Sri Lanka: Is A 'Culture of Impunity' Blocking Reconciliation?

Sri Lankan children climb aboard an armoured vehicle on display in Colombo on Dec. 15, 2010. (Ishara S. Kodikara/AFP/Getty Images)
Sri Lankan children climb aboard an armoured vehicle on display in Colombo on Dec. 15, 2010. (Ishara S. Kodikara/AFP/Getty Images)

Over the last week, the United States has raised its voice regarding accountability and reconciliation in post-war Sri Lanka. A US Senate resolution called for the establishment of an independent international accountability mechanism, and Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Robert Blake told AFP: "If Sri Lanka is not willing to meet international standards regarding these matters ... there will be pressure to appoint some sort of international commission to look into these things."

Such statements, and the imminent completion of the work of both the panel of advisors to the UN Secretary General and the Sri Lankan Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), are likely to again bring further international attention on Sri Lanka in the near future.

For the most part, the response of Sri Lanka's Rajapaksa government is that the LLRC will address the accountability issue and that international pressure is a result of mobilizations by sections of the Tamil diaspora who supported the separatist Tamil Tigers. However, questions have been raised about the inadequacy of the LLRC, mainly because of the very narrow mandate afforded it and the failure of past commissions to address the culture of impunity that prevails in Sri Lanka. Blaming the Tamil diaspora and whipping up nationalist sentiment inside the country is a strategy that has worked for the government in the past. This will not help address larger issues simmering underneath Sri Lanka's foreign relations with powerful international actors.

Furthermore, the Tamil diaspora as a political force in the West is rather marginal to begin with, and its coherence as well as its capacity to mobilize have been in steady decline since the decimation of the Tigers. Extreme campaigns by sections of the Tamil diaspora have only served the interests of some opportunistic actors vying for prominence within the diaspora, and the government's focus on those ineffective campaigns only betray its unwillingness to address fundamental problems in its external relations and, more important, domestic governance.

While international pressure on accountability continues to mount, meaningful reconciliation within the country will depend much on democratization in the face of the authoritarian grip of the Rajapaksa regime. Despite the end of the war, militarization and Sinhala Buddhist nationalism dominate the political and social geography of the country. Such a political landscape has inhibited reconciliation between the polarized communities and the ability of the war-affected population to address their own trauma and also undermined possible social transformation through a political settlement during the historic opportunity presented by this post-war period.

Ahilan Kadirgamar is an Asia Society associate fellow and spokesperson of the Sri Lanka Democracy Forum. He also spoke recently at Harvard.

Watch a video below on whether prosperity can bring peace in Sri Lanka. 

Ambassador Robert Blake of the US State Department joins Sri Lankan Permanent Representative to the United Nations Ambassador Palitha T.B. Kohona and Asia Society Executive Vice President Jamie Metzl for a sold-out program on Sri Lanka's postwar rebuilding at Asia Society New York on Monday, March 14, which will also be a free live video webcast on at 6:30 pm ET. 

In the meantime, tell us what you think ahead of next week's program. Can economic development help bring prosperity, and a degree of peace, to Sri Lanka? Or are government policies already closing the window on the chance for meaningful reconciliation? Please remember to stay civil and on-topic in your comments.