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Truth and reconciliation in Sri Lanka

Sri Lankans elected a new president, Maithripala Sirisena.European Pressphoto Agency

No country that emerges from civil war can truly heal until the dead have been accounted for and steps toward reconciliation have been made. Sri Lanka is no exception. Nearly three decades of civil war ended in 2009, when the Sri Lankan military launched a final offensive against rebels known as the Tamil Tigers, who ruled a separatist enclave for years.

Today, the war is over but the peace has yet to begin. More than 146,000 people remain unaccounted for. The Sri Lankan military continues to occupy the land that belongs to Tamils. Tamils, who accuse the Sri Lankan government of war crimes, have begged the United Nations to establish an international tribunal. The Sri Lankan government, which accuses the rebels of using women and children as human shields, wants to handle the matter itself.

For years, the idea that the Sri Lankan government could account for its own human rights abuses was laughable. President Mahinda Rajapaksa ruled with an iron fist. Journalists who criticized him disappeared. An ultranationalist, he considered the defeat of the Tamils one of his greatest achievements. He was not about to punish those who brought that victory about.


But Sri Lankan voters defeated Rajapaksa at the ballot box in January, opening a new chapter of hope in Sri Lanka. The new president, Maithripala Sirisena, has taken important steps toward reconciliation with the Tamil minority. He appointed a Tamil politician as leader of the opposition and a Tamil judge as chief justice. His government also released some political prisoners on bail. On Monday, his foreign minister announced plans to establish a South-Africa-style truth-and-reconciliation commission to address Tamil grievances, provide reparations, and help families find missing loved ones.

The announcement, which came days before Wednesday's release of a long-awaited UN report on atrocities committed by both sides, is the product of international pressure. Nonetheless, at this stage, a credible commission set up by Sri Lanka itself would do far more good than those established by the United Nations, which are famously expensive, bureaucratic, and distant from the victims they're supposed to help. Domestic efforts that are located in-country have a much greater ability to effect societal change.


A commission set up inside Sri Lanka that meaningfully incorporates technical assistance from the United Nations and the United States would have the best chance of success. To win the trust of Tamils, investigators from outside the country should be hired and given access to records and victims. The government could also win trust by transparently resolving the cases of all political prisoners being held without charge.

To win the trust of the Sinhalese majority, the commission must also hear from victims of the Tamil Tigers' ruthless terrorist campaign, which struck both innocent Sinhalese and moderate Tamil rivals.

To be sure, it won't be easy to hold Rajapaksa's government accountable for abuses. But over time, the country can ensure that all Sri Lankans see a future and reap the dividends of peace.