Sri Lanka’s new government has managed to make progress in regaining what it believes to be its rightful place in the international community, since taking power in January last year. By engaging foreign governments on issues that have been high on the international community’s agenda, such as accountability and democratic reforms, the Sirisena-government appears to have returned to the international fold to an extent not seen since before the end of the armed conflict. However this renewed positive engagement on trade, reform and, albeit limited, military relations, has not resulted in significant progress on a credible accountability mechanism for mass atrocities. More importantly the government has failed to convince the Tamil community of its sincerity. While public, positive engagement by the international community increases, the slim hopes of the victim community for justice are waning and making way for frustration and resentment, at the government’s backtracking over accountability, its sluggish pace of reforms, and the Sri Lankan state’s decade-long failure to provide the Tamil people an equitable stake on the island.
The shock at Rajapaksa’s defeat last January was followed by cautious optimism by the international community, who hoped to see reforms in Sri Lanka, allowing re-establishment of relations halted under the previous regime. Sri Lanka’s government resumed engagement with countries like the US on issues such as accountability. The promises it made were significant. The government signed up to a historic resolution at the UN Human Rights Council, calling for a credible accountability mechanism with international participation. However, whilst the international community supported the government in its efforts and Tamil political leaders also engaged with Colombo, change which could address longstanding problems was lacking.
The military continues to be a suffocating presence across the North-East and human rights violations continue to occur. This month alone there are reported to have been three white van abductions. Meanwhile statements made by senior government officials, including the president and the prime minister, have thrown doubt on the state’s sincerity in addressing the primary concern of the victim community, namely, accountability. The government is unable or unwilling meaningfully address issues that are relatively straightforward for it to prove its intent, failing to use the time it has had so far.
Instead it tells the international community that the mixed messaging, and slow pace in enacting change are due to the threat posed by Mahinda Rajapaksa and the difficulty of holding the ruling coalition together. This does not serve as an excuse to pander to Sinhala nationalism and to pussyfoot around accountability. Indeed, it is Sinhala nationalism that remains the the biggest obstacle to accountability and political reform. Accountability will remain elusive as long as the government fails to tackle the toxic nationalism in Sri Lanka head-on and has frank conversations with the Sinhala south about the mass atrocities committed by the state. Otherwise moves towards holding soldiers accountable, a move vital for any form of reconciliation, will only be met by fury amongst the Sinhala electorate.
Given the state’s long history or broken promises and failed commissions, there has been scepticism about the government’s willingness to reform from the outset amongst the Tamil community. But last year’s elections and the overwhelming vote for the TNA showed there was willingness to engage and progress on reforms. International pressure though, remained a part of the equation which was needed to result in meaningful change. Yet, with the noticeable easing of international pressure, coupled with renewed engagement with the Sri Lankan state, the government’s backtracking on its promises and continuing militarisation, disillusionment and resentment has set in amongst the Tamil community. The recent entertainment show, hosted by the US Navy in Colombo, alongside the war crimes-accused Sri Lankan military, makes statements pledging to support credible accountability ring hollow.
International pressure was key in bringing Sri Lanka where it is today and will remain crucial to achieving accountability, the basic prerequisite to achieving reconciliation and a lasting peace. The government’s and the TNA’s focus on constitutional reform has appeared to put the accountability process on a backburner. While constitutional reform is key to creating a lasting political solution, this must not come at the cost of accountability. Foreign governments, particularly the US and the UK who led the charge at the UN Human Rights Council, must maintain pressure on the Sri Lankan government to forge a serious path to achieve justice. The international community also mustn’t alienate the victim community by appearing to embrace Sri Lanka back into its fold, without it having made substantial progress on core issues, such as demilitarisation of the North-East. The Sri Lankan government must at once act to gain the trust of the Tamil community to prove it is sincere about reform and lay the groundwork now for eventual prosecutions and substantial devolution. When the time for action on these issues comes, it cannot point towards nationalist sentiment as an excuse not to act. History has shown that the state will only act when its at the pranger. If left to its own devices it will not act and the small window of opportunity which appeared to have opened when this government came into power, never really existed.