Security forces have erected numerous monuments celebrating their 2009 victory over Tamil Tiger rebels. No such privilege has been accorded to the Tamil insurgents or civilians who died in the fight
The 30-year civil war in Sri Lanka remains a subject of intense controversy. But since the more compromising and pragmatic President Maithripala Sirisena assumed power in early 2015 with the support of the country’s Tamil minority, reconciliation has figured prominently in public discourse.
The incoming government established the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR), chaired by the redoubtable former president Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga.
Numerous worthy unity and reconciliation projects have been initiated, focusing on areas such as youth exchanges, vocational training, agricultural livelihoods and the construction of new homes for those displaced during the conflict.
Yet in the Northern Province – an overwhelmingly Tamil region where much of the fighting took place – local people remain skeptical about development-oriented, top-down reconciliation projects that are largely conceived and implemented by the bureaucracy and security forces. Among recurrent local concerns are missing persons, military land occupation and memorialization.
Critical observers, such as human rights activist Ruki Fernando, argue that until these core issues are addressed, token projects will do little to assuage Tamil frustrations with the state. He argues that rather than exercising leadership, the Colombo government has become the captive of the military and Buddhist hardliners.
During the civil war, huge numbers of people were driven out of their homes in the North and East of the country. When they tried to return after 2009, many found their land occupied by the military. In the Jaffna peninsula alone, the military currently holds more than 10,000 acres of land, around half of it used for bases.
The military points to progress in releasing occupied land, but insists that for security reasons the process has to be incremental.
In recent months, there has been a mushrooming of protest encampments by villagers seeking the return of their property from security forces. These round-the-clock vigils illustrate a remarkable opening up of political space in Sri Lanka: they would have been unthinkable during the time of hardline former president Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Yet while they have attracted some attention from the media and Tamil political parties, and in a few cases have won concessions from the military, most of the protests are being quietly ignored. Similar vigils have been established in other locations to demand information about those who went missing during the war.
Since 1994, the government has received more than 65,000 complaints relating to missing persons: in the absence of death certificates, their surviving relatives face serious problems over access to bank accounts, inheritance and re-marriage.
A major government initiative is needed to resolve these issues, but so far efforts to address them have been piecemeal; the president only finally approved the establishment of a long–promised Office of Missing Persons on July 20.
Land, missing persons and monuments are important examples of reconciliation-related issues. All highlight the importance of granting agency and authority to victims in a post-war order like Sri Lanka’s. Similar challenges have dogged other post-conflict societies such as that of Northern Ireland: education and development projects can only go so far, if sensitive core concerns remain unaddressed.
While the international community is now pressing for large-scale transitional justice initiatives in Sri Lanka, neither a hybrid tribunal nor a truth commission will be easy to realize. In the meantime, displaying the names of some Tamil war victims near a Northern beach might be one small place to start.
Duncan McCargo is the author of Tearing Apart the Land (2008), a study of the Southern Thai conflict