“WE ARE like dogs in the street, while your men occupy our homes,” read one of the banners strung up by Tamil protesters, mostly women in saris and ragged children. They had been camping for more than a month in a jumble of makeshift tents on a baking, dusty roadside near a Sri Lankan air-force base in the country’s remote north-east. They said that the armed forces, consisting almost entirely of Sinhalese from the island’s south, nabbed their land at the end of a long-running civil war nearly eight years ago and have refused to give it back, despite the promises of a kindlier reformist government elected two years ago. The government recently said it would return some of the disputed property, but the protesters are unassuaged. It is just one of the many grievances of Sri Lanka’s disaffected Tamils, who feel that reconciliation between them and the Sinhalese majority is stalling.
Hopes of harmony rose two years ago when Maithripala Sirisena, who is Sinhalese, was elected president with the overwhelming support of the Tamils, who make up 15% of Sri Lanka’s population of 21m or so. The island’s Tamil-speaking Muslims, who are treated as a separate ethnic group and often feel done down by both sides, make up a further 10%—and also largely backed Mr Sirisena. The Tamils were particularly delighted by the shock defeat of Mr Sirisena’s chauvinistic and autocratic predecessor, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who had exulted in the crushing of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a Tamil separatist group, in 2009, despite the devastating loss of life and property in Tamil areas.
Mr Sirisena duly set about a raft of reforms. He aims to present a new constitution to parliament soon, and to the public in a nationwide referendum before the end of the year. Presidential powers are to be clipped in favour of parliament. Greater devolution to the provinces, including powers over police and land registration, is intended to satisfy Tamil demands for self-rule without resorting to full federalism, which is a dirty word for most Sinhalese.
Other legislative proposals are intended to tackle the vexed question of “transitional justice”: creating an office for missing persons to chronicle the thousands of people abducted or killed in the war; replacing the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which has allowed suspects to be held without trial for up to 18 months; providing for compensation for property seized or destroyed in the war; setting up a truth-and-reconciliation commission; and, separately and most controversially, creating a hybrid court involving foreign judges and lawyers, where those accused of perpetrating the worst atrocities may be tried.
On March 22nd the UN’s Human Rights Council in Geneva, which issued a remarkably tough resolution in 2015 that lambasted the previous government and proposed most of the measures listed above, will assess progress towards reconciliation. It will probably issue a “rollover” resolution co-sponsored by Sri Lanka’s government, which will reiterate its promise to do all these things. The Tamils want to keep up international pressure. The government wants the world to stop chiding it.
The trouble is that on most of these fronts the Sri Lankan authorities have been, at best, marking time. Mr Sirisena’s government is a coalition of two normally adversarial parties, one of which was formerly in thrall to Mr Rajapaksa. His many Sinhalese-nationalist admirers care little for reconciliation and resent pandering—as they see it—to the sensitivities of the tiresome Tamils. The possibility of foreigners judging Mr Rajapaksa’s triumphant generals war criminals enrages most Sinhalese.
Mr Sirisena has let it be known that he cannot achieve both the tricky constitutional reforms and the even touchier business of transitional justice at the same time. He wants to be allowed to do them one by one. “Transitional justice will fail if war crimes becomes the pivot,” warns Jehan Perera, a prominent human-rights activist. Mangala Samaraweera, the foreign minister, admits that “people with the old Rajapaksa mindset in key positions are obstructing key reforms”, but pleads for patience, insisting that reform is still broadly on track. “The same torturers are still there,” laments a veteran of the UN’s Human Rights Council.
The Tamils are increasingly frustrated. The north and east, where Tamils predominate, are poorer than most of the south and depend largely on remittances from the diaspora of several million in Australia, Britain, Canada, Malaysia and the Middle East, many of them fugitives from the civil war. Few have returned to invest. There are no international flights from Jaffna, the main city of the Tamil region, even to nearby Chennai, the capital of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. The local airport is run by the air force. The government has built new roads but spent little on social or agricultural development. Fishing, once a big source of employment, has slumped.
Indebtedness, especially among the disproportionately large number of families headed by single mothers, is rife. So are drugs—heroin as well as cannabis—smuggled across the narrow channel from India. An international banker, who has returned to retire in Jaffna, laments the Tamils’ demoralisation and loss of a work ethic. A bigwig in Jaffna’s chamber of commerce bemoans the lack of support from the central government: “It wants to enslave us, colonise us, get us to send our young men away abroad.”
Tamils pour scorn on the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), their main representative in the Tigers’ absence, which won most parliamentary seats in Tamil areas two years ago. Though technically in opposition to the coalition government in Colombo, the national capital, the alliance nonetheless seeks to co-operate with Mr Sirisena in his quest for constitutional reform and transitional justice. As the president falters, the alliance looks feeble, too.
Mr Rajapaksa’s supporters claim that the disaffected Tamils are about to regroup and plot a bloody new rebellion. That is improbable, since the Tigers’ military defeat in 2009 was so total. Indeed, in the short run the Tamils have few levers of any kind to secure better treatment, as witnessed by their straw-clutching hope that international pressure may somehow come to their rescue. But in the longer run Sri Lanka needs Tamil acquiescence.
“If we fail to address transitional justice and Tamil youth feels that the Sinhalese south will never address Tamil grievances, there’s nothing to stop the next generation being pushed towards a new terrorism,” warns Mr Samaraweera.