Two years into President Maithripala Sirisena’s term, Sri Lanka’s fragile hopes for lasting peace and cooperation across party and ethnic lines are imperilled. Despite significant achievements in the coalition government’s first nine months, progress on most of its reform agenda has slowed to a crawl or been reversed. As social tensions rise and the coalition slowly fractures, it is unclear whether it can push its signature new constitution through parliament and to a national referendum. Neither the president nor prime minister has made a serious attempt to win support for a more inclusive polity or to reform the national security state to tackle the institutionalised impunity that has fed ethnic unrest and harmed all communities. To protect democratic gains, enable lasting reforms and reduce risks of social and political conflict, the “unity government” should put aside short-term party and individual political calculations and return to a politics of reform and openness.
Ambitious promises to improve the economy, eliminate corruption, restore rule of law, address the legacy of war and write a new constitution remain largely unrealised. Confidence in the government’s reform will has been dented by lack of prosecutions in alleged corruption and political murder cases in the time of ex-President Mahinda Rajapaksa and by allegations of major corruption on its own watch. As the government struggles with large budget deficits and dangerously high debt, hopes for improved living standards have been frustrated, further eroding trust in it and strengthening the appeal of the Rajapaksa-led opposition.
Sirisena is locked in a battle with Rajapaksa for control of their Sri Lankan Freedom Party (SLFP) and hemmed in by the party’s traditional nationalism. SLFP ministers were never enthusiastic about being the junior partner in a unity government with their long-time rival, the United National Party (UNP), and are unhappy with what many see as UNP arrogance and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s less-than-consultative style. Afraid of being outflanked by Rajapaksa’s nationalism, the Sirisena SLFP wing resists key governance and reconciliation promises, even as this weakens support from constituencies that brought Sirisena to power: Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese dismayed by corruption, abuse of power and high cost of living under Rajapaksa.
Preoccupied with appearing patriotic and worried about dissent and Rajapaksa loyalists in uniform, the government has done little to reform the national security state or reduce the military’s considerable autonomy. It continues to drag its feet on impunity for human rights violations and abuses of power. Torture of detainees remains routine, and the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act has yet to be replaced, as promised.
Tamils in the north and east were assured of confidence building measures that require major changes in the security forces’ role. Yet, the military resists returning additional occupied land to its owners in these areas and continues to run shops and hotels and build Buddha statues in Tamil and Muslim communities. Failure to reduce the military footprint has led to a campaign of protests by Tamils in the north that is weakening support for the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the main Tamil party cooperating closely with the ruling coalition.
Government plans for transitional justice – which would inevitably reveal more about atrocities by the popular, powerful military – have largely not materialised. President Sirisena has prevented the Office on Missing Persons from operating since parliament approved it in August 2016. Mechanisms promised in 2015 are also increasingly in doubt, though the UN Human Rights Council has given the government two more years to make good on commitments. Due to the government’s failure to explain the connection between transitional justice and rule-of-law reforms, many Sinhalese view justice for war-era abuses as a pro-Tamil, anti-military demand, rather than part of a program to protect all communities’ rights.
The government’s fate thus increasingly depends on that of the new constitution. The drafting process, which until late 2016 had been proceeding quietly, now hangs in the balance. Pro-Sirisena SLFP ministers oppose any changes requiring a referendum, which would rule out key reforms, including compromises reached with the Tamil National Alliance to strengthen provincial devolution instead of the federalism they had favoured. With no sustained narrative from the president or prime minister in favour of devolution, politics has been dominated by Rajapaksa-aligned Sinhala nationalists, who present even modest changes as existential threats to the nation’s Sinhala and Buddhist character. The government is on the defensive, denying that it is weakening Buddhism and supporting separatism.
To salvage the chance to address fundamental sources of conflict and instability, the government needs to return to its original good governance and reconciliation agenda. Sirisena and Wickremesinghe must reach workable compromises on key issues: economic reform that shares the pain of change equitably and renewed anti-corruption, anti-impunity drives that prioritise a limited number of significant criminal cases implicating both major parties. To achieve a deal on the constitution that includes strengthened devolution, Sirisena must speak forcefully and lead a campaign that explains the reform package’s benefits for all communities. Renewing transitional justice hopes requires rapid launch of the Office on Missing Persons and faster progress on reducing the military footprint in the north and east. Packaged as part of rule-of-law reforms that include prosecuting alleged corruption and political crimes under the Rajapaksas, transitional justice could yet gain support across communities.
But time is running out. Leaders in both parties should not discount a Rajapaksa return. For their own survival and to deliver on at least some of their big promises, they should reject chauvinistic politics and daily bickering and invest their political capital in promoting an inclusive vision and more accountable polity that can mitigate the risk of new conflict.
To restore momentum for democratic reforms sustainable peace requires
To the Government of Sri Lanka:
1) Redouble efforts to draft a new constitution that respects the rights of all citizens and communities equally, backed by a public campaign, led by the president, to win support in a referendum.
2)Restore civilian authority and build confidence in the north and east by:
expediting and making more transparent the return of military-occupied land to its owners;
ending military involvement in farms and shops that harm local businesses;
ending military involvement in construction of Buddha statues in Tamil and Muslim areas; and
ceasing intimidation and surveillance of lawful political activities.
3) Re-energise the process of addressing the war’s legacy by:
constituting immediately the Office of Missing Persons, with an independent, experienced staff and a significant role for victims’ families; and
acknowledging the Consultations Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanisms’ report and using its recommendations to develop a public roadmap for full implementation of the UN Human Rights Council resolution.
4)Address widespread impunity and restore rule of law by repealing the Prevention of Terrorism Act and ensuring any replacement respects essential rights; and investigating alleged corruption and emblematic human rights cases, including:
the February 2015 Treasury Bond issue;
the series of cases implicating alleged military intelligence death squads in the murder and abduction of journalists and students; and
the 2006 massacres of aid workers in Mutur and students in Trincomalee.
