In contrast to promises it made before coming to power, the Sri Lankan government of President Maithripala Sirisena has recently taken a tougher, pro-Sinhala nationalist position in its dealings with the Tamil people.
On November 28, the Sirisena government, which now has been in power for nearly three years, evoked the Prevention of Terrorism Act to arrest Tamils who had organized events to honor the memory of the fallen soldiers of the Tamil rebellion.
Maaveerar Naal has been observed annually since 1987 on November 27 to commemorate the day the first Tamil Tiger soldier was killed in action in 1982. The annual commemoration continued even after the rebellion was put down in May 2009. During the presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa (2005-15), the event was observed in secret, as it was clear that the government would punish participants. But in November 2016, it was observed openly and was allowed to proceed.
The event in 2016 was attended by Tamil parliamentarians and politicians. The Sri Lankan government’s inclination to allow Tamils honor their sons and daughters killed in battle was widely regarded as a goodwill gesture toward the Tamil people and a signal to the world at large that the new regime was democratic in its approach.
However, last month, the Sri Lankan security forces actively engaged in intimidating people attending commemoration events across the northeast of the island – the Tamil homeland. Participants were photographed, people were warned that any display of Tamil Tiger symbols including photographs of the fallen in uniform was illegal, and there was a menacing army presence outside the premises where the commemoration events were conducted.
The very next day, Sri Lanka’s state minister of defense, Ruwan Wijewardene, ordered the Terrorism Investigation Division, notorious for its use of torture, to investigate and arrest those involved in organizing the commemoration.
The heavy-handed response to this year’s Maaveerar Naal by the Sirisena government comes in the wake of several other setbacks in the efforts to bring about an end to the conflict. These include the absence of any progress in respect of a 2015 UN Human Rights Council resolution to investigate war crimes committed during the latter stages of the civil war; delays in introducing a new constitution addressing the question of self-rule for the Tamil people; and the continuing specter of torture of Tamils taken into custody.
The UN resolution of 2015 was primarily focused on establishing a mechanism involving foreign judges in a local investigation probing war crimes committed during the latter stages of Sri Lanka’s civil war. This was a further dilution of earlier resolutions calling for international investigation.
In March this year, Sri Lanka was given another two years to implement the proposals, but there is little evidence of any progress. On the contrary, Sirisena has stated categorically that he will not make any “war hero” a suspect in cases of alleged war crimes. Addressing the Sri Lankan expatriate community in South Korea on November 28, he was dismissive of the UN resolution, stating: “There won’t be electric chairs, international tribunals or foreign judges. That book is closed.”
The Sirisena government that replaced the Rajapaksa regime had agreed to address the root cause of the conflict via a new constitution to share political power with the Tamil people. The Tamil National Alliance, which had been in negotiations with the government, had understood the new constitution was to be “outside the unitary constitution amounting to federalism in substance.”
However, Sirisena has since stated categorically that he would never “betray the country” by introducing a federal constitution. This would mean that a new constitution, if implemented, would be unitary, ensuring that political power continues to reside with the majority Sinhala people. As it was this majoritarian rule that was the root cause of the conflict in the first place, a new unitary constitution is unlikely to resolve the conflict.
Early last month, an investigation by The Associated Press found that more than 50 Tamil men had been raped, branded and tortured by the current government. The men were accused of trying to revive the Tamil Tigers rebel group and were tortured between early 2016 and July of this year, the report said.
There is some confusion as to whether the perpetrators were from the police or the army. Captors had identified themselves as members of the Criminal Investigation Department, a police unit that investigates serious crimes. But some of the victims thought their captors and interrogators were soldiers.
Back to the future
Almost three years after promising to address the issues that gave rise to the conflict and two years after co-sponsoring a resolution calling for a probe into the alleged war crimes, the Sri Lankan government has reverted to type, pandering to ultra-Sinhala nationalism. The situation in late 2017 appears to be no different to what prevailed before the conflict erupted into war in 1983.