In early June, I visited Sri Lanka as a member of an international delegation following the defeat of the LTTE/Tigers. The purpose of the visit, sponsored by the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA)*, was to to learn what its network of churches in 128 countries might do to assist with the ongoing humanitarian crisis and national reconciliation. Christian churches across Sri Lanka are well placed for bridge-building, being one of the national institutions in the country which enjoy a good mix of members from both the Sinhalese and Tamil communities.
The following are personal observations, which are not necessarily shared by any of the other members of the delegation or the WEA itself:
The in-country meetings provided first hand accounts of a country in desperate need of healing, forgiveness and good will. Focused and continuing Sri Lankan and international efforts are required to address the widespread traumas resulting from the violence, which has left up to 100,000 persons from both communities dead and hundreds of thousands displaced.
The major obstacle for now is the legacy of bitterness and grievances on both sides of the conflict, growing over more than three decades of on-and-off hostilities and worsened by the most recent military actions.
Some from both cultural communities criticized the many acts of unimaginable brutality by the LTTE/Tigers and its late leader Prabhakaran. Others worry now about renewed discrimination against the minority community, which they believe caused the long national nightmare in the first place. Persons in both groups expressed concern that the plight of the internally-displaced persons across Sri Lanka would only worsen without pressure, oversight and support by international friends of Sri Lanka, such as Canada.
Internally-displaced persons (IDPs)
Senior government officials appear to be aware of the conditions facing the refugees. Sri Lanka's then Chief Justice Sarath Silva, for example, having visited the IDP camps at Vavunia in northern Sri Lanka, spoke out, saying residents there are living in appalling conditions. Over two hundred thousand people in refugee camps are not treated according to the law of the land, he said, speaking at the ceremonial opening of a new court complex."While we build new courts, ten people live in one tent in these camps. They could stand straight only in the centre of these tents.''
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."
One hospital in the Vavunia region, which can accommodate 400 patients, I'm told contains 1500 today. 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.
Late Lasantha Wickrematunge
Many Sri Lankans are concerned that recent developments are eroding the country's democratic foundations, in particular the suppression of dissent and lack of protection for journalists. Sonali Samarasinghe, the Sinhalese widow of Lasantha Wickrematunge, the 2009 UNESCO World Press Freedom Laureate, has spoken out candidly: '' 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... 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 delegation met in Colombo, a cabinet minister, left us with a sense that there are those in the government who are seeking genuine 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 a 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 we saw thinks one of the keys to future national security for Sri Lanka is a repaired relationship between the government and Sri Lankan 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 now in effect across the country will be relaxed once greater stability is achieved.
The situation in Sri Lanka is terribly complex, with its population of various religious communities, decades of civil war and regional and global geo-political realities. It would be easy to come away from our visit with a sense that, with the war over, matters have become worse for peaceful Tamils. Although the Sinhalese majority senses a huge relief that the fighting is over for now, many of them clearly worry about a potential resurgence of violence. Hence perhaps the current heavy-handed 'security state' tactics. Some think it is important to look back over the years since national independence in 1948. They shed some light on the long term nature of problems. Earlier governments did not hesitate to apply state terror to control society. This by no means condones what is currently happening, which worsened sigmificantly in the spring of 2009.
Government ministers and the president himself have given assurances that they want incorporate the Tamil population as equal members of the national family. They seem to recognize that, unless Tamil are treated with dignity and justice, the seeds of conflict will only be perpetuated. Unfortunately, they have yet to introduce the kind of policies that are need to give substance to this intention.
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 rebuild 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 members of the Sinhalese and Tamil communities, who might play a pivotal role in reconciliation within Sri Lanka. In my personal conversations with persons from both these communities before and after the mission, it is evident that there exists a strong desire for peace, although the grievances and misunderstandings are also very much present.
Policy Recommendations for the Government of Sri Lanka To Consider Consistent With Canadian Good Governance Values
1. Invite specifics on how CIDA and Canadian civil society, including our faith communities, can assist with the humanitarian crisis of food, shelter and medicine in the IDP camps, with the ability also to monitor how aid efforts are being extended to the camp residents.
2. The time for national reconciliation is now and concrete actions must be taken, including:
- Implement the 13th constitutional amendment, providing for some devolution to regional councils. ( The head of a council in the eastern part of the country, which enacted four pieces of legislation, said the councils have no power because the appointed Governor of the Eastern Province has refused to allow any of the four to be implemented.)
- Have a commemoration service for the civilians on both sides who lost their lives. The ICRC reportedly claims that 25,000-30,000 civilians were killed in northern Sri Lanka, including an estimated 6500 during May alone.
- 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.
- Implement 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). The full list can be accessed under the Sri Lanka heading at www.david-kilgour.com. Transparency in the 'screening' process is very important in the Sri Lankan situation.
3. Provide meaningful protection to opposition MPs, journalists and other dissidents:
- Lasantha Wickrematunge, the independent journalist, was murdered earlier this year in Colombo. Another journalist, abducted in June by a gang in a white van, was in hospital in early June under a death threat if he spoke out. The independent media are thus disappearing in Sri Lanka and becoming in effect propaganda outlets for the government.
4. Allow all NGOs into the IDP camps and grant access to the international community to visit IDPs:
- The lack of adequate food, shelter and medicine is clearly creating a humanitarian crisis in the IDP camps in northern and eastern Sri Lanka.
- All NGOs were ordered to relocate to camps in the Vavuna region in Sept. of 2008, but they are also needed elsewhere. Why are only some NGOs allowed into the camps?
*The World Evangelical Alliance is made up of 128 national evangelical alliances located in 7 regions and 104 associate member organizations. The vision of WEA is to extend the Kingdom of God by making disciples of all nations and by Christ-centered transformation within society. WEA exists to foster Christian unity, to provide an identity, voice and platform for the 420 million evangelical Christians worldwide