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In August this year, Jagath Jayasuriya, Sri Lanka’s ambassador to Brazil, left the country abruptly after encountering an unexpected legal challenge: a suit accusing him of war crimes.

Mr Jayasuriya was one of the army commanders who in 2009 led a crushing victory against Tamil separatists in Sri Lanka’s north — ending one of Asia’s longest-running conflicts, but at the cost of an estimated 40,000 civilian deaths in the war’s bloody final months.

In their suit filed in Brasília and Bogotá, Latin American activists accused Mr Jayasuriya, who was also ambassador to five other countries in the region, of involvement in alleged atrocities including shelling of hospitals, torture and summary executions. 

The move prompted a defiant response from the country’s president. “I will not allow anyone in the world to touch Jagath Jayasuriya or any other military chief or any war hero in this country,” Maithripala Sirisena said. 

The incident is a sharp reminder of how the conflict still dogs Sri Lanka’s global reputation. But equally revealing was the reaction of Mr Sirisena. 

Elected in 2015 when he defeated Mahinda Rajapaksa, a charismatic but divisive figure who had led Colombo’s uncompromising final campaign of the war, Mr Sirisena had promised a new era of reconciliation, including accountability for atrocities that had stained Sri Lanka’s international reputation. The result raised hopes that Sri Lanka would conduct the sort of credible process that would enable the country to put its bitter internal conflict firmly in the past.

Instead, the defence he offered of Mr Jayasuriya is the latest in a series of signs that the new president is backtracking on his commitments and of the unwillingness of his government to prosecute the soldiers who allegedly broke the articles of the Geneva Convention during the final months of the conflict. 

Two Sri Lanka maps showing the wealthy Western province contributes the lion’s share to the economy. One map shows GDP per capita and the other shows population density

Despite a high-profile 2015 UN report that flagged apparent war crimes by the Sri Lankan military, the government has failed to outline a plan for a judicial investigation of the matter.

In March, the UN Human Rights Council accepted Sri Lanka’s argument that it needed an additional two years to set up a probe. But Mr Sirisena’s vow to protect “war heroes” undermines hopes that a promised international process will ever go ahead, while the war-ravaged north remains economically far behind the rest of the country.

As concern mounts over military violence against Myanmar’s Rohingya minority, the handling of Sri Lanka’s war legacy will set a powerful precedent for other governments, says Dharsha Jegatheeswaran at the Adayaalam Centre for Policy Research in Jaffna, capital of the Tamil-majority Northern Province.

“There’s been absolutely no accountability for what happened in the last phase of the war,” she says. “Sri Lanka has shown how it’s possible to hoodwink the international community, always asking for space and time — and now Myanmar is following their lead.”

Sri Lankan soldiers during a Victory Day parade in Colombo. There were 265,200 Sri Lankan army personnel in 2015, according to the IISS © AFP

At Mullivaikkal beach, the silence is broken only by lapping waves and the murmured chatter of S Manialakan and his fellow fishermen, preparing to head out to sea.

It is a stark contrast with the scene at the beach eight years ago, when it hosted the last stand of a rebel army that had fought the Sri Lankan state for more than two decades, seeking a homeland for the Tamil minority in the island’s north and east. 

Herded into the area by what remained of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, thousands of civilians were allegedly killed by intense military shelling in the months leading up to the LTTE’s final surrender in May 2009.

“Shells and cluster bombs were falling all around — it’s a miracle that I survived,” says Mr Manialakan, a few yards from a cross that the fishermen say marks the remains of a Christian family killed by a single blast.

Nine months after Mr Sirisena’s 2015 election, Sri Lanka backed a resolution of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva calling for a judicial process, with local and foreign judges and prosecutors, to assess the claimed human rights abuses towards the end of the war. 

Former army commander Jagath Jayasuriya faced a suit in Brazil accusing him of war crimes © AFP

UN investigators had cited evidence of “horrific” violations by LTTE and government forces, including the use of child soldiers by the Tamil rebels, and summary executions and indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas by the Sri Lankan army. But analysts say Mr Sirisena’s reluctance to go ahead with the investigation is a predictable reflection of his vulnerable political position. 

With Sri Lanka in a $1.5bn International Monetary Fund loan programme since last year, the government is under pressure to prove its economic competence. Mr Sirisena’s coalition government also faces strong parliamentary opposition, with Mr Rajapaksa still a popular figure among the Sinhalese majority. Many lionise the former president for ending a war that his predecessors had struggled to contain, and which brought suicide bombings to Colombo.

The issue of military prosecutions is “dynamite for the government”, says Jehan Perera, executive director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka. “No Sinhalese wants the military to be punished.”

The government’s slow movement on the investigation earned a strong rebuke from Ben Emmerson, the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights, who told reporters in the capital in July that progress had ground “to a virtual halt”, and warned that the matter could be referred to the Security Council.

Former president Mahinda Rajapaksa © AFP

Yet despite the continuing criticism from UN officials, Sri Lanka’s bilateral relations with foreign powers appear to be warming. The EU, which had removed the country’s preferential market access in 2010 over human rights concerns, reinstated it in May, while the US this year pledged $700m in aid to Sri Lanka. This friendly treatment follows an eastward shift in Colombo’s foreign policy over the past decade.

China provides the backdrop for some of Sri Lanka’s improved international standing. Ostracised by western powers during the latter part of his rule, Mr Rajapaksa forged closer bonds with Beijing, which has been investing billions of dollars in the country’s infrastructure including an underused port at Hambantota on the island’s southern coast.

One western diplomat in Colombo denies suggestions that the recent rapprochement reflects an effort to counterbalance Beijing’s influence.

