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A polarized country

Ana Lehmann / shs
May 15, 2014

The civil war in Sri Lanka, which lasted for more than 25 years and claimed over 100,000 lives, ended in 2009. But as things stand today, the country is still bitterly divided and the reconciliation efforts falter.

A Sri Lankan mother holds her child in a village Jaffna peninsula, 22 June 2006.

In May 2009, the Sri Lankan army captured the last of the areas controlled by the militant separatist organization, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. On May 18, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa declared that the civil war, which claimed the lives of some 100,000 people, had finally ended.

According to the United Nations, some 40,000 people died in the last months of the war. International aid agencies reported that around 280,000 people - mostly belonging to the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka's northern and eastern regions - were displaced by the war, and forced to live in crowded refugee camps.

However, people in the South Asian island nation still hoped for reconciliation between the majority Sinhalese community and the Tamil minority.

Riding on the success of the military operation against the LTTE, President Rajapaksa and his coalition of political parties, the United People's Freedom Alliance ( UPFA ), managed to gain absolute majority in the 2010 parliamentary elections. Rajapaksa promised that he would solve the problems faced by the Tamils which had been badly affected by war. The Tamils demanded justice, and were skeptical about whether and how the president would commence the reconciliation process.

Civilians stand behind the barbed-wire perimeter fence of the Manik Farm refugee camp located on the outskirts of northern Sri Lankan town of Vavuniya May 26, 2009. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon toured Sri Lanka's largest war refugee camp, located on the outskirts of Vavuniya called Manik Farm and home to 220,000 refugees, on Saturday, pressing for wider humanitarian access to the camps which have become overcrowded since the government declared victory over the Tamil Tiger rebels in a 25-year war. REUTERS/POOL/David Gray (SRI LANKA)
Civilians were badly affected by the decades-long civil warImage: AP

Development projects

Five years on, the political situation in Sri Lanka has improved significantly, says Jehan Perera, a researcher at the non-governmental organization The National Peace Council.

"Life in Sri Lanka has improved for the vast majority of people, especially for those who don't live in the former war zones in the north and east as they no longer have to fear roadside bombings," Perera told DW. The expert pointed out, however, that in the Tamil-majority areas, people continue to live under difficult circumstances due to the heavy presence of the military, which also administers the regions.

According to Perera, poverty is rampant in Sri Lanka's Tamil areas and that there is a lack of accommodation and income opportunities for the people living there.

No decentralization

Last year, the largest Tamil party won the provincial council elections in the Tamil-dominated areas. These were the first elections in these regions in decades. Analysts say the fact that the Sri Lankan government allowed the vote was a very positive sign and a step towards greater democracy. However, the central government has refused to accept the provincial councils' authority.

"That the vote actually took place was a great achievement. But it is not enough to hold elections; it is also necessary that the central Sri Lankan government transfer power to the elected representatives of the Tamil people," said Perera." The real power lies with the governor of the province, who is appointed by the president. The devolution of power must take place. It has not taken place.”

Reconciliation 'failed'

For the Tamil people, political participation is necessary for reconciliation. Observers are of the view that development projects alone cannot be a remedy. On the other hand, ties between the majority Buddhist Sinhalese and the minority Hindu Tamils ​are still characterized by mistrust.

"Sri Lanka is still in a post-war stage rather than in a post-conflict stage. The root of the conflict has not been dealt with," said Perera.

Sri Lankan expert, Soosaipillai Keethaponcalan, who teaches conflict resolution at the US-based Salisbury University in Maryland, believes that "reconciliation efforts have largely failed."

The analysts says that when the war ended in 2009, there was an opportunity for the ethnic communities to reconcile and that the government was expected to implement measures to address the problems faced by the country's minorities, particularly by Tamils. "That did not happen", he said. "Five years on, I would say that Sri Lanka is more polarized than before the end of the war," Keethaponcalan told DW.

Dealing with the past

The Tamils ​​also demand answers from the government about the fate of their relatives who disappeared during the war. For them, it is a prerequisite for reconciliation.

"People want to know what has happened to their loved ones," Perera said. "They still think that those still missing may not be dead, that they may be hidden away in some army camp or prison. And there is really no way for them to find out."

The international pressure forced the Sri Lankan government to form a "Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission" (LLRC), which recommended the establishment of an independent investigation body to clarify the fate of the missing persons. But so far, there hasn't been any report on the issue.

International human rights organizations have accused both the Sri Lankan army and the LTTE separatists of committing war crimes, including targeting the civilians, abductions, and executions of combatants and prisoners.

Human Rights Watch and the Amnesty International have criticized the current reconciliatory approach of the government. "At present, there is no credible reconciliation process in the South Asian country," Human Rights Watch said in 2013 in its annual report about Sri Lanka. "For five years, the victims have awaited justice, and for the people responsible for war crimes be held accountable," it added.

International investigation

In March, the Human Rights Council in Geneva decided to hold an independent investigation. An international commission was created to examine allegations of human rights violations committed by both the government and rebels from 1983 to 2009, and particularly the last phase of the civil war.

Sri Lankan President, Mahinda Rajapaksa
President Rajapaksa slammed the Human Rights Council's decision to hold an independent investigationImage: picture alliance/Photoshot

Colombo slammed the Council's decision calling it "an interference in Sri Lanka's internal affairs." Many members of the Sinhalese community share the government's views.

Keethaponcalan believes international investigation might further polarize Sri Lanka. "Everybody knows that both parties were responsible for human rights abuses. So this type of investigation would lead to more hostilities."

Perera, however, is of the same opinion, but he adds: "There is definitely the need for accountability, for finding out what happened in the past. There should be a domestic inquiry which meets international standards, and it should not be a hoax. This should not be done to punish the people, but for the purpose of reconciliation."

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