Colombo – Six years after the end of its bloody civil war, Sri Lanka this week took historic steps to confront its traumatic past — but in the conflict-torn Tamil heartland of Jaffna, people are still searching for justice.

Sri Lankan soldiers patrol along the frontline during the conflict with the Tamil Tiger rebels at Muhamalai in the Jaffna Peninsula, on April 6, 2008 © AFP/File Lakruwan Wanniarachchi
Sri Lankan soldiers patrol along the frontline during the conflict with the Tamil Tiger rebels at Muhamalai in the Jaffna Peninsula, on April 6, 2008 © AFP/File Lakruwan Wanniarachchi

A long-awaited report from the United Nations human rights office on Wednesday laid bare horrific wartime atrocities committed by both the army and the separatist Tamil Tiger rebels in the bitter 37-year war.

It came as President Maithripala Sirisena’s new government vowed to punish war criminals, with a promise to set up a truth commission and a reparations office to help heal the wounds left by the conflict.

Its conciliatory stance is in striking contrast to that of strongman former leader Mahinda Rajapakse, who insisted his troops did not kill a single Tamil minority civilian, despite compelling evidence to the contrary.

“That (denial) was the biggest mistake Sri Lanka made,” government spokesman Rajitha Senaratne said.

In the northern Tamil capital of Jaffna, roads and other war-damaged infrastructure have been repaired and where the military was once a constant presence in people’s lives, surveillance is a thing of the past.

Yet thousands are still living in refugee camps six years after the war ended in May 2009, and bombed-out houses and bullet hole-riddled buildings still scar the streets.

Tamil citizens want the perpetrators of wartime crimes to be brought to justice and say they do not trust a local inquiry to reach the truth.

They have the support of the UN, which has called on Colombo to bring in international judges and prosecutors to assist in investigations as the only concrete way to achieve accountability.

But Sirisena, who favours a domestic inquiry, has stayed quiet on the issue.

“People in Jaffna are not aware of what is going on in Geneva, but what they are hoping for is justice,” said local Tamil politician Suresh Premachandran.

– Pariah no longer –

Sri Lanka became an international pariah after repeatedly resisting calls for a credible probe into the horrendous crimes allegedly committed by government forces during and after the war.

At the height of Rajapakse’s rule, the EU and the US withdrew trade concessions and world leaders including Manmohan Singh, then Indian prime minister, boycotted a Commonwealth summit he hosted in 2013.

British Prime Minister David Cameron, who attended the summit, used his visit to heavily criticise Rajapakse after becoming the first foreign leader to travel to battle-scarred Jaffna since Sri Lanka, a former British colony, gained independence in 1948.

The Tamil Tigers suffered a bitter defeat in a no-holds barred military campaign that also killed thousands of troops.

The UN says 40,000 Tamil civilians died at the hands of government forces in the final months of the conflict as the army moved to crush the guerillas.

When Sirisena came to power in January — backed strongly by the Tamils — he promised to restore human rights and the rule of law as well as mend fences with regional power India and the West.

“We have averted sanctions,” declared new Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera, who went before the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva last week to promise fresh efforts to ensure accountability.

“If the European Union and the US slapped sanctions against us, our economy would have collapsed because more than 50 percent of our exports are to those two destinations,” he said.

– ‘Getting away lightly’ –

The international community — and Sri Lanka’s Tamils — have welcomed the new tone set by the island’s leaders.

International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based NGO, called it a “welcome departure from the aggressive nationalist and authoritarian policies of the former government”.

The Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the minority’s main party, has softened its position, welcoming the UN report and saying there should be “introspection” into its own failure to end ethnic tensions.

Tiger rebels fighting for outright independence for the Tamil minority were known for their trademark suicide bombings that claimed high-profile targets as well as thousands of civilian lives.

In a big shift in policy, the United States will back Colombo’s plans for a domestic inquiry in a proposed resolution to the UN Human Rights Council, US Assistant Secretary of State Nisha Biswal said last month.

“We support efforts to create a credible domestic process for accountability and reconciliation,” Biswal told reporters after talks with the new government.

But some feel the government has got off easily and say it is pandering to Sinhalese nationalists, who see inviting in foreign investigators as an affront to sovereignty.

“If Mahinda (Rajapakse) was in power, the Americans would have insisted on an international criminal investigation,” Dharmalingam Sithadthan, a Tamil legislator from Jaffna, told AFP.

“By sounding conciliatory, President Sirisena is getting away lightly.”