Image courtesy BBC

Five years after the end of the war, Sri Lanka remains a post-war society that has yet to make the transition to a post-conflict society. While the violence has ceased, the political roots of the conflict that gave rise to war remain to be addressed. There continues to be extreme political polarization between the government and the Tamil and, more recently, the Muslim polity. In recent months, a new front has opened up with the renewed targeting of the Muslim minority, which shows that the build-up of extremist Sinhalese animosity against them, has not stopped. The attacks against the Muslims have not enjoyed popular support, but they are becoming regular enough to sow seeds of fear and apprehension within the Muslim community. The government has also started talking in terms of the revival of the LTTE and Tamil separatism.

It has warned that the LTTE is regrouping and plotting to renew its violent campaign for a separate state again. This warning has come in the context of a shootout reported in the North that led to the killing of three LTTE members by the military, who according to the government, had shot and injured a policeman in the leg.   It is plausible that there are small groups within the local population as well as internationally who may be plotting some violent acts, even if they know that the conditions at the present time do not permit sustained rebellion. The slain persons are accused of having had connections with the Tamil Diaspora and had prominent targets in mind.  It will be ironic if Sri Lanka, which achieved what seemed impossible by defeating the LTTE, should lose its prospects for peace so rapidly.

The government is justifying its security-centered approach to governance by pointing to the revival of the LTTE and an international conspiracy. The government has refused to cooperate with the UNHRC investigation. It has also banned 16 Tamil Diaspora organizations and 424 individuals whom it has accused of promoting terrorism. It may be noted that prior to the vote at the UNHRC in Geneva, the Northern Provincial Council, the TNA and Tamil civil society groups issued statements in support of an international investigation, which was diametrically in opposition to the government’s own position. But now there is fear now amongst these groups, and the mobilization of civil society protests against the government’s approach to accountability and human rights issues has virtually collapsed.

Reports from the North indicate that the military role has grown and the space for civil society to function has shrunk due to permission for activities that has to be obtained and is either not forthcoming or is deemed to be impossible to obtain. The security forces conducted extensive cordon and search operations and arrested over 60 persons, including civic activists, prior to the final shootout. It is tragic that after defeating the LTTE so totally on the battlefield, the government is edging towards a situation where the military is being called upon to play a greater role in the lives of the people.


On the other hand, there is a high level of skepticism, especially in the North and amongst members of the ethnic minorities, about the government’s claims about the revival of the LTTE, and even about the genuineness of the shoot-out that allegedly took place in the North. The three LTTE cadres were reportedly shot dead after being surrounded by the military. If they had been captured alive, they could have provided a wealth of information regarding their alleged mission. The justification for these doubts is strengthened by the government’s exclusive focus on building up the strength of the military to counter the possibility of terrorism in the future.   The failure of the government to take an equivalent interest in finding a political solution gives justification to these doubts.

The absence of transparency which is the usual attribute of the military has led to the sense of skepticism about the claims of the revival of the LTTE.  The absence of transparency and any sign of forward movement to politically resolve the problem create the space for a counter-conspiracy theory that suggests that all these efforts are to strengthen the government’s military stranglehold over the polity.  The only way to dispel this suspicion is for the government to move forward in regard to a political solution.   Political scientists have for a long time been able to show that ethnic conflicts are difficult to resolve.  However, in those few cases where there has been a total military victory by one side the situation is generally more stable than in those where there was a negotiated settlement.

The essential ingredient in consolidating peace after a military victory is to address the political roots of the conflict that gave rise to the war.  This realization and wisdom is present among the vast majority of the moderate population that the roots of the conflict must be addressed.  The problem is the failure on the part of the political leadership to apply this wisdom in a problem-solving practical and statesmanlike manner.  Although the LTTE was defeated militarily, the war that lasted three decades would have created a significant number of persons who imbibed of their violent ideology and continue to hold it to their hearts, even though they may not openly advocate it. Until there is a political solution that is acceptable to the moderate majorities in all communities, and is institutionalized in practice, there will continue to be justification to maintain a high level of military presence.


The radicalisation of any section of society, along ethnic or religious lines, is essentially indicative of the failure of the state to establish a system that is politically secular and democratic and socio-culturally inclusive.  The failure of the Sri Lankan state to provide security to those groups, comprising different ethnicities and religions to work together and remain integrated, as occurred recently when a mixed Muslim-Buddhist media conference was attacked, is not a positive sign at all.  The situation in the country after the passage of the UNHRC resolution that calls for an international investigation into last phase of Sri Lanka’s war has been one of escalation of confrontation both locally and internationally.

There is no doubt that the government is today capable of responding to any challenge to its authority on the ground regardless of international implications.  However, without genuine reconciliation, a society will be left with the same hatreds, fears, and anxieties that gave rise to the conflict in the first place, exacerbating the possibility that conflict will again break out. By its own actions, and lack of action, the government is giving credence to international claims that it is not serious about accountability for human rights violations of the past, and is not creating the political conditions for reconciliation in the present. What happens internationally will be outside the control of the Sri Lankan government.  However, what happens internally within Sri Lanka is well within the government’s control.

