A Path toward a Unified Sri Lanka

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By Nicole Zdrojewski – The cessation of fighting in Sri Lanka does not mean the end of crisis and the conditions that created the civil war. In order for the Government of Sri Lanka to become a government for all its citizens, it needs to quickly shift focus to political measures that promote integration and reconciliation between Tamils and Sinhalese. A free media and increased transparency are key elements in this process.

A lack of a quality, objective, and free press in Sinhalese and Tamil languages has exacerbated the impacts of widespread injustice, institutionalized inequality, and high levels of mistrust and tension between Tamils and Sinhalese. In Sri Lanka, the government controls the media: three TV channels-the only three with island-wide coverage, as well as five radio channels, provincial stations, and the biggest newspapers. The Tamil press in Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)-controlled territories experienced similar restrictions. This control enabled propaganda by both the government and paramilitary/militant groups to become credible news despite the lack of journalistic research, objectivity, and analysis. According to members of the media, journalists with integrity were silenced by both sides. Good journalism can lead to better governance and a more accurately informed citizenship and therefore increased state security. Strengthening journalists’ ability to investigate and report decreases the ability of governments and non-state actors to carry out acts of violence and discrimination. Increased transparency facilitates increased trust throughout society.

Tamils and Sinhalese look at each other from what seems like an ocean of difference. Tamil civilians have been suffering greatly as it appears that they are being treated as enemy combatants. Sinhalese point to the brutal tactics of the LTTE. At present, no one can independently and accurately confirm exactly what happened despite all of the claims presented to the international press-not the use of Tamils as human shields by both sides, indiscriminate shelling in the no-fire zone in the coastal area of Mulattivu where LTTE mingled with civilians after losing its grip on surrounding territories inland and other abuses by the Sri Lankan Army, nor the charges that the LTTE killed those who wanted to leave the war zone, and no one is on the ground now in the IDP camps where over 300,000 Tamils are confined. Without a process of truth and reconciliation, Tamils and Sinhalese will find it very difficult to form a cohesive national identity. Currently, there are two distinct identities split across ethnic and linguistic lines-Tamils and Sinhalese. Investigation and independent and objective discussions about what has happened since independence can help Tamils and Sinhalese to negotiate common ground and develop a shared vision of history that is more robust and neutral.

To date, the Sri Lankan Government and Tamil opposition groups across the spectrum have not had strong enough economic or political incentives to create the will to transform the crisis situation so that all may equally be citizens within a peaceful pluralist democracy. Rather than taking a reconciliatory approach and entering into discussions with the political representatives of the Tamils, the Government of Sri Lanka is emphasizing its military victory over the LTTE. The LTTE created havoc and destruction in Sri Lanka for many years; hurting both the Sinhalese and Tamil populations. They do not represent all Tamils, and there are Tamil political parties, former militants and organizations not associated with the LTTE that could be drawn into the design of a reconciliation process.

Truth and reconciliation commissions are processes discovering and revealing past wrongdoing by government and non-state actors in the hopes of resolving long-term internal conflicts and preventing future ones. Each process is designed to suit a particular situation and mandates do vary widely. Truth and reconciliation commissions in El Salvador and Sierra Leone, and The Commission of Truth and Friendship in Indonesia-Timor Leste could be considered as models. There is a precedent for such a commission in Sri Lanka based upon the Commissions of Inquiry into the Involuntary Removal or Disappearance of Persons that investigated disappearances in Sri Lanka during the mid-1990s. Sri Lanka would benefit from a new process to counteract the dearth of objective information that contributed to the deep-rooted tension between the Sinhalese and Tamil Sri Lankans.

Nicole Zdrojewski is a Contract Analyst with the Regional Voices: Transnational Challenges program at the Stimson Center.

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