By Mian Ridge
New Delhi - When Sri Lanka's government finally defeated the secessionist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in May, even its harshest critics rejoiced. Here, at last, was a chance to bring peace to an island that had suffered 26 years of war, in which as many as 100,000 people were killed.
The end of the war gave Sri Lanka an opportunity to heal the bitter ethnic conflict between the Sinhalese majority and Tamil minority that had fueled it. But even as the government says it seeks reconciliation, it is drawing fire for actions that appear counterproductive to achieving that goal.
Chief among the complaints is delaying the return of more than 250,000 displaced Tamils. They have been refused permission to return to their homes or, in many cases, unite with spouses and children living in other camps. In addition, aid agencies have been given limited access to the camps and most reporters have been barred.
Last Friday, President Mahinda Rajapaksa announced he would ensure the return of all refugees by January, after demining operations were completed in the areas around their homes. The government has also said it wants to ensure that it identifies any Tamil militants among the displaced before allowing them to go home.
Mr. Rajapaksa's assurances came during a meeting with UN envoy Lynn Pascoe, who was visiting the country to follow up on a number of issues including the government's expulsion of James Elder, a spokesman for UNICEF – the United Nations' child-welfare agency.
The government said Mr. Elder, who had said recently that the island's monsoon rains would cause chaos in the camps, was "spreading propaganda." During the final, most bloody stage of the war earlier this year, Elder had described the "unimaginable suffering" of children caught in the fighting, including babies he had seen with shrapnel wounds.
In August, heavy showers had caused latrines in the camp to overflow, heightening concerns about the spread of contagious diseases.
Jehan Perera, executive director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka, a nonpartisan advocacy group, says that at least three children died in one camp in August, "which shows the sense of what [Elder] was saying."
Treating every Tamil as a terrorist?
After Sri Lanka gave Elder a Sept. 21 deadline for leaving the country, the office of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said that the organization was "working impartially to assist the people of Sri Lanka." This included "making public statements when necessary in an effort to save lives and prevent grave humanitarian problems."
Elder reportedly left the country Sept. 18, marking the first expulsion of a UN worker from Sri Lanka. Many see it as yet another example of the government's intolerance of any criticism of its tactics either during or after the war.
But more worryingly, the government's apparent conflation of the defense of the rights of ordinary Tamils with LTTE propaganda suggests an unwillingness to tackle Tamil grievances – without which peace will be difficult, if not impossible.
"It seems absolutely racist, to treat every Tamil as if he was a potential member of the Tamil Tigers," says Suhas Chakma of the Delhi-based Asian Center for Human Rights.
Human rights abuses
In late August, President Rajapaksa told Forbes magazine, "I want to be the leader who brings permanent peace and development to this country," as well as reconciliation with Tamil communities, he added.
But even as the government promises to bring reconciliation, in recent weeks a series of alarming reports have come out of Sri Lanka. Tamils, who constitute around 12 percent of the population of 20 million, have endured decades of institutionalized discrimination at the hands of the Sinhalese.
Only days before Mr. Rajapaksa's comment, British television aired a video that apparently showed soldiers killing unarmed, naked, and blindfolded Tamils – which would constitute a serious violation of international law – during the last and bloodiest phase of the war.
The footage was obtained by Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka, an organization made up of several dozen expatriate Sri Lankan journalists, which said the film was taken by a Sri Lankan soldier in January using his mobile phone.
The government has said the footage is "doctored." But Philip Alston, the UN's special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, has said he hoped the UN would open an investigation into the video.
Less dramatic but equally important, the government is also failing to develop a long-promised political settlement for the Tamils.
That settlement – which is included in the country's Constitution and widely accepted as a vital condition for peace – involves giving Tamils some measure of regional devolution.
But Rajapaksa said recently he would delay that solution until after his reelection, which may happen next year.
It is not surprising that Rajapaksa feels no sense of urgency. An ardent Sinhalese nationalist, his popularity ratings have soared since the Tigers were vanquished. The government has said the economy is expected to grow by 5 percent this year – double what was previously expected, after the International Monetary Fund agreed to a $2.6 billion loan. And tourist numbers are beginning to pick up.
Nor is Rajapaksa is likely to be swayed by international pressure. Sri Lanka is expected to lose a valuable trade concession granted by the European Union after it failed to meet its terms, which include stipulations on human rights. But Sri Lanka has forged friendships with other parts of the world, including China, Libya, and Pakistan, thus reducing its economic dependence on Europe and the US.
In the end, says Mr. Perera, the only thing likely to change the government's behavior is democracy. As more elections are held in Tamil-heavy areas once ruled by the LTTE, the government, "will need to build up Tamil votes," he says. "At the moment the government does not see the price it will have to pay [for its treatment of the Tamils] but it will have to pay – and that, we hope, will make it change."