Divided by Years of Conflict, Sri Lankans Have Yet to See the Promise of Justice Fulfilled


After his election in 2015, Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena and his government agreed to a United Nations resolution to create an office of missing persons, launch a truth commission, award reparations to victims, and create a special court to try those accused of war crimes committed during its brutal civil war—all within an 18-month period.

That deadline has since come and gone with little to show for it. The UN continues to call upon the Sri Lankan government to move towards justice and reconciliation. In early 2016, the Consultation Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanisms (CTF) was appointed by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to carry out public consultations on mechanisms, a crucial step in advancing justice for the human rights violations and abuses committed. However, activists and civil society organizations have criticized the government for drafting the bill to create the Office of Missing Persons [OMP] before in depth consultations with victims and their families took place. That bill remained unsigned for over a year, and families of the disappeared were left with extremely limited recourse, until Sirisena signed it last week.

In order to better understand the political dynamics around transitional justice efforts in Sri Lanka, I visited various regions of the country—9 towns in about as many days—with my colleague Cristian Correa on an ICTJ mission. We sought to get a sense of how diverse victims’ communities and civil society groups viewed the process trying to take place in the country as well as to see what sort of obstacles they were facing in their own work trying to seek truth and accountability.

Contested Narratives

On May 18, 2009, Sri Lanka declared an end to the brutal civil war that had been waging for 26 long years between government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE or Tamil Tigers). The LTTE sought an independent state for the ethnic Tamil population, historically discriminated against by the Sinhalese majority in the country. Descending from ancient kingdoms, each side asserts its rightful place in the island nation.

While the fighting might have stopped, no one was left unscathed. Nationalism runs rampant and Sri Lanka remains split at the seams—the largely Sinhalese Buddhist south, predominantly Tamil Hindu north, and a smaller, but still sizeable Muslim population scattered across the region.

Both sides of the conflict are believed to have committed massive war crimes and crimes against humanity. There’s no way to definitively know, but rights groups estimate that the number of people forcibly disappeared could be as high as 100,000. Towards the end of the war, another 300,000 were displaced and relocated to military-guarded camps.

The government has also invested largely in developing the south economically, to the neglect of the north. Meanwhile, the military is heavily involved in the economic activity in the north, owning hotels, restaurants, and food markets, effectively undercutting the local economy in many different ways. Banking and lending institutions have also opened up with predatory lending practices that are not prevalent in the south, furthering the divide rooted in the conflict.

History continues to be heavily politicized. There is little support for the OMP in the south, in part due to the misinformation campaign led by former president Mahinda Rajapaksa who has been vocal in his criticisms of the current government. For many, the OMP is anti-Sinhalese and going after the war heroes who fought so valiantly against the Tamil Tigers. While there are similar histories of disappearances in the North and South impacting Tamil and Sinhalese families, the contested narratives over the legitimacy of the armed conflict in the North often keep activists and families from unifying in their demands for truth.

The government plays a vital role in how narratives are crafted. As the Sinhalese and Tamil people speak two different languages, the lack of bilingual education has historically been exploited to drive the wedge between the two groups. Historically, textbooks were rewritten for Sinhalese schools to reflect a more nationalistic view, that they were the true founders of Sri Lanka and the country is rightfully theirs. Newspapers often further this split: a speech from the government can be manipulated to a specific political bend favoring one side over the other. Information control is another issue—misinformation campaigns have used by the government to consolidate power in the south as well as keep victims’ communities apart.

The Rise of Protests

Protests in the north are a relatively new dynamic available to the people, reflecting the divisions emerging in civil society. They also are shaping the political discourse in the country: traditionally, protestors were not given room to operate, and the wave of activism that the government has permitted has sparked movements across the north and east. However, because this freedom is so new and loosely defined, no one knows where the line has been drawn and when the government will step in because a protest has gone too far in their eyes.

Cristian and I encountered a number of protests, including some around land rights. One coastal area had been taken over by the military and converted into a naval base after victims had been displaced. Rather than allowing them to return home, victims had been resettled, but were unable to go to the cemeteries where their ancestors had been buried for hundreds of years. Moreover, these people could no longer access the fishing areas that were their main source of livelihood, instead, forced to walk five kilometers around the naval base in order to reach them. It is uncertain as to how effective the protests have been overall, but the navy did agree to return some of the land, giving about an eight-month timeline for that to happen.

Relatives of the disappeared demand information regarding their loved ones in Kilinocchi, northern Sri Lanka. (Cristián Correa/ICTJ)

The Disappeared

ICTJ also met with families of the disappeared throughout the country, including in Kilinochchi, in Sri Lanka’s northern province. Primarily women, they had been protesting for almost eighty days for any news on their loved ones. Not only were many of the disappeared taken during the conflict, but after the war the government asked families to turn over any relatives who had been involved with the LTTE in any capacity and to bring their spouses and children with the promise that they would be rehabilitated and returned home safely. Many of the women at the protests with were mothers who had handed over their children and their grandchildren only to never see them again. They now want to know what happened.

Protesting in the southwest city of Galle were wives and mothers of those who had been taken during the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) uprising in the late 1980s. It has been estimated that up to 60,000 people were disappeared during that time period. Just as it has refused to acknowledge disappearances in the north, the government has not recognized these crimes. While the south is in a stronger economic position, many of its people are still searching for answers e about the disappeared.

On the east coast in Mullaitivu, there was a small protest formed by wives and mothers of the disappeared. In this area, there is a military complex and increased visibility of soldiers in full battle gear, though it is not entirely clear why. Activists expressed an increasing fear of repercussions for work done with victims, and the increased surveillance by the police only adds to the tension.

A Fragmented Society

While there are distinct differences in what victims’ groups wanted and hoped to achieve from these protests, there was some crossover: each of these communities feels that no one is listening to them, that they are alone in their struggle and abandoned by the government. This was expressed by victims of all three ethnic communities and in all areas of the country we visited. There is a strong sense of isolation, but also deep division and a deep distrust of the state.

There is also a profound sense of desperation among the wives and mothers of the disappeared. The period immediately after the release of the national consultation report was viewed as almost a golden period of hope because victims felt they were being listened to for the first time. That hope has since faded into a much higher level of frustration and impatience, cementing the belief that nothing is going to happen.

And there remains an underlying fear of what will happen in 2020, when Sirisena’s term is up. The assumption made by many is that the new government will be one hand-picked by Rajapaksa and subsequently, any progress started on a transitional justice framework will effectively end. While that is a dangerous prospect, it should not be taken to mean that Sri Lankans should merely wait.

If Sri Lanka is truly committed to confronting its past and building a peaceful future, the government needs to make the effort to rebuild the trust and faith lost by the people after so many years of conflict and inaction. The international community must keep pressure on the government to fulfill its promise to address the human rights violations of the armed conflict, and in order to truly build a sustainable peace, the government also must address the violations of socioeconomic rights of different communities.

While national level processes are stalled, activists and civil society throughout the country are continuing to use a variety of means to advocate for victims’ demands. They also can play a useful role in reaching across the ethnic and geographic divides, and providing space for Sri Lankans to talk about and learn what happened beyond a nationalistic perspective and ethnic divisions. It is important to realize that the acknowledgement of one type of suffering does not invalidate or diminish the other in any way. This enables more people to know the truth of Sri Lanka’s history as well as allows for the healing process to begin, perhaps even closure. The citizens of Sri Lanka have endured far too much pain and suffering—physical and emotional—for their stories to be swept aside and forgotten.

*Family members of ethnic Tamil detainees sit for a silent protest in Colombo, Sri Lanka. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena)*