Sri Lankan leader promises rights reforms as debt crisis looms
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — The Sri Lankan leader on Tuesday promised human rights reforms and justice for those missing from the country’s civil war, after years of resisting calls for such measures.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was addressing a new session of parliament as the government seeks international support to tackle a severe fiscal and debt crisis.
“We reject racism. What this government wants is to protect the honor and rights of all citizens equally,” Rajapaksa said.
“Therefore, I urge politicians who still incite people against each other for political gain to refrain from doing so.”
The Sri Lankan leader added that he was willing to accept suggestions from the international community on human rights issues.
Since being elected president in 2019, Rajapaksa has avoided calls to investigate those missing from the civil war. Families of the victims say many of the missing were taken away by the army for involvement with separatist rebels towards the end of the conflict.
Government forces crushed the Tamil Tiger fighters in 2009, ending the movement for an independent state for the Tamil minority.
Both sides have been accused of serious human rights violations.
In earlier speeches, Rajapaksa presented himself as a leader of the majority Sinhalese Buddhists and pointed out that he was elected overwhelmingly by their votes.
The government’s refusal to review or investigate allegations of human rights and war crimes stemming from the civil war has been a source of tension in its relations with many Western countries and neighboring India.
Sri Lanka is currently negotiating financial aid from India, which itself has 80 million ethnic Tamils and has sought to support the rights of the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka’s foreign exchange reserves were around $1.6 billion at the start of 2022, barely enough for a few weeks of imports. Drawing on those funds, the government was making arrangements to pay $500 million in maturing bonds this week.
Sri Lanka also has external debt obligations exceeding $7 billion this year.
The shortage of foreign currency has led to severe shortages of imported goods and people queuing for powdered milk, cooking gas, kerosene and other necessities.
In his speech, Rajapaksa promised to reform a tough anti-terrorism law in place since 1979 that allows long detentions without trial. He also promised to return the lands occupied by the Civil War army to their civilian owners.
According to early UN estimates, around 100,000 people were killed in the quarter-century civil war. Another UN panel of experts later said that around 40,000 ethnic Tamil civilians had been killed in the past months of fighting.