camp for people in their own country, Chunnakam is a tightly packed network of corrugated-iron dwellings (houses would be an overstatement). Most of the residents have similar stories: caught up in the war, they were forced to leave their homes and the fishing that sustained them.

Today the residents’ land remains occupied by the army. Reliant on temporary, low-paid work, they also have to deal with the stigma of living in a ‘welfare camp’. Rajitha’s two teenagers were born in the camp, and sleep side by side in a room the size of a single bed.

‘Living here limits our income,’ Rajitha explains, ‘and the schools are reluctant to take our children, knowing they live in a camp.’

The camp’s leader, Selvie, runs a shop on the street just in front of the dwellings, which means she is always available when someone important visits. But her expectations are low. In February, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Prince Zeid Ra’ad Zeid Al-Hussein of Jordan came to the camp, but it didn’t make any difference.

‘He promised to solve our issue within three months, but nothing happened,’ Selvie says. ‘We are fed up of people coming and giving broken promises.’

The ‘common candidate’

The UN-endorsed Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre estimates that there were up to 73,700 internally displaced people in Sri Lanka as of July 2015. This number includes Tamil, Muslim and Sinhalese people, although Tamils and Muslims are disproportionately affected.

In December last year, Sri Lanka’s President Maithripala Sirisena made a surprise trip to a nearby camp, and promised to set up a task force. Sirisena has made a lot of optimistic promises in his short career as president. He rode into his post on an unexpected wave of support in January 2015 after challenging the populist but divisive President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Rajapaksa and his administration were accused of war crimes, corruption and nepotism – and these allegations have not gone away. Sirisena stood as a ‘common candidate’, representing a coalition of opposition parties who wanted Rajapaksa out.

Activist Priyadarshanie Ariyaratne was one of the first people to champion the idea of a common candidate. ‘It is thanks to the regime change that we are still alive,’ she says. ‘If it had not happened I am not sure I’d be here today, because it was changing very rapidly into a dictatorial state.’

Rajapaksa’s rule saw the end of the civil war, but after it had ended he didn’t wind down his campaign of militarization.

George Kristi is a retired teacher who has lived in Jaffna for most of his life. When Rajapaksa was in power, he says, ‘every corner, every bit of the street, every junction, everywhere you could see the military. They were omnipresent.’

Such impressions are backed up by research. The Oakland Institute, a US-based thinktank, analysed government data from 2014, which suggested that at least 160,000 soldiers were stationed in the north, equalling roughly one army member for every six civilians.

Oakland executive director Anuradha Mittal is worried that militarization has not halted, even under Sirisena. ‘If the war is really over, if Lonely Planet can call Sri Lanka a must-visit place, that means there is peace and security,’ she says. ‘[But] the lands are kept because of the continued militarization of the north and east. Some of this land has been used for holiday resorts, for agricultural farms.’

George can attest to this: he has a friend whose house is still occupied by the military, rent free. It stands in an area with particularly fertile soil, so the military grows vegetables and sells them at the local market (albeit at low prices).

But George is impressed by some significant changes which followed Sirisena’s appointment. He has noticed a substantial reduction in military and intelligence agents on the ground in his home town: ‘During Rajapaksa’s time, if we had a meeting there was always an intelligence person there,’ he notes. ‘Sometimes they openly came and rounded us up. Those types of incidents don’t happen any more; there is no longer military interference in civil organizations.’

Detention and disappearances

There is an ongoing struggle for human rights in Sri Lanka. Ruki Fernando, a human rights defender, was arrested by the police in 2014 in connection with his activism, and remains under a court order which limits his freedom of expression.

‘I have been forbidden through the court order to speak about the investigations surrounding my case to anyone local or international,’ he says.

The irony is that this legal action was taken because Ruki had campaigned around high-profile cases of illegal extrajudicial disappearances. It is widely believed that abduction was used as a tactic to silence critics both during and after the war. People were lifted from the streets by white vans without number plates and never seen again. Journalists continue to make dark jokes, when they think they might be in too deep, that the white van will be on its way.

‘There are many things the international community can hold this government accountable for, and they are not doing that’

Sri Lanka recently ratified the international convention on enforced disappearances, and the government is currently setting up an Office of Missing Persons. In June, the government admitted that 65,000 people had gone missing in connection with the civil war and a Marxist insurrection in the late 1980s. That number is likely to include civilians and LTTE cadres who surrendered to government forces at the end of the war and haven’t been seen since.

