It’s Remembrance Day in Sri Lanka on May 18, the seventh anniversary of the end of a long civil war. But the island’s two biggest ethnic communities will be remembering very different things.
In the south, members of the Sinhalese majority will line military parade routes, celebrating the defeat of the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). In the north and east, minority Tamils will gather to mourn their dead — thousands of civilians killed by the state security forces, some during shelling of hospitals and supposed “no-fire zones” at the end of the war, others in massacres dating to the 1980s. If they mark the death of loved ones who fought for the LTTE, either fallen in battle or disappeared by the military after surrendering, it will be in secret. Seven years after the war’s cataclysmic end, memorializing the rebels remains illegal.
A new regime and new challenges
Until 2015, the holiday was called Victory Day, celebrated triumphantly by President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s dictatorial regime, which had won the war using methods a U.N. panel of experts described as “a grave assault” on international humanitarian law. In the south, his rule meant corruption, suppression of civil society and a stranglehold on power. In the former conflict zone in the north, it meant military occupation, surveillance and the constant threat of violence.
As analyzed here in the Monkey Cage, few expected Rajapaksa to lose the January 2015 presidential election. But with support from Sri Lanka’s minority Tamil and Muslim voters, an unlikely coalition of regime defectors and opposition politicians swept into power. In a signal that it would pursue a more conciliatory approach, President Maithripala Sirisena’s new government renamed the anniversary of the war’s bloody conclusion. But commemoration remains contentious.
Last year, Tamils were permitted to publicly memorialize their civilian war dead for the first time, but a heavy police and intelligence presence kept many mourners from participating, and street processions and protests were banned. This year, organizers of remembrance events report being followed and harassed by intelligence agents. And attendees at commemorations of the war dead have found themselves photographed and recorded by military personnel.
How do countries heal from violence?
In deeply divided societies like Sri Lanka, the question of how to deal with a history of violence has no easy answer. Under international law, the victims of atrocities have a right to truth and a right to justice, but fulfilling these rights is not a simple task. Sri Lanka is a particularly clear example of why this is so.
As is frequently the case in countries emerging from conflict, civilian and military leaders involved in the war remain in positions of power. (In fact, Sirisena was acting defense minister in May 2009.) Political scientists and others have pointed out that pursuing justice (i.e., criminal trials of those responsible for atrocities) under these conditions can threaten peace. Because of these dynamics, post-transition governments in cases as diverse as Chile, Chad, Liberia and South Africa have employed truth commissions as a compromise between victims’ demands for acknowledgment of past crimes and the need to reassure potential spoilers that they won’t face punishment.
But Sri Lanka’s victims face a second challenge in their pursuit of accountability, beyond the continued presence of perpetrators in power. A huge swath of the electorate vehemently opposes accountability efforts. The Tamils are a marginalized minority, less than 15 percent of Sri Lanka’s population. And the majority Sinhala-Buddhist community venerates the military for defeating the insurgency — and interprets calls for accountability as an attack on their heroes. Without buy-in from this constituency, even a truth process is a risky proposition for the Sirisena government, whose popularity already appears to be sliding. Meanwhile, Rajapaksa won a Parliament seat in August and retains the support of many Sinhalese, who would like to see him returned to power.
Sri Lanka has yet to face its past
Given these political dynamics, it’s not so surprising that Sri Lanka’s new leadership has made little progress on its transitional-justice promises to the international community, including the creation of a truth and reconciliation commission and the criminal prosecution of those responsible for atrocities. But for the victims, the failure to acknowledge past crimes is a continuing injury.
The United Nations estimates that as many as 40,000 civilians died in the final assault on the LTTE, and victims’ groups say the fates of more than 100,000 people remain unknown. To those in the south, these crimes may seem distant and forgettable. For families still searching for information about their missing loved ones, though, they’re a glaring fact of everyday life. And if Sri Lanka’s foot-dragging on transitional justice underscores the challenges of pursuing accountability in deeply divided societies, its continuing repression of remembrance suggests something very different: That, in truth, nothing has changed — and the problem isn’t the absence of transitional justice, it’s the absence of transition.