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State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2011 - Sri Lanka

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 6 July 2011
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2011 - Sri Lanka, 6 July 2011, available at: [accessed 31 May 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

The government came under severe pressure throughout 2010 to begin the promised process of seeking accountability for the violations of humanitarian law that occurred on both sides, in their bid to end the 29-year conflict with the Liberation Tigers for Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009. There were allegations of grave atrocities committed in the final months of fighting in 2009, including filmed evidence of the arbitrary killing of captives by the 53rd Division of the Sri Lankan army that took place in May 2009. With pressure mounting for an independent inquiry, the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced the creation of a three-member investigative panel. In response, the Sri Lankan government, which has resisted international scrutiny, announced the establishment of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) in May 2010. The international community and human rights organizations reacted sharply to the creation of this commission, since it is headed by a former Attorney-General, raising questions about its independence. In fact, international NGOs such as HRW, Amnesty International and the International Crisis Group (ICG) decided not to provide testimony to the commission in view of its composition and mandate (which goes back to 2002 but without specific coverage of the events of 2009). The issues received heightened attention with the screening of a detailed video clip of the May 2009 killings by the UK's Channel Four News on 30 November 2010.

Without a genuine process that examines the atrocities committed during the war, any reconciliation between the minority Tamil population and the majority Sinhalese is likely to be superficial. Throughout 2010, the issue of the large number of internally displaced people (IDPs) remained high on the agenda and led to continuing humanitarian challenges. Concern was heightened by the government's pressure on the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to shut down operations, in view of the end of the conflict. The danger of the process derailing was highlighted on 30 December in the Boosa IDP camp, where security forces are alleged to have tortured and committed extra-judicial killings of LTTE prisoners. The International Commission of Jurists stressed that the continued arbitrary detention of nearly 8,000 prisoners alleged to be linked with the LTTE violates international legal principles and is akin to collective punishment against a community. Interviews with women IDPs undertaken for a recent MRG report indicated that a large number of IDP households are headed by women, who face considerable material deprivation as a result of limited or absent income-generation opportunities. Women interviewed for MRG's report No War, No Peace: The Denial of Minority Rights and Justice in Sri Lanka also reported cases of sexual harassment and assault in resettled areas.

The IDP issue is not exclusively a Tamil question since there remains a sizeable Muslim population (estimated at between 65,000 and 150,000) among those displaced by the fighting. These Muslims were expelled from the north by the LTTE in 1990, and their reintegration back into the towns and villages from where they were displaced is already proving to be a sensitive process. Muslims displaced by the conflict have long felt marginalized and neglected by both the government and international relief agencies working in Sri Lanka. In addition, Tamil and Muslim communities are having to learn to live side by side once again, after 20 years of separation. Overall, tension has grown between Tamil and Muslim populations, as described in an ICG report of April 2010.

Ethnic and religious tensions have continued to mount between communities. Tensions remain between Buddhists and Christians, with sporadic attacks on churches by Buddhist extremists, sometimes led by monks who are angry at what they see as proselytization by Christians. This has manifested itself in several acts by vigilantes and state authorities, as highlighted by two incidents, one on 6 March and another on 25 June. In the first incident, a mob led by monks linked to a political party disrupted services at a Christian church in the Kalutara District; in the second, police were dispatched to a Christian church in Rajagiriya, assaulted the pastor and attempted to demolish the place of worship on the grounds that it was an unauthorized structure. State authorities also acted directly in the arrest in April of Sarah Malanie Perera, a Sri Lankan resident in Bahrain for 19 years. Perera was apprehended under the Prevention of Terrorism Act for her book From Darkness to Light, which narrates the experience of her conversion from Buddhism to Islam, and which was deemed subversive by the authorities.

According to the AHRC, women and girls from minority groups are at particular risk of sexual violence, and are likely to face ostracism and even punishment from within their communities in the event that they report what has happened to them. Minority women who have experienced violence within their own communities may also have their right to justice violated. In a 2010 case, the AHRC reported that a young Muslim woman was subjected to corporal punishment by the village mosque committee after she became pregnant outside of marriage. When she and her husband went to the police station to complain, police were reluctant to pursue the case, and did not take any formal statement from the woman.

The outlook for minorities in Sri Lanka is worrying. The re-election of President Mahinda Rajapaksa was achieved on the back of the 'success' of eliminating the LTTE. He has sought to consolidate his power by eliminating the opposition, including through the detention of former army chief Sarath Fonseka on charges of engaging in politics while in active military service. In September, Rajapaksa pushed through significant constitutional amendments eliminating presidential terms, and providing himself with sweeping powers of appointment of individuals onto governmental bodies, undermining their independence. He has also appointed three of his brothers as Secretaries of Defence and Economic Development, and Speaker of Parliament, and has clamped down on any criticism of his policies.

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