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Sri Lanka urged to move fast on Tamil reconciliation – Radio Australia

[MISC, Wednesday, 25 November 2009 09:35 No Comment]

The Sri Lankan government is being urged to allow international involvement in the nation’s reconciliation process.

Presenter: Sen Lam

Speaker: Larry Marshall, political scientist, Institute of Human Security, LaTrobe University, Melbourne

MARSHALL: I think we have to accept that the end of such an intractable violent, brutal conflict was astonishing in Sri Lanka. Enormous sense of relief in Sri Lanka, an enormous amount of celebration that there’s peace and no more war. But peace is just not an absence of war, and there’s something going on about this victory which I think is problematic. Many quarters that have been supportive of the government wish to paint it as a Sinhalese victory against the Tamil population. That in itself is problematic because the Tamils are civilians, they are part of the Sri Lankan community and the issue that began the war is very much about the Tamils feeling like second-class citizens. If the hubris of the moment and a sense of arrogance invades government policy, we have some problems for the future, because the diaspora particularly is watching.

LAM: Some observers, including the diaspora are also watching the slow pace of relocation of displaced Tamils back to their towns and villages. Why do you think the government is so slow in this task which everyone points out, is important?

MARSHALL: I think once again we have to be careful with criticism. There are real problems for the government – that is, a war-ravaged north and east; the bombing was ferocious, the Tamils had caches of armaments, which are still being dug up and found, and of course, there’s a fear that if those caches aren’t all found, they could start another armed struggle. They are worried that there may be some LTTE sympathisers and cadres in the camps. But putting all that aside, there is a real issue with 280-thousand people being housed in camps, and the government have promised that by the end of this year those numbers would dramatically fall and nearly all would be set free. And freedom is the issue because they have not done anything. These are people who have been caught in the middle of a conflict. Now we have maybe 100-thousand to be released by the end of this year, still leaving over 100-thousand in the camps. And that is a major issue because this is litmus test of the government’s seriousness in treating Tamil civilians as part of the citizens with human rights and civil rights in Sri Lanka.

LAM: I imagine too it might be quite detrimental to the issue of national reconciliation to have these hundreds of thousands of Tamil civilians languishing in the camps?

MARSHALL: Absolutely, the reconciliation within Sri Lanka I think again the government has some space, there’s some good feeling about the end of the war but if the government cannot win the peace in the sense of actually moving towards economic restructuring and some political power-sharing and some reconciliation then it is actually going to lose the peace.

LAM: Well what do you make of the criticism that the Sinhalese-dominated government seems in no hurry to fix what they see as an inherently Tamil problem?

MARSHALL: I don’t think it can remain that way Sen, I think this problem has been very far ingrained in the Sinhalese political landscape, and to win this war, the democratic structures in Sri Lanka were damaged. The freedom of the media was damaged, the independence of the judiciary was questioned, the parliamentary system was sometimes moved to in very poor directions. So if we are going to have a serious democracy that actually restructures, to reconcile, to share power, to bring political reform at the centre to share with the Tamil communities in the north and east, then I think we have to move more seriously, more quickly, and it has to encourage again the assistance of countries like Australia that really want to be of help. I think (Australian Foreign Minister) Stephen Smith has visited recently and the sending of the gentleman who’s gone to actually assist with the conversation with Sri Lanka about the refugees and the push factors.

LAM: This is John McCarthy?

MARSHALL: John McCarthy. Stephen Smith has called for an embracing of political reforms and reconciliation and an acceleration of resettlement. These are precisely what Sri Lanka needs to do. But what it needs to do is to embrace an international community that’s wanting to help it. At the moment there’s still this war mentality that is saying. "We don’t trust the international community." When the pressure was building on the new government of Rajapakse in 2007 on the human rights issue as the war became more ferocious, and people could see that thousands were in danger of being killed, and then China stepped in and there were new planes and new support for armaments and suddenly the government was strong in a weapons sense and in a military sense, strong enough to actually challenge the might of the Tigers. So when those moral questions were being asked, those ethical questions about the numbers of civilians in danger or being killed, the Sri Lankan government began to demonise those voices and say that this is an undermining of our right to do our own thing in our own country. I think it’s time now to actually invite the United Nations, the crisis group, Amnesty, UNHCR, the IRC and so many others who are wanting to help, including Australia.

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