The long wait for justice in postwar Sri Lanka

The long wait for justice in postwar Sri Lanka

Though the decades-long war between government forces and Tamil Tiger rebels is over, it still haunts many Sri Lankans, writes Udeni Appuhamilage

Since the end of the separatist war between Sri Lankan government forces and the Tamil Tiger group rebels in May 2009 there have been strong calls for an independent investigation of war crimes, especially during the final phase of the conflict.

However, strong criticism by many national and international bodies of the state’s perceived slowness in addressing war crimes allegations seems to be falling on deaf ears. With the current government’s growing favouritism toward the Sinhala–Buddhist community, its continued slowness in addressing the allegations becomes even more alarming.

The areas of the country most affected by the conflict—North and Eastern provinces—experienced decades of intense warfare; people in both the North and the South lived the war through suicide bombings, curfews, disappearances, losses, a pervasive sense of fear and escalating waves of violence.

The effects of the conflict continue to leave their mark on all ethnic groups.

Since 2009, governments, non-governmental organisations and professional and civilian groups have produced many reports and made serious accusations about the way the war was fought. Yet, in the eight years since the end of the conflict, no proper procedure has been set up to address the charges of war crimes.

This month Sri Lanka asked the United Nations for two more years to investigate war crimes. This followed a UN resolution (30/1) in October 2015 which granted Sri Lanka 18 months to establish a credible investigation into abuses committed during the conflict.


For some, the end of the conflict was relief enough. But many others continue to live in hope of a return to a ‘fantasy’ of a pre-war life of ‘peace, humanity and certainty’.

Those who lived through the violence and suffered physical, psychological and human losses still hope for justice—despite continuing failure by the authorities to provide it.

Mothers, fathers, wives, husbands and children continue to await the ‘miraculous’ return of loved ones who are still categorised as missing—not knowing whether they are dead or displaced.

This uncertainty and waiting vividly capture the nuances of postwar ‘living’ in Sri Lanka.

The war in Sri Lanka fundamentally challenged the caste- and gender-based hierarchies of the Hindu community

Uncertainty and persistent hope—despite pressing evidence of the impossibility of achieving these hopes—highlight how war does not happen in a vacuum or in a demarcated zone bound by time and space.

Social reality

Instead, it occurs and lives with and through people. As much as it is political, war is also a social reality that shapes and gets shaped by those who live it. It results not only in the destruction of existing psycho-socio-political structures and processes, but also in the emergence of new ones.

For instance, the war in Sri Lanka fundamentally challenged the caste- and gender-based hierarchies of the Hindu community. It created an uncountable number of different job opportunities and had direct and indirect impacts on the country’s economic, health and educational policies.

The multiplicity of ways that war keeps an unrelenting grip on people and breeds violence and uncertainty, even after the conflict has officially ended, raises an important question—can there be an end to war, and what might that end look like?

It also asserts that peace and reconciliation are long-term projects that cannot be achieved simply by the ending of war or through immediate physical reconstructions of the material world.

Instead, peace requires a psychological effort, a commitment to recognise, acknowledge and respect the multiple truths of all concerned parties.

A powerful insight highlighted by postwar Sri Lanka is about ‘uncertainty’. While people seek certainty in their everyday lives, they also embrace the uncertainty that engulfs them. One may argue that they do so because they have no choice—after all, the average person has to depend on political leaders to give them justice.

However, their choice of uncertainty is not one of helplessness. It is intentional. Uncertainty is what gives them hope. Accepting, and working with uncertainty, instead of asserting the certainty of failure, allows them the space to hope for justice, and sanctions the possibility of achieving the impossible.

Featured image
Sunset over Batticaloa Lagoon in Eastern Province: Many Sri Lankans have still not found peace eight years after the end of the war, and live in hope of a return to a ‘fantasy’ of a pre-war life of peace, humanity and certainty. Photo: Anton Croos, Wikimedia Commons

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