UPDATE: here is our 100 days update

Tests of the direction of travel of the new Sri Lankan Government. Militarization is one of the biggest.

Sri Lanka has a new President, Maithripala Sirisena. He was elected, in significant part, by a population appalled by the racism, the slide into authoritarianism, the systematic violation of human rights, and the war crimes committed by the previous regime (as well as its increasingly flagrant nepotism and corruption).

He, and his Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe, have promised constitutional reform, and have made some positive noises about restoring the rule of law, ending attacks on freedom of speech, and rowing back on the abuse of executive power. But until three months ago Sirisena himself was a senior minister in the old regime (having been defence minister in the closing months of the civil war), and so far he has said little about the issues that matter most to Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority, such as the constant abuses to which the civilian population are subjected in the north, which remains to all intents and purposes a conquered territory under military occupation. He has also expressed opposition to the idea of an international investigation into war crimes in Sri Lanka, which is the only way to break Sri Lanka’s culture of impunity and secure a lasting peace.

So is Sri Lanka now on the road to recovery, or do its deeper underlying problems mean that any change is likely to be superficial?

It is simply too early to know the answer, but we should soon have some clues. Below is a list of tests which can be used to measure how much Sri Lanka has really changed.

NB These tests should not be confused with Mathripala Sirisena’s own 100 day programme which can be seen, and is being monitored, here. Nor are these demands that we, as an externally-based Campaign, are presenting to Sri Lanka’s newly elected government. It is not for us to tell Sri Lankans how they should run their country – and many of these items were not in the manifesto of any candidate. But in a situation such as Sri Lanka’s, which is recovering from violent conflict, politicians have a duty not just to their electorate, but also to the victims of the war. If their demands are not met then there can be no hope for reconciliation, and without reconciliation change will pass Sri Lanka’s war affected communities by.

The following are demands which have been voiced by victims and civil society activists with Sri Lanka – particularly but by no means exclusively within the Tamil community – the community most affected. We believe they may be useful as a yardstick with which those who follow Sri Lanka’s affairs can measure its progress.

The list consists of things that Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickremasinghe could do today. If in the coming weeks and months they manage to enact many of these measures, then we can start to have confidence that Sri Lanka is on the right track. By the same token, if these things do not happen the inference will be that little of substance has changed in Sri Lanka, and the same issues remain even if different people are in power.

It is pleasing that in the course of drafting this document two of our tests were half completed, and the President has made some positive noises about land rights. However our concern is that other items on this list may prove a tougher test of political will. We know it is unrealistic to expect perfection, but we will judge this government’s ability to bring lasting peace by the extent of its actions in these areas – as will the survivors of 2009.

Tests of the direction of travel of the new Sri Lankan Government:

The release of political prisoners

“We are extremely concerned about the increased incidents of arbitrary arrest and detention. We reiterate our call to repeal the repressive Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), which facilitates the State to carry out such arbitrary and illegal arrests and detentions. Such treatment of HRDs and victims, only serve to perpetuate the climate of fear and insecurity of conflict affected communities.” – Letter from 311 civil society activists 19/3/2014

  • Has Jeyakumary Balendaran, a mother of one of the disappeared against whom no evidence has been produced, been released after over 300 days in detention?
  • Is the government moving to abolish the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), a draconian piece of legislation which allows people to be imprisoned without trial for up to 18 months?
  • Has it withdrawn regulations promulgated under the PTA which keep in place the effects of the lapsed Emergency Regulations?
  • Has the government released all prisoners held under the PTA, or otherwise brought them into open court for trial on specific charges?
  • Is Boosa Detention Centre, Sri Lanka’s most notorious torture site, still open? If it is, are civil society and international inspectors allowed to visit it and are lawyers provided unrestricted access to their clients?
  • Has the government disclosed how many LTTE cadres are being held in secret “rehabilitation camps”?

A return to a normal way of life in the north and east

Community members have been unable to return to their day-to-day lives. Under the administration of Mahinda Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka’s militarization has continued unabated. The Sri Lanka Army (SLA) has established numerous checkpoints and camps near peoples’ homes. Military personnel frequently patrol these areas – day and night. Sadly, the military’s intrusion into practically all aspects of civilian affairs remains a way of life in the conflict-affected North and East.” –The Social Architects, an anonymous Tamil civil society collective, 9/5/2013

