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The Oakland Think Tank Report on Sri Lanka--The Long Shadow of War

June 1, 2015
Ceylon Today

The Oakland Institute-USA, an independent policy think tank has released a report on Sri Lanka stating, that six years after the war, a silent war continues under a different guise. This report, The Long Shadow of War – The Struggle for Justice in Postwar Sri Lanka authored by Anuradha Mittal, is based on research and fieldwork conducted between January 2014 and April 2015 by the Oakland Institute, which states on its website that they are bringing fresh ideas and bold action to the most pressing social, economic, and environmental issues.

The Oakland Institute-USA, an independent policy think tank has released a report on Sri Lanka stating, that six years after the war, a silent war continues under a different guise. This report, The Long Shadow of War – The Struggle for Justice in Postwar Sri Lanka authored by Anuradha Mittal, is based on research and fieldwork conducted between January 2014 and April 2015 by the Oakland Institute, which states on its website that they are bringing fresh ideas and bold action to the most pressing social, economic, and environmental issues.

Extract from the Report

The report starts by saying that one major issue is the continued displacement of people from their lands and homes as a result of persistent military occupation of the Northern and Eastern the Provinces. Thousands of Tamils are still internally displaced and remain without land or livelihoods. For those who have been 'resettled' through government schemes, the process has often taken place without voluntary or fully informed settlement choice and without adequate infrastructure in place for rebuilding their lives. Sri Lanka's Army still occupies 'high security zones' in the North and the East of the country. In 2014, at least 160,000 soldiers, almost entirely Sinhalese, were estimated to be stationed in the North. With the Northern Province's population estimated at just over one million in 2012, this yields a ratio of one army member for every six civilians, despite the official end of hostilities six years ago.

This military occupation is not about ensuring security. The Army has expanded non-military activities and is engaged in large-scale property development, construction projects, and business ventures such as travel agencies, farming, holiday resorts, restaurants, and innumerable cafes that dot the highways in the Northern and the Eastern Provinces. The Army officially runs luxury resorts and golf courses that have been erected on land seized from now internally displaced people. Tourists can book holidays in luxury beach resorts by directly calling reservation numbers at the Ministry of Defence. These resorts and businesses are located on lands that were previously home to the local Tamil population, who were displaced by the war. They see no sign of return, despite numerous demands and petitions.

These recent land grabs perpetuate and build upon a decades-long history of marginalization of the Tamil population, which has involved violence, pogroms, repressive laws, and a government-orchestrated colonization of the Northern and the Eastern parts of the island nation that used to constitute the Tamils' homeland. This process has not only stripped the Tamil people of their culture, land, and livelihoods, but also has significantly altered the demographic makeup of these regions.

Over the past six years, the process of Sinhalization has intensified with an aggressive government-led effort that systematically replaces Tamil culture and history with victory monuments dedicated to Sinhalese hegemony and Buddhist religion on the ruins of the Tamil homeland.

A new government was elected in early 2015 with the promise that it will engage in a process of truth and reconciliation. It is unclear how such a process could effectively take place, given the current level of military occupation and the ongoing Sinhalization efforts. Furthermore, a process of truth and reconciliation will have little hope of succeeding unless the new government makes decisive and concrete moves around two other paramount human rights issues that have not seen any progress since the end of the war.

In August 2013, the former President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, set up a Presidential Commission to look into complaints regarding missing persons. In July 2014, the commission's mandate was expanded to investigate allegations of war crimes and violations of international humanitarian law by the LTTE and the Sri Lankan armed forces, thereby weakening its original mandate. By August 2014, family members of nearly 20,000 people, including 5,600 family members of Sri Lankan Army personnel who went missing during the war, had petitioned the Commission.

The release of political prisoners and of all individuals imprisoned due to the conflict is the primary demand of many of those interviewed in the Northern and the Eastern Provinces.

Yet, to date, pledges made by the government for the release of prisoners have lacked timelines and enforcement mechanisms. It is feared that many of the missing are not imprisoned. The government has been strongly encouraging families to stop searching for the loved ones, and accept a death certificate for their family members along with financial compensation. However, many families have rejected this offer, which does not include restitution of the bodies and information about the cause and place of death.

A second major obstacle to any reconciliation process has been the lack of political will for any thorough investigation and prosecution of war crimes and human right violations that occurred in the course of the conflict.

The newly elected Sri Lankan Government under President Maithripala Sirisena that came into power in January 2015 secured a six-month postponement of the release, promising an internal inquiry and reconciliation by the new government.

