Fifteen Years On, Sri Lanka Grapples With Reconciliation and State Interference Commentary
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Fifteen Years On, Sri Lanka Grapples With Reconciliation and State Interference
Edited by: JURIST Staff

Last month marked 15 years since the end of the civil war between the Sri Lankan State and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) — a brutal conflict that spanned three decades and is estimated to have claimed between 70,000 and 100,000 lives. The country has hosted a series of events aimed at memorializing the anniversary of the end of hostilities. Instead, these commemorations have served as a stark reminder that 15 years on, the country remains divided. In this commentary, I explore three key obstacles that have hindered reconciliation in Sri Lanka.

Right to Memorialize

There has always been a double standard in the way the civil war is commemorated. On the one hand, the State considers this as Ranaviru Day (National War Heroes Day), a day to celebrate the heroism of the soldiers who dedicated their lives to the nation and fought in the Civil War. On the other hand, the Tamil victim communities regard this day as Mullivaikkal Memorial Day, whereby they pay respect to the lives that were lost during the last stages of the war. Any attempt of the latter, however, as has always been the case in the last fourteen years, resulted in state interference.

Understanding the context behind Mullivaikkal Memorial Day:

The final stages of the civil war were characterized by the declaration of ‘No Fire Zones’ (NFZ) in multiple areas within the Northern province by the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL). As the term suggests, these zones were not meant to be targeted with weapons at any cost due to the number of civilians inside. Hence, these Zones were also places where civilians were told to go to avoid any bombing, thereby being able to temporarily seek refuge and gain access to food, shelter and medicine until they could be rescued. These NFZs were, however, infiltrated by the LTTE, who hid among the 150,000 – 190,000 civilians and controlled the area. Subsequently, incidents of heavy shelling from both the LTTE and the GoSL were carried out, as documented in multiple reports today. In fact, investigations by the United Nations have found credible evidence of multiple crimes under international law, international human rights law and humanitarian law being violated by both parties. Hence, while the LTTE used innocent civilians as human shields, the GoSL is also responsible for the irresponsible shelling of densely populated areas and hospitals.

One of the most brutal shelling that occurred was in the village of Mullivaikkal in the Northern province, where tens and thousands of innocent Tamil civilians were killed. Due to the limited resources of food at the time, kanji, which is made of rice, water, and some salt, was the only source of sustenance for the people. Kanji, therefore, holds great significance in the collective memory of Tamils.

The bottom line is that tens of thousands of people who were not part of the LTTE nor supported the LTTE were killed. They died purely for being in the crossfire between the two parties. Hence, at the heart of Mullivaikkal Memorial Day is to pay respect to these innocent lives that were lost.

What Happened in May 2024?

In the spirit of respecting the lives that were lost, a group of people in Trincomalee distributed kanji to people. This simple act, however, led to the organisers of the event being arrested. The basis of the arrest is somewhat messy. Ambika Satkunanathan, the former Human Rights Commissioner of Sri Lanka,  took it to X, where she attempted to break it down.  First, according to the Police Media statement, the women were arrested on the basis that they had violated a court order that prohibited the “celebration of the LTTE members that died in the Vellamulli Vaikkal area in 2009” as celebrating LTTE members (also known as Maaveerar) is an illegal act. Interestingly, the original court order, which is written in Tamil, makes no reference to Maaverar or LTTE and instead issues a complete ban on remembering those who died during the last stages of the war by sharing food like kanji, as it “will inconvenience the public” and “lead to the spread of diseases and adversely impact public health”. Upon the woman noting that the event was only commemorating the lives lost during the civil war, a separate police report stated that investigations are taking place under ICCPR section 3 to see “if they committed any offence with the intention of regrouping the movement”.

Section 3(1) criminalizes the “advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence”. In order for this section to apply, there must be evidence of incitement that must be a ‘reasonable probability’ of causing imminent harm. Where the only act committed was the distribution of kanji, the adoption of Section 3 in this instance would be a “gross misapplication of the section that could result in the harassment of suspects including the unreasonable denial of the bail” (Human Rights Commission Sri Lanka, 2024). This is especially ironic given the fact that giving food to people is a usual practice in Buddhist festivals, like Vesak, which tend to involve multiple dansals (alms stalls).

