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Opinion: A year on, Sri Lanka suffers

Celebrations in Colombo marking the anniversary of the end of war are festive, but miss the point.

An army soldier walks past ceremonial guns on the water front in Colombo, May 19, 2010. Sri Lanka was supposed to mark the first anniversary of the end its 25-year war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) with a large parade in Colombo, but had to postpone it indefinitely due to heavy rain. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Reuters)

One year ago, the war in Sri Lanka ended. But the events since May 2009 have proven that the country is still in need of critical dialogue and reflection.

This week marks the one-year anniversary of Sri Lanka’s military defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the end of the island’s civil war. In Colombo, the mood is festive — or was until heavy rains postponed a celebratory parade planned for May 18th. During rehearsals, decorated soldiers hoisted Sri Lankan flags and filled Galle Face Green in preparation for the affair.

The Ministry of Defense has declared this week, “Ranaviru Week,” a commemoration of military forces that facilitated the end of war. The week, in many ways, symbolizes the government’s year-long approach to post-war Lanka: celebration and accomplishment are the keys to moving forward.

Sri Lankans abroad don't speak of celebration, though. In Toronto, Washington and other cities beyond Sri Lanka’s borders, members of the diaspora rally in the streets and protest in front of monuments, embassies and symbolic seats of power. They use phrases like “war crimes,” “murder” and “mourning” to urge international and domestic communities to acknowledge those who were killed and those who fought for the homeland.

As I watch the mood in Colombo and read the protest signs, two questions enter my mind: Since the war’s end, what has Lanka become? Where does the “struggle” lie now?

Despite the government’s declared defeat of terrorism last year, a culture of fear continues to permeate Sri Lankan civil society. President Mahinda Rajapakse was re-elected for a second term in January, and citizens voted for a new parliament in the first, post-war series of elections. But unchecked violence, corruption and intimidation tainted these supposedly democratic polls.

Articles in the March issue of Himal Southasian, a South Asian news analysis magazine, and the April 3 issue of The Economist condemned the electoral process and the government’s complicity in violating election rules and obstructing aid. The Sri Lankan Customs Department
seized both magazine issues.

Three weeks later, President Rajapakse appointed former Labor Minister Mervyn de Silva as deputy media minister, despite public knowledge of his threats to media organizations and participation in the 2007 assault of Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation (SLRC) television media
staff. Though he resigned from the post nearly 10 days later, the appointment suggests that the government is unwilling to acknowledge the violence and intimidation experienced by media in Sri Lanka.

As long as authorities can censor the media and deem magazines contraband, then it is clear that emergency rule, though partially relaxed on May 3, will remain a fixture of Sri Lankan life.

Complementing this culture of fear is a politics of exclusion. Prior attempts to develop a political solution — such as the All Party Representatives Committee's proposals for devolution of power — have failed to redress the grievances of minorities. Furthermore, the opposition, whose initial, pre-election momentum gave hope for social and political change, is now fragmented and disabled by political patronage and opportunism.

In an effort to appease a concerned international community and avoid further scrutiny on the issue of human rights, the government has introduced preliminary reforms to the constitution. But these reforms benefit the powers of the government and the presidency more than the Sri Lankan people.

Most concerning are proposals to abolish the two-term limit to the presidency and establish a senate chamber nominated by the government instead of the people. Such reforms would only weaken the rights and mobilizing capacity of minorities.

This is what Lanka has become. Clearly, the unbecoming process of critical reflection should take precedence over celebratory marches.