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Whither Sri Lanka?

To Canadian Friends of Sri Lanka
By David Kilgour
Ceylonata Restaurant
29 October 2009

In June, I spent almost a week in Sri Lanka as a member of an international church delegation, which was seeking to learn how its member bodies in 128 countries might help. The visit occurred soon after the surrender of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (the "LTTE/Tigers") to government forces. Before going, I met with members of the Sinhalese and Tamil communities in Ottawa separately and in a joint meeting for advice. The following are entirely personal observations on the situation as it was then, as it is now, and what I believe awaits on the road ahead:

The in-country meetings provided first hand accounts of a nation in desperate need of healing, good will and forgiveness on both sides. Widespread traumas have resulted from almost three decades of violence, which have left up to 100,000 dead and hundreds of thousands displaced. The major obstacle to reconciliation in June-one which continues to have an impact today-is the legacy of bitterness and grievances on both sides.

There are many people from both cultural communities who deplored the acts of brutality by the LTTE/Tigers. In the words of a Sinhalese woman I spoke with in Colombo:

Sri Lankans across the country are euphorically looking towards better days with thirty years of LTTE/Tiger terrorism having been ended. All communities are relieved. Internally displaced people have to be helped, but it is not an overwhelming humanitarian crisis. It is a situation under control, but some assistance is appreciated...Is it only (Tamil) families that were affected? How about children becoming orphans because their parents died in LTTE suicide bomb explosions? Is there no sympathy for them?

Such sentiments are contrary to those expressed by Tamils in Sri Lanka and in the diaspora. Many of them voiced concern that the defeat of the Tigers would lead to a weakened Tamil voice and continued discrimination, which they believe caused the violence in the first place. They were and are also concerned that the plight of the internally-displaced persons across Sri Lanka would only worsen without international oversight and support.

Internally-displaced persons (IDPs)

Some senior government officials are aware of the conditions facing the IDPs. Former Sri Lankan Chief Justice Sarath Silva, after visiting the vast IDP camps at Vavuniya in northern Sri Lanka, spoke out at about the time of our visit, saying that residents there were living in appalling conditions. Over two hundred thousand people in refugee camps are not treated according to the law of the land, he said. Silva: "IDPs are seen waiting in queues, extending for 100 yards to take their turn to use a toilet where there is only one pot hole at the end of it...They live outside the protection of the law of the country. I am saying this in public, and ready to face any consequences. We are doing a great wrong to these people."

I understand that the Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sarath Fonseka, told a meeting a a Buddhist centre in Washington, D.C. on October 25th, "The war is now over. There is no need to further detain the Tamil civilans" (

Our delegation was told in June that there are an estimated 30,000 unaccompanied children--orphans-- in the camps. Whether all or any of the 22 IDP principles of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights are being respected is impossible to determine because many international NGOs continue to be denied access to the camps. Only today, I learned that one recent visitor to the camps was deeply shaken by what he saw and heard about present conditions.

Northeast Camps

Here is what one of our delegation noted about IDP camps he visited in the northeast:

    It was here that my heart would be broken and I would find maybe the greatest living answer to how peace and reconciliation can take hold. During these two days, we visited two IDP camps and...a third IDP camp for those too disabled, wounded, and sick to be taken to the other camps. These places housed some 9,000 people... All of these places were surrounded by barbed wire and run by the military because the fear of the government is that some of those within the camps are of the LTTE.

    When we entered the first camp, I witnessed immediately that what these people were starved for the most was news of loved ones from whom they had been separated during the course of fleeing the war zones. Such news unfortunately was near impossible to come by...It was here that I first started hanging out with the children in the camps... Children that have seen the worst of man... These kids represent the hope of Sri Lanka and I pray soon they will be given the opportunity for a better life.

Lasantha Wickrematunge

Many Sri Lankans are concerned that recent developments are eroding the country's democratic foundations. Of particular concern is the suppression of dissent and lack of protection for journalists. Sonali Samarasinghe, the Sinhalese widow of Lasantha Wickrematunge, who was murdered in broad daylight near his office and the 2009 UNESCO World Press Freedom Laureate, said about six months ago:

    The free Sri Lanka in which I was born no longer exists. Our country has entered a Dark Age characterized by tyranny and state-sponsored terror, where the government publicly, cynically and apologetically equates democratic dissent to treason. The sinister white van in which the state abducts its perceived enemies, including journalists, many of them never to be seen again, has become a symbol of untold dread.

    Yet, we need to remember that violence against journalists is only the tip of the iceberg. Tens of thousand of ordinary Sri Lankan civilians - men, women, children, and the aged-have been herded into concentration camps where they are held against their will. There they languish in the most horrible of conditions, trapped behind barbed-wire fences and beneath the radar of a world which, perhaps rightly, is more concerned with the arguably greater tragedies unfolding in places such as Darfur. But what has been their crime? They belong to an ethnic minority living in an area infested by the Liberation Tigers, one of the most murderous terrorist organizations the world has ever seen. The Tamil civilians of Sri Lanka's north are caught in a vice-like grip between LTTE terrorism on the one side and state terrorism on the other.

