Sri Lanka Post-War Reconciliation and Now

Sri Lanka Post-War Reconciliation and Now

During MPI’s 2019 Annual Peacebuilding Training, Jude Mahendren gave a presentation on post-war Sri Lanka. The following article is a study guide for the online posting of his slide presentation below (click on Read More), focusing on the long-term effects of the war, political climate, introduction of transitional justice and the current state of the country.

Sri Lanka’s 26-year-long armed conflict came to an end through military means in May, 2009. The final operations resulted in heavy human causalities and disappearances. More than 500,000 people were internally displaced, mostly detained in camps. After heavy pressure from the international community, most of the internally displaced persons (IDPs) were resettled.

The discrimination of the Sinhala majoritarian government and ongoing ethnic riots against the Tamil people resulted in their option for an armed struggle. The Tamil people’s cultural nationalism started to evolve into a political nationalism. They then claimed the north and eastern provinces as their homeland (see slide 6) and the Tamil language and Tamil culture became its identity markers.

The consequences of the war were that all three ethnic communities suffered, especially with the way the war ended in 2009. There were no hard data on how many were killed, arrested, and surrendered, with even entire families gone missing. A Catholic Bishop estimated that there were 146,679 missing persons during the final phase of war based on government and NGO data.

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The aftermath of the war included mass camps for internally displaced Tamil people managed by the military. The North and East provinces where mostly Tamils live were highly militarized. The occupation of land by military disrupted or destroyed the traditional livelihood practices of Tamil people. The level of military presence and influence in the former war-torn areas is exceptionally high. In the Jaffna Peninsula, there are around 40,000 army officers, a ratio of approximately 1:11 of military personnel to civilians. On nearly every major road there are military checkpoints or the presence of a soldier. The situation in the Vanni is even worse. The ratio of military personnel to civilians there is believed to be 1:3 or 4.1

In many places occupied by the military, the people were forced to relocate. These places were often rich in resources, such as fishing and agriculture, thus removing options for already limited livelihoods and income. The military also started conducting “Buddhisaization” in these places and giving them Sinhala names.

Due to the high number of disappearances, there was an increase in women-headed families, exacerbating their struggles. According to a report from the UNDP:

Security remains a primary concern for all women, combined with high levels of violence against women and girls often linked to a militarised environment, gender inequality, restrictive and patriarchal social mores, and the psychological impact of the armed conflict. In a study in 2013, 41% of women IDPs (internally displaced persons) indicated that they do not feel safe staying alone at home, with the highest levels of insecurity reflected in Killinochchi and Mullaitivu districts. There has been a discernible reduction in the visible presence of the military forces in daily life over the previous year that has been greatly welcomed in the Northern Province. There has also been a further visible improvement in the overall security climate since 2015, and responses to surveys suggest that 74% of people in the Northern Province feel safer than they did a year before. Next to security, social and economic issues are paramount, in particular access to land and housing, a lack of sustainable livelihoods, and indebtedness.2

The Rajapakse regime, instead of working for reconciliation, used ‘development language’ in the aftermath of war. The past was not addressed and people were forced to accept the development projects as signs of peaceful life. Development programs were designed by the central government and the local administration or the local labor forces were not consulted in these works.

In 2015, the National Unity Government formed with a cross-party political alliance of the two largest political parties—the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the United National Party (UNP)—and the positive working relationships of cooperation with the main Tamil party, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). This provided an opportunity to advance reconciliation, and facilitate peacebuilding. This new government empowered more Tamil and Sinhala moderates to be active in society and politics. They pledged to include peacebuilding and governance reforms to advance peace and reconciliation in Sri Lanka. This government took strong initiatives towards peace.

The Sri Lankan government co-sponsored a resolution at the United Nations Human Rights Commission (A/HRC/30/1). Further, the international community held Sri Lanka responsible for developing transitional justice mechanisms in Sri Lanka by promoting truth telling, realization of justice, reparations and guarantees of non-recurrence. The government focused primarily on the future, avoiding any dealing with the past.

After seeing that the government was ignoring the past issues, people started to use democratic spaces to demand justice. The families of disappeared persons and people of occupied lands started hunger protests and sit-in protests in streets and in front of military bases. They asked the government to tell them the truth about what happened to their family members and to release their land from occupation. People demanded their right to remember their dead ones.

Moreover, instability started growing in the government, which resulted in its malfunction. Meanwhile, former political and military powers started working against the good governance and their efforts for reconciliation. Against all this resistance, the government was unable to move towards sustainable peace.

As of September 2019, presidential elections were announced and the former-president Rajapakshe’s brother is contesting. Good governance failed to bring the necessary changes under the present administration. People lost their trust in transitional justice in Sri Lanka and feel that it was a failed attempt. Again, Sri Lanka has arrived at a state where it is hard to see a silver lining.


2 PROPOSAL PAPER: Strengthening Access to Justice and Victim and Witness Protection in Sri Lanka, UNDP, 2017.

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