“This government seems to be moving in the right direction,” the diplomat says, citing a broad improvement in transparency and civil liberties under the new administration. “It’s about supporting a government that is trying to do the right things.”

But others in Sri Lanka say the easing of foreign pressure reflects a broader disengagement by major powers that had previously been vocal in their criticism of human rights violations.

“If this government does nothing about the Geneva resolution, what the hell is going to happen to them internationally?” says Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, founder of Colombo’s Centre for Policy Alternatives. “The Americans are turning away; the Brits are mired in Brexit . . . There are no champions.”

Hambantota port on the island's southern coast © AFP

Clad in his usual white traditional dress, Mr Sirisena last month visited the LTTE’s old administrative capital of Kilinochchi to open an agricultural centre, promising to boost farmers’ livelihoods through debt relief and irrigation schemes.

Even before the new government took office, Mr Rajapaksa had overseen a huge infrastructure investment scheme for the region, at a cost of more than $2bn. Yet official statistics bear grim testament to the economic devastation during the war, when most of the Northern Province was ruled for years by the LTTE in defiance of an embargo imposed by the national government. 

According to the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, the province’s per capita gross domestic product was a third below the national average in 2015. Areas of the Eastern Province that were ruled by the LTTE also rank among the country’s poorest. This partly reflects the dramatic deindustrialisation of the north and east during the war — symbolised by the hulking Kankesanthurai Cement Factory, once the country’s largest, which has been slowly corroding since closing in 1990.

The government this year unveiled the country’s most generous corporate tax incentives to attract investment to the Northern Province, where per capita manufacturing output was just $72 in 2014, compared with $1,262 in the Western Province where Colombo lies.

But many in the region fear that no policy will be able to make up for its disastrous loss of human capital. The education system, once one of the strongest in Sri Lanka, was disrupted under the LTTE, which turned to forced conscription of teenagers as the war progressed, says Rajan Hoole of Jaffna-based University Teachers for Human Rights. “They stultified our political and intellectual life,” he says.

Beyond those killed in the conflict, tens of thousands more — including many of the region’s most educated and prosperous people — emigrated to India or western nations. The Tamil diaspora was a crucial source of funding for the separatist movement, helping the LTTE to maintain an army equipped with field artillery, as well as a small air force and crude submarines. But since the end of the war, the flow of expatriate cash has slowed, says Ahilan Kadirgamar, a researcher in Jaffna. “People send funding for a war, but not for peace,” he says.

And the reintegration of the conflict region into the national economy has come with worrying side-effects, notes Indrajit Coomaraswamy, governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka. He points to the rise in consumer credit offered by branches of southern banks that have opened in Jaffna and other northern cities. “The biggest short-term problem is now indebtedness. Livelihoods have not been created in a commensurate way, so people have taken on debt but they have no means of servicing it,” he says.

Harsha de Silva, a deputy minister and close aide to prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, rejects the idea that the government lacks commitment to postwar reconciliation. In July, he notes, the government established a new Office of Missing Persons — tasked with finding answers for the families of more than 16,000 people who remain unaccounted for since the end of the war. The state is accused of mass “disappearances” of suspected LTTE personnel.

“We are genuinely attempting to converge on something that can be acceptable to all communities in this country,” he says, in his Colombo office overlooking a vast new Chinese container terminal. “As Sri Lankans, we must find a Sri Lankan solution to this problem.”

The government has been inching towards a long-debated overhaul of the constitution, which could bring greater autonomy for the Northern Province. This prospect has been welcomed by the Tamil community, which accounts for about 11 per cent of Sri Lanka’s 21m population. But it marks yet another tricky task for the government, with Sinhalese hardliners warning the reform could re-energise Tamil separatism.

In the Northern Province, however, the likes of Kalimuttu Selvaraja show little appetite for a renewed independence struggle. Now 39, he says he became a teenage LTTE fighter in 1996 after the arrest and torture of his father — embarking on a military career that ended three years later with the loss of his right leg in a shell blast.

Having spent three years in internment camps after the war’s end, he relies on a $20 monthly disability allowance, and is hoping for further support from the government he once fought. 

“All my life, I’ve been suffering from violence,” he says, seated outside his home in the coastal town of Mullaitivu. “Now we just want jobs to do.”

Army widens role in north but presence upsets locals

On a hot afternoon in Jaffna, A Gunapalasingham unfolds a large map of the nearby district of Valikamam North, dominated by a sprawling mass of military-held land that covers more than 3,000 acres.

Within that area lies Mr Gunapalasingham’s ancestral home, from which he has been exiled since fleeing an air raid in 1990 and which was later incorporated into the high-security military zone after the war. Now, he is campaigning for the army to scale down its presence in the area, leading what he says is a group of several thousand displaced families.

As well as Colombo’s determination to pacify the region, the huge and lingering army presence in the north reflects the bloated scale of a military that surged in manpower during the war, with the government still reluctant to cull its numbers. Sri Lanka had 265,200 military personnel in 2015, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies: more than 10 times the number 30 years earlier.

Brandishing photographs of Buddhist Sinhalese soldiers assisting Hindu Tamils in a religious festival, Northern Province governor Reginald Cooray argues that the army’s positive work in the region is often overlooked. Soldiers have been dispatched to work on projects such as road-building and mass electrification, says Mr Cooray.

But Mr Gunapalasingham is more concerned with speeding up the troops’ departure. “They are actually doing their own farming on the people’s land,” he says. “People are buying vegetables for their curry from the army.”

Letter in response to this article:

Sri Lanka’s reforms are foundering on all fronts / From Taylor Dibbert, Silver Spring, MD, US

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