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Sunday, 25 October 2015





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Towards reconciliation:

Inching forward on thorny issues

Genuine reconciliation, which engages people and rebuilds greater national unity, is one of the priorities of the new government. The following is an exploration of the progress of reconciliation in Sri Lanka from January to September 2015.

Dealing with the past

Marking Sri Lanka’s 67th anniversary of independence on February 4, 2015, President Maithripala Sirisena in his address to the nation promised reconciliation. Immediately afterwards, in line with one of the LLRC recommendations, a special peace pledge was delivered in all three languages to respect all citizens of all ethnicities and religions, who lost their lives in the war and were victims of violence since independence.

A soldier stands near a public hospital -aljazeera

During the previous regime, Independence Day celebrations were excessively glamourized by the armed forces and failed to celebrate the diversity of the country. This year’s celebrations marked a significant difference indicating the shift of mindset within the government.

This shift of mindset can also be seen through the new government’s effort to change 19 May –the day marking the end of the war and previously celebrated as ‘War Heroes Day’ – to a ‘Remembrance Day.’ Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, however, countered this effort by maintaining his own public celebrations of a ‘War Heroes Day’ on 18 May.

New stance

Another example of this shift was the attempt was the lifting of the unofficial ban on singing the National Anthem in Tamil. Even though in practice, the Sinhala and Tamil versions of the National Anthem were sung without restrictions in the past, President Rajapaksa placed an unofficial ban on the singing it in Tamil in 2010.

In April 2015, talks were held in Singapore between various Sri Lankan groups, including government politicians, Tamil political parties and diaspora groups, to promote reconciliation and strengthen democracy. This meeting was organized by the Government of Switzerland and a South African-based organization.

Making 100 days of the new Presidency, the President stressed on the necessity to promote brotherhood, friendship and coexistence among all communities and to ensure the rights of all people. He also announced that a Presidential Task Force and a Presidential Office for Reconciliation have been set up.

After the 17 August Parliamentary Elections, the Secretariat for National Unity was set up with former President Chandrika Kumaratunga as its head. A Ministry of National Dialogue has been established under former human rights activist and Member of Parliament, Mono Ganesan.


Demilitarization of the North has since long been recognized as an essential prerequisite for reconciliation: On the one hand, there has been a strong demand from Tamil political parties to remove or to reduce the military camps from the North and East. The new government has categorically stated that it will not remove any military camps in the country, especially from the North and East. The actual number of military personnel stationed in the North and East of the country varies, depending on the sources and interpretations, but it is clear that disproportionately large military contingents are stationed in these two provinces. Neither the military nor the government has released any official figures concerning the military deployments in the North and East. The reduction of number of military personnel stationed in the North will remain one of the contentious issues towards achieving genuine reconciliation.

One step into the right direction was the replacement of the ex-military governor of the North by a civilian governor. Although the military has not yet been withdrawn and it remains engaged and present in day-to-day life of Tamils in the North and East, the role of the military in civil administration has reduced and the military and intelligence forces seem to exercise less surveillance and intimidation on the population in the North and East. Military-held land was also released which can be considered as another step towards demilitarization.

On 28 August, the last remaining military check post on the A9 Highway was removed. The Omanthai checkpoint remained an iconic boundary between the North and South of the country and since the end of the war, security forces maintained the Omanthai checkpoint to register people and vehicular movements.

Out of a total of 6382 acres of land occupied by the Army in Valikamam North, about 1033 acres were released to the original owners. However, concerns have been expressed over the manner in which land was released: the former Land Commissioner of the Eastern Province expressed that the land in the Northern Province was not released according to proper procedures such as the issuing of a fresh Gazette notification under Provision 39 (1) of the Land Acquisition Act, revoking the previous seizures of the Rajapaksa regime. According to some reports, 44,548 acres of land is still under military occupation in the North and East.

Following the release of land in Valikamam North, the Ministry of Resettlement, Reconstruction and Hindu Religious Affairs held discussions with the concerned population for the release of further 9000 acres in Jaffna and another 9000 acres in Mullaitivu.

A total of 816 acres of land in Sampur were taken over by the Army during the war and vested in the Ecard of Investment (ECI) by a Gazette notification issued by the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa and was later handed over to a company named Sri Lanka Gateway Industries on a 99- year lease. This land was released by signing the relevant Gazette notification, revoking the agreement and enabling over 7000 IDPs to return. The Sri Lankan Navy also has agreed to relocate a camp covering 237 acres that was in the same proximity.


