At home and abroad: accountability, reconciliation and Sinhala Buddhism

Sri Lanka announced recently that it would launch a domestic probe to investigate war time mass atrocities in time for the release of the UN mandated investigation due in September. The announcement, made in the wake of a high profile visit to the island by the US Secretary of State John Kerry late last month, suggests that Sri Lanka is responding to international demands. However, it is not clear that this new international engagement necessarily translates to real changes on the ground. The government’s behaviour is notably contradictory. While it reassures international audiences that it is taking accountability seriously and is committed to reform and reconciliation, it says quite another to domestic Sinhala Buddhist constituencies. This duplicity is worrying and suggests that the government is intent on continuing with business as normal rather than committing to the deep changes in governance that are needed to secure a just and lasting peace.

Preventing atrocities now — and in the future

Jared Genser is an associate of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University. This article was first published in the Washington Post on April 24, 2015. Three years ago, President Obama created the Atrocities Prevention Board to help fulfill his important recognition that the prevention of mass atrocities is a “core national security interest and core moral responsibility.” With ethnic conflict boiling in Burma, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, among other places, such a mechanism has never been more important. Although the board’s operations have been classified, there have been some visible successes. But much remains to be done.

'North and south still divided'

Writing in the LA Times on Saturday following a visit to the island and road-trip along the A9, the American journalist Shashank Bengali said the North and South was still divided after the civil war. See here for full article. Extract reproduced below: "Occasionally I would see the Sinhalese tour buses parked along the roadside, or Sinhalese families picnicking in the shade of a tree. In Kilinochchi, the Tigers' former capital, several buses were stopped next to what looked like a giant funnel tipped onto its side. It was a water tank that had been toppled during the fighting, the steel rebar reaching out from the concrete husk like tentacles. The government had turned it into a war memorial, planting a tidy garden with flowers and a large stone tablet declaring that the damage had been done by rebel "terrorists in the face of valiant troops."

Sri Lanka must seize this window of opportunity - David Cameron

Published 00:01 GMT Writing in the Tamil Guardian today, British Prime Minister David Cameron reiterated his commitment to ensuring those responsible for war crimes in Sri Lanka are held accountable and said he would press the country's new president, Maithripala Sirisena, to deliver on his commitments, during a bilateral discussion at Downing Street this afternoon. Sixteen months ago I welcomed Tamil representatives from communities here in Britain to Downing St to discuss how we could work together to address the issues of Sri Lanka’s past and put the country on the path to a brighter, peaceful and prosperous future. Since then, a UN led investigation into alleged war crimes by all sides in the conflict has got underway. And the people of Sri Lanka have elected a new President who has made clear that he is fully committed to reconciliation and reform. Ever since my visit to Sri Lanka in 2013 one thing has remained constant - my unwavering commitment to stand up for all those affected by what happened. I remain determined to ensure that there is accountability for the past and respect for human rights today. And that will be my message to President Sirisena when I meet with him in Downing Street today.

Will Sri Lanka's new president be held to international standards of justice?

In view of the Sri Lanka's new president's closeness to the last stages of the armed conflict, serving as acting defence minister for the final two weeks, the exiled journalist, J S Tissainayagam, stressed the need for the international community to ensure he too is held to international standards of justice. "As details of Sirisena’s possible connection to war crimes emerge, what is the international community – especially the Western democracies that are pushing for an international investigation – going to do?," asked Mr Tissainayagam, writing in the Asian Correspondent.

Reality Check: Sri Lanka's New Government

Sustained international pressure is needed to ensure that the new Sri Lankan government works towards accountability, justice and reconciliation on the island, said a lecturer in International Conflict Analysis at the University of Kent, Madurika Rasaratnam, and author of a forthcoming book, Tamils and the Nation: India and Sri Lanka compared . "In broad terms the election merely saw the replacement of one avowed Sinhala nationalist leader with another equally committed to maintaining a unitary and majoritarian Sinhala Buddhist order. It is this dynamic that has fed the ethnic conflict over the past several decades, and continues to drive the militarised repression and exclusion that characterises relations between the state and the Tamils," she writes, in a article published by The Hurst publishers.

'Why Sirisena’s Victory is Not a Victory for Sri Lanka’s Tamils'

Despite Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena's surprise election victory, there is little to suggest change in government policy towards the island's indigenous Tamil and Muslim communities, said Tamil Civil Society Forum spokesperson Kumaravadivel Guruparan. Writing in The Caravan , Guruparan said that Tamils “voted for Sirisena not because they liked his candidacy but because they wanted to oust Rajapaksa”. “As far as this electorate was concerned, their vote for Sirisena was the only way in which they could voice their anger against a regime that had inflicted enormous suffering on them, almost threatening their very existence,” said Guruparan. On Sri Lanka's new president, Guruparan added, “Sirisena was an integral part of the Rajapaksa regime that unleashed a horrendous war, a war that was waged not just against the LTTE, but also against the Tamil citizens of Sri Lanka. He was a part of the Rajapaksa regime that not so long ago used the military to take over vast amounts of private land belonging to the Tamils in the regions dominated by them.The regime initiated a rapid process of demographic change in the northeast in favour of the Sinhalese, and endorsed the maltreatment of ex-LTTE cadres.”

'Hold the Champagne in Sri Lanka'

The conclusion of Sri Lanka's presidential and appointment of Maithripala Sirisena as president of the country is not yet a cause for celebration, said journalist J.S. Tissainayagam, stating that the real challenges for Sri Lanka are only just beginning. Writing in Foreign Policy , the award winning journalist said that whilst Sirisena has pledged to implement constitutional reforms, this will do little to assuage Tamil and Muslim concerns. Tissainayagam says, “Neither presidential nor parliamentary forms of government — invariably dominated by the Sinhalese, who make up roughly 74 percent of the country’s 21 million people — is satisfactory to the Tamils and Muslims. Instead, they demand greater autonomy in the north and the east. But Sirisena’s election manifesto is completely silent on the matter.”

'A cell in The Hague, the nightmare for Colombo’s rulers' - Trevor Grant

Sri Lanka's new president Maithripala Sirisena will do "everything he can" to stop former president Mahinda Rajapaksa to be taken to the Hague and face charges of war crimes said Trevor Grant, author and convenor of the Tamil Refugee Council (TRC). In an opinion piece written in the wake of Sri Lanka's presidential election, Grant says "as acting minister of defence, including during the closing weeks of the war, [Sirisena] sat high in the command structure, and thus in culpability for war crimes and crimes against humanity."

'Sri Lanka's election could change everything... and nothing' – Callum Macrae

The ongoing repression of the Tamil people will continue regardless of which candidate wins the upcoming Sri Lankan presidential election, said documentary maker Callum Macrae in an opinion piece on Wednesday. Writing for Channel 4 News, Macrae said, “[Rajapaksa's] message to the Sinhala majority is designed to reinforce their conviction that Sri Lanka is a Sinhala nation, indivisible - and that the Tamils of the north and east must accept that, or have that forced upon them.”