Ruki is pleased that proactive steps are being taken, but has serious concerns about their effectiveness.

‘In the last three months there have been reports of six cases of disappearances. Some of the people who were abducted were recently found in official police custody,’ he says, adding: ‘I never expected abductions to happen under the new government.’

Even when it’s clear that someone is in police custody, that doesn’t guarantee justice. Lakshmi Perumal’s husband, Muttiah Sahadevanh, has been in prison without trial since August 2005. She says her husband is remanded as a political prisoner: exempt from the usual prison uniform and mandatory labour. He is held under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). He suffers from diabetes and has lost sight in one eye since his 11-year span of detention began.

‘Sometimes my husband tells me not to come,’ says Lakshmi. ‘He says: “Don’t waste your time; do your work.” Because nothing is happening, things are postponed, there are no developments.’

When questioned about cases like Muttiah’s, Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapaksa maintains that there are no political prisoners in Sri Lanka.

Access to justice is particularly difficult for Tamil citizens like Lakshmi. Although Sinhala, English and Tamil are all official languages, this is not reflected in public offices. Even in the Northern Provinces, where the majority of the population speak Tamil as their first (and often only) language, it’s rare to find a police officer who speaks it.

The Justice Minister says there is currently a drive to recruit 1,500 Tamil speakers to the police, which will be a welcome change for George: ‘You can’t even make an entry in the Jaffna police station in Tamil; only in Sinhala,’ he explains. ‘This is a fundamental rights violation.’

Accountability

‘We are fed up of broken promises’: Selvie outside her shop.

Jo Eckersley

One of President Sirisena’s key election pledges was that he would hold an inquiry into whether war crimes were carried out in the final weeks and months of the civil conflict, when, according to the UN, an estimated 40,000 Tamil civilians were massacred. He has, however, resisted calls for international involvement in the inquiry. In response, activists have highlighted his role as acting defence minister in the final two weeks of the war.

Anuradha Mittal doesn’t believe victims will get justice without some form of independent oversight: ‘They will effectively set up a kind of victors’ court and say justice has been done.’

Anuradha and Ruki Fernando share the view that the new government is being given too much leeway by the international community. This government shouldn’t be compared to the last one, according to Ruki: ‘Comparing our situation to the past under Rajapaksa sets the benchmark very low; I don’t think it’s a good indicator. We have to look at how we compare in terms of international human rights standards. I understand that progress has been and will be slow, but there are many things the international community can hold this government accountable for, and they are not doing that.’

Sri Lankan thinktank Verité Research estimates that only 11 per cent of the pledges Sirisena’s government made to the UN Human Rights Council in September 2015 have been fulfilled.

Sirisena has sworn he will only serve one term (distancing himself from Rajapaksa, who made an unprecedented third try). This means he may not have to face the political consequences of failure; instead, his colleagues will have to prepare themselves for an electorate that now understands its true power. The landslide election results proved above all else that Sri Lankans can unite, despite their divisions.

Although progress is slow at Colombo’s Parliament, reconciliation is finally on the agenda: ministers are drafting a new constitution, which many hope will include elements of devolution at grassroots levels. One of the biggest challenges for this will be getting Sinhalese support.

‘Mind-sets were conditioned in the south for the war,’ explains Sinhalese activist Priyadarshanie. ‘They were conditioned to believe that Tamil people are our enemies; that they are going to kill us. That mentality is still there.’

But Sirisena is pushing on with his plans nonetheless. In May he told reporters: ‘We will devolve power to the people as a whole. Nobody is trying to take something away from the Sinhalese to give it to the Tamils. What we are trying to do is to give something more to everyone.’

The families in Chunnakam internal displacement camp have the most to gain from this. They hope that, seven years after the war ended, they will be given back the land that was taken from them.

Ashwin Hemmathagama is a Sri Lankan journalist who left the country for two years during Rajapaksa’s rule because he feared for his safety. hemmathagama.lk

Jo Eckersley is a British journalist who was living in Sri Lanka during the Presidential elections in January 2015. joannaeckersley.com

New Internationalist issue 495 magazine cover This article is from the September 2016 issue of New Internationalist.
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