Sri Lanka has 8 world heritage sites, impressive bio-diversity, scenic topography, tourism and cricket. Yet it is also notorious for allegations of abuse of human rights, particularly in the final stage of the civil war which ended in 2009 President Rajapaksha’s government is remarkable for the extent to which it is a family enterprise. Two of his brothers are Defence Secretary and Economic Development Minister and a third is Speaker of the Parliament. Other important political and diplomatic positions are held by Rajapaksha’s son and relatives.
Even since the brutally savage end of the civil war in 2009 the government is credibly accused of a grim record of attacks on the media, civil society and political opposition, including extra-judicial killings. The Chief Justice was impeached and sacked in January after her adverse judgement of a case displeased the President. Consequently the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) held in Colombo in November 2013 created a great deal of controversy. The Prime Ministers of India, Canada and Mauritius refused to attend.
Yet it must be acknowledged that Rajapaksa was democratically re-elected with a heavy increased majority in 2010 after his bloody crushing of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) had ended the Tamil rebellion. There were accusations of vote rigging and electoral use of government funds but the President undoubtedly remains popular amongst the rural Sinhalese Buddhist majority. Even the critical urban middle class and businessmen, more conscious of international condemnations, recognise that the economy is recovering quite strongly, with tourism booming and with China and India competing to offer aid in reconstruction and development.
Why civil war?
The country was embroiled in civil war for over two decades. The history of the conflict can be traced to pre-independence when the Sri Lankan Tamils were the most literate and educated class through access to missionary education dating as far back as the 1820s. At independence in 1948 approximately 60 % of government jobs were held by Tamils, who comprised barely 15% of the population. Patronage, partisanship and lack of judicious planning created tension in the relationship between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamils. Successive governments adopted reforms to assist Sinhalese in education and employment making it difficult for Tamil youth to enter universities or secure jobs. The Sinhala Act of 1956 made Sinhala the sole official language. State sponsored colonisation schemes altered the demographics in the Eastern Provinces, an area that Tamil nationalists considered their homeland. In 1972 a new constitution removed section 29(2) of the 1947 Soulbury Constitution that had protected minority group interests. The Sinhalese also implemented a ‘Policy of Standardisation’ that further discriminated the Tamils. The 1977 election was followed by riots in which 300 Tamils were killed. Tamils demanded a separate state and the LTTE rose in strength as peace talks, and ceasefires proved abortive. The prolonged civil war made more than 800,000 Tamils ‘internally displaced persons’, which prompted UNHCR to recognise them in 2004 as the largest asylum seeking group.
It is estimated that around 80,000 and 100,000 people were killed in the conflict. A UN report stated that up to 40,000, including many Tamil civilians, were killed in the final phase of the war, Many Sri Lankan Tamils are refugees in India, with estimates of around 100,000 in camps and 50,000 outside the camps. Sri Lankan Tamils continue to seek asylum in countries like Canada and Australia.
Despite war the economy still showed annual growth of 6.4% from 2003 to 2012. From 2009 growth rose to 8% “peace dividend” and was stable at 7% by 2013 after a revamping of the large service sector.
Remittances from almost 2 million Sri Lankans migrant workers contribute some 10% of GDP. Average unemployment is low around 4%, although for the age groups of 15-24 it is around 17.3% and low female participation in the work force at 30% does create a challenge.
The country has some significant achievements in the areas of the MDG targets, outperforming other South Asian countries by reaching 15 of the 22 indicators. Though poverty has declined from 2002-2009 from 23% to 9%, pockets of poverty exist in Tamil and Muslim areas of the east and north.
Major internal problems still remain. Although most interned Tamils have now been released to return to home areas in the north they remain subject to heavy military presence and the implantation of Singhalese from the south. The Muslim minority in the eastern province also feels discrimination. Relations with India are complicated by active pressure from Tamil Nadu on the Indian government to defend Tamil rights in Sri Lanka, by fishing disputes in the Mannar Straits.
The prospects for early change towards greater respect for civil society, media freedoms and human rights are not good. The 18th amendment of the constitution strengthened the powers of the Executive President over the Parliament. The President appoints senior judges, police chiefs, the election commission, the attorney general’s office and the human rights commission. It has been estimated that Rajapaksha and his brothers control 70% of the state budget. Their party has a two thirds majority. They ignored a 2013 US sponsored critical UNHCR resolution (for which India voted) and condemnations from the International Commission of Jurists, the Commonwealth Lawyers Association and the UN Human Rights Commissioner. In Feb. 2014, Sri Lanka rejected a call for an international investigation into allegations of war crimes committed during the civil war, stating it was “tantamount to an unwarranted interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state”. Nevertheless, the UN resolution was passed, requiring a written report by March 2015
The country has sharp regional disparities. It needs to improve the quality of services in the Tamil occupied north and east with a strategic policy for sustainable growth, delivery of services and investment of resources. It needs to acknowledge the brutalities and abuses committed by both sides in the war so that true reconciliation may be possible. The omens are as yet not good, but all is not necessarily lost. The Sri Lanka government had declared its intention to weaken provincial devolved powers established in the Constitution by the Indo-Sri Lankan accord of 1987, but decided this would be unwise in advance of the CHOGM. Provincial elections held in the Sinhalese majority provinces saw the Rajapaksa UNDP winning handsomely.
But when delayed elections were held in the Northern Province, with a very high turnout, the ‘Tamil National Alliance’ won 30 seats, the government coalition 7 and the Muslim party 1. The TNA President and the TNA Chief Ministerial candidate, a retired Supreme Court Judge, have pledged ‘maximum cooperation’ with the central government. We must hope that the government has the wisdom to build on this chance of restoring true peace and reconciliation to this beautiful island nation.
Prof. Selina Mohsin
Former High Commissioner of Bangladesh