Sri Lanka ethnic groups divided over UN resolution

March 20, 2012 - 4:26 AM
Sri Lanka Human Rights

Buddhist monks walk during the street march ahead of a prayer session, denouncing the proposed U.N. Human Rights Council resolution on alleged rights abuses during the country's civil war, in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Monday, March 19, 2012. Hundreds of Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Christian clergy representing the main religions of Sri Lanka too part in a ceremony to pray for the defeat of a United States-backed resolution urging the country to investigate allegations of war crimes in the final stages of the country's civil war. The resolution is expected to be put to voting at the United Nations Human Rights Council sessions in Geneva this week. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — The Sri Lankan government's campaign to stave off any U.N. call to investigate its wartime conduct is hampering efforts to heal long-simmering ethnic tensions, according to Tamil politicians, rights activists and clergy members.

Nearly three years after the end of a decades-long civil war that pitted the majority Sinhalese government against minority Tamil Tiger rebels seeking an ethnic homeland, the U.N. rights council is expected to vote this week on a resolution urging Sri Lanka to investigate allegations of human rights abuses and seek reconciliation.

The war ended in 2009 with a bloody offensive into Tiger-controlled northern areas by the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, a military push that critics say saw thousands of civilians killed as the Tigers were crushed.

But talk of a U.N. resolution calling for a probe and moves toward reconciliation has infuriated Rajapaksa's governments as well as his supporters, who see it as outside interference in Sri Lanka's internal affairs.

In Geneva, where the rights council is based, Sri Lankan diplomats have been quietly urging members of the 47-nation body to defeat the U.S.-backed resolution.

At home, the reaction has been constant and noisy. Pro-government politicians, voters and Buddhist monks have turned out for daily protests denouncing the resolution, carrying larger-than-life cutout posters of the president. The government's official website has accused local rights activists who support the resolution of aiming to "betray Sri Lanka in Geneva."

The Catholic church, which has both Tamil and Sinhalese members and which has largely been seen as neutral in the ethnic dispute, has also gotten involved.

The proposed resolution is an "undue meddling in the sovereignty and integrity of Sri Lanka," said a statement from the office of Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith.

The Tigers, a cult-like group known for suicide-bombers and child soldiers, fought for 25 years to create an independent state for Tamils. Despite the bloody end to the war, the government victory was still seen by many as an opportunity for Sri Lanka to rebuild its ethnic relations, which long before the war had been battered by decades of anti-Tamil discrimination by successive Sinhalese-controlled governments.

Many activists suggested quickly resettling people displaced by the war and negotiating Tamil demands for power sharing. Instead, the government is accused of further alienating Tamils by promoting Sinhalese settlements in predominantly Tamil areas, and disregarding all requests to share power.

Now, with the government fighting the proposed U.N. resolution, Tamils say they are being further pushed aside.

Calling the Sri Lankan government "one of the parties of the abuses" at the war's end, a Tamil Catholic bishop and 30 other priests from the country's Tamil north said in a letter to the U.N. rights group that the resolution "could best address concerns of truth-seeking, accountability and reparations for victims in a way that victims, survivors and their families will have confidence. It is only by addressing these that we believe we can move towards genuine reconciliation."

Such talk is widely heard in Sri Lanka's Tamil community.

"Tamils have struggled through peaceful means and through arms, and nothing has succeeded. There is no way there can be another armed insurrection, so the only solution seems to be something that comes through U.N. intervention," said S. Ravichandran, 37, a Tamil taxi driver in Colombo, the capital.

The Tamil National Alliance, the main Tamil political party, calls the resolution a "first and necessary step towards ensuring peace, justice and reconciliation in Sri Lanka."

"The council must ensure that the Sri Lankan government immediately takes steps to offer a political solution to the Tamil people to resolve the long-festering and deep-seated national problem," party leader Rajavarothayam Sampanthan said in a statement.

The government insists, though, that its own investigations were sufficient.

In 2010, the government created a Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, which gathered evidence on the conflict from both sides. It released its report last December.

While it disputed an earlier U.N. report — which said Sri Lankan troops deliberately targeted civilians — it did recommend that the government give more power to Tamils in areas where they are in the majority. Those recommendations have been ignored by the government.

Now, analysts say the government fears the fallout of another investigation.

Jehan Perera of National Peace Council, a Sri Lankan organization that promotes peace and good governance, said the government is resisting the proposed resolution because it fears "that this could be the thin edge of the wedge that finally ends in war crimes trials of the government leadership."

The proposal's passage appeared to be one step closer Monday when Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told Parliament that New Delhi was "inclined to vote in favor of the resolution." India wants "a future for the Tamil community in Sri Lanka that is marked by equality, dignity, justice and self-respect," said Singh, who has been under unrelenting pressure from key Tamil political allies to back the resolution.