Sri Lankan human rights lawyer Lakshan Dias talks to Alys Francis about why the nationalistic “Singhalese psyche” would take a long time to fade away
Sri Lanka marked the anniversary of the end of its three-decade civil war on 19 May, 2009 in a different style than the usual military parades last month.
Gone were the tough talking speeches by former President Mahindra Rajapaksa – who was defeated in elections earlier this year by Maithripala Sirisensa – replaced by a sombre program focusing on reconciliation. But Tamil politicians and activists say the new administration’s changes do not go far enough.
Sri Lanka’s new government allowed Tamil politicians in former war zones to hold a memorial event for dead civilians, and renamed the occasion “remembrance day” instead of “victory celebrations”. The moves came after President Sirisensa promised to free hundreds of minority Tamil detainees and return land in the north and east that the military seized during the conflict.
Sri Lankan human rights lawyer Lakshan Dias said the first four months of the new government’s rule had seen some progress to this end – but a lot still needed to happen for Tamil people in the northeast – where a 2012 United Nations report estimated as many as 40,000 civilians died in the final months of the 27-year long conflict.
“There’s a lot to come for the northern people and eastern people,” Dias told the Indian Sun. “They are still experiencing restrictions… there’s still an army presence [in the northeast].”
Dias said around 1000 Tamil people had been given land as part of the new administration’s promise to return land – although it was not always the same pieces as they claimed to have lost.
Prisoners were also being released “at a very slow speed,” he said. “But you have to understand something, [it’s the] same old army, same old police, same old bureaucrats.”
Dias said Sri Lankan politics; institutions and bureaucrats were influenced by a nationalistic “Singhalese psyche” that would take a long time to fade away. “They think their enemies are still living in the minority communities,” he said. “That is how the mindset works in the Sri Lankan Singhalese forces and in the bureaucratic institutions.”
Human Rights Watch has expressed doubts about the new administration’s commitment to addressing allegations of human rights abuses and war crimes during the last stages of the war.
At the same time, since the change in government, Indian politicians have been calling for Tamil refugees, who have been living in camps in Tamil Nadu for decades, to be repatriated to the island nation.
But Dias believes it’s too soon for any country to be pushing for refugees to be returned to Sri Lanka.
“I think now is not the time at all to return any refugees from anywhere in the world to Sri Lanka,” Dias said. “There’s lot of perquisites to be completed before they send them.”
Meanwhile, Dias criticised Australia’s Prime Minister Tony Abbott for calling Sri Lanka a “human rights paradise” and enforcing strict anti-asylum seeker policies, which have seen boats intercepted at sea and forced to turn back.
“Stopping people in international waters as they have for the last few years… it’s an extreme violation of international law,” Dias said. “It gives a very, very bad example for the entire Southeast Asia and South Asian countries, which look at Australia as a so-called democracy.”
He said Sri Lankan refugees that were returned and handed over to authorities last July after trying to make their way from Tamil Nadu to Australia by boat were now struggling to survive in what was an unfamiliar country for them.
“None of them have proper documents [in Sri Lanka],” he said. “They don’t know if they have property… they are living like a stateless person.”