Many people greeted the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka between government forces and Tamil separatist rebels in 2009 with jubilation but although the fighting stopped, the restoration of the rule of law and the proper investigation of rights abuses and alleged war crimes by both sides has not occurred.
Around 300,000 people were driven from their homes during the final bloody stages of the Sri Lankan Civil War. Most of them ended up in camps controlled by the Sri Lankan military where they were kept against their will, with restricted access to the media and independent aid organisations. Under international pressure for an inquiry into the conduct of the civil war, President Mahinda Rajapaksa appointed a Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) in May 2010 but even its modest recommendations have not been implemented by a government increasingly intolerant of dissent.
Broadcast:Sunday 10 March 2013 12:05PM
- Jonathan Spencer
- Professor of Anthropology of South Asia
University of Edinburgh
- Bruce Matthews
- Professor Emeritus of comparative religion
- Gibson Bateman
- His commentary on Sri Lanka has appeared in East Asia Forum, Groundviews, and CounterPunch.
- Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena
- Independent lawyer and media columnist
- Dr Laksiri Fernando
- Former professor of political science and public policy at the Faculty of Graduate Studies
University of Colombo, Sri Lanka
Journalist [archival]: Residents took the streets near the presidential palace. They came out to celebrate the end of the war against the Tamil Tigers.
Man [archival]: Everyone is very happy, the civilians are very happy for this moment. We were looking for 30 years for this moment. We were looking for freedom and now we have freedom!
Journalist [archival]: Some of the revellers crammed onto the back of trucks, some rode in auto rickshaws, waving the Sri Lankan national flag. Others let off firecrackers in the street.
Keri Phillips: Many people greeted the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka between government forces and Tamil separatist rebels in 2009 with jubilation, yet the number of Sri Lankans seeking refuge in Australia by boat surged last year, according to the Australian Department of Immigration.
This is Rear Vision on RN. I’m Keri Phillips, and today we’ll dip into Sri Lanka’s longer history and also find out what’s been going on since the fighting ended.
The Sri Lankan government crushed the Tamil Tigers in a bloody endgame that caused death and misery to hundreds of thousands of unfortunate civilians. The conflict had begun in 1983 but its roots lie in the decades following independence in 1948 and the nature of the ethnic divisions within the country. Jonathan Spencer is Professor of the Anthropology of South Asia at the University of Edinburgh.
Jonathan Spencer: The population divided in a number of different ways. The one that matters most in terms of the conflict is the division by language between people who speak Tamil, a South Indian language, and people who speak Sinhala, which has its origins in the language family that comes from North India. The Sinhalese population are predominantly Buddhist, although there are some Christians. The Tamils are predominantly Hindu, though there are some Christians as well. And then there is another group of Tamil speakers, Muslims, who consider themselves ethnically different.
The Tamils themselves, there are two kinds. What used to be called the Ceylon Tamils in the days of the colonial census, that’s the people living in the north and east of the island, the ones who are most engaged with the secessionist conflict. And then there is another group living in the centre of the island on the whole, on the old tea estates, who were brought in as labourers by the British planters in the 19th century, and who have been very much at the bottom of the economic and indeed the bottom of the political heap as well a lot of the time since independence.
Keri Phillips: Jonathan Spencer says that during the colonial period those who spoke English had an advantage in terms of life chances.
Jonathan Spencer: If you look at the distribution of, say, government employment in the immediate post-independence period, it’s true that there were disproportionate numbers of Tamils in senior government positions, the civil service or in professional positions. But that masks a longer and more complicated story, and one reason for it of course was that Jaffna had had English language education earlier and good quality English language education right back into the 1820s. So they were very quick to move into professional employment not merely within Sri Lanka itself but also in south India, in Malaysia, and then on outwards into the world. That of course was only true of some Tamils, it wasn’t true, for example, of the estate worker Tamils, the Indian Tamils, who were massively underprivileged in educational terms. And similarly certain sections of the Sinhalese population were also privileged.
Beneath it all there was a division between people who had access to English, which was the crucial thing, and the people who didn’t. And the people who didn’t have access to English and education who were the rural Sinhalese majority but also many poorer Tamil people too, they were the ones who were excluded from access to the government positions and to life chances in general.
Keri Phillips: After independence there was a steady erosion of such perceived advantages, a significant moment being the passage of the Official Language Act, commonly known as the Sinhala Only Act, which replaced English with Sinhala as the official language of the country.
