THE Sri Lankan civil war, which pitted the Sinhala-majority state against the Tamil LTTE, was a grinding, bloody affair that lasted almost 26 years and resulted in a high number of casualties on both sides. It finally ended in 2009, after then president Mahinda Rajapaksa led a final assault against the Tamil Tigers. The campaign, though successful, was criticised by many in the international community for the excesses committed by the Sri Lankan military against Tamil civilians, though the LTTE was also responsible for massacres of non-combatants during the civil war. It may be over a decade since the war ended, but the wounds between the ethnic communities have yet to heal. And when the Sri Lankan state is seen as looking the other way when proof of abuse by soldiers emerges, it will do little to bridge the divide. The country’s President Gotabaya Rajapaksa — brother of Mahinda Rajapaksa — has recently pardoned an army officer sentenced to death for the slaughter of civilians, including children, in 2000. The Sri Lankan supreme court had upheld the sentence last year.
Though this paper opposes the death penalty in all instances, those involved in such abuses against non-combatants must be punished for their crimes, through life behind bars. By pardoning a soldier found guilty of such a grisly crime, the Sri Lankan state is sending the wrong message; a leading Tamil party in the country has termed the move “opportunistic”. The fact is that ever since the defeat of the LTTE, Sri Lanka has seen a wave of Sinhala Buddhist majoritarianism where the country’s minorities — chiefly Tamils and Muslims — have seen their position on the national stage shrink. Instead of riding the populist wave, the Sri Lankan state should encourage accountability and reconciliation. If minority communities feel left out of the national narrative it will only alienate them and recreate the situation that led to the civil war. The country’s leadership needs to promote an atmosphere of national harmony, not exclusivism.
Published in Dawn, March 30th, 2020