5) Establish and empower a high-level United National Party-Sri Lankan Freedom Party team to develop and oversee a consensus policy on economic reforms and how to share resulting short-term hardships more equitably.
To International Financial Institutions, Development Agencies and Donor Countries:
6) Explore with the government ways to support the economy without demanding disruptive reforms that could trigger social conflict.
In January 2015, the shock electoral defeat of President Mahinda Rajapaksa by his former ally, Maithripala Sirisena, rescued Sri Lanka from a slide into increasingly harsh nationalist authoritarianism. The victory of a broad coalition representing Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims gave hope that the country could address its longstanding political challenges: remedying the 60-year failure to grant Tamils a fair share of power on the Sinhala-majority island, and restoring for all citizens the rule of law, damaged by decades of politicisation, bitter ethnic bias and impunity for grave abuses committed during and after the civil war with the Tamil Tigers.
The democratic benefits from the defeat of President Rajapaksa and the removal of his family and supporters from key government positions remain tangible. Sri Lanka’s political dysfunctions began long before the Rajapaksas took power, however, and remain daunting. Despite positive changes and promises of constitutional changes to come, there has been no substantial, sustainable progress on addressing the two biggest political challenges:
Creation of independent institutions capable of upholding rule of law and a concomitant reduction in the power of the national security state and military that grew dangerously under the Rajapaksas. Limited progress has depended on the commitment of a few key politicians. Recent developments, including actions by the president and the growing dominance of party-political calculations, have deepened doubts about the leadership’s ability and willingness to strengthen the rule of law.
Beyond generic statements in support of “reconciliation” and “addressing the causes of the war”, government leaders have done little to change the underlying ethno-nationalist dynamics that sustained the quarter-century of war. Promises of a new constitution have not been supported by articulation of a pluralist vision of the state as an alternative to one in which entrenched Sinhala Buddhist nationalism does much to alienate Tamils and Muslims.
Until significant progress is made on both sets of issues there is little hope of lasting reconciliation. This report examines the growing difficulties faced by President Sirisena and his national unity government across the interlinked areas that need reform. It is based on interviews with government officials, politicians, lawyers, diplomats, businesspeople and journalists, conducted in Colombo, Jaffna, London, and Geneva and by email and telephone over the past half year.
II. The Politics of Reform
A. A Divided “Unity” Government
Sirisena’s first nine months saw real progress.
His electoral coalition, anchored around the United National Party (UNP) and strengthened by much of his – and the Rajapaksa family’s – Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), had the two-thirds parliamentary majority needed to approve the nineteenth constitutional amendment in April 2015. That fulfilled an electoral pledge to reduce the presidency’s enormous powers and restore the independence of oversight commissions for the police, judiciary and human rights.
The government ended censorship and intimidation of the media and partly scaled back the heavy military presence in Tamil-majority areas in the north and east. The military was persuaded to return, reluctantly, some of the huge swathes of land it had seized there in and after the war.
The presidential election was followed in August 2015 by the narrow victory in parliamentary elections of a UNP-led coalition over a grouping led by former President Rajapaksa and including most of Sirisena’s own SLFP. That allowed Sirisena to convince the fractured SLFP to form an unprecedented national unity government with its often bitter UNP rival, headed by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. The grand coalition affirmed Sirisena’s and the UNP’s ambitious agenda to revive the economy, investigate alleged corruption under the previous regime, promote reconciliation and, most importantly, draft a new constitution in parliament.
The main aims of constitutional change were to further reduce presidential powers, adopt a new electoral system and expand the powers devolved to provinces so as to address longstanding Tamil demands for autonomy in the north and east.
Keen to reduce international pressure over human rights, the new government co-sponsored a UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolution in September 2015 committing it to a package of transitional justice measures to address the legacy of the 30-year war with the separatist Tamil Tigers, including the horrific final months in 2009, when tens of thousands were killed.
Momentum slowed by mid-2016, however, and now seems stalled. Failing to deliver on good governance promises, particularly regarding corruption, and with few signs of the promised economic revival, the government is losing support from its main constituencies: Tamils, Muslims and liberal Sinhalese. This makes it vulnerable to the resurgent populist, majoritarian opposition politics led by Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Divisions inside and outside the government have led to a focus on manoeuvres for political survival rather than pursuit of reforms and maintenance of unity across party and ethnic lines. It is increasingly clear that the “unity” government was principally a creation of the UNP and some of those close to Sirisena that a meaningful part of the SLFP was persuaded to support in exchange for portfolios.
The split in the SLFP weakened Rajapaksa’s hold over Sinhala voters and was the key to Sirisena’s election but is now the cause of political paralysis. Sirisena is consumed with managing factional rivalries and policy divergences. Having done little to reshape the party around a less exclusionary, nationalist vision, he and his SLFP ministers are increasingly concerned with securing its traditional nationalist core, flirting with the Sinhala chauvinism against which they had campaigned
Ex-President Rajapaksa, whose charisma and civil war success have kept him popular with many Sinhalese, retains the loyalty of most of the SLFP, particularly local party activists, most of whom have never accepted the unity government. His attempt to regain control of the party benefits from the dissatisfaction of SLFP ministers who joined the government but now chafe at what they feel is UNP arrogance and the prime minister’s unilateral policymaking. Looming large with them are local elections, originally due in 2015 but repeatedly postponed for fear the Sirisena-led SLFP might trail not only the UNP, but also Rajapaksa supporters, who operate in parliament as the “joint opposition” and are expected to form a new party. Three provincial council polls, with the same risk for Sirisena and his SLFP wing, are also scheduled in 2017.
The SLFP is a resentful junior coalition partner, whose ministers see uniting their own party – thus making peace with Rajapaksa – as the best way to regain control of government.
The Rajapaksa clan would need to overcome significant hurdles to return to power before 2020, the earliest that parliamentary elections can be called.
