The South Asia Channel

Sri Lanka’s Long Road to Reconciliation

In 2009, when the Sri Lankan government defeated the terrorist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) after an almost 30-year civil war, opportunity awaited the country and its people. I hoped the victory would pave the way not only for reconciliation among Sri Lanka's ethnic groups, but also for the strengthening of democracy and greater economic development. This postwar Sri Lanka would have been a natural partner for the United States.

But rather than build upon a peace dividend created by the war's end, Mahinda Rajapaksa's government has all but squandered it. Accountability and reconciliation seem even more distant now than during the long years of conflict.

The Rajapaksa government has consolidated power, undermined the country's constitution, and attacked freedom of speech and the press. It has attempted to silence its critics with arbitrary detention and arrest. Sri Lankan security forces, both uniformed and plain-clothed, interrogate those meeting with journalists or human rights activists, and intimidate the population. There is simply no place for such tactics in a democracy.

The Sri Lankan government has, at the same time, spurned efforts by the United States, India, and others to encourage a credible international investigation into allegations of war crimes during the final stages of the conflict. Many critical questions remain unanswered. What led to government shelling into designated "no-fire" zones? How did those who were captured alive, such as the LTTE leader's 12 year-old son, end up shot and killed while in custody, as video evidence now indicates? Why did the LTTE use innocent Tamil civilians, those same people whose cause they purported to advance, as human shields?

The Sri Lankan people deserve answers. And they deserve accountability for gross violations of human rights committed by both sides in the conflict. The government of Sri Lanka has been given more than enough time to make a move in this direction, but they have failed to act.  

As Sri Lanka's own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission noted, "the process of reconciliation requires a full acknowledgement of the tragedy of the conflict and a collective act of contrition by the political leaders and civil society, of both Sinhala and Tamil communities." Only a credible investigation can lead to this.

While an investigation is necessary, it will not solve all of Sri Lanka's problems. That will also require courageous leadership from Sri Lanka's political leaders. I urge members of Sri Lanka's parliament -- from the government and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) -- to return to the negotiating table and resume their discussions, paused since 2011, on a political settlement to the island's ethnic conflict. And I would urge the government, for its part, to show good faith by agreeing to resume talks where they stopped almost three years ago, rather than starting from scratch.

Five years after the war's end, an oppressive military presence remains in Sri Lanka's Northern Province. Life there is far from normal. The same general in charge of military operations at the end of the war is now in charge of economic development in Jaffna, the war-torn Tamil stronghold in the island's north. This undermines the potentially positive impact of economic development on reconciliation efforts. I hope that when the current governor's term is up later this year, Colombo will replace him with a new governor acceptable to people living in the province.

For its part, the TNA must also come clean about its past affiliation with the LTTE, and formally renounce and break ties with the group's ideologies. The government must know it is dealing with an honest broker that is invested in the future of a unified Sri Lanka.

For almost 30 years, Sri Lanka has been torn apart due to political inaction and brutal conflict. Colombo needs to make some tough decisions, but there is still time for Sri Lanka to have won not only the war but also peace. The United States stands ready to help Sri Lanka achieve this goal and live up to its proud democratic traditions.

 

Eliot Engel is the U.S. Representative for New York's 16th Congressional District and the senior Democratic member on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. Follow him on Twitter at @RepEliotEngel 

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