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Can Sri Lanka’s minorities dare to hope for change from the nation’s new President?

29 January 2015

Farah Mihlar is a Sri Lankan Muslim human rights activist and academic who works as a conflict prevention co-ordinator at Minority Rights Group International and is currently on maternity leave. She started her career as a journalist and has reported on the country’s ethnic conflict for over a decade. She is currently doing a PhD on Islamic extremism in Muslim minority contexts.

This month the unthinkable happened in Sri Lanka. One of the most autocratic leaders in the country’s post-independent history, Mahinda Rajapaksa, was defeated in democratic elections, and this was done primarily by Sri Lanka’s trampled and oppressed ethnic and religious minority population. Sri Lanka’s nearly 30 percent minority population, comprising Tamils, Muslims and Christians, defied violence, intimidation and threats, and came out to vote in their millions to rewrite the country’s history. Now that the euphoria is settling down, the critical question is what the new President Maithripala Sirisena and his government has to offer them?

When I returned to Colombo for a holiday just prior to the election, there were hints of the possible defeat of Rajapaksa, but with the level of power he yielded, using nepotism, thuggery and state resources for his campaign, it seemed doubtful. Everywhere I travelled, in the central hill country and the southern coastal areas; there were massive cut-outs of Rajapaksa, his brothers and son, all of whom wielded senior positions in the government. But in the early hours of the 9th of January, as people stayed awake glued to their televisions, the turnaround became evident. Having worked in minority rights for nearly a decade, faced threats and intimidation by political goons for exposing  human rights violations, and constantly fearing and worrying for my activist friends in the country who were routinely threatened and attacked for bravely challenging the government, it was an exceptional time to be back home. To me, it was not about regime change as much as it was about people power. The election result map clearly showed that the areas where Rajapaksa lost were minority areas, where voter turnout, in some cases, was over 75 percent.

Since the defeat of Tamil Tiger rebels in 2009, Sri Lanka’s Tamils in the north and east have faced countless human rights violations ranging from extra-judicial killings, disappearances, loss of homes and income to sexual violence and limitations on freedoms. These freedoms have been curtailed through the intense militarisation of the former war zone on the grounds of preventing the re-emergence of terrorism. Muslims, who were evicted by Tamil militants from their homes during the conflict, have been largely neglected in their attempts to return. In addition, Sinhalese Buddhist extremist mobs have unleashed a series of violent attacks, supported by the previous regime, against mosques, Muslim religious institutions and businesses in the south of the country. Hate campaigns have accused Muslims of religious fundamentalism. In defying threats and voting in large numbers, Sri Lanka’s minorities not only brought about political change, but they also used democratic means to thrash the Rajapaksa’s myth of rising extremism amongst minorities. This is a clear message to the country’s rulers that minorities are not interested in pursuing violent means to win their rights and are willing to work within the democratic mainstream.

Sirisena and his new government have been quick to act on corruption and violence, which were their two key campaign issues that won them about half the vote of the majority Sinhala community. In addition, they have taken steps to restore media freedom, promised investigations into killings and disappearances of journalists. The new government’s policy towards minorities is less clear.

Sirisena has made public statements affirming the protection and equal treatment of all communities. However, these are guarantees which are already stated in Sri Lanka’s constitution, and as President of the country, at the very least, he has to uphold its provisions. Such a statement is a given and does not offer much to communities which have suffered so much. One of his progressive moves has been to replace a former military commander with a civilian to the foremost administrative post in the northern province, which is considered the homeland of minorities. The military currently runs everything from housing projects to vegetable markets in these areas and reducing their control will be welcomed by Tamils.

Mr. Sirisena needs to make a visit to the north and east, and meet with the large numbers of Tamils and Muslims who are responsible for bringing him to power. He needs to find out from the people directly what changes they want. Having myself conducted research in the war-torn and other minority areas in the last few years, that list is huge.

Muslims want security and freedom of religion. Muslims in the north also want the right to return to their homes, as well as support to co-exist with Tamils. The immediate needs for Tamils in the former conflict areas include – freedom of movement, expression and association; return to their homes and income generation, especially for the many widows; demilitarisation; and self governance. The immediacy of this does not trump their bigger need for truth, justice and reconciliation. I have interviewed dozens of people, women in particular, whose family members were killed or disappeared since the last stages of the war. They are still waiting for answers.

It is early days but the current focus of the new political leadership is on holding the previous regime accountable for violence in the south and corruption, with nothing mentioned about their handling of the war and its legacy. Most Sri Lankan’s believe that the conflict was won justly and that the country is being unfairly targeted by countries like Britain and the US, which have their own appalling records of war crimes. Many of my friends and family have criticised me for raising issues of human rights violations in the international arena, arguing that in any war civilian deaths are inevitable. As one friend put it, ‘a few eggs have to be broken to make an omelette.’

What the majority of people are unaware of, and this because there was blanket censorship of the media and internet during the last stages of fighting, was that it was not just a question of a few lives lost; tens of thousands of civilians were killed. And there are substantial allegations of targeted civilian attacks. This cannot be swept under the carpet and expected to be forgotten. The bottom line is that we Sri Lankans have never found out the truth. Now with a new President and cabinet of ministers, there is no reason to withhold this search for truth. There is nothing to stop the President cooperating with the current UN investigation on Sri Lanka and in addition appointing our equivalent of South Africa’s truth and reconciliation commission. The former is necessary for Sri Lanka’s international credibility and the latter is essential for national reconciliation.

Six years after the end of the war there is no fighting in Sri Lanka, but there is no peace either. Reconciliation is critical, and this cannot happen unless the truth is known. This, sooner rather than later, has to be at the top of the new President’s agenda. If minorities in Sri Lanka are imperative to political change, then that change must reflect their needs and aspirations too.

This article reflects the opinion of its author only and does not engage MRG’s responsibility.