Sri Lanka: Time for the victor's peace
RUSI Analysis, 2 Aug 2011
Recent reports point to atrocities committed by the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil insurgents in 2010. If the now victorious government wishes to draw a line under this bloody period of Sri Lankan history, it must invite an independent international war crimes investigation as an important part of the reconciliation process.
By Pallavi Ade for RUSI.org
'A picture speaks a thousand words', and the sentiment was spot on in the recent Channel4 documentary 'Sri Lanka's killing fields'. Those of us
, who saw the documentary , can never forget the ghastly images of the atrocities committed by both the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) carried out on their own people. This documentary has further cemented the findings of the UN Advisory Panel (April 2011) convened by the UN Secretary General on war crimes in Sri Lanka. For Sri Lankan Tamils (henceforth referred as Tamils), these findings are a little too late and do not say anything they were not already aware of. Still, these videos might finally get the world's attention towards the cause of the Tamils. Contrary to what the UN report and Channel4 documentary depict, the Sri Lankan government propagates the efforts put in rebuilding the lives of the displaced Tamils. The government has termed the Channel4 documentary as being fabricated and characterised it as anti-government propaganda orchestrated by LTTE sympathisers in Western countries. Last year, the BBC reported that the Sri Lankan government has even hired a public affairs firm, Bell Pottinger, at a cost of £3million, to boost their post-war image.  By blatantly refusing all allegations, the government has stood by its claim that it was conducting a humanitarian rescue operation while still maintaining the strategy of 'zero civilian casualties'.
The report and documentary are seen by many as a dent in the post-war rebuilding efforts as it might radicalise the communities, harden their attitudes and decrease the political space for dialogue and reconciliation.
With the end of the war, there is finally opportunity for the government to address the legitimate grievances of the Tamils. Finding the truth in these allegations and bringing the perpetrators to justice is just one of the many steps needed to bring peace to the Tamils. The marginalisation of the Tamil minority by the Sinhala majority gave rise to the demand for self-determination, which was spearheaded by the LTTE. The LTTE as a terrorist organisation might have ceased to exist but the underlying grievances of Tamils which promoted the LTTE, are still present.
The story so far
The 26 year long war between the Sri Lankan state and LTTE came to a halt in May 2009 with the assassination of the LTTE leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran. The final phase of the war was 'without witnesses' as the Sri Lankan government had banned media and aid organisations from the conflict zone. The UN report has accused the government of using heavy weaponry in government designated 'no fire zones' for civilians, places such as crowded hospitals and civilian encampments. In their defence, the government has accused the LTTE of positioning heavy weaponry close to civilian zones and thus during attack on the LTTE, civilians were the collateral damage. It accuses the LTTE of holding 330,000 civilians as human shields and firing on those who tried to flee and also of carrying out the forced recruitment of child soldiers.  The graphic affirmation of this was found in the Channel4 documentary which documented the existence of summary executions, rape, torture and bombing of tens of thousands of Tamils in the last days of the civil war, with more than 40,000 dead during this phase, majority of which were due to government shelling.
The Sri Lankan government has disregarded the voices emanating from around the world because of the support it enjoys from China, Russia, India and Pakistan, which has guaranteed that no resolution is passed for action against the government.
The Sri Lankan story
Many agree that the Tamil struggle for self-determination was due to their marginalisation by the majority Sinhala community (the Tamils constitute thirteen per cent of the population) but much hasn't changed for the Tamils since the end of the war.
The continued State of Emergency under the prevention of Terrorism Act, which is still in force and the lingering militarisation of the Conflict Zone have been described by the UN report as obstacles to the peace process. The government has also restricted the media from the conflict zones; till recently foreign journalists require special permission to visit these areas.  The government appointed Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) for post-mortem of the war is considered a white wash, with it revealing nothing more than what the government is already saying.
There still exists Sinhala scepticism towards the Tamils, mainly towards the Tamil Diaspora who had funded the LTTE. The government believes that the LTTE might be regrouping amongst the Diaspora and holds the Diaspora responsible for the anti-government propaganda in Western countries. But the problem does not centre only with the Diaspora. The Sri Lankan government has been less than accommodating about Tamil issues. They stated in August 2010 that ninety per cent of the Internally Displaced People (IDPs) have been resettled to their places of origin.  The fate of these resettled IDPs is not clearly known and the status of their well-being and security is unclear. The LTTE, even with all its notorious activities, had managed to emerge as the only voice for the Tamils. With the LTTE gone, there was no 'significant other' present to negotiate with the government, thus leaving it to the government to decide the fate of the Tamils; a victor's peace. The Tamil National Alliance is the only significant party representing the Tamils, but they also are without much power.
