Sri Lanka is working toward an investigation into alleged atrocities committed against Tamil civilians during the island’s long civil war, a government spokesman announced late Wednesday. He told reporters that the administration of new President Maithripala Sirisena is “thinking of having our own inquiry acceptable to them to the international standards,” and added that “It will be a new local inquiry. If we need, we will bring some foreign experts.”
The 26-year Sri Lankan civil war ended under former President Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2009. The battle raged mostly between majority Sinhala Buddhists and the minority autonomy-seeking Hindu Tamils. At the tail end of the war, estimates suggest that government-backed forces slaughtered 40,000 Tamil civilians. Rajapaksa’s staunch refusal to cooperate with U.N. investigators regarding possible war crimes has been a major sticking point between post-war Sri Lanka and the global community.
Until Sirisena’s surprise victory at the polls earlier this month, Rajapaksa’s ten-year reign was widely characterized as a “quasi-dictatorship.” The long-awaited peace after decades of war briefly bolstered his popularity among weary Sri Lankans, but dissipated in recent years in light of his strong-arm ways. Rajapaksa’s presidency was marked by his many efforts towards consolidating and extending the reach of executive power. According to a report by the International Crisis Group, Rajapaksa’s regime was guilty of severe military rule, drawing back the power of the judiciary and parliament, and cracking down on freedom of speech. Rajakapsa’s overreach got so unpopular that Sirisena’s challenge rose from Rajapaksa’s own Sri Lankan Freedom Party, which supported Sirisena and propelled him to his razor-thin presidential victory.
Sirisena’s promises for reforms were initially met with skepticism. Outlets like Foreign Policy and The Guardian argued that this election was better understood as an inner-party power grab than a true democratic transition, and that many changes would be necessary to enable some semblance of democracy. But after Sirisena’s first few weeks in power, observers seem cautiously optimistic — for now. Sirisena has already called for new parliamentary elections, and reinstated the chief justice that Rajakapska illegally sacked two years before. AP also reports that Sirisena’s government has announced plans to give back seized land to the Tamils, and begin to deal with the displaced populations within its borders. German newspaper Deutsche Welle lauds Sri Lanka as being “on the right track to sustainable democracy.”
Still, the long-term commitment of Sirisena’s government to legitimate democracy remains to be seen. Yesterday’s pledge to investigate Rajapaksa-era war crimes came across as almost intentionally ambiguous, since the spokesman promised an internal inquiry (albeit in accordance with international standards.) Although Sirisena reportedly sent a senior advisor this week to discuss the investigation with U.N. officials, it is unclear whether they will be fully involved. If Sirisena indeed blocks an independent international inquiry, then it is tough to see a difference between this promised inquiry and Rajapaksa’s own 2011 “Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission” which shockingly found no evidence of wrongdoing. (Amnesty International called LLRC’s rosy audit of itself “flawed at every level.”)
Indeed, Sirisena vehemently rejected the potential for U.N. cooperation during his December campaign. There is also the issue of retribution after an inquiry, which could ruffle the feathers of the delicate coalition he formed to defeat Rajapaksa. As long as Sirisena’s leadership depends on the support of the old guard, his democratic impact is sure to have serious limits.