In 1972, Ceylon became the Republic of Sri Lanka, with a constitution that affirmed the primacy of Sinhala and the duty of the State to protect and foster Buddhism. This constitution and the one that followed in 1978 consolidated the power of the president within a central Sinhalese-dominated government, according to Bruce Matthews, Professor Emeritus of Comparative Religion at Acadia University, Nova Scotia, who has been visiting Sri Lanka since he began his studies there in 1970. I spoke to him by Skype.
Bruce Matthews: If we go back to the 1972 constitution, it’s a long way back there, isn’t it, it’s Sirimavo Bandaranaike, and she put forward the idea of the supremacy of the Parliament in place of the supremacy of the law, of the judiciary. Then in 1978 a further constitution under JR Jayewardene aimed at making economic developments more streamlined and therefore trying to give him more powers so he could get around Parliament and other obstacles, he went so far as to declare the President was above the law. But both of these activities in 1972 and ’78 were very harmful to the political process because they denied what you and I might think was an adequate form of democracy for the minorities, for the ethnic minorities.
The attempts way back in the 1970s and ’80s to bring forward something called district development councils in order to allow political power to be shared at the provincial level or the district level, which is even one further removed from the province, these were actually good ideas but they were ill-funded, and there was no political will to make them work. And once they started to fail in, let’s say, the late 1970s, then the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam took over, because the Tamil leaders in Parliament simply couldn’t wrestle anything out of the Sinhalese-dominated polity, and so the Tigers took over. That’s exactly what happened.
Journalist [archival]: The body politic of this small and beautiful island is infected with a fever which from time to time erupts into the most brutal violence. The fever is caused by the tension between the majority Buddhist community, the Sinhalese, and the minority Hindu community, the Tamils. The Sinhalese dislike the Tamils because before independence they dominated the British bureaucracy and the universities.
The Tamils claim that since independence the Sinhalese have robbed them of their right to compete for jobs and education, that they’ve become a second-class community. For years Tamil politicians have negotiated with Sinhalese prime ministers and presidents, but now a large section of the Tamil population in the north, which is their stronghold, has lost faith in politicians. They are supporting the terrorists fighting for partition of the island, the Tamil Tigers.
Keri Phillips: This is Rear Vision on RN with Keri Phillips, and that was part of a BBC report recorded in 1983 at the beginning of the Tamil Tigers’ armed separatist insurgency. The civil war would last for 26 years, leaving an estimated 80,000-100,000 people dead, according to UN figures, and blighting the lives of many through assassination, suicide attack, disappearance and torture.
Journalist [archival]: The Sri Lankan Armed Forces say they have less than two kilometres of coastline to capture. The Tamil Tigers are now confined to a narrow strip of land between a lagoon and the sea. The Army has promised the Sri Lankan government it will conquer the Tigers within 36 hours, but independent journalists have been unable to verify the military’s claim. The United Nations is warning of a potential bloodbath as thousands of civilians try to escape the fighting.
Keri Phillips: Around 300,000 people were driven from their homes during the final stages of the Sri Lankan Civil War. Most of them ended up in camps controlled by the Sri Lankan military and kept against their will, with restricted access to the media and independent aid organisations. The camps were not officially closed until September 2012. Gibson Bateman has worked for non-government organisations in Latin America, Africa and South Asia and his writing has appeared in publications such as East Asia Forum, Groundviews, and CounterPunch.
Gibson Bateman: Well, there was heavy international pressure. Basically Menik Farm was a massive refugee camp, and the government was getting heavy international pressure to do something, so they did something. But then what’s happened is basically people are now either living with friends or relatives or even recently some people in Mullivaikal returned to their homes but they left and went back to transit camps because of the very poor living conditions there in terms of either inadequate housing, inadequate sanitation facilities or just the dismal security situation.
And then in addition to that there are tens of thousands of people who still haven’t been able to go home, maybe because of high security zones or because other people are occupying their land or because they don’t have the proper identity documents to prove landownership. You know, land is a major problem here and has been for a long time, but then it’s other things the government has done that have contributed to this.
