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Finding a path to reconciliation - analysis

A Tamil mother and her child after fleeing the fighting in Sri Lanka's conflict stricken north Sri Lankan Army
Sri Lanka has a historic chance to heal deep ethnic rifts in the country after the civil war and the government should seize the opportunity to follow up on its promises of reconciliation, analysts say.

 On 19 May, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa declared victory over the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), ending a 26-year war that has left thousands dead and many thousands more displaced.

At the heart of the conflict is the issue of political rights for Sri Lanka's Tamil minority, whose grievances include what they say is entrenched discrimination in employment and education, and a lack of recognition for the Tamil language.

 "The political roots of the conflict need to be addressed," Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Colombo-based Centre for Policy Alternatives think-tank, told IRIN.

 "Given that there is now a historic opportunity to fashion a new Sri Lanka and ensure that the causes and conditions for the three decade-old armed conflict are not replicated, the need of the hour is a new social contract for Sri Lanka."

 According to government figures, Tamils make up 18 percent of Sri Lanka's population of about 20 million. Of these, 12.6 percent are Sri Lankan Tamils and 5.5 percent are of recent Indian Tamil Origin. The Sinhalese majority stands at 74 percent.

 Since the end of the war, Rajapaksa has reached out to the Tamil community, committing to a political solution to the ethnic strife.

 "All the people of this country should live in safety without fear and suspicion. All should live with equal rights," he told parliament on 19 May.

 "It is necessary that we find a solution that is our very own, of our own nation. It should be a solution acceptable to all sections of the people," he said.

Progress report

 But analysts say they are now waiting to see those words backed up by actions, and agree on several barometers for progress.

 Besides a political settlement, some also list the treatment of thousands of Tamils displaced by the conflict, and the need for accountability over human rights violations allegedly committed by the LTTE and the government during the war.

 "If you are going to have reconciliation... then there has to be some kind of look into what happened during the war," Andrew Stroehlein, communications director for the International Crisis Group, told IRIN from Brussels.

"There's all these issues of access to the final battlegrounds, the disappearing of some potential witnesses, and the need for some kind of real international investigation to look into some of these things, which would ... help Tamils find out what happened to some of their loved ones and relatives."

 The restoration of democratic norms undermined by the conflict - such as press freedom - also figure among the priorities, analysts say.

 The government must first contend with a Tamil population that is anxious after the heavy civilian death toll seen in the last months of fighting.

 The Tamil community also needs reassurance after a spate of extortions, kidnappings and murders targeting Tamils during the war, said Jehan Perera, executive director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka, an advocacy NGO based in Colombo.

 A "confidence-building measure would be to ensure the physical and mental security of Tamil citizens living throughout the country", he told IRIN.

Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama accompanied by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon at the Menik Farm displaced persons camp outside Vavuniya. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon visited the camp on 23 May 2009
Photo: Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry
Last month UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon visited the Menik Farm displaced persons camp outside Vavuniya. The UN has expressed concern over conditions inside the camps, as well as the issue of access
Prioritizing IDPs

 Perhaps the most urgent issue is the treatment of the nearly 280,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) who are confined in poor conditions to state-run camps in the north.

 "We are acutely conscious that these are people who have gone through much and have the right to safety and security and the legitimate expectation of a return to normality," Mahinda Samarasinghe, Sri Lanka's Minister for Disaster Management and Human Rights told a session of the UN Human Rights Council on 2 June.

 Rights organisations have criticised the forced confinement of the IDPs, which officials say is necessary as they try to weed out any LTTE cadres who may be hiding in the camps.

 There are also fears the displaced people will be held for years in the camps, despite government reassurances most will be released by year's end.

 "What happens with the IDPs is absolutely essential to building up any kind of dialogue and goodwill," Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch, told IRIN.

 Political settlement

 Analysts say the key to peace is a political settlement that confers equal rights to the Tamil community. Sri Lanka's minority Muslim population, which is mostly in the Eastern Province and also suffered in the civil war, should be included too, they say.

 The island nation has grappled for decades with the question of the devolution of power to its nine provinces, particularly the Northern and Eastern provinces, considered by Tamils to be their homeland.

 Sri Lanka started on the path to devolution in 1987 with the 13th Amendment to its constitution, facilitated by India. It aimed to share power between the central administration and provincial councils created under the amendment.

 However, commentators say little genuine power-sharing has taken place.

 The provincial council system "has been a white elephant because the balance of powers within it are clearly in favour of the centre and because the political culture is so unitarist", said Saravanamuttu of the Centre for Policy Alternatives.

 "Irrespective of whether the party in power at the centre and in the provinces is the same, the provinces have complained of having little or no powers and resources."

 Analysts say the amendment should only serve as a starting point for a political settlement, since it does not allow for true devolution.

 "Everything the president or the parliament gives to the provinces, it can take away. So it's kind of temporarily loaning the power, it's not about a truly autonomous entity, a provincial council, operating on its own," said the ICG's Stroehlein.

 Rajapaksa has pledged to fully implement the provisions of constitution's13th Amendment. A government-appointed committee is also expected to submit proposals for additional power devolution.

 "We call this '13th Amendment Plus', that is, deeper provincial autonomy than currently in the constitution," Douglas Devananda, a prominent Tamil cabinet minister, told a UN anti-racism conference in April.

 While analysts say implementing the 13th Amendment would be a good trust-building measure, the politics surrounding a general election due by April 2010 - but expected earlier - may impede progress.

 To win the 2005 election that brought him to power, Rajapaksa forged pacts with Sinhalese nationalist groups, which would oppose devolution. They also lent important support to his war efforts, and analysts say it will be hard to abandon these alliances in the face of an upcoming election.

 "It will be difficult for the government to abruptly reverse itself and seek new political allies," said Perera of the National Peace Council. "As a politician known for his pragmatism, President Rajapaksa is likely to conform to the views of his government's nationalist allies."


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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