United Nations Urges Sri Lanka To Reduce Army’s Grasp

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A UN rights expert reiterated calls for Sri Lanka to step up reconciliation efforts and reduce the military’s presence in former war zones seven years after the end of fighting.

UN minority rights expert Rita Izsak-Ndiaye urged the government to press ahead with healing the wounds of the conflict, after coming to power last year promising reforms and reconciliation.

“The government must put in place some urgent, important and concrete measures to clearly demonstrate its political will and commitment to better protect Sri Lanka’s minorities,” she said at the end of a 10-day visit to Sri Lanka.

The government should return military-occupied land and disengage troops from civilian activities, a key demand of ethnic Tamils in the island’s war-battered north.

She also asked Colombo to either indict or free Tamil detainees who have been held in custody for long periods without charge.

“This includes… taking visible steps to gradually transfer military powers to civilian authorities,” she said.

Government forces still maintain a large presence in the former conflict zones and keep a close watch on the local Tamil population despite the end of the war in 2009.

The ethnic Sinhalese-dominated military also runs hotels, transport services and other enterprises in competition with local Tamil businesses.

Tamil rebels fighting for a separate homeland for the ethnic minority were defeated in a final military push after years of conflict.

She said some 6,000 acres (2,420 hectares) of private land still occupied by the military in the northern province, which saw some of the heaviest fighting, should be swiftly returned.

During a visit by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to Sri Lanka last month, President Maithripala Sirisena pleaded for more time to bring about ethnic reconciliation and also investigate war crimes.

Sri Lanka had faced international censure after Sirisena’s predecessor Mahinda Rajapakse insisted that not a single civilian was killed by troops under his command.

Rajapakse also refused to investigate allegations that up to 40,000 minority Tamil civilians perished in the final stages of the war.