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From Conflict to Strife: The Aftermath of the Sri Lankan Civil War

February 19th, 2018

Max Rodgers – Research Assistant

In the grand scheme of international relations and conflict studies, many subjects often attract attention in the media and academic discourse. The story of one nation state and a key conflict within it, however, tends to lose out in comparison to ones such as Israel/Palestine, North Korea, Russia and Iran. This story is that of Sri Lanka, its civil war that raged from 1983 to 2009, and – of most relevance today – the post-conflict aftermath in the country.

The Sri Lankan Civil War began in 1983, roughly eleven years after the country became a republic from the former dominion of Ceylon. The conflict emerged from an insurgency campaign waged by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a group more popularly known as the Tamil Tigers. The organisation aimed to establish an independent state for the Tamil people in the north of the country.

To give a brief background to ethnic groups in Sri Lanka both historically and today, the majority are Sinhalese whilst a minority are Tamil. During the period between the 1948 independence and 1983, tensions between the two groups flared, with numerous anti-Tamil riots taking place from 1956 to 1983. During the same period, one of the responses by the Tamils was to form militant groups that would pressure for Tamil independence. In July 1983, the LTTE launched a deadly ambush on a Sri Lankan army patrol known as ‘Four Four Bravo’, killing 13 officers and soldiers. This was immediately followed by anti-Tamil riots in Colombo and the targeted killing of thousands of Tamils in what became known as ‘Black July’. These incidents were the key events considered to have sparked off the civil war.

For the next 25 years, Sri Lanka would be gripped by conflict, with UN analysis following the end of the war estimating that up to 100,000 people were killed during its course. Both sides, the Sri Lankan government and LTTE, came under international condemnation from various states and organisations. The LTTE were listed as a terrorist organisation by several countries, including the US and India, whilst legal organisations condemned the government for abuses of power during their management of the war.

In the first two decades of the conflict, attempts at peace talks failed and it took until 2002 for a ceasefire to be signed. However, hostilities would renew again in 2005, with the government of Mahinda Rajapaksa launching a new drive to defeat the LTTE, stating that the group had violated the ceasefire agreement. Ultimately, Rajapaksa’s government oversaw the end of the civil war, with the destruction of LTTE supply lines and more aggressive pushes to crackdown on their efforts.

Barely a year after the defeat of the LTTE, Rajapaksa stood for a second term, facing off against General Sarath Fonseka, the former Chief of Defence Staff who had led the armed forces in the end phase of the war. Whilst Fonseka had military prestige behind him, Rajapaksa had a political dynasty. The son of a former Cabinet minister, Rajapaksa had been in politics for most of his adult life and had held a variety of posts including Prime Minister before defeating President Kumaratunga in the 2005 election. In office, he had appointed family and close allies to key posts before pressing ahead with his drive to win the war.

The contest between Rajapaksa and Fonseka would do damage to relations between the government and the armed forces. A quote from Fonseka that accused Defence Minister Gotabaya Rajapaksa – the President’s brother – of authorising executions of LTTE cadres, played badly amongst voting blocs sympathetic to the armed forces as it was seen as Fonseka betraying his former officers. In tandem, allegations about corruption and nepotism by the Rajapaksa administration further soured relations. Rajapaksa would win the election, with Fonseka being arrested and then convicted for “military offenses”, in a move that received international condemnation. Fonseka would be released from prison in 2012 amidst international pressure.

Rajapaksa called a snap presidential election for January 2015, two years ahead of schedule, in a campaign that numerous observers, both domestic and international, assumed he would win easily. Therefore, when his main rival, Maithripala Sirisena, was declared the winner, shock briefly prevailed across the nation. Sirisena, a former Cabinet Minister, had served in frontline politics for decades, but his campaign was seen as unable to win.

Upon his inauguration, Sirisena set about initiating an ambitious reform initiative, termed the ‘100 Day program’, which primarily focused on changing the role of the executive branch. He aimed to reinvigorate the authority of the Sri Lankan judiciary and parliament away from that of the executive branch and military, and renew investigations into corruption and war crimes. Sirisena also proposed new freedom of information laws and formed a national unity government as a way to try and heal divides. Additionally, he pardoned Fonseka and appointed him to his Cabinet.

Yet, two years after assuming power, disillusionment has begun to set in regarding his government. Until this time, media and political attention had largely focused on Sirisena’s domestic reforms and allegations of misdeeds by the Rajapaksa’s. In particular, the investigation into Gotabaya’s conduct as Defence Minister drew great interest. Most notably, these included allegations of illegal actions, such as ordering the execution of surrendering LTTE leaders, authorising assassinations and abductions of rivals and of taking bribes. Gotabaya has always denied such actions as the case continues on.

One particular new policy of the Sirisena government regarding the Army has drawn significant controversy from service members. Sirisena’s Reconciliation Task Force, a body aimed to heal divisions from the war, has proposed Special Courts and Prosecutors to look at armed forces conduct. With the military now trimmed down to 160,000 personnel since 2010, another policy that has brought Sirisena criticism, relations between Sirisena and armed forces figures were thought to be worsening until Sirisena recently defended military figures being prosecuted.

In addition, the post-war situation of the Tamils has remained perilous. More than 100,000 remain as refugees in India, whilst those who remained in areas such as Jaffna struggle to rebuild their lives amidst resource and security dilemmas. Tamil politicians have also been divided amongst themselves amidst political shifts and disagreements, thus splintering efforts to press for reconciliations after the war.

Taking the above into account, and with public support now twisting back to Rajapaksa, it looks as if Sirisena will be unable to deliver significant further reforms during his tenure. With Sirisena unable to deliver, and a potential Rajapaksa return on the cards, the kind of post-civil war reform touted back in 2015 now seems in peril. Rajapaksa’s recent political comeback could go either way. The ending of the civil war and problems with reconciliation ultimately played a role in Rajapaksa’s defeat in 2015, yet Sirisena’s stunted reforms and a potential Rajapaksa return now means that the situation is even more unclear.

With Sirisena unsure if he will run again, will the opposition unite again around another anti-Rajapaksa candidate? Will the policy thus be the same? And will Rajapaksa, a man still with a strong grip on his party and electoral coalition, shift in policy to make his appeal broader for the next election? These questions mean that a definitive judgment of the aftermath’s direction cannot yet be reached. At best, all that can be determined at present is that the post-civil war settlement in Sri Lanka has had mixed results, and has left the country with an unclear future.

Image: Refugees on the move during the closing stages of the Sri Lankcan civil war (Source: trokilinochchi)

About Max Rodgers