Sri Lanka’s Minority Outreach Holds Risks Before Vote

civil societySri Lanka–Sri Lanka’s government has been reaching out to the country’s influential Tamil diaspora with the aim of building minority support and boosting its international standing. But the contentious strategy holds risks for the government’s survival ahead of parliamentary elections next week.

The ruling coalition led by President Maithripala Sirisena–which took office after his predecessor, Mahinda Rajapaksa, was voted out of office in January–is in the difficult position of trying to promote reconciliation with the country’s’ Tamils and other minorities without alienating so many Sinhalese Buddhists that it loses the election.

If Colombo doesn’t go far enough to show it is inclusive, it could lose minority votes and support from Tamils abroad, whose support is crucial for any government that wants to better integrate Tamils into Sri Lankan politics.

But opponents of the outreach–including Mr. Rajapaksa, who is trying to stage a comeback at the polls–have accused the government of weakness and said the country is at risk of sliding back into the violence and terrorism that characterized its decadeslong civil war.

A recent public-opinion survey by the nonprofit Centre for Policy Alternatives in Colombo found that Sinhalese Buddhists, the country’s main religious group, were split on whether they favored Mr. Rajapaksa (36%) or his rival, Ranil Wickremesinghe (31.9%)–who is aligned with the president–as the next prime minister.

Minorities strongly favored Mr. Wickremesinghe. The survey of more nearly 2,000 people had a margin of sampling error of 2%.

Mr. Rajapaksa’s government defeated Tamil separatist insurgents in 2009. A United Nations human-rights team has been investigating whether war crimes and other abuses were committed in the waning days of the conflict and its aftermath. Critics of Mr. Rajapaksa say he didn’t do enough to promote reconciliation after his victory.

The U.N. investigators are scheduled to release their report in September. A U.N. report in 2012 estimated as many as 40,000 civilians could have died in the last months of the conflict, most of them Tamils.

President Sirisena has pledged to embrace the Tamil community and hold people accountable for wartime atrocities. In the last six months, he has released political prisoners, engaged with political parties representing Tamils and returned military-occupied land to its original owners in Tamil-majority areas.

He has also been trying to tighten ties with the more than 1 million Sri Lankan Tamils who live abroad. Members of the community have long been critical of Colombo and at times helped fund the Tamil side of the civil war.

Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera has met with leaders of the Global Tamil Forum, the largest Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora group in Europe, which is on a Rajapaksa-era terrorist blacklist barring members from visiting Sri Lanka.

Mr. Samaraweera has also met other Tamil groups in the U.S., Norway, the U.K. and Singapore. He has proposed starting a “diaspora festival” where successful leaders of Sri Lankan origin can come home to foster community links and investment.

The government is considering lifting a ban on Global Tamil Forum and some of the other 16 Tamil diaspora and human-rights groups on the government’s banned list.

Mr. Rajapaksa’s campaign rails against what it portrays as foreign meddling in Sri Lankan affairs. The ex-president has condemned the government for making too many concessions to Tamils and for engaging the Tamil diaspora. He has pledged to stop such overtures if he returned to power.

Tamil diaspora groups say they are glad the current government is reaching out to them, but they express wariness about Colombo’s willingness and ability to seek justice for any wrongs committed by security forces during and after the war.

“Sri Lanka currently does not have laws to deal with war crimes against humanity which are alleged to have been committed by both sides,” said Suren Surendiran a spokesman for the Global Tamil Forum, or GTF. “The GTF believes only an international investigation supported by the U.N. and its report will bring justice to victims.”(Bloomberg)

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