A Conciliatory Perspective

The last senior official our group met in Colombo, a cabinet minister, left us with a sense that there are those in the government who are seeking reconciliation. His opening remark was that it was “a time for healing, a time to rebuild trust”. Successive governments had sought to deal with the LTTE through an alternating ceasefire and combat approach, but, the minister added, President Rajapaska in recent years came to the conclusion that the only solution was 'all out' war to the finish.

The minister thinks one of the keys to future national security for Sri Lanka is a repaired relationship between the government and diasporas living across the world. The government wants foreign governments to give it some time and to avoid the use of external pressures. He appeared to suggest that the heightened security in effect across the country will be relaxed once greater stability is achieved.

The situation in Sri Lanka is incredibly complex with its population of most major religious groups, decades of civil war and geo-economic realities. It would be easy to come away from our one week visit with a sense that, with the war over, things have never been worse for Tamils. Although the Sinhalese majority senses a huge relief that the fighting is over for now, many of them clearly sense a potential resurgence of violence.

The largest obstacle to overcoming mistrust for now is the ongoing disconnect of perceptions between the Sinhalese and Tamil communities. The other major concern is the need to safeguard the foundations of human rights and the rule of law, where many regressions have occurred.

Within Canada, major efforts need to be made to facilitate a dialogue between the over 200,000 members of our Sinhalese and Tamil communities who might play a pivotal role in reconciliation within Sri Lanka. In conversations with persons from both groups, it is evident to me that there exists a strong desire for peace.

Current Developments

European Union

On the important matter of the economy, the European Union is currently deciding whether to extend the GSP Plus tariff concession, which helped make Europe the largest market for Sri Lankan exports. I understand that political leaders in Colombo are saying that the national economy can survive without the GSP Plus concession and that national sovereignty is more important than permitting the monitoring requirements the EU requires.

Refugee Ships

As you know, Sri Lankan refugees are currently attempting to enter other countries, some through perilous journeys on ships that earlier delivered supplies to the Tigers. Canada, Malaysia and Australia are destinations. Most appear to be Tamil families. The government says it is a deliberate attempt by LTTE supporters to send cadres to safe places and to tarnish the image of the country simultaneously. Among the refugees will no doubt be former LTTE members. There will also be peaceful Tamils who have lost faith that Sri Lanka will ever provide them with a safe home where they will be treated without discrimination as equal citizens.

Vavuniya Camps

Some of the displaced from the Vavuniya camps appear to have been relocated to similar camps where they are now being confined. In addition, the government’s long silence on political solutions and its coalition partnership with political parties hostile to any solution that gives Tamils rights or autonomy is convincing some Tamils that they have no future in Sri Lanka. Changing this perception is going to be the main challenge that Sri Lanka will face as a country.

U.S. State Department Study

Some of you might wish to read a recent US State Dept study on Sri Lanka. The link is:

Policy Recommendations

Some policy recommendations for the Government of Sri Lanka to consider which appear consistent with generally-recognized good governance values:

1. Invite specifics on how CIDA and Canadian and other civil societies, including our faith communities, can assist with the ongoing humanitarian crisis of food, shelter and medicine in the IDP camps, preferably with the ability to also monitor how aid efforts are being extended to the camp residents.

2. Concrete actions can be taken now towards national reconciliation:

  • Implement the 13th constitutional amendment, providing for some devolution to regional councils.
  • All 22 of the IDP principles of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Representative of the UN Sec.-Gen on the Rights of IDPs (Walter Kalin) should be applied. The list can be accessed under the Sri Lanka heading at
  • Immediately address the presence of an estimated 30,000 children, presumed orphans, in the IDP camps by arranging for their reunion with, or adoption by, other family members.
  • Hold a commemoration service for the civilians on both sides who lost their lives.

3. Provide meaningful protection to opposition MPs, journalists and peaceful dissidents.

4. For transparency and humanitarian reasons, allow all NGOs into the camps and grant access to the international community. MPs in Sri Lanka should have access too, especially those who represent the regions holding the camps.

5. Respect international protocols and protect the safety and security of the international diplomatic community:

  • The attack by a mob on the Canadian embassy while our delegation was in country was clearly pre-arranged. The police arrived before the mob, but disappeared like the morning mist while the crowd was throwing rocks and paint at the premises.

Finally, the Sinhalese majority should speak up now for their Tamil sisters and brothers. Sinhalese voices are heard these days in government and now is the time for them to call for national reconciliation more strongly. Groups like the Canadian Friends of Sri Lanka can also help by speaking up on humanitarian and reconciliation issues, especially with respect to dismantling the IDP camps. The time for adapting the South African model in the period before and after the 1994 election of Nelson Mandela as its president is now for Sri Lanka.

Thank you.

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