Civil activities and freedoms curbed, five years after Sri Lanka's civil war | Asia Pacific

Civil activities and freedoms curbed, five years after Sri Lanka's civil war

Civil activities and freedoms curbed, five years after Sri Lanka's civil war

Updated 25 June 2014, 17:35 AEST

An assessment of Sri Lanka, five years after the civil war, says ethnic minorities are no better off and the sources of conflict are still being sustained.

This is due to a near collapse of the rule of law and ongoing militarisation in the former war zones.
Dr Pakiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives, says there's hardly any space for civil activity, with freedom of speech diminished considerably. 
Dr Saravanamuttu, currently visiting Melbourne, says while Sri Lanka's government is focusing on economic development, there's little inclusiveness or participation. 
Presenter:  Sen Lam
Speaker: Dr Pakiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives, Colombo
SARAVANAMUTTU: Five years after the war, Sri Lanka is still in a post-war phase, the guns have fallen silent, the war is over, terrorism was defeated. However, we haven't moved yet into what I would call a post-conflict phase. And what I mean by that is that the sources of conflict that gave rise to the war are still be sustained, reproduced and even new sources of conflict are being put on the agenda. So in that respect, the trajectory of developments in over the last five years hasn't been particularly propitious, not withstanding the fact that full scale war has ended. 
There is an over emphasis, for example, on economic development, designed, conceived and implemented from the centre, very little inclusiveness and participation of the people whose lives is directly affects. There's institutionalised militarisation, seen most acutely in the north, but not exclusively so, it's spreading to the rest of the country. There's a near collapse of the rule of law, which was epitomised with the farcical impeachment of the Chief Justice, in the early part of last year. And now we have this horrendous spectacular of religious intolerance, which is now being manifested in open, avert violence.
LAM: Indeed, we have been seeing hardline Sinhala groups purporting to represent the Buddhist community, behaving violently towards the Muslim community. This group, the Bodu Bala Sena, how much community support does it enjoy or is it just a small hardline group?
SARAVANAMUTTU: I think it is largely a small hardline group and that it does not enjoy majority support. But what is most important, is that it acts with impuntiy and that is because, I think it does enjoy support from within the regime.
LAM: So you think the government has been showing Bodu Bala Sena excessive tolerance?
SARAVANAMUTTU: Excessive tolerance and I think there are elements within the government who really support it.
LAM: So what is the reasoning for this, because surely the government knows that such unrest and disunity, if you like, is not good for the country?
SARAVANAMUTTA: I think these elements have calculated that, the government will only get support from the majority Sinhala community and that it has to present itself as the champions and defenders of that community. And that community is under siege, both from a resurgent LTTE and well as from other minority groups in the country, particularly the Muslims, but there've also been attacks on evangelical Christian churches. 
But I think the argument here is is that the ruling power, the family, the dynasty, wants to present itself as the real defenders of the Sinhala Buddhist constituency and therefore they want to make out that it is under siege and therefore that they are even more relevant and pertinent as the defenders and champions of this particular constituency.
LAM: You mentioned a resurgent LTTE. Is there evidence of this that they're regrouping in some way?
SARAVANAMUTTA: Well soon after the resolution and the Human Rights Council in Geneva was passed in March, of this year, the government did say that there were some individuals who had been given the task of reviving the LTTE and that there were blueprints for high level political assassinations et cetera. 
People were taken into detention and eventually, we were told that the particular individual who was given this task was killed in a shootout whilst trying to escape or something along those lines. 
But it's that constant need to remind the people that the 'threat' is ever present, although the military dimension of it was defeated in 2009, the threat is ever present and as long as that's the case, it is only we, and we alone, who can defend it.
LAM: And, of course, one of the arguments is that the Tamil regions, in the north and east, that if you look after those regions properly, then there will be no support for the LTTE. Is the government doing the right thing here as far as you can tell? Is the government bringing the Tamils back into the fold?
SARAVANAMUTTA: Well, as I said to you earlier, I mean you have institutionalised militarisation, which is most acutely felt in the north and east, where the military is involved in the economy, for example, from growing and selling vegetables through running hotels and managing golf courses and you name it. So it's evolved in the economy. 
It's involved in civilian governance. There is hardly any space for civil society activity, which have shrunk considerably, so there are violations with regard to the freedom of speech, with regard to the freedom of assembly. So in that respect, the people in the north and east feel very much that they are being treated as something kind of subjugated community. 
Furthermore, as far as the north and east is concerned, the over reliance or over dependence prioritisation of economic development from the centre has involved very little consultation and participation with the people whose lives it directly affects. So they feel left out of this whole developmental push. 
And thirdly, finally, they want to know the truth. They want to know the truth in terms of what has happened to their family members, who they saw in the last days of the war, who either surrendered or were taken in. 
They want to find out as to what has happened to them. So that whole question of truth and accountability of an acknowledgment of them having gone to hell and back, as it were, is pivotal for them to even begin to conceive of themselves as equal citizens in Sri Lanka today.
LAM: Is there not even a little glimmer of hope for change in Sri Lanka?
SARAVANAMUTTA: Well, I hope there is always space for a glimmer of hope in that, yes, there has been some economic development. As someone said, "Things look better, but they feel worse."
LAM: But how will that come about if there's still this very close intimate relationship between the executive and the military?
SARAVANAMUTTA: Well, this is the thing. It's that we do need for this sort of political architecture the institutions and processes to facilitate, national unity, reconciliation et cetera, there has to be considerably regime reform. 
There has to be a change of the mindset and to recognise is that Sri Lanka is a diverse, pluralistic society and that formal functioning institutions and processes of democracy need to reflect that. Popular pressure, popular agitation with the international support might be able to make some headway.



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