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Post War Sri Lanka Under the Rajapaksa: Reconciliation's Two Lost Years

By Stephen Keim and Roshan de Silva Wijeyeratne - posted Friday, 16 September 2011

The International Crisis Group (ICG) is known for its detailed on the ground research and its commitment to making impartial but fearless calls. Its conclusion, in its latest report on Sri Lanka, is that the more than two years since the end of the civil war has resulted in lost opportunities for reconciliation. The result is that the different groups that go to make up Sri Lankan society have less understanding of one another's concerns than they did two years ago with the result that the task of creating such understanding is becoming more difficult.

The ICG places most responsibility for this regrettable situation on the administration of President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The report draws upon interviews conducted with members of Sri Lankan society from different regions and different ethnic groups. These interviews were mainly conducted in early 2011. However, the report draws on publicly available material much closer to its publication date of 18 July 2011 including the report of the Panel of Experts appointed by Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon dated 31 March 2011 which recommended the setting up of an international investigation into war crimes and found credible allegations of international crimes by both Sri Lankan defence forces and the LTTE.


The findings and recommendations of the ICG report reflect earlier observations by the ICG, itself, and other independent investigating bodies such as Amnesty International and Minority Rights Group International. The consensus of such groups is that the triumphalist approach and policies of the Rajapaksa dynasty and the tight rein that the family has taken on political force within Sri Lanka is making eventual reconciliation between the social and ethnic groups in Sri Lanka more difficult than at the conclusion of the civil war in 2009 and, perhaps, than at any other time.

The government's policies and approach is failing to solve the difficulties faced within any of the communities within Sri Lanka. This report makes a number of very important points which may not have been reflected as clearly in earlier reports. First, the Rajapaksa government is not only failing the Tamil community, the group who have most to lose and gain from the demise of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The government's policies are also continuing to fail the majority Sinhalese community as well. It is also failing the Muslim communities of Sri Lanka. One group that continues to be neglected are the Up-country or Hill-country Tamils, the descendants of indentured Indian farm workers who tend to live in the tea growing Central Highlands and who have chronically experienced disadvantage in terms of education, employment, health, poverty and lack of opportunity.

Another important matter that emerges from the report is the historical fact that the different communities of Sri Lanka have suffered at the hands of people from their own ethnic group as well as from people from other groups. Thus, government caused disappearances, a lack of a strong and independent judiciary and departures from the rule of law have affected members of the Sinhalese community as well as the minority ethnic groups. Two violent left wing revolts have also led to violence imposed by Sinhalese upon Sinhalese.

In the same way, the Tamil community have suffered from the actions of their fellow Tamils in the LTTE, in some ways more than other ethnic groups, through forced recruitments and assassinations as well as being used as human shields during the closing stages of the war.

There are also rivalries and resentment within the Muslim community in Sri Lanka including between the Muslims who were driven out of the north by the LTTE in the early 1990s and the Muslim communities among whom they found shelter but at some cost to those who sheltered them.

The report emphasises the need for accountability for past wrongs including the suspected war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by both sides during the closing stages of the Sri Lankan civil war. The report emphasizes, however, the need not to focus just on those closing months of the civil war. It is important, the report states, drawing upon the results of its interviews, to be cognisant that the crimes and need for accountability go back in history and include crimes by governments (including governments before the present one) upon citizens; Sinhalese upon Sinhalese and Tamil upon Tamil. To focus just upon the events of late 2008 and early 2009 has the potential to leave very many other crimes unaccounted for and would ignore many other simmering resentments within all of the various sub-communities that go to make up Sri Lanka.


The call for accountability faces a huge logical problem. The credible evidence that the Secretary-General's panel found of international crimes by Sri Lankan government forces points as much to senior government people such as the President and his defence minister brother as it does to the individual military commanders who may have ordered the shelling of civilians and hospitals or the sexual assault and summary execution of prisoners. The likelihood in those circumstances of a Sri Lankan government led by a member of the Rajapaksa family allowing a credible inquiry into those suspected crimes is zero to nil. However, to avoid appearing to pre-judge the situation, commentators, including the ICG, must continue to call for a credible domestic inquiry at the same time as suggesting that steps be taken to put in place an effective international inquiry. Due process and considerations of natural justice require no less.

Although the ICG continues to leave open the possibility of an effective domestic inquiry at some point, the report does urge the international community not to wait around for the results of the Claytons accountability mechanism set up by the government, the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission (the LLRC). The report repeats much of the devastating analysis of the failings of the LLRC that the Secretary-General's panel published in its report. The creation of the LLRC repeats an old government tactic in Sri Lanka of seeking to appease by appointing an inquiry. Experience shows, however, that such inquiries seldom result either in informing the public or or effective accountability for the wrongs which they purport to investigate.

The ICG also comes up with a suggestion for structuring any international inquiry that would allow space for the unlikely possibility of a domestic inquiry while continuing to put pressure on a recalcitrant Sri Lankan government. The suggestion draws on the earlier analysis that the need for accountability extends beyond the closing months of the civil war to earlier periods of Sri Lankan modern history. The report suggests that the international inquiry should be sequenced and multi-staged. Were a genuine domestic accountability process to emerge that addresses some aspect of the recent past, the international inquiry could adjust its priorities and its programming so as not to impinge on those areas being covered by the domestic process.

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About the Authors

Stephen Keim has been a legal practitioner for 30 years, the last 23 of which have been as a barrister. He became a Senior Counsel for the State of Queensland in 2004. Stephen is book reviews editor for the Queensland Bar Association emagazine Hearsay. Stephen is President of Australian Lawyers for Human Rights and is also Chair of QPIX, a non-profit film production company that develops the skills of emerging film makers for their place in industry.

Dr Roshan DeSilva Wijeyeratne is senior lecturer in Law at Griffith University.

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by Stephen Keim
All articles by Roshan de Silva Wijeyeratne

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