The stunning results of the provincial election in northern Sri Lanka last week are cause for cautious optimism. With the Tamil National Alliance sweeping up 30 of 36 contested seats, Tamils have finally secured a much-needed voice within the political system. And while more profound reform is required, this small, democratic step should be celebrated and should lead Stephen Harper to reconsider his threat to boycott November’s Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Sri Lanka.
These elections – the first in the Northern Province of Sri Lanka in 25 years – have produced a rare moment that could alter the shape of Sri Lanka’s future. Canada should be at the table in Colombo with the rest of the Commonwealth in a significant way, to help frame international pressure on President Mahinda Rajapaksa to institute crucial reforms around issues such as land ownership and policing that would further enfranchise Tamils.
Of course, the Colombo regime still has much to answer for, in the wake of a long and brutal war that left as many as 100,000 people dead, according to the United Nations. Distressingly, Sri Lankan security forces are believed to have killed as many as 40,000 civilians, as the conflict drew to its bloody end four years ago.
Amateur and mobile footage that surfaced after the war depict absolutely appalling acts: sustained shelling of civilian targets, such as hospitals, by Sri Lankan soldiers; execution-style killings; soldiers piling the bodies of naked women onto trucks, and filming their victims as “trophies.”
The United Nations Human Rights Council has denounced the government’s failure to properly investigate alleged war crimes committed during the final few months of the war and rightly concludes in a 2012 report that “there can be no lasting peace and stability without dealing with the most serious past violations.”
It is also undeniable that human rights abuses persist, even as Tamils celebrate their limited political victory in the North. The Sri Lankan army continues to occupy land it appropriated at the height of the conflict, a continuing crime against those displaced Tamils who yearn to return to their homes. (Some have been razed to make way for luxury hotels and airports.)
Mr. Rajapaksa’s government routinely undermines the independence of Sri Lanka’s judiciary and its press, both of which are vital to a democratic society. One of the most striking (and frankly, laughable) examples of this came in the lead-up to last week’s election when a fake version of Uthayan, a popular Tamil newspaper, featured a front-page story claiming that Ananthi Sasitharan, a leading Tamil candidate, had defected to join the ranks of the governing party, prompting the TNA to decide to boycott the election. Readers were immediately suspicious of the story’s veracity because the paper, which normally costs 20 rupees, was being handed out for free.
The ploy is part of the deeper, systematic repression that led Navi Pillay, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, to assert last month that the Sri Lankan government is “heading in an increasingly authoritarian direction.”
Her sentiments were echoed by the Canadian Conservative Senator Hugh Segal, who issued an even darker assessment, when he returned from a fact-finding mission to Sri Lanka last March. He summarized what he saw as “soft ethnic cleansing.” Indeed, before the election, Mr. Rajapaksa centralized power in the hands of himself and his family in such a way as to render the elected provincial councils themselves somewhat impotent.
Mr. Harper is right to be wary of Mr. Rajapaksa. He owes nothing to a government that ignores the findings of an international panel of experts and refuses to properly investigate atrocities that could amount to war crimes.
And Ottawa’s threat to boycott the Commonwealth meeting has played well with Canada’s 300,000-strong Tamil diaspora, who largely live in the Greater Toronto Area, which may well be key to the Conservatives in the next federal election.
At the same time, Canadian politicians must not in any way condone any revival of Tamil militantism, and specifically the terrorism of the Tamil Tigers.
But what would Mr. Harper’s skipping the meeting actually accomplish for the hundreds of thousands of voters in Sri Lanka who braved intimidation and violence in order to cast a ballot? Sixty per cent of those eligible voted in Jaffna, the provincial capital. Turnout in other Tamil-dominated districts was even higher, hitting 71 per cent in the former insurgent stronghold of Mullaitivu.
For these defiant voters, the election represents a glimmer of hope, however faint, that they will finally have some measure of control over their own destinies and a future free from violence. It represents their desire for some level of autonomy (not necessarily secession) that decades of repressive rule – under both the rebel Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan military – have failed to quell.
It remains to be seen whether the Rajapaksa regime is willing to countenance more meaningful change. Canada, along with the rest of the Commonwealth, should use its seat at the table to press for reform. If Tamil voters in Sri Lanka are willing to give politics a chance, Mr. Harper should do so as well.