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President’s Political Will Raises Concerns

May 31, 2015
Source
Ceylon Today

A US based policy think tank says the recent appointment of Major General Jagath Dias as the Army Chief of Staff, one of the armed forces' highest positions, despite the fact that the 57th division under his command was implicated in serious human rights abuses, rebuts government pledges to credibly investigate alleged war crimes through a domestic accountability mechanism.

A US based policy think tank says the recent appointment of Major General Jagath Dias as the Army Chief of Staff, one of the armed forces' highest positions, despite the fact that the 57th division under his command was implicated in serious human rights abuses, rebuts government pledges to credibly investigate alleged war crimes through a domestic accountability mechanism.

Anuradha Mittal, Executive Director of the Oakland Institute, who is an internationally renowned expert on human rights and land issues, said Thursday that, while much has been made of the peaceful government transition that took place after elections in January of this year, the investigators raise concerns as to whether the new President, Maithripala Sirisena, has the political will or space to deal with these issues.

She said in the US based think tank's report released on Thursday that "this is a vital moment for the future of Sri Lanka. Until the new government takes decisive action to curtail and reverse the colonization process, truly replacing the culture of impunity with a culture of responsibility and accountability, there is little hope that the Tamils and other minorities will be treated justly. It should be the responsibility of the international community, and not a political dilemma, to ensure upholding of the human and land rights of the minorities in Sri Lanka."

Mittal, in the report on the state of human rights in Sri Lanka – the first since the end of the country's 26-year civil war in 2009 – finds that a silent war continues in which thousands of Tamils, mostly Hindus and Christians, are still internally displaced and subject to military occupation and fierce discrimination by the predominantly Buddhist Sinhalese majority.

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 soldier for every six civilians, despite the official end of hostilities six years ago, the report revealed.

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 Eastern Provinces. The army officially runs luxury resorts and golf courses that have been established on land seized from the currently 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.

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 process by the new government.

Given the government's 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 a 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 new report, The Long Shadow of War: Struggle for Justice in Post War Sri Lanka, found that: Tamil culture and history are being systematically suppressed by a government-led effort to construct victory monuments and Buddhist shrines that underscore Sinhalese domination in former Tamil homelands, where even now a few Buddhists live.