Given the government inaction over these critical human rights issues in recent years, international pressure will be critical for any decisive action to take place. Both India and the US have made gestures of geopolitical cooperation since the elections in early 2015 ushered in new leadership.

It is feared that these two countries could decide that geopolitical alignment trumps a true and just reconciliation process, and fail to put the necessary pressure on the Sri Lankan Government to adequately follow through with its promises.

This is a vital moment for the future of Sri Lanka. The human rights situation in the country will not improve until the culture of impunity is replaced with a culture of responsibility, accountability, and fulfillment of full rights of the Tamil community and all other minorities in the country. Ensuring that this happens should be the responsibility of the international community — not a political dilemma.

Promises of an internal inquiry and reconciliation by the new government prompted many, both within and outside the country, to support the call for domestic mechanisms to deal with war crimes. The diplomacy worked, and Sri Lanka managed to win a delay of six months on the war crimes report.

The findings of this report constitute important elements to be considered by any domestic and/or international investigation conducted with the intent to reach truth and reconciliation. With 16 of the 19 Sri Lankan Army's divisions and task forces situated in the Northern Province, each with a minimum of 10,000 soldiers per division, simple math calculations present the real number: At least 160,000 soldiers, almost entirely Sinhalese, were estimated to be in the North in 2014. With the Northern Province's population estimated at just over 1 million in 2012, this yields a ratio of one Army member for every six civilians, despite the end of hostilities six years ago.

In September 2012, the government declared all IDPs 'resettled'.

In a sharp contrast, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) reported nearly 90,000 IDPs in the country in May 2014. As of September 2013, some 7,000 IDPs were still living in camps, with more than 4,000 in Jaffna, at least 2,600 in Trincomalee, and several hundred at the sites of two former camps in Vavuniya.

These people, displaced before April 2008, are still prevented from returning to their homes by the continued military occupation of their lands. 480,000 IDPs are considered as having returned to their places of origin in the North and the East. Concerns remain that tens of thousands went back without the necessary infrastructure, including shelter, water, and sanitation.

Further, thousands of them were moved to permanent relocation sites without their voluntary or fully informed settlement choice.

The IDP camps that are home to those displaced from Valikamam North are close to Urumpirai (near Jaffna). With some of the residents having returned home, the number of camps is down from 57 to 36. Konadpulam Camp is the largest, housing 217 families, but the presence of an Army camp inside makes it difficult for media/researchers to visit and speak to the communities.

The Oakland Institute researchers were able to visit Camp Neethavan which houses some 200 people (57 families), with 60 school-age children and 25 senior citizens.

The public facilities at the camp are minimal — two small water tanks (which need to be filled around five times a day so families can fill jerry cans to carry back home), and an enclosed common area for bathing and washing clothes for women, and eight toilets that are not easily accessible in the dark, making it especially hard for the elderly, young women, and children to use the facilities at night. Most homes have tin or bamboo roofing and use cardboard and plastic sheets to close the gaping holes, and have no electricity. As evening descends, families light up rusted lanterns. During the day, families scour the area for wood that is used for cooking.

Kingdom of Raigam

In 2009, the Kingdom of Raigam, a diversified group of consumer goods companies, secured 1,805 acres of land at Periyakaraichchi, Kuchaveli, through a 30 year lease for a saltern project, claiming it would provide jobs to more than 1,500 people in the area.

The saltwater area was used by some 2,500 poor Tamil and Muslim families to catch crabs and prawns for their livelihoods, which have been crushed today. Furthermore, with outsiders brought in to work at the saltern, the demographic composition of the area has undergone changes, creating resentment among the people and detracting from much-needed reconciliation, given the area's history.

The development logic of converting the Periyakarachchi Lagoon into a saltern ignores the lagoon ecosystem's value, as it assists with nutrient cycling and flood control during heavy rains. Fisherfolk involved in sea fishing depend on lagoon fishing during the monsoon season and use it as an anchorage for fishing boats.

With increased salinity of lagoons following the conversion to salterns, the loss of livelihoods is permanent.

While Raigam was awarded 1,805 acres, they encroached on 2,700 acres." Local villagers insist that no compensation has been provided. "No schools, clinics, hospitals . . . what we need in our community; they gave us just a Piliyar temple to placate us.

We made complaints to the Divisional Secretary and politicians. But they take no action."