A more likely scenario is deepening coalition dysfunction, as the SLFP bides its time and prepares to regroup for both parliamentary and presidential elections that year, with Sirisena at growing risk of losing the SLFP presidential nomination to Mahinda’s brother, ex-Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Meanwhile, the Rajapaksas are exciting their base, attacking constitutional reform and transitional justice as capitulations to anti-Sinhala and foreign forces. Government ministers and others have said the family funds militant Buddhist monks and others to destabilise the ruling coalition, supported by pro-Rajapaksa elements in the military. Many civil servants are hedging their bets, concerned that the government is weak and fearful of retribution, should Mahinda or one of his brothers return to power.
B. The Economy: Danger Signs Grow
Inheriting large budget deficits and dangerously high debt, the government has been unable to deliver on election promises of jobs and improved living standards. Prolonged drought, which raised food prices and increased household debt levels, now threatens serious social and economic disruptions.
Facing a balance of payments crisis and with few other hard-currency sources, the government has been forced to do a U-turn on its campaign pledges and cancel what it had called wasteful, exploitive Chinese-funded infrastructure projects. A government plan to lease the port and much land for a Chinese-controlled industrial zone in Rajapaksa’s home Hambantota district was met with violent protests in January 2017, organised by Rajapaksa supporters and causing delays in finalising the long-term lease, which would pay off $1.1 billion of the $8 billion owed to the Chinese.
Despite the prime minister’s repeated attempts to articulate an attractive export- and foreign-investment-oriented economic strategy, officials have issued multiple, often conflicting policy statements. Disagreements between the UNP and SLFP about the costs of International Monetary Fund (IMF)-supported economic restructuring, compounded by public anxiety at the absence of visible development projects and opposition criticism, have led Sirisena to reverse or modify numerous UNP tax and liberalisation proposals. The resulting policy uncertainty has contributed to lower than expected foreign direct investment.
Any benefits from the broad reforms encouraged by the IMF and investors would appear only over years, but their costs would be felt now, in higher taxes, lower subsidies, budget cuts and trade and investment policies giving foreign companies and governments politically controversial privileges.
The government and global financial institutions and development agencies should explore ways to support the economy while mitigating these and other potential sources of social conflict. Otherwise, the government risks a repeat of 2002-2004, when the social costs of abrupt economic liberalisation undermined support for a UNP government and contributed to the collapse of the peace process with the Tamil Tigers, paving the way for Mahinda Rajapaksa’s 2005 election as president on a Sinhala nationalist, anti-ceasefire platform.
Sri Lanka is caught between economic paradigms whose interaction has spurred conflict in the past: liberalisation that further transforms the economy according to the needs of global and regional capital, with likelihood of nationalist resistance and increased inequality; and statist resistance to privatisation or trimming of an oversized state many citizens still see as the preferred employer.
III. The Politics of Investigations and the National Security State
For the unity government, fulfilling election pledges about corruption and rule of law is essential to retaining support needed to achieve its agenda’s more controversial aspects: a new constitution with greater powers for provinces and dealing with the war legacy. With little to show for two years of investigations, however, many supporters of reform now view the government’s yahapaalanaya (good governance) claims derisively.
A. Sirisena’s Bombshell Speech
On 12 October 2016, in a speech before military veterans and their families, President Sirisena angrily denounced his own government’s investigations into alleged corruption, saying those undertaken by the police and the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption (CIABOC) were politically motivated.
This was met with shock and anger by civil society activists and sections of the public that had backed his good governance agenda. By criticising CIABOC and the Financial Crimes Investigation Division of the police, demanding they inform him in advance of filing charges in major cases and appearing to try to protect military suspects, he was seen as undermining the independence of investigations.
Four days later, CIABOC Director General Dilrukshi Wickramasinghe humiliatingly resigned.
In subsequent weeks, courts released on bail all remaining military intelligence personnel held on suspicion of involvement in murder and abduction cases – including the January 2009 murder of editor Lasantha Wickrematunge and the 2010 abduction of cartoonist Prageeth Ekneligoda. The speech and the releases cast a cloud over ongoing investigations and deepened doubts about government willingness to pursue cases against the security forces and associates of the former regime in the face of military resistance.
Those doubts remain, even after new arrests in the Wickrematunge case and in cases related to other attacks on journalists that appear to implicate the highest levels of the Rajapaksa-era defence establishment. On 20 March, police investigators presented court testimony from ex-army commander Sarath Fonseka alleging Gotabaya Rajapaksa oversaw a military intelligence “death squad” responsible for attacks on journalists, including Wickrematunge’s murder. Rajapaksa denied this and said Fonseka had been responsible.
On 29 March, in a speech to a military audience, President Sirisena vowed that he would protect “war heroes” from prosecution but not security personnel “who killed journalists, sportsmen or others”.
Despite the progress investigators appear to have made and Sirisena’s stated commitment not to protect military killers, his earlier intervention showed two main prosecution obstacles: party-political tensions in the coalition and a desire to placate and be seen to respect the military and the national security state.
B. Party Politics Intervene
Many Rajapaksa-era criminal cases are complex, involving hard-to-unravel financial transactions, but the lack of high-profile indictments appears at least partly a result of partisan efforts to protect members of the old regime. Sirisena’s intervention responded to and deepened tensions within the government over differing approaches to cases. Responding to widespread criticism of his October 2016 speech, Sirisena complained that SLFP ministers were being investigated for relatively minor improprieties, while investigations into larger fraud and other crimes were being obstructed by unnamed sections of his government.
He alleged in particular that certain cases involving accusations against Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the investigation into the 2013 murder of rugby player Wasim Thajudeen were being ignored or blocked.