In countries that are in the midst of violent conflict the military is invariably built up and kept on active duty to quell anti-government offensives. But once a political solution is in place, the need for the military lessens. Sri Lanka is presently in a trap, where the larger the military role in governance gets, the bigger the mistrust, and the bigger the mistrust grows, the more important seems the role of the military in governance. So long as the government fails to present the country with a political solution, it will be difficult to dispel the belief that the government’s priority is to maintain a strong military that will do its bidding, right or wrong, rather than to democratize society and to resolve the ethnic conflict. It is through forward movement with regard to a mutually acceptable political solution that the government can best restore its credibility with the moderate sections within the country and the international community.


However, the window of hope is not entirely shut. It seems increasingly likely that South Africa will be playing the key role in facilitating Sri Lanka’s transition from war to post-war healing and a political solution. South African President Jacob Zuma told the South African Parliament in February this year that at the request of the Sri Lanka Government he was appointing Cyril Ramaphosa as South Africa’s Special Envoy to bring about peace and reconciliation in Sri Lanka. The special envoy is expected to visit Sri Lanka in June this year. It is clear that the South African government is taking its peace building role very seriously. The role that South Africa will be playing in Sri Lanka was explained to all levels of the ruling party at the ANC’s annual convention last month.

In his first public comments on his role, Mr. Cyril Ramaphosa, also Deputy President of the ruling African National Congress (ANC), said, “We are truly honoured to be chosen amongst many countries to go and make this type of contribution to the people of Sri Lanka,” he said. “We have a wonderful story to tell, and it is this wonderful story that the Sri Lankans see.” He also said, “As South Africans we do not impose any solution on anyone around the world. All we ever do is to share our own experience and tell them how, through negotiation, through compromise, through giving and taking, we were able to defeat the monster of Apartheid.” He added, “We think we can share those experiences, and of course in the end, it is up to the people of Sri Lanka to find their own peace.

Both the Sri Lankan government and the TNA have sent delegations to South Africa to meet with members of both the South African government and its ruling party, the ANC, as a precursor to Special Envoy Ramaphosa’s visit in June. The evident interest of the Sri Lankan government to pursue South African assistance in these circumstances is significant. The two most important aspects of the conflict transformation process will be to find a political solution that is acceptable to both the government and the opposition parties, particularly the ethnic minority parties, and also to find an answer to the problems of accountability that arose in the context of the three decade long war. Success in achieving the first of these targets will do much to consolidate a sustainable and long term peace.   Success on the second matter will enable the Sri Lankan government to once again become a respected member of the international community and to repair its worsening relations with the Western countries.


The timing of the Sri Lankan government’s implementation of these two components of the South African peace process is, however, likely to differ. The most important matter for the government will be the forthcoming Presidential Elections which are likely to be held at the beginning of next year. The government will certainly not want the South African peace initiative to jeopardize its election prospects. In other words, the government will not want the South African peace initiative to progress too quickly to the controversial issues of a political solution. This is an arena of extreme emotion and controversy that will be best taken out and away from the electoral process.

By way of contrast, the government is more likely to be receptive, at the current juncture, to work with South Africa to reach agreement on the form and substance of a mechanism to ensure accountability for past actions. Such an accountability mechanism could relieve the international pressure on the government. At the March session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, there was a significant majority of countries that called for the establishment of an international inquiry into Sri Lanka’s past, and also called for an update of the situation at the next session of the UN Human Rights Council in September. If the South African intervention has become established by then, the international pressure on Sri Lanka on account of an international inquiry is likely to get reduced.

The best case scenario in regard to the South African initiative would be one that sees the Sri Lankan government making a sincere effort to engage in conflict transformation after the next round of national elections is completed. In this scenario, the Sri Lankan government would wait till about the first half of 2015 when the dust has settled after the elections, to take meaningful steps to devolve powers to the provincial councils and also ensure that the devolved system works even better, as envisaged by President Rajapaksa’s war-time and post-war promise of 13th Amendment plus. This would necessarily be accompanied by measures taken, even commencing in June with the visit of Special Envoy Ramaphosa, to establish a domestic accountability mechanism that meets international standards with the support of South Africa.

The political resolution of the conflict will be difficult due to the ethnic and identity-based nature of the conflict which generates extreme insecurities on all sides. However, it is important that the Sri Lankan government takes immediate measures to improve the situation on the ground, so that there is an immediate peace dividend and its decision to invite South African facilitation is not seen as merely a hard headed decision to ward off the international community in Geneva. The situation in the North of the country, where over 60 have been arrested in recent weeks and some released by the security forces, and the targeting of the Muslim community by extremist groups, has created a climate of fear that is the opposite of reconciliation.



This article is part of a  larger collection of articles and content commemorating five years after the end of war in Sri Lanka. An introduction to this special edition by the Editor of Groundviews can be read here. This, and all other articles in the special edition, is published under a Creative Commons license that allows for republication with attribution.