From past British conflicts, a lesson in unity for Sri Lanka

The Globe and Mail Newspaper

The Globe And Mail – By Alistair Burt
(Submitted by Walter Jayawardhana)

When the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam met their demise in 2009 at the hands of the Sri Lankan army, no right minded person mourned their fall. Before the war, the Tigers ruled the Tamils of the north and east of the island with an iron fist and brutally murdered countless civilians.

During their campaign for independence they took terrorism to new levels of barbarity; it was the LTTE, after all, which pioneered suicide bombing. The government of Mahinda Rajapaksa defeated a truly reprehensible terrorist organizations with great severity. While the exact number is disputed, the UN Panel of Experts concluded that thousands of civilians died during the end of the war. The British Government’s position on accountability for this is clear – allegations must be investigated and if crimes were committed, whether by LTTE or government forces, those responsible must be brought to justice.

I have just returned from Sri Lanka, where I got a sense of the situation nearly four years after the conflict. I visited the north and the capital, met ministers, NGOs, displaced families, and Tamils trying to rebuild their lives. Much has been done. The economy is growing and infrastructure in the conflict zone is being rebuilt and expanded; new roads are opening up routes to market for farmers and fisherman. Large areas have also been de-mined, allowing for a significant reduction in internally displaced people.

But while the manifestations of conflict are fading, the root causes are not. The military has retained its tight grip on the north. Yes there are fewer soldiers on the streets, but the Army’s presence is still palpable in many aspects of people’s lives; Military Intelligence still questions those who speak to NGOs and journalists. The transition to genuine civil administration is not moving fast enough. Likewise, not enough is being done to complete a political settlement that would give all Sri Lankans a clear stake in a prosperous, peaceful future. New roads are not a substitute for this. Worryingly, the past few years have also seen a decline in press freedom and a stifling of legitimate opposition across Sri Lanka. Many fear that their independent judiciary and proud tradition of vibrant democracy and activist journalism are being eroded.

Detractors point to a host of reasons why progress has been slow. Some argue that the government is justified in reconciling on its own terms. They also point out, often accurately, that there is more to do by all sides to advance a political settlement. Others argue that elements within the Tamil diaspora have not accepted the Tiger’s defeat and pressure Tamils to reject dialogue. Finally, some simply assert that the bitterness from 30 years of war mean many are just not ready to reconcile.

Yet there is one very good reason that the government should do more; a reason well known to the British from our own experience of Northern Ireland. If you don’t make every effort to give people a stake in politics and if you fail to hold to account those responsible for the crimes of the past, you sow the seeds for future conflict.

It is this message I tried to get across last week. Too many lives were ruined while the U.K. learned these lessons. Britain is a friend of Sri Lanka; a friendship based on history, cultural links and common institutions. And as a friend of Sri Lanka, it should be no surprise that we don’t want them to repeat our mistakes. President Rajapaksa has banished terrorism from his country and ushered in a new period of prosperity. It is now time for the political leadership needed to heal the wounds which caused the war. An important first step would be implementing the recommendations of Sri Lanka’s own Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission.

This will be an important year in Sri Lanka: in November it plans to hold the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. The U.K. has not yet made a decision on attendance. CHOGM is a time to recall the values uniting the Commonwealth – values we have all freely agreed to. The Sri Lankan government must think through exactly what will be seen when the international spotlight shines upon them. As host, we look to them not only to adhere to the Commonwealth values of good governance, the rule of law and human rights, but to champion them.

Fundamentally though, these are not simply Commonwealth values, but the foundations on which all societies flourish. More importantly, they are Sri Lanka’s only route to genuine peace and a prosperous future for all its citizens; which is very much what the U.K. wishes for it.

Alistair Burt is Britain’s minister for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He tweets @alistairBurtFCO