The lack of decisive response to alleged irregularities in a February 2015 treasury bond issue has particularly angered Sirisena and SLFP ministers and become a focus of opposition attacks. A 27 October 2016 report by the parliamentary Committee on Public Enterprises stated that the ex-Central Bank governor, a friend of the prime minister who appointed him, was directly responsible for a possibly illegal deal believed to have lost the government millions of dollars. After SLFP and opposition demands for criminal investigations, Sirisena appointed a commission of inquiry in January to investigate the alleged scam further. Public hearings regularly offer new detail that keeps the controversy, and coalition divisions, alive.
Partisan interests also appear to be a key obstacle to investigations against Rajapaksa family members. The prime minister is widely seen as working to ensure they do not proceed too far, so as to keep the Rajapaksas politically alive and the SLFP divided and weakened. Others more sympathetic to the UNP argue that the president and SLFP ministers are interested in going easy on the Rajapaksas, in exchange for a reunified, Sirisena-led SLFP. Senior government officials continue to promise early breakthroughs.
Regardless of the causes, the more time passes without prosecution of major corruption and political crimes, the more people will lose faith the government is different from its predecessors. The government would then have lost its most powerful asset.
C. Fear and Resistance of the Military and Security State
Sirisena’s corruption intervention was one of a series of speeches praising military audiences’ heroism and promising to preserve their honour and protect national security.
It was followed two weeks later by one that attacked NGOs, journalists and “traitors” for misusing their freedom to criticise his national security policies.
Following its victory over the Tamil Tigers, the military is very popular among Sinhalese, a fact the Rajapaksas exploit, given their leadership roles at the end of the war. This helps explain why, as a well-placed political analyst said, “Sirisena has a soft spot for the military. He is giving them a big margin and is protecting them to a large extent …. He wants to keep them happy”.
He and other officials appear both generally content with the military’s role in the security state and uncertain about the loyalty of at least some elements and reportedly fearful that a section of military intelligence, still aligned with Gotabaya, will be deployed in a pro-Rajapaksa destabilisation campaign.
The government avoids policies the military is thought to oppose, rather than proactively countering a threat.
Sirisena’s 12 October speech reportedly was sparked by a report, later disproved, from the director of military intelligence, Suresh Salley, detailing allegedly growing opposition to government policies within the military.
His November decision to replace that director, widely believed a Gotabaya loyalist, followed sustained civil society calls for the removal, which grew louder after that speech.
D. Bureaucratic and Political Resistance to Reform
In addition to military interference and non-cooperation with investigations in which military intelligence personnel are suspects, powerful bureaucrats and politicians fight to keep the security state beyond the control of the judiciary and civilian leadership.
Key officials in the justice and defence ministries, police and attorney general’s office have taken positions or made statements that directly undermine efforts to reform the institutions responsible for decades of major human rights violations.
Among the most important instances of resistance:
Despite promises to citizens and the UN, the government has yet to repeal the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). A proposed replacement Counter-Terrorism Act (CTA) a military- and police-dominated committee drafted added clauses that increase the likelihood of state abuses.
Following outcry when it was leaked in October 2016 and eager to regain the European Union’s human rights-linked Generalised Scheme of Preferences Plus (GSP+) tariff relief, the government initially removed some of the most troubling bits. Nonetheless, the latest version would still give the state dangerously broad and ambiguous powers. Arrests under the old law have ceased, but some 125 people arrested under it are in prison or on bail awaiting trial, many for years.
A draft revision of the Criminal Procedure Code released in October 2016 contained new restrictions on suspects’ access to a lawyer while in detention. The justice minister said the restrictions were necessary to prioritise victims’ rights. Following strong condemnation from lawyers and rights activists and worries the draft would not meet criteria for regaining GSP+, the prime minister said it would be amended. However, the version approved by the cabinet on 25 April contains provisions the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka earlier found “whittles down the rights of detainees in police custody to have unimpeded access to lawyers”.
In December, the UN Committee Against Torture (UNCAT) issued a strongly critical report on the “routine” use of torture by the security sector and near complete lack of accountability for wartime and post-war human rights violations. Many of these concerns were echoed the next month in the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture’s report, which found a continuing “culture of torture” in the police. Both reports urged repeal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act.
Both UN reports also recommended overhaul of the weak witness protection program, originally drafted by the Rajapaksa government, to ensure independence from the police and ability to protect victims and witnesses. There is no sign the government has reviewed or strengthened the law, as it committed to do in the 2015 Human Rights Council. The national protection authority established under the law includes officials against whom allegations of involvement in intimidation and cover-ups have been made.
The government has taken some positive steps, but their impact will depend on the willingness of officials to comply with their legal obligations.
The Right to Information (RTI) Act parliament approved in June 2016 and in force since February gives potentially powerful tools to citizens to make authorities more transparent and accountable. The RTI Commission it established has shown itself to be proactive, and NGOs and individual citizens have filed important requests for information on land issues and missing persons.
For the act to be effective, the government will need to give adequate resources to the commission and officers in public bodies tasked with responding to requests.
After May 2016 ratification, the cabinet approved in February a draft incorporating the international convention on enforced disappearances into domestic law. Criminalisation of disappearances, if parliament adopts the law, would be a significant step long sought by human rights defenders, but enforcement requires a fundamental shift in how the state relates to victims of abuses by its own personnel. As the above-cited UN reports make clear, a strong law (also incorporating an international convention) has not ended torture and has only rarely been used to prosecute alleged state perpetrators.
E. Continued Impunity for Militant Monks
Despite election promises to crack down on anti-Muslim agitations, the government has not used laws criminalising hate speech and has sent mixed signals in response to renewed threats against Muslims and Tamils by militant Buddhist groups actively cultivated by the Rajapaksa government.