This consistent attempt to restrict memorialisation, therefore, has been a significant factor that has affected the reconciliation process in Sri Lanka. It should, however, be noted that a large commemoration event was held on May 18th at Mullivaikkal ground with individuals like the Amnesty International Secretary General, Agnès Callamard in attendance. Thankfully, no clashes were reported on the event.

Reconciliation to only satisfy the international community

Since 2015, many of the reconciliation efforts introduced have been to appease the international community. Under the UNHRC resolutions 30/1 and 34/1, Sri Lanka has an obligation to promote reconciliation, accountability and human rights in the country. It was following this resolution that initiatives like the Office of Missing Persons Act of 2016 and the Office of Reparations Act of 2018 were introduced. However, the politicization of such institutions has prevented such offices from functioning to the level they were initially envisaged.

In the following years, the government renewed its commitment to achieving reconciliation through resolutions passed in 2017 and 2019, and the importance of ensuring victims are given justice was reemphasized in the recent resolutions of 46/1 and 51/1 passed in 2021 and 2022. However, in February 2020, the Sri Lankan government withdrew from resolution 30/1, and subsequently, in February 2024, Foreign Minister Ali Sabry noted that all resolutions, including 46/1 and 51/1, were also rejected. The government has noted that “tangible progress” is being made with regard to national unity and reconciliation with domestic and homegrown solutions. Such progress merely refers to a repetition of previous mechanisms that have exhausted victims.

Other than the legislative acts passed on missing persons and reparations, the only other mechanisms adopted by the state have been to introduce a Commission of Inquiry or Presidential Commission of Inquiry. This was the case, even before 2015, with the Paranagama Commission, Udalagama Commission and the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) taking centre stage. While these mechanisms resulted in widespread participation, in each situation, none of the recommendations were implemented. In 2017, the implementation of the Consultation Task Force offered some hope of reconciliation. However, the fact that there was no implementation of its recommendations simply meant that it was a wasted effort. This practice of implementing new commissions has only resulted in victims losing more trust in any future initiatives.

The introduction of a Commission on Truth, Unity, and Reconciliation Bill of 2024 can be seen as the latest legislative measure introduced to satisfy the international community prior to the UNHRC session held in February – March 2024 and possibly when Sri Lanka will be taken up again in the session in September later this year. As of now, due to the wide number of criticisms the bill has received, it is yet to pass as an act of parliament, although the Interim Secretariat on Truth and Reconciliation Mechanism is conducting meetings in different parts of the island.

Emblematic Cases

A significant aspect of achieving reconciliation is justice. In this respect, there are only a handful of cases before the court that, fifteen years later, still face a massive delay in justice. From the case concerning the disappearance of Prageeth Eknaligoda, the murder of Wasim Thajudeen and Lasantha Wickramatunge and as well others, the families of these victims are still fighting for justice. In some situations, justice has been denied. They include the case of Joseph Pararajasingham and The Trinco Five, whose suspects were all acquitted due to lack of evidence, and the case of Sunil Ratnayake, who, although found guilty of the murder of eight civilians in Mirusuvil in Jaffna in 2000, was granted a presidential pardon in 2020.

More Land Grabs, Repressive Laws and Systematic Abuse

There are numerous incidents that demonstrate the systematic abuse Sri Lankan minorities are currently suffering. A recent report published by the International Truth and Justice Project further details how “Sri Lankan security forces continue to abduct and disappear young Tamil men and women and subject them to serious physical and sexual torture” to date.

Other than the above, the number of land grabs in the Northern province, the manner in which the ICCPR Act has been adopted, the PTA and its possible successor, the Anti-Terrorism Bill, are all laws/situations that have or will continue to repress minorities and add on to the unacknowledged repression and brutal past of Sri Lanka.

Naveera Perera is a law graduate from the University of London, currently pursuing her bar exams at Sri Lanka Law College.



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