The Sri Lankan post-war peace building can be described as a series of missed opportunities for political reforms by the government. Since being re-elected as president, Mahinda Rajapaksa has consolidated political power through series of changes in the constitution and systematically eliminating any opposition. The seventeenth amendment, which was aimed to depoliticise the Police and Election Commission, has not yet been implemented. The eighteenth constitutional amendment allows re-election of President for more than two terms. 
Constitutional amendments, state of emergency, or hiring PR firms are not the solutions to the Tamil problem. What the Tamils need is a genuine attempt by the government to address their grievances. The investigations of the war crimes might deepen the already existing suspicion between the two communities, but it might be necessary as Tamils need to know that their government does care. Peace building is a long term process, and in an ethnically diverse but divided Sri Lanka it is not going to be an easy process, but there is a need to keep walking this path so that it doesn't fall back into conflict again.
What the world thinks
As no reporters or aid workers were allowed near the war zone, there is no independent documentation of the final phase of the Tamil Eelam (independent state for Tamils) war. The UN Secretary General has suggested that he can only establish an international investigation into the alleged war crime if the Sri Lankan government requests or through the mandate of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). 
It is unlikely that the Sri Lankan government will invite the UN to conduct an independent inquiry into its own wrong doings. As for an UNSC mandate, with the permanent members China and Russia standing firmly behind the Sri Lankan government, it seems difficult. During the 11th Special Session of the UN Human Rights Council in 2009, when the question of Human Rights situation in Sri Lanka was discussed, Colombo was able to muster the support of China, Russia, Pakistan and India.  Since then India has toughened its stand and called Sri Lanka to put in sincere efforts towards reconciliation but India has its own limitations as Sri Lanka is a neighbour and events there have political implications in India. The US and UK have not ruled out international accountability. The UK Foreign Minister Alistair Burt said the UK was ready to join the international community in pursuing 'all options available' to put pressure on the Rajapaksa government to take action.  China and Russia stand by Sri Lanka and the Western world has their hands full with the Arab uprising, so no definite action is in sight on these allegations. All that we can expect is a call from the different governments for the Sri Lankan government to act on these allegations.
We also need to consider if the UN investigation serves any real purpose. The Khmer Rouge regime carried out a systematic human slaughter house of its own people, but to date none of the perpetrators have been held accountable. Now, the UN backed tribunal is trying the surviving members of the regime, who are old men in their 80s and 90s. Is this real justice for the victims of these brutalities? Would a similar investigation for Sri Lanka, one which drags on for 30 plus years, serve any real purpose? And questions will arise as to what guarantee that an international investigation would be independent, especially in light of the potency of the highly influential Tamil Diaspora to further their agenda. This doesn't mean we give a clean sheet to those responsible but work towards a mutually agreeable solution for the Tamils. It could mean an international investigation under UN supervision or a local independent investigation or maybe we could figure a solution unique to Sri Lanka.
The Way Forward
Paul Collier's research points to the fact that countries affected by conflict are much less likely to revert to violence if they engage in an all-encompassing peace and reconciliation process.  Amjad Saleem of The Cordoba Foundation talks about how with 'the defeat of the LTTE there is real opportunity to address the legitimate grievances of the minorities to ensure that country is not subject to a repeat of the conflict ever again'.  With the absence of a formidable voice for the cause of the Tamils, the responsibility falls on the Sri Lankan government to work towards rebuilding the lives of displaced Tamils, with due respect to their culture and traditions. Peace building is a long-term process, requiring investment of resources and efforts. The post-conflict period of Sri Lanka is just two years old; the government needs to put in sustained efforts for long term sustained peace.
With all the attention on the war crimes, the real issue should not be sidelined; the issue of development of the Tamils. Reconciliation cannot be achieved only with an investigation but it is definitely an important step to build bridges with the Tamils. Western countries have civil societies and independent media who hold the government accountable and demand answers, but Sri Lanka lacks both. There is absence of civil society and the mainstream media is controlled by the government. In such a scenario, responsibility falls on the international community to speak for the Tamils. On their part, the Sri Lankan government should inform the international community and specifically the Tamil Diaspora their seriousness on long-term peace building, and intend to be transparent in doing so. The investigation of the war crimes is not the penultimate of the reconciliation process, but just one of the important steps towards it.
The views expressed here are the authors own and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.
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