In November 2016, the leader of the best-known militant Buddhist group, Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Power Force, BBS), threatened violence against Colombo Muslims if a local Salafist activist who criticised it was not arrested. On 19 November, BBS held its largest rally in over two years, denouncing the Muslim threat as it marched to the country’s holiest Buddhist temple in Kandy. This came in the wake of a widely circulated videotaped incident in which a prominent monk, Ampitiye Sumana, was seen abusing and threatening a Tamil civil servant in Batticaloa for resisting attempts to settle Sinhalese in the Tamil district. No action was taken against the monk.
Rising tensions prompted the president to call an emergency security council meeting, at which he announced that anyone inciting racism would be arrested. Days later, Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe met with BBS leader Galagoda Atte Gnanasara and Sumana with the declared purpose of encouraging dialogue among communities.
On 22 December, Gnanasara was among the monks in attendance at a meeting Sirisena held on preserving Buddhist archaeological sites.
Unlike during the Rajapaksa regime, the police now intervene to keep the peace when communal tensions rise, and the government does not promote violence as a political instrument.
But appearing to treat Gnanasara and other militant monks as legitimate Sinhala Buddhist representatives has eroded faith among Muslims and those in other communities hoping to see an end to impunity and attacks on minorities and makes militant forms of nationalism seem acceptable.
IV. Transitional Justice Without a Transition
The security services’ successful resistance to investigations and legal reforms, combined with Sirisena’s pro-military statements, add to deep concerns about the government’s ability and willingness to pursue the transitional justice policies promised to the UN Human Rights Council in 2015.
Having established none of the agreed institutions – offices on missing persons and reparations, a truth commission and a special court – the government negotiated a “technical roll over” resolution in March to give it more time to implement its initiatives.
Unless there is a major change in the government’s approach, the extra time is unlikely to make a big difference. Transitional justice has always been the reform issue with the least backing in government and the Sinhala public, consequently the most dependent on international pressure. The government has done little to build greater support among Sinhalese and Muslims by making a case for the link between transitional justice and the rule-of-law/anti-impunity agenda that has significant backing in all three communities, or explaining the specific benefits of a transitional-justice program.
By contrast, the Rajapaksa-led opposition has defined transitional justice for many Sinhalese as a pro-Tamil, anti-military agenda.
The lack of progress on establishing the mechanisms and making the rule-of-law reforms necessary for those mechanisms to function effectively appears to confirm long-standing criticisms that transitional-justice promises were principally designed to win international support and manage and ultimately end Human Rights Council oversight. Nonetheless, the March 2017 resolution and the two additional reports it mandates by the High Commissioner for Human Rights offer a framework for continued domestic and international engagement in support of greater efforts to address the legacy of war and strengthen the rule of law.
A. Transitional Justice Mechanisms in Limbo
The government and activists have largely kept the transitional justice focus on the four promised big mechanisms, rather than creating the conditions for their success by putting checks on the national security state and addressing impunity. Even so, none of the mechanisms has been established. Other than parliament’s approval of the Office of Missing Persons in August, 2016 saw no progress.
The office itself remains in limbo, as Sirisena has put obstacles in its path, including not assigning it to a ministry, which is necessary for it to function.
The government has repeatedly pushed back the timetable for the other three mechanisms: a reparations office, truth commission and special court. The whole project increasingly appears on hold, with the president worried about military discontent and the potential for the Rajapaksas to exploit it.
Ex-President Chandrika Kumaratunga, a Sirisena ally, made clear nothing will be done to establish the court before completion of the slow-moving constitutional reforms process when she told reporters: “If you start the war crimes tribunals now, you can be sure there will be no constitution. There will be such an uproar in the country. … We have to prioritise and see what is more important”. Regular statements by the president and prime minister opposing any role for foreign judges in the special court, as agreed in the 2015 Human Rights Council resolution, also raise doubts the government will set up this body. Sirisena said on 26 November that he was writing to ask U.S. President-elect Donald Trump to “free” the military from “accusations” it had committed war crimes and to end U.S. support for Council action. Statements casting doubt on the court carry particular weight given the failure to pursue even cases in which the Sinhala public is interested and supportive, like the Wickrematunga murder. The surprise acquittal in December 2016 of all accused in the 2006 murder of N. Raviraj, a Tamil National Alliance parliamentarian, dented slim hopes the judiciary might fairly try cases in which the accused are military or police and the victims Tamil
With war-related prosecutions off the table, the government may eventually establish a truth commission. Properly designed, staffed and publicised, it might have potential to inform each community about the suffering of others in ways that build trust and generate the acknowledgement of state crimes Tamil victims have long been denied. That might help reduce the Tamil Tigers’ continued appeal for many Tamils and to change Sinhala attitudes enough to open political space for war-related trials. But Sri Lanka’s specific history of commissions of inquiry that ratify, rather than end, impunity, lead many to fear a truth commission would at best merely substitute for eventual trials. To mitigate this risk, no truth commission should be created until there is tangible progress toward prosecutions in emblematic human rights cases, ideally led by a properly-resourced special prosecutor’s office, independent of the attorney general.
B. National Consultations with No Visible Government Support
The government’s failure to publicise or build cross-ethnic support for even the less controversial of its reconciliation and transitional justice initiatives is striking.
Lack of enthusiasm was evident in the treatment of its own national consultations on “reconciliation mechanisms”. Appointed by the prime minister in January 2016, the eleven-member, multi-ethnic Consultations Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanisms (CTF) was composed entirely of well-known civil society advocates. Working with fifteen “zonal task forces”, it held hearings in all provinces and received over 7,000 submissions from the public. However, the president and prime minister ignored its report and senior ministers attacked it, particularly for its endorsement of a role for foreign judges.
Public distancing from the report was only the most obvious example of reluctance to support the consultations process, which from the beginning faced delays and complications. Lack of backing from government leaders and minimal media outreach reduced public awareness of hearings and the call for submissions, particularly among Sinhalese. Failure to develop an effective media campaign was due in part to the process’ ad hoc, civil society-led nature, which also resulted in bureaucratic hurdles for paying staff and other expenses that led in turn to frustration. Despite assurances of cooperation from civilian and military leaders, some who attended hearings in the north and east, as well as members of the zonal task forces, were later questioned and intimidated by the military and police.
