On Thursday, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution calling for a UN-led investigation into alleged war crimes committed in Sri Lanka during the last stages of that country’s 30-year civil war. Five years ago, Sri Lanka’s armed forces decisively defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in a brutal military showdown.
The assault also resulted in the deaths of an estimated 40,000 Tamil civilians, in part due to both Tamil Tiger tactics and the intentional shelling of civilian areas and “safe zones” by government forces. For many in Sri Lanka’s Tamil-populated north, who now live under a heavy military occupation ripe with human rights issues, the UN resolution is a welcome respite, even if it doesn’t change their current circumstances.
Since the end of the war, Sri Lanka’s North has witnessed rapid development and a growth in infrastructure unseen at any time during the conflict. The current government of Mahinda Rajapaksa has touted this development process as a sign of progress, signaling a return to normalcy and peace.
The narrative that the “North was liberated” from the backward-hand of terrorism is popular throughout the majority-Sinhalese part of the country and in the capital of Colombo. But it does not take much to see that beyond the paved roads and street signs, the North is far from free.
While it is impossible to be certain of the exact figure, it is estimated by the International Crisis Group that one out of every five people living in the North belong to Sri Lanka’s security forces – and in some areas, others argue that number is as high as one in three. The government has claimed that it has since reduced the number of its armed divisions in the North, but a visit to the area indicates that this too is a fabrication.
Military personnel in civilian clothing litter the area, “white van” disappearances still occur, and journalists are beaten, and in some cases, killed. This, in addition to government land grabs and the destruction of Northern cemeteries paints a bleak post-war picture.
Yet, the majority of the country’s population who live in Sinhala-dominated areas in the South and the capital oppose any form of international investigation into past and present abuses, arguing that a UN-inquiry would threaten the country’s hard-won peace and current development. For them, and in contrast to those living in the North, the 30-year civil war was less a conflict about liberation and more an existential threat tearing at the country’s fabric. While President Rajapakse has indeed become increasingly authoritarian in his methods throughout the country, in the end his draconian actions are unnecessary – the man who vanquished the LTTE from Sri Lanka continues to be highly popular.
The real tragedy of Sri Lanka is less about the brutality of the conflict experienced by the country, and more about the alienation between communities and indifference towards issues in the North. Divergent narratives between communities, existent before the war, have become increasingly pronounced. This was no more evident than during last September’s Northern Provincial Council elections, when the Tamil National Alliance’s landslide victory – a party that was a former proxy of the LTTE – had caught those in the southern parts of the country by surprise.
In November, heads of Commonwealth countries were greeted in Colombo by colourful dancers and decorated elephants as they arrived for the CHOGM conference; at the same time, while the CHOGM was underway, Tamils from the North whose family members had “disappeared” were prevented from entering the capital by security forces. And then this week, dissonance continued in full view of the international community as pro-government protesters rallied in juxtaposition to Tamil protestors who were calling for a UN-inquiry.
Despite the divergent narrative, both the North and South agree on one thing: A UN-investigation into wartime abuses cannot create reconciliation between Sri Lanka’s communities. Reconciliation can only occur when all communities within Sri Lanka show that they are politically willing to undergo such a process.
An inquiry is also unlikely to instigate change towards current human rights issues in the North. A UN resolution, however, provides some comfort for those living in the North and signals to them that even though their fellow countrymen may not be alert to their plight, someone is.(The Star)