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Sri Lanka's transition to nowhere and rising risk of violence - ICG

Sri Lanka could lose a real opportunity to address the roots of its decades of political turmoil with chances of an eventual return to violence would then grow considerably, concludes the International Crisis Group in their latest report on Sri Lanka.

Highlighting the new unity government’s failure to implement tangible changes to build confidence within the Tamil North-East, the ICG said, “Tamils in the north and east were assured of confidence building measures that require major changes in the security forces’ role. Yet, the military resists returning additional occupied land to its owners in these areas and continues to run shops and hotels and build Buddha statues in Tamil and Muslim communities. Failure to reduce the military footprint has led to a campaign of protests by Tamils in the north that is weakening support for the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the main Tamil party cooperating closely with the ruling coalition.”

The report also outlined the Sri Lanka’s inability to gain the support of the Sinhala majority community for the UNHRC resolution process which the government co-sponsored. Noting the slow progress on implementation of the resolution, the report noted, “Government plans for transitional justice – which would inevitably reveal more about atrocities by the popular, powerful military – have largely not materialised. President Sirisena has prevented the Office on Missing Persons from operating since parliament approved it in August 2016. Mechanisms promised in 2015 are also increasingly in doubt, though the UN Human Rights Council has given the government two more years to make good on commitments. Due to the government’s failure to explain the connection between transitional justice and rule-of-law reforms, many Sinhalese view justice for war-era abuses as a pro-Tamil, anti-military demand, rather than part of a program to protect all communities’ rights.”

The ICG expressed further concern about Sri Lanka’s stalling constitution process. Noting that the Sri Lankan government was failing to accommodate even positions of compromise by the Tamil National Alliance, the report said, “The drafting process, which until late 2016 had been proceeding quietly, now hangs in the balance. Pro-Sirisena SLFP ministers oppose any changes requiring a referendum, which would rule out key reforms, including compromises reached with the Tamil National Alliance to strengthen provincial devolution instead of the federalism they had favoured. With no sustained narrative from the president or prime minister in favour of devolution, politics has been dominated by Rajapaksa-aligned Sinhala nationalists, who present even modest changes as existential threats to the nation’s Sinhala and Buddhist character. The government is on the defensive, denying that it is weakening Buddhism and supporting separatism.”

The report further highlighted the need for the government to challenge Sinhala nationalism head on- and “speak forcefully and lead a campaign that explains the reform package’s benefits for all communities.”

See full report and recommendations here.