All this limited the consultations’ ability to generate a national conversation on and support for transitional justice and other reconciliation means.
Nevertheless, the report is a landmark that offers a roadmap for the changes needed if the government decides it is serious about addressing the war legacy. It articulates the stories of victims from all communities and builds on them and preferences of the war-affected to develop practical recommendations for how all four transitional justice mechanisms could best support reconciliation and democracy. Crucially, it reminds the government of the many steps it must still take, independent of the four mechanisms, to address the immediate needs of conflict-affected communities in the north and east – on livelihoods, land, military economic activities and surveillance – and to strengthen rule of law for all.
The failure to pay more attention to these enabling conditions has contributed to the lack of progress. Domestic and international focus on the four mechanisms – and civil society preoccupation with educating people in the international language of transitional justice – diverted attention and energy from many reforms needed for those mechanisms to function effectively: reducing the security state’s political influence, repealing the Prevention of Terrorism Act, creating effective witness protection, ending military surveillance and intimidation of activists in the north and east and prosecuting key corruption and political murder and abduction cases. These steps would help open space for transitional justice by making it safer to discuss and challenge state abuse. Connecting the two agendas would also make it easier to explain transitional justice to Sinhalese audiences.
V. Growing Discontent in the North
The growing doubts about government commitment to even a basic transitional justice process is further weakening low levels of trust among Tamils in the north and east. The second half of 2016 saw little progress on the confidence-building measures the Sirisena government had promised. The slow but steady return of military-occupied land to Tamil owners in Sirisena’s first year waned; indeed, additional land has been taken for new camps.
The military continues to run shops, hotels and farms in the north, to the local economy’s detriment, and to involve itself in a range of civilian activities. Buddha statues are still being set up with its help in Tamil and Muslim villages where the only near Buddhists are soldiers.
Since the start of 2017, there has been a wave of protests across the north and into the east demanding return of military-occupied land and information on the disappeared. Angry at unfulfilled government promises, communities have launched sit-down strikes outside military camps, and relatives of the disappeared have gone on hunger strikes. Following direct appeals to the president from Tamil National Alliance leader Sampanthan, small amounts of military-held land in Mullaitivu districts were released in March. TNA meetings with the military led to further small releases in April, with more promised, but protests continue.
The sense of grievance generated by the continued heavy military presence and lack of progress on addressing the war legacy is strengthening the nationalist sentiments of many Tamils and increasing tensions with Sinhalese and Muslims.
With the Tamil National Alliance leadership working to maintain smooth relations with the government so as to facilitate constitutional negotiations, Tamil disappointment and anger have largely been channelled by Northern Province Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran and his Tamil People’s Congress (TPC), which poses a growing challenge to the more accommodating TNA.
The TPC-organised “Eluga Tamil” (“Tamil, Rise”) rally in Jaffna in September 2016 was the post-war’s largest in the north. Some 10,000-15,000 protested continued militarisation of area and what many see as growing threats to the Tamil character of the province. The rally, addressed by Wigneswaran, highlighted many grievances and called on the government to live up to its promises to return private land, resettle those still in camps, remove the military from economic and civilian activities and give answers to the families of the thousands of Tamils who disappeared in the war, many after being taken into military custody. Many Tamils in and out of Sri Lanka were gratified by the turnout and publicity, but there was wide criticism by many Sinhalese and Muslims, and by Tamils committed to engaging the government on constitutional and other reforms. The chief minister and organisers were called “extremists”, even racists and pro-Tamil Tiger separatists.
Criticism centred on calls for an international investigation into alleged genocide against Tamils, removal of the military from the north (as distinct from reducing its size and removing it from non-military activities) and a halt to the spread of Buddha statues and settling of Sinhalese in the north. Echoes of Tamil Tiger-organised “Pongu Tamil” (“Tamil Uprising”) rallies and failure to reach out to Muslims caused the standard Tamil nationalist demand for a federal constitution and recognition of the Tamil homeland in the north and east to look more threatening.
The negative reaction among Sinhalese, including many who see themselves as supporters of reconciliation, reveals how wide the gap is between communities.
It resulted from organisers’ failure to frame demands in ways that could be more easily accepted by potential allies in other communities. The lack of a Sinhala translation of the chief minister’s speech as he spoke made it more likely Sinhala media would present a distorted version of the rally.
The rally also needs to be seen in the context of political struggles within the Tamil community. Tamil National Alliance leaders were publicly critical of its timing, sought postponement and reportedly tried to persuade people not to take part.
The rally was at least in part an expression of discontent with Sampanthan and his de facto deputy, M.A. Sumanthiran. Often overlapping political formations that have been very critical if not directly opposed to the alliance leadership organised this rally: Wigneswaran and the TPC, but also the Tamil Civil Society Forum and a chief TNA electoral rival, the Tamil National People’s Front.
The TNA’s Tamil rivals argue that its strategy of working closely with the government on constitutional reforms has led it to soften criticism of unfulfilled promises. Growing anger and frustration at lack of change in the north could make it harder for the TNA leadership to win Tamil support in a constitutional referendum, though expected opposition from the Rajapaksa-led opposition could be enough to generate a strong Tamil vote for even relatively modest changes.
VI. A New Constitution?
Sirisena came to office on a promise to change the constitution, a goal also endorsed by the victorious UNP-led coalition in the 2015 parliamentary elections and by the unity government. Key changes envisaged are abolition or further weakening of the executive presidency, a new mixed electoral system, a bill of rights, and, most important but most controversial, deepened devolution of power to provincial councils so as at least partially to resolve the Tamil national question.