With no jobs available at the saltern, the locals have been forced into desperation; one option is to work with trawlers engaged in deep sea fishing.

Uga Bay in Passikudah Bay

Uga Bay in Passikudah Bay, Batticaloa, the sister hotel of Uga Escapes, is one of the 14 hotels under the Passikudah Hotel Project. The project area extends to 2 kilometres, and all entranceways to the beach, formerly used by locals, have been closed.

The hotel development project pitted poor fisher folk against the Sri Lanka Tourist Board. The land, which was initially taken over by the government during the war, was subsequently included in the150-acre Passikudah Tourist Zone by the Tourism Development Authority in 2012.

The 368 impacted families were promised huts, four acres of land to anchor their boats, and a renovated harbour.
When nothing came through, they demanded alternative fishing areas with their customary land grabbed for tourism.
Instead, "they were simply warned that if they did not leave, police would evict them by force."

Sinhalization of the North and the East

War Victory Memorials as Symbols of Complete Hegemony: The Northern theatre of war, where the bloodiest battles between the Sri Lankan forces and the LTTE fought is today a popular destination for Sinhalese tourists. Since the end of the war, victory memorials that vilify the LTTE as 'terrorists', have been built in the region.

Viewed as an imposition of Buddhist hegemony over the Tamil parts of the island, the locals accuse these monuments of being oblivious to the grief of the Northern Tamils who faced the brutal Sri Lankan Army assault, which is estimated to have killed tens of thousands of civilians toward the end of the war.

In a meeting with the Oakland Institute, Thantayuthapai, an opposition leader in the Eastern Provincial Council, shared historic evidence pointing to the North and the East as the traditional homeland of the Tamils. Since independence, he reports deliberate efforts by the Sri Lankan Government to sabotage the demography of the Tamils — one such method being the construction of Buddhist temples and the erection of Buddha statues in places where there are no Buddhists.

This includes numerous Buddha statues along the A9 route to Jaffna, in places where no Buddhists reside. In October 2013, Defence Secretary Rajapaksa and Army Commander Daya Ratnayake inaugurated a new Buddhist pagoda, Mankulam Sri Sugatha Viharaya, in the former rebel stronghold of Kilinochchi in the Vanni region and enshrined the Buddha's sacred relics in its pinnacle. The website of the Sri Lankan Ministry of Defence reported that the Security Force Headquarters – Kilinochchi (SFHQ–KLN) supported the construction of the pagoda, claiming it to be a place of Buddhist worship with a long history.

Given the economic and political asymmetry between the politically dominant Sinhalese and the Tamils within international geopolitics, is a fair domestic Investigation possible? Under President Rajapaksa, the previous government had established its own commission, the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC).

The widely criticized commission held hearings, but failed to make the findings public or carryout any prosecutions.
Third, on 29 January 2015, the new President, Maithripala Sirisena, pledged to free hundreds of Tamil political detainees and return much of the land still under military occupation in the North and the East.

However, no timeline or monitoring mechanism has been proposed to ensure the release of detainees or the lands. Since 2009, an absence of official figures on the number of Tamil detainees continues to torment families of the missing. The government estimates that nearly 300 people are being held without charge under the Terrorism Act, but Tamil leaders offer figures many times that. Lastly, in the face of the recent commitment to reconciliation, the continued militarization and occupation of lands in the North and the East is a mortal blow to all promises.

Geopolitics/realpolitics at play

Beyond national dynamics, international geopolitics are also at play as governments, including those who backed the UN resolution on war crimes, repair their relationship with the Sri Lankan Government under the country's new leader.

For instance, the Obama administration is keen to improve relations with Sri Lanka, which forged closer ties with China under President Rajapaksa.

A 2009 Senate Foreign Relations Committee report (issued with John Kerry as the Chairman) candidly stated: "The US Government has invested relatively little in the economy or the security sector in Sri Lanka, instead focusing more on IDPs and civil society. As a result, Sri Lanka has grown politically and economically isolated from the West. This strategic drift will have consequences for US interests in the region."

"Sri Lanka is strategically located at the nexus of maritime trading routes connecting Europe and the Middle East to China and the rest of Asia. It is directly in the middle of the 'Old World,' where an estimated half of the world's container ships transit the Indian Ocean. American interests in the region include securing energy resources from the Persian Gulf and maintaining the free flow of trade in the Indian Ocean. . . . Sri Lanka's strategic importance to the United States, China, and India is viewed by some as a key piece in a larger geopolitical dynamic, what has been referred to as a new 'Great Game.'