Much of the rhetoric that you heard at the end of the war is still around, just talking about the defeat of terrorism and basically venerating the military, venerating the long-standing Sinhala Buddhist ideology that said…it wasn’t clear that the claims for the Tamils to have equal rights is acceptable here. The government doesn’t want to seem too acquiescent to the demands of Tamils or too acquiescent on the question of a political solution because I think they are probably afraid of what that looks like in terms of domestic political support.
Keri Phillips: Under international pressure for an inquiry into the conduct of the civil war, President Mahinda Rajapaksa appointed a Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, the LLRC, in May 2010. Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena is an independent lawyer and media columnist.
Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena: The LLRC was actually set up as a result of pressure, nationally as well as internationally, on the government to look into issues of accountability during the conflict which ended in 2009. Now, Sri Lankan history of such commissions is quite bleak. We have had more than 11 or 12 commissions of such nature appointed during the last 50 years, and each of these commissions have been quite problematic in the way they have functioned, many of these commissions. They have been government appointed commissions, they function according to government dictates, and the recommendations have been also extremely lukewarm. So when the LLRC was appointed by the president there was widespread cynicism and scepticism about the commission.
The nature of the people who came before the LLRC were extremely varied, you know, there were former judges who testified before the LLRC, there were public officials, there were quite a fair number of war victims who testified in the north and east of Sri Lanka. And the public expectations from the LLRC began to be quite intensive. You know, there was expectation that the LLRC would at least to some extent acknowledge the tremendous turmoil and the travails that people in Sri Lanka were going through, you know, whether it was in the north and east or in the south.
This development was quite positive for the LLRC because ultimately when the LLRC came out with its report in 2011, the report was actually much better than one expected it to be. For example, it was extremely harsh in regard to the issue of state accountability for human rights abuses, it commented quite adversely on the question of disappearances and extrajudicial executions, it emphasised the State’s responsibility in investigating those experiences and other human rights abuses. So there was a certain platform on which the LLRC report could be taken as at least a minimum to which the government should adhere to in terms of its duty towards its own citizens.
Keri Phillips: The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission’s report was made public in December 2011, several months after a report from the UN which accused both sides of war crimes and noted that there were credible allegations that ‘most civilian casualties in the final phases of the war were caused by government shelling’. The LLRC’s report on the other hand concluded that ‘the government did its best to protect civilians’, although it criticised it for not doing more to disarm illegal militia groups on its side. But Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena says that even the limited recommendations of the LLRC’s report haven’t been implemented.
Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena: Now, since the LLRC report came out, the Sri Lankan government has put some kind of action plan into play where it looks at recommendations of the LLRC and it says this has been done, this has not been done. Now, the progress of these recommendations have been extremely problematic. There has been no concrete evidencing of any substantial implementation of the LLRC recommendations. Actually the situation is a regression rather than a progression because we had recently the Army conducting an internal enquiry into the questions of accountability for human rights violations due to the conflict that was raised by the LLRC. And the Army’s ultimate report was extremely negative. It more or less said, well, look, you know, no serious casualties had been evidenced.
And in fact in regard to various very strong recommendations by the LLRC, for example that the Minister of Defence which is the military authority, should not be the supervisory authority of the Department of Police, because the LLRC made the recommendation saying that the Department of Police in Sri Lanka is a civilian institution, and therefore the military should not really have supervisory authority over the civilian institution, it said that the two should be delinked, that the Department of Police should act independently.
The Army internal report ultimately came out saying no, that their supervisory authority of the Ministry of Defence should continue. This is very serious and very important because the Ministry of Defence is headed by the President’s brother, and the Department of the Police is directly under the Minister of Defence, which means that Sri Lanka’s police continues in a very militarised manner, leading to a possibility of human rights abuses in the same way as occurred during the war.
Journalist [archival]: Sri Lanka’s parliament has voted overwhelmingly to impeach Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake. The vote came at the end of a two-day debate on a controversial probe which found her guilty of misconduct. The government of President Mahinda Rajapakse is expected to ratify the sacking and name a replacement within days.
Keri Phillips: In January, after a standoff over a piece of legislation called the Divi Neguma Bill, the President sacked Sri Lanka’s Chief Justice.
Bruce Matthews: Well, what’s happened is that the President of Sri Lanka has decided that he wants to replace Shirani Bandaranayake who by the way is not related to the famous Bandaranaike family of Sirimavo Bandaranaike who was president back their 30 years ago, different Bandaranayke. Anyway, he wants to replace her with another Chief Justice who won’t challenge him on certain judicial matters, that’s basically what it’s come down to.