  • When a meeting is called in a predominantly Tamil area, do military personnel attend and keep a note of what is said? Do they attempt to break up the meeting?
  • Have any abductions or assaults been reported in the Northern or Eastern Province?
  • Do former LTTE cadres still receive regular night time visits from the police and army?
  • Have the ex-military personnel appointed as Government Agents to districts in the Northern and Eastern Province been replaced by civilian officials proficient in the Tamil language? How many Government workers in Tamil areas speak Tamil?
  • How much Tamil and Muslim land does the Sri Lankan army, and paramilitary groups such as the EPDP and TMVP, continue to illegally occupy? Do they continue to use it commercially? Is there a plan for return of the land and provide compensation?
  • How many Tamil families remain internally displaced and in temporary accommodation? How much effort is the Government putting into resettlement, into allowing Tamil families to return to their own lands, and into restoring fishing rights?
  • Is there a plan to reduce troop numbers in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province and to move towards demilitarising Sri Lanka’s north and east?
  • Have checkpoints in the Northern Province preventing free movement to travellers, such as in Omanthai, been removed? And can foreigners travel to Sri Lanka’s Northern Province without having to get permission from the Ministry of Defence? (NB the second half of this has already happened)
  • Has the Government implemented a “Certificate of Absence” scheme, in lieu of a death certificate, for those who have been missing for a long time? Is this granted the same degree of legal recognition as a death certificate?
  • Has any compensation been given to war affected families and the families of the disappeared?

A political solution to Tamil grievances

“There seems to be no attempts made by the Executive to work towards a lasting political solution except to blame the TNA. It is my view that there is no interest in finding a bilateral or multilateral solution. The only interest is in a unilateral solution facilitated by the military.” – C.V. Wigneswaran, Chief Minister of the Northern Province, 31/3/2104

  • Has there been any progress on a negotiated political solution which would allow Tamil people more autonomy and meaningful devolution?
  • Are the provisions relating to land powers and police powers for the Northern Provincial Council NPC being implemented, or does the NPC continue to be blocked from performing its functions as envisaged under the constitution?
  • Has the Chief Minister of the Northern Provincial Council been allowed to do his job without central interference?
  • Are draft statutes presented to the Governor by the Northern Provincial Council being held up by the Governor?
  • Have the Governor of the Northern Province and Chief Secretary of the Northern Province been replaced by a civilian and by a choice of the Chief Minister respectively? (NB: the first half of this has already happened)

Promoting peace and friendship between ethnicities

It is possible that vested interests may subvert the amicable resolution of the fisher communities’ problems for their benefit. In the past we have seen that resource-distribution conflicts have been exacerbated into inter ethnic conflicts, we urge that the leadership of both communities learn from past experiences, and approach this with a deeper understanding and sensitivity towards the peaceful co-existence.” – Citizens’ Commission on the Expulsion of Muslims from the Northern Province, 31/8/2012

  • Has the government presented any concrete plans to promote peace and friendship between Sri Lanka’s different communities, for instance through implementing the recommendations in the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) report on reconciliation (9.167-9.285) and through expanding the National Plan of Action to include all the LLRC recommendations?
  • Has there been more anti-Muslim rhetoric and acts of violence from the Buddhist extremist Bodu Bala Sena (BBS)? If so, how has the government responded?
  • Do the sanctions on 16 Tamil Diaspora organisations and 424 individuals remain in place?

Ending the culture of impunity

Sri Lanka will never have reconciliation or lasting peace, until and unless we know what’s happened to our disappeared brothers and sisters and those responsible are held accountable. This is not a task that should be left to families of disappeared and few of their supporters. Rather, it’s a task all Sri Lankans and all people who care about Sri Lanka should become involved and support.” –Ruki Fernando, 30/8/2014

  • Is there now an investigation into the hitherto uninvestigated deaths and disappearances of 36 journalists and media workers during President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s term in office?
  • What is the status of the investigation of the Matale mass grave, Lalith Weeraraj and Kugan Muruganandan’s disappearance, and the Trinco 5 and Muttur 17 killings?
  • Has the report of the “Presidential Commission of Inquiry into 16 serious violations” been released to the public?
  • Is there a plan to investigate the 19,471 cases of disappearances registered before the Presidential Commission on missing persons in a timely manner?
  • What is the new Government’s attitude to the United Nations’ procedures on human rights? Are they continuing to disrespect the office of the High Commission for Human Rights and block investigations? Have any of the eight UN Special Procedures mandate holders with outstanding requests to visit been allowed to do so?

Over the coming weeks and months we will report back on the status of all these tests. Together they should help us understand Sri Lanka’s current direction of travel.

However even if Sri Lanka is moving in the right direction, we still feel that an international investigation into war crimes committed by both sides is needed, and that it must be followed by prosecution of those against whom there is clear prima facie evidence. That is the clear demand of those who survived the brutal final stages of the war. It is also required for a lasting peace. The main barrier to a lasting peace is the culture of impunity, which a lengthy series of domestic processes has failed to break.

In the long term Sri Lanka can only put the war behind it once that culture of impunity has been brought to an end. Until then, these tests will give us some idea which way the country is headed.