Given Sri Lanka's strategic importance, the report made several bold recommendations, including that the US "take a broader and more robust approach to Sri Lanka that appreciates new political and economic realities in Sri Lanka and US geostrategic interests."

With the change of government from Rajapaksa to Sirisena, will the US prioritize its geostrategic interests instead of maintaining its focus on human rights and humanitarian concerns?

John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, welcomed Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera in February 2015 saying, "this is an exciting moment for all of us because Sri Lanka on 8 January had an historic election in which there has been really a vote for change, a vote to move Sri Lanka in a new direction, to open up greater accountability and possibility for the preservation of human rights, for democracy, for fighting corruption and putting together a government that will speak for and to the people." Only time will attest to the sincerity of these words.

Despite the end of the civil war in 2009, a silent war is still raging in the heavily militarized North and East Provinces of Sri Lanka. Discontent bubbles just underneath the surface with lives lost, families missing, livelihoods destroyed, and stolen lands — all worsened by the lack of answers from those in power in Colombo.

The new government has made promises. However, the strategy to maintain peace and prevent future uprisings appears to still be based on the old mindset. "No Change in Security Status or Removal of Camps" is the déja vu position of Sirisena's Government, despite speaking of reconciliation.

In his first formal visits to the North and the East in February 2015, State Minister of Defence Ruwan Wijewardene confirmed the status quo to the tri-service troops of the Security Force Headquarters in Jaffna:

"National Security will remain the priority of our government and there is no change in that policy under any circumstances. I say this with responsibility. I assure you that, the government would not remove any Army Formations in the peninsula, nor does the government plan to scale-down security arrangements. All members of the Security Forces will continue to receive welfare facilities as it is and the dignity your profession deserves."

On 2 February 2015, President Sirisena extended an order made under the Public Security Ordinance by the President Rajapaksa, who transferred police powers to the armed forces.

The Extraordinary Gazette notification calling out the armed forces to exercise police powers under the pretext of public security does not bode well for a return to civilian administration. Instead, the notification suggests concerns around public security and the inadequacy of the police to deal with the situation.

The new government's reluctance to demilitarize the North and the East, and the continued stronghold over power by the Sri Lankan armed forces should be a major concern for the international community, which for now is busy celebrating the new government and its talk of reconciliation.

While lands in the North and East continue to be occupied and new Sinhalese village settlements continue to be built, in a move toward reconciliation President Sirisena announced the release of 1,000 acres in the Jaffna-Valikamam High Security Zone (HSZ) to citizens in several stages.

Initial plans include a pilot village for the resettlement of 1,022 families on 220 acres of land in the Valalai Grama Niladhari Division of the Valikamam East Divisional Secretariat Division.

However, the plan is too small and too late, as it does not allow families to resettle in their original traditional lands.
In fact, 220 acres of the Sirisena Government's 1,000-acre resettlement plan was initiated by the Rajapaksa regime, and was deemed unacceptable by the displaced even then.

If there is to be hope for truth and reconciliation, it is important to understand what factors led to the war and the violent period following the end of the war in 2009 through the January 2015 elections.

This period—pockmarked with fear and distrust, continued displacement of communities from their homes and lands, tens of thousands missing, arrests and detention of activists active in the search of disappeared persons—leaves much to be desired for lasting peace in the island nation.

Indeed, in a show of willingness to reconcile with the country's disaffected minorities, Sirisena's Government released eight people on 10 March 2015.

There are around 20,000 complaints filed with the authorities about disappearances. While the Sri Lankan Government has managed to obtain a six-month reprieve, it is pertinent to not lose sight of the intent and the ability of the new government to ensure justice and reconciliation.

Moving forward on issues such as the demilitarization of the North, an investigation into war crimes and prosecution of all (including military officials) who are found guilty, and ensuring fulfilment of economic and political aspirations of the Tamil minority — essential for reconciliation — might however prove to be more tricky and difficult. War wins and political victories don't accomplish peace and reconciliation.

One thing is clear — the human rights situation in Sri Lanka will not improve until the culture of impunity is replaced with a culture of responsibility, accountability, and fulfillment of full rights of the Tamil community and all other minorities in the country. To ensure this happens should be the responsibility of the international community — not a political dilemma. The change in government does provide leverage for international intervention and it might have the necessary impact, which was not possible under President Rajapaksa. ([email protected])