Now, those judicial matters of course a very serious and they pertain to an attempt by the President and his parliament to curtail the powers of the provincial councils. There are nine provinces in Sri Lanka, and technically speaking they have a few autonomous powers, not many. One of those powers was to oversee the distribution of what is called a Samurdhi program, and that is handouts to people in need, and as you can imagine there’s a lot of largess there, political largess that’s at stake.
And so in a particular bill called a Divi Neguma Bill which was an attempt to cut back on the power of the provinces to distribute this largess, the Chief Justice and the Supreme Court said no, you can’t do it, that is a provincial matter. And by consequence the President of Sri Lanka became antagonistic towards this and decided he would like to remove this obstacle. So he has done this ill-conceived attempt to thwart the Supreme Court’s interference, he’s done this in what I guess I would say is a rather ham-fisted method of simply crushing her.
Keri Phillips: During the months of tension between the government and the judiciary, not only was the Chief Justice threatened with impeachment but a senior judge, Manjula Tilakaratne, Secretary of the Judicial Services Commission, was beaten up on a public street in Colombo in broad daylight.
Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena: This gentleman sent out a press release from the Judicial Services Commission saying that the judiciary was being interfered with by politicians. And consequent to that, when he was waiting for his children to come home after school, just near a very prominent public school in the city, in Colombo city, he was attacked by unknown people with an iron bar, and he started shouting, and then the people nearby came running and the assailants escaped.
Now, that particular incident is not investigated properly, the assailants have not yet been captured, and this gentleman, consequent to the new Chief Justice assuming office, has actually been transferred out of his position into a provincial judicial position.
The connection is very clear because what happened was, consequent to the Judicial Services Commission, the Secretary sending out this press release regarding politicians interfering with the judiciary, there was an increased attack by the state media on him. The state media kept on…the state media is completely under the control of the President and the government…kept on attacking him ceaselessly, day after day after day after day. There were politicians and government threatening him in public, and then he was attacked.
Keri Phillips: This is RN. You’re listening to Rear Vision with Keri Phillips.
Despite the failure of the government to effectively address human rights abuses from the civil conflict, many Sri Lankans looked forward to a better life after the end of the war, and Bruce Matthews says that things have improved.
Bruce Matthews: Oh yes, they have. Well, first of all of course there is relative peace, there isn’t the horrible circumstance of wondering whether there was a bomb going to go off in your train or whether somebody would try to assassinate you or whatever. And even amongst the Tamil people now, they also of course, whether they reside in Colombo or in the north or eastern provinces, those areas are relatively at peace. I know of no terrorism as we speak today in Sri Lanka.
The economy hasn’t rebounded as robustly as the President or the government would want it to, but that’s the case perhaps in large parts of the world today. So economically things are stressed for almost everybody in Sri Lanka except for the very well off. So my brief answer to you is yes, things are much better in Sri Lanka since May 2009, and that makes it all the more sad or curious that here in 2013 Sri Lanka seems to be taking this autocratic, oligarchic direction when it’s so unnecessary.
Keri Phillips: Is there a political explanation for that? Can you explain what’s going on in a political sense in that way?
Bruce Matthews: Well, I think it’s just a grab for power, and the Rajapaksa family…by the way, a very distinguished family from the Hambantota region of south-eastern Lanka. The President’s father was a well-known and greatly honoured politician, so I don’t want to badmouth the President or his three brothers who are Cabinet ministers of a very senior rank, that’s not the point of my observation here. The point is that they have indeed been able to garner most of the sources of power in the country that are significant, and they have a grip on all organs of state, which I haven’t myself seen in modern Lankan history.
The political history of Sri Lanka since independence in 1948 is a very interesting one in terms of great family dynasties coming into the focus. I’m thinking, for example, of the Bandaranaikes and the Jayawardenas and now the Rajapaksas. This is part of the South Asian way of doing things too, isn’t it, you see the same sort of thing in India and Bangladesh; great families monopolising political power for a generation or two. I suspect this is what will be the fate of the Rajapaksas as well.
Keri Phillips: Is there a functioning opposition in the Parliament?