According to the Ministry of Resettlement, Reconstruction and Hindu Religious Affairs, as of 30 June, some 75,901 families (275,639 persons) in the Eastern Province and 157,051 families (521,081 persons) in the Northern Province have been resettled. Some 14,828 families (50,268 persons) are yet to be resettled. Some of these families are living with friends or relatives, but most of them are housed in 32 welfare centres in Jaffna and three centres in Trincomalee.

A report of the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) was released in July 2015 estimating the number of IDPs at 73,700 –a figure that is much higher than the government statistics.

To facilitate resettlement, the UNHCR has agreed to provide temporary shelter in the form of a semi-permanent structure valued at US$ 1000 and the government is to provide a resettlement allowance of Rs. 25,000 and another Rs.13000 for clearing land, food and other contingencies.

The government has allocated a total of Rs.180 million for this purpose. However, temporary shelters, water, transport, health and educational services have so far not been arranged. Many still live in make shift tents and huts and other merely visit their land during day. Some of the re-settlers have been required to register with the military, in addition to the usual registration process by the civil authorities, such as the Grama Niladhari. The military has demanded copies of all family documents and photographs for this purpose. Rent for the years of occupation or compensation for loss of livelihood have not been paid to anybody affected. In addition, the issue of the displaced Northern Muslims, who were evicted in 1990, have not been sufficiently addressed as of yet. The resettlement of the Northern Muslim has been dragging for years, not only because of the unwillingness of the State but also because of the complexity of the issue.

Meanwhile, records indicate that currently 105,000 Sri Lankan Tamil refugees are living in different camps and welfare centres throughout Tamil Nadu, India. The Minister of Resettlement, Reconstruction and Hindu Religious Affairs stated that they are welcome to return to Sri Lanka and that all returning families are entitled to rehabilitation and relief assistance.

Communal violence

Another challenge on the way to achieve meaningful reconciliation is anti-Muslim violence. In June 2014, two individuals died, many were injured and thousands were displaced in the town of Aluthgama. This was considered as one of the worst outbreaks of sectarian violence in years.

Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), the Buddhist extremist group who led these attacks and who had been spreading anti-Muslim hatred for a long period, enjoyed immunity after this incident. After the regime change, the influence of BBS has clearly reduced and in May 2015, the BBS General Secretary was arrested on a court warrant.

He was later released on bail but it was made clear that at the very least, this group would no longer enjoy the level of immunity as it had in the past.

As hate speech has been one of the main intimidation tools used by the Sinhala Buddhist extremists, the Cabinet has approved amendments to the Penal Code to ban hate speech. Despite the decline of numbers of incidents of hate speech and hate violence compared to last year, outrageous incidents of hate speech in mainstream and social media continued. Given that the extremist BBS failed badly in the General Election, there is a possibility of these attacks to recede. In addition, no investigation into the anti-Muslim riots and murders in Aluthgama has taken place so far and no one has been convicted in connection with the incident. Albeit the Sri Lankan Army had reconstructed shops and houses damaged in the Aluthgama incident, the residents have not received compensation for the damage to their property.

Attacks against Christians also continue. Since January 2015, over 26 cases of hate speech violence against and intimidation of Christians have been recorded. All these attacks are against smaller evangelical prayer houses located both in Sinhala and Tamil dominated areas and some of them are serious in nature.


A maximum of devolution of power is an important pre-requisite for reconciliation. This has been demanded by Tamils for decades and is still the strongest demand by the minorities. The new government has expressed that the resolution of the national question will be a key priority. The United National Party, in its manifesto before the Parliamentary Elections, promised maximum devolution to the regions within a unitary constitution. Even though several months ago, the Prime Minister was quoted saying: “We must have a political settlement and move forward,” so far nothing has been done in this regard. The Prime Minister has proposed to hold tripartite negotiations among the UNP, the SLFP and the TNA to arrive at a political solution.

- Sri Lanka Brief


*Prioritize a lasting, negotiated political solution to the ethnic issue before drafting the proposed new constitution

*Release lands of Tamils and Muslims that are occupied by the military

*Withdraw the military from civilian affairs in the former war zone

*Implement the LLRC recommendations on reconciliation

*Establish a master plan with measurable objectives and timelines to uplift the war-affected people in the North and East

*Release or file cases against remaining Tamil political prisoners without any delay


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