Sri Lanka reconciliation effort slammed on war anniversary

Sri Lanka for the first time included minority Tamils in ceremonies Wednesday marking the anniversary of the end of its civil war, but a leading think-tank said moves towards reconciliation and accountability had stalled. Tamils living in the northern part of the island which saw most of the violence held public commemorations for the first time since the end in 2009 of the decades-long conflict, after the lifting of draconian restrictions imposed under then-president Mahinda Rajapakse. President Maithripala Sirisena, who replaced him in January 2015, has also abandoned a controversial annual military "victory" parade in the capital for a more sombre remembrance ceremony set to include the minority Tamils. But the International Crisis Group said his pledges to bring about accountability and post-war reconciliation between the Tamils and the Sinhalese majority remained largely unfulfilled. "The enormity of the crimes, especially in the final weeks of the war, makes them impossible to ignore but hard for the military and most (majority) Sinhalese to acknowledge or accept responsibility for," the ICG said in a new report. It called on Colombo to set a timeline for training judges, lawyers and investigators for special war crimes courts and for passing legislation to establish responsibility for war crimes. The government must also end military involvement in running hotels and shops and vacate occupied private land in former war zones, it said. Government forces killed the leader of the Tamil Tiger rebels Velupillai Prabhakaran on May 18, 2009 after a brutal military crackdown, and declared an end to the 37-year conflict which claimed at least 100,000 lives. The Tamils, who under Rajapakse were barred even from holding private ceremonies of remembrance in their own homes, were for the first time allowed to light candles near the spot where he died to commemorate their war dead. "There were low-key ceremonies in many areas of the north and the east," an official in the northern Mullaittivu region, where the final stand-off took place, said by telephone. - No longer pariah - Defence Secretary Karunasena Hettiarachchi said the government had scrapped the military parade to show its commitment to healing ethnic wounds. "We are having a cultural show instead of the military victory parade that was practised in the past six years," Hettiarachchi said. "This is to establish reconciliation among all races." Previous parades celebrated the victory of the largely Sinhalese military over the minority Tamils, who were banned from remembering their dead as commemoration of fallen rebels was thought anti-state. Sirisena has adopted a far more conciliatory tone than Rajapakse. The government has agreed to a UN call to set up a special court to investigate wartime atrocities, but has rejected pressure for foreign judges to be involved. It has secured international support for ethnic peace, while high-profile visits by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US Secretary of State John Kerry last year effectively ended Sri Lanka's pariah status. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, which fought for independence for Sri Lanka's main ethnic minority, were known for their suicide bombings. At the height of their power, the rebels ran a de facto separate state comprising a third of the Indian Ocean island's territory. Under Rajapakse's orders, the army defeated the Tigers in a no-holds-barred military campaign that attracted international censure. The UN's special rapporteur on torture, Juan E. Mendez, said recently that atrocities continued after the end of the conflict. On a visit to Sri Lanka earlier this month he cited "credible evidence" of forced disappearances of Tamils and detainees being sexually tortured since 2009. The independent Sri Lanka Campaign, a rights group, said there had been an "undeniable" improvement in the country since the change in government, but more needed to be done. In war-affected regions, "a combination of ongoing militarisation and impunity mean that a climate of intimidation and fear persists", it said.