Bruce Matthews: There is not much of a functioning opposition. Of course there are opposition parties, there is the old United National Party, what’s left of it, the UNP. Their leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe, is a distinguished parliamentarian, but perhaps not the right person for this time. Many of the UNP MPs who were elected in the last election or two have gone over to the government side, to the SLFP side, are being offered ministerial posts of one kind or another. And in a country which elects its Parliament by proportional representation, this is considered to be quite unfair, to have people crossing over to the other side. I mean, all parliaments allow some crossing over to the other side, but in this case it’s a mass crossing over to the other side. It’s left the UNP minority…well, it’s just a toothless minority. It has no ability to galvanise public opinion.
Keri Phillips: Dr Laksiri Fernando is a former professor of political science and public policy at the Faculty of Graduate Studies at the University of Colombo and a visiting scholar at the University of Sydney.
Laksiri Fernando: Yes, I think people feel that things are better than during the civil war, definitely. They have some kind of stability, they can move around the country without security barriers or checkpoints, for example. The army is not so visible in Sri Lanka at present. But what about freedom, for example? There are improvements but those are relative. No one would say that there should be absolute improvement. Sri Lanka is a poor country, resources are meagre, but people want to retain their democratic rights.
Now, Sri Lanka plays cricket by the international rules but they don’t play politics by the international rules. They should play, because Sri Lanka is a member of the UN, not only just a member but they have agreed upon and are party to important international covenants on human rights and democracy, therefore Sri Lanka should follow the accepted international rules on democracy, human rights, separation of powers, independence of the judiciary, accountability, transparency and so on. They are not doing it. Therefore I believe that the international community can persuade Sri Lanka, can pressure Sri Lanka and perhaps even sometimes boycott.
Keri Phillips: The Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has already said he will boycott the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Sri Lanka this November unless there is an improvement in human rights. Although both the Australian government and the opposition claim Sri Lanka is now a relatively safe place to live, recent reports by both Human Rights Watch and the International Crisis Group suggest otherwise. And two weeks ago the British High Court blocked the deportation of a group of failed Tamil asylum-seekers after the government disclosed that at least 15 Tamils had been tortured after being sent back to Sri Lanka.
This month the United States government will sponsor a second resolution at the meeting of the UN Human Rights Commission calling on Sri Lanka to ‘ensure justice, equity, accountability and reconciliation for all Sri Lankans’ by implementing the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. The UN Human Rights Commission periodically examines the human rights performance of all 193 UN Member States and is currently meeting in Geneva.
Gibson Bateman: The US is going to bring another resolution on Sri Lanka and it looks quite similar to the resolution which was passed last year basically on reconciliation and accountability, encouraging the government to implement the recommendations in its own presidentialy pointed commission and then to make progress in terms of accountability.
But what the relation, Keri, is…you know, intellectual pressure on Sri Lanka forces this government to do something, but it remains to be clear how much it matters. The LLRC itself was created largely to deflect international pressure. Then you had the panel report in 2011 that brought more international pressure, cited a death toll for the end of the war, talks about very serious violations of international humanitarian and human rights law. And then you have this resolution last March. But still the government has not really seriously engaged with this resolution or the LLRC recommendations. I think the US would not be talking about another resolution if they weren’t very confident they have the votes, I think they are certain they have the votes. But to me it’s just a question of if it’s really about human rights, which I’m not sure it is, why would the US do another watered-down resolution. I don’t think it will force the government to change.
Keri Phillips: Do you see any solution then to the current situation?
Gibson Bateman: Well, I think a stronger resolution certainly would send a much tougher, more clear message to the administration in Colombo that the current situation is just unacceptable. In terms of other things, the Human Rights Council might not be the best venue to implement change. The future might be in bilateral relations, so maybe economic sanctions or other types of pressure, but not in these big international forums.
Keri Phillips: Gibson Bateman, whose writing on Sri Lanka has appeared in East Asia Forum, Foreign Policy in Focus andInternational Policy Digest. We also heard Jonathan Spencer from the University of Edinburgh, Dr Laksiri Fernando from the University of Sydney, Bruce Matthews from Acadia University in Canada, and Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena, an independent lawyer and media columnist.
Do check out the Rear Vision website if you have time this week. I’ve put up some links to those recent reports I mentioned by Human Rights Watch and the International Crisis Group. And our special feature this week is on Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s president who died last week: abc.net.au/rn/rearvision, or just search Rear Vision.
Russell Stapleton is the sound engineer for Rear Vision today. Goodbye from Keri Phillips.