Abolishing the executive presidency and devolution beyond what is in the thirteenth amendment have been stated government goals since 1994. Once a president is in office, however, surrendering powers has been difficult; likewise, the required cross-party consensus on devolution repeatedly has been blocked by Sinhala fears of separatism, as well as more cynical party politics.
With the unity government’s two-thirds majority in parliament and support expected from the Tamil National Alliance’s sixteen deputies, there is, in principle, an unprecedented opportunity both to achieve devolution and design a more coherent constitution, rather than piecemeal amendments.
While encouraging progress was made in negotiations through 2016, deep divisions over the nature of the state and short-term calculations on the political futures of individuals and factions have reasserted themselves and threaten any compromise. The government’s apparent decision to postpone major transitional justice initiatives until after constitutional reforms has increased the stakes.
A. A Quiet Process
Parliament began drafting a new constitution in March 2016 by forming a Constitutional Assembly of its whole membership. The Assembly formed a cross-party steering committee and six subcommittees (with all parties represented) to draft proposals.
Work proceeded quietly throughout 2016, backed by occasional direct meetings between the president, prime minister and Tamil National Alliance. Though slower than the original one-year timetable, the process appeared to be on track as late as November, when the subcommittees published reports on a range of issues. Devolution proponents welcomed the proposals of the subcommittee on centre-periphery relations, and the steering committee was poised to ratify and even strengthen them in its report to the full Assembly by year’s end.
While short of the TNA’s federalism goal, a compromise appeared in the works to strengthen the limited and ambiguous powers of provincial councils under the never-fully-implemented thirteenth amendment.
Most contentious is the definition of Sri Lanka as a “unitary state”, which courts have invoked to restrict devolution. The emerging consensus was to retain “unitary” but define and contextualise it to allow greater provincial powers.
While pleasing neither Sinhala nationalists (for whom “unitary” is synonymous with “united”) nor Tamil nationalists (whose minimal demand is federalism), there was hope this could win cross-party and public endorsement and allow meaningful autonomy in the north and east.
Political reality struck when the steering committee postponed debate on the subcommittee reports planned for 10 December and a subsequent debate planned for the second anniversary of Sirisena’s January election, when its own report was to be discussed. The SLFP and left-wing Janatha Vimukthi Peramauna requested additional time to study the still-unpublished latter, which proposes on overall outline of a new constitution, drawing on the subcommittee reports and adds its own ideas on the unitary state, executive presidency, privileged status of Buddhism and a new electoral system.
SLFP ministers were actually backing away from key assumptions underpinning the process. In a 3 January meeting with Sirisena, they unanimously decided to oppose any devolution beyond the thirteenth amendment and any changes requiring a referendum, which in effect rules out significant reform. The ministers also announced support for the executive presidency and called on Sirisena to be the SLFP’s presidential candidate in 2020, despite his promises to abolish the position and not stand again. Without a referendum, there can be no new constitution – which the SLFP agreed to pursue when it voted to create the Constitutional Assembly – nor any meaningful increase in the powers devolved to provinces.
While the SLFP central committee has not formally endorsed the position, it is clear Sirisena has not persuaded even the wing of the party that formally supports him. He has since increased his effort to broker an SLFP-UNP-Tamil National Alliance compromise, and a new steering committee report is being drafted, but it is an uphill battle. “The president is insisting he is committed to a new constitution and ending the executive presidency”, said a close observer, “but it’s also clear SLFP bigwigs are opposed. The big question now is who will come out on top”.
SLFP ministers are spooked by the threat Mahinda Rajapaksa and the joint opposition present to the pro-Sirisena SLFP in 2017 local and provincial polls. Rajapaksa denounced the subcommittee proposals, particularly on devolution, as “designed to end the unitary character of Sri Lanka without however deleting that word from the constitution”. The new constitution, he warned, “will divide the country without using the word division”.
In March, he accused the government of a “traitorous agenda” to encourage “separatism”, saying proposed constitutional changes and other reforms were aimed at “demoralising and breaking the will of the majority of the population and the armed forces. The SLFP is also responding to worries about the difficulty of winning a referendum that have grown in the wake of recent results in the UK, Colombia and Italy and are compounded by discontent over the government’s failure to deliver on the economy or governance.
Doubts are also an effect of the lack of consistent, strong, public support for expanded devolution from the president, prime minister and other key ministers. While Sirisena defended devolution before parliament on 2 December, he avoided taking positions on specific provisions. His strategy has been to keep discussions out of the public eye, in the hope the Constitutional Assembly would produce a detailed consensus. This has backfired, leaving public debate on constitutional reform and devolution dominated by nationalists on both sides, but particularly Rajapaksa-aligned Sinhala politicians.
Having failed to propose any alternative to the exclusionary Sinhala nationalist vision of the state articulated by Mahinda Rajapaksa, the government is on the defensive, denying that it plans to weaken Buddhism and supports separatism. A prominent pro-devolution activist said, “Ranil is hopeless, and Maithri is staying quiet”.
The costs are now uncomfortably clear.
B. The Way Forward
With nationalist sentiments rising in north and south, the government needs to make a major effort to inform the public about the reforms under negotiation. The president and other top officials should begin a campaign to persuade Sinhalese that a fair political solution to the ethnic conflict requires expanded provincial powers, while reassuring Tamils a united Sri Lanka can protect their rights. Repeated promises to launch such a campaign have not materialised.
Chief ministers from all provinces should be at the forefront. Many support more devolution and could speak to what all communities could gain. Sinhalese and SLFP chief ministers would be particularly effective at diluting the line it is only for Tamils.
The government has reached the limits of quiet deal making. Without a fight, there is little chance a decent constitutional package will emerge and survive a referendum. The president and prime minister face a crucial choice: going all out risks a defeat that could well mean the end of the unity government and a strengthened hand for the Rajapaksas in their battle to win back the SLFP. Alternatively, they could abandon the constitution and new devolution and give up on the agenda central to their already-damaged yahapaalanaya brand. But that retreat would almost certainly only postpone a collapse back into dangerous, polarising politics as usual. Abandoning the constitution would also deal another blow to Tamil hopes of securing meaningful autonomy from the Sinhala-dominated state. It would cripple pro-engagement Tamil leaders who have taken a big risk in working closely with the government and being willing to accept compromises at a considerable distance from the traditional Tamil nationalist demand for federalism.
Should Sinhala political leaders again fail to offer meaningful provincial autonomy, the repercussions may be felt for decades. Restlessness and radicalisation among Tamils in the north and east almost certainly would grow, provoked daily by the heavy presence of a virtually all-Sinhala military. While the 100,000 or more troops and their thousands of informants would be able to prevent a return to war, the lack of political power they signify and prolong would perpetuate conflict.
VII. International Support
Internationals have been too quick to celebrate a Sri Lanka success story and failed to maximise their leverage. Today’s greatest danger is moving too slowly on reforms and losing what remains of the public support and enthusiasm essential to success. Without significant external pressure, the government is unlikely to pursue reforms seriously enough. A renewed “good governance” agenda needs more effective backing from partners beyond the essential UN oversight that will be maintained through the rollover resolution unanimously approved at the Human Rights Council’s March 2017 session. Lacking enforcement powers, the Council has impact primarily through the willingness of UN member states to use their influence to encourage Sri Lanka to fulfil the commitments it has reaffirmed in Geneva.
Influential states, multilaterals and campaigners have limited tools to influence Sri Lanka, particularly as sovereignty concerns are not always a mere proxy for chauvinism or resistance to change. But smart, calibrated engagement could play a useful role in putting reforms back on track:
Sri Lanka’s international partners should send clear messages to President Sirisena and his wing of the SLFP that reunifying the party around either Gotabaya or Mahinda Rajapaksa will not only damage Sri Lanka’s long-term prospects for sustainable peace but also endanger the international backing it has recently regained.
With the renewal of GSP+ trade benefits, the European Commission should devise a rigorous monitoring process, and should work with the government to strengthen the National Human Rights Commission including by codifying its right to review all draft bills with impact on fundamental rights as part of its mandate to monitor Sri Lanka’s compliance with treaty commitments.
Foreign militaries and the UN could use increased cooperation with the military to encourage security sector reform and greater accountability, while rigorously vetting personnel considered for training and peacekeeping operations.
Global financial institutions and development agencies could tailor support to encourage equitable sharing of costs and benefits of growth from economic reforms and minimise risks of social conflict from abrupt economic liberalisation.
Civil society’s ability to hold the government to at least some promised reforms is encouraging. Donors should strengthen support to its efforts to hold government accountable and encourage groups to collaborate more actively across regional, linguistic and ethnic differences.
India should follow up on Prime Minister Modi’s successful May visit to reaffirm India’s traditional support for expanded provincial powers and encourage more effective cooperation between President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe.
China should show flexibility, allowing renegotiation of Rajapaksa-era loans to give the government manoeuvre room in a difficult economic situation that produces hardship for ordinary people and potential political instability.
VIII. Conclusion: Renew or Collapse
If the government is to not lose its chance to address Sri Lanka’s key sources of conflict and instability, it must return to its good governance and reconciliation agenda. The democratic middle ground is still there to be had, but the government must work to expand it. Achieving sustainable changes to the political culture requires retaining support from the three key constituencies that brought it to power: reform-minded Sinhalese, Muslims, and Tamils. While few from these are likely to support the Rajapaksa-led opposition, discouragement and abstentions could be enough for an SLFP triumph under restored Rajapaksa leadership.
Rebuilding trust in the yahapaalanaya project requires compromise and balancing expectations and risks across the spectrum of challenges. At a minimum, president and prime minister need to agree on a five-point program of renewal:
Set up an UNP-SLFP economic team to develop and oversee consensus policy on economic reforms and sharing short-term hardships more equitably.
Launch a campaign for a new, more democratic, pluralist constitution, including increased devolution, and commit to achieving the two-thirds majority needed in parliament, while building support to win a referendum.
Operationalise the Office of Missing Persons, with independent staff well-versed in disappearance issues and a significant role for victims’ families.
Restore normalcy in the north and east and increase Tamil trust by returning military-occupied land to owners, ending military involvement in farms and shops and spread of Buddha statues, and ceasing surveillance and intimidation of political activities.
Restore rule of law by long-promised institutional reforms, pursuing crimes allegedly committed by military intelligence death squads and preventing and punishing any corruption by insiders in either party, including a thorough criminal investigation into the February 2015 Treasury Bond issue.
Civil society in all communities has an important role in achieving meaningful reforms. Sinhala groups that backed Sirisena’s good governance agenda should do more to bring Tamil issues to the Sinhala south and argue the concerns of all communities on rule of law, ending impunity and achieving a constitution with deeper devolution, expanded rights and a less powerful presidency. In turn, Tamil activists and civil society groups in the north and east should resist the growing trend toward exclusively Tamil positions and advocacy, however severe their frustrations. There is no other route to achieving their rights than with Sinhala and Muslim allies; appeals for international intervention lack traction in today’s context.
Finally, Tamils and Muslims need to do more to rebuild their relationship. Each community has made mistakes and has much to gain from strengthened ties. Both continue to suffer from language discrimination and expansionist forms of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism. They should press their political leaders to develop a transparent and equitable process to ensure return of those displaced by the war in both communities, as well as the small number of Sinhalese.
This year is another decisive one in Sri Lanka’s political history. If current dynamics continue, the country will likely lose a real opportunity to address the roots of its decades of political turmoil. The chances of an eventual return to violence would then grow considerably. To prevent this, the president, prime minister and leaders in both unity-government parties will need to jointly take up the challenge of persuading their colleagues and the public that a more equal and inclusive Sri Lanka is possible and the best way of insuring prosperity and peace for all.