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Did Sri Lanka's growing stability come at the cost of human rights?

As Sri Lanka celebrates its 65th year of independence, its president presents his country as a model of growing stability. Yet others lament that human rights have been trampled in the process. Colin Randall reports from Peraliya

Sri Lankan Army soldiers march during a parade celebrating Sri Lanka's 65th Independence Day, marking the country's independence from British colonial rule in 1948 in Trincomalee, Sri Lanka, Monday, Feb. 4, 2013. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena) *** Local Caption *** Sri Lanka Independence Day.JPEG-0253d.jpg
Sri Lankan Army soldiers march during a parade celebrating Sri Lanka's 65th Independence Day, marking the country's independence from British colonial rule in 1948 in Trincomalee, Sri Lanka, Monday, Feb. 4, 2013. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena) *** Local Caption *** Sri Lanka Independence Day.JPEG-0253d.jpg

PERALIYA, Sri Lanka //Sixty-five years after Sri Lanka gained independence from Britain, the spring in the step of the president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, and his supporters has turned to something of a swagger.

The recent history of the island, known as India's teardrop because of its shape and location off the southern tip of the subcontinent, helps to explain the self-satisfaction.

The deadly tsunami of 2004, when an estimated 40,000 Sri Lankans died, is not forgotten. But closer, now, to loyal minds is the defeat four-and-a-half years later of the Tamil Tigers, ending nearly three decades of bloody civil war.

Sri Lanka claims this made it the "the first country to eradicate terrorism" on its own soil. The president preaches harmony, presenting his country as a model of growing stability.

There is another view, equally robust, that acknowledges the strides made while lamenting that human rights have been trampled in the process.

While western critics are routinely dismissed by government supporters as hypocritical meddlers, even some moderate Sri Lankans question the methods used to maintain a flawed peace. They also express dismay at rampant nepotism they detect in the profusion of relatives and friends of the president in positions of power or influence.

Moreover, rising tension between elements of the large Buddhist majority and Muslims challenges cosy notions of a post-conflict era based on one-nation values.

And last month's impeachment of the chief justice, Shirani Bandaranayake, for alleged financial and judicial impropriety, reinforced suspicions that modern Sri Lanka is prepared to resort to undemocratic and irregular solutions to inconvenient problems.

Could it be that the truth lies somewhere between the polarised positions?

The government insists its hard-won battle to crush violent Tamil insurgency in northern and eastern areas had been followed by "genuine" action to implement recommendations from an ambitiously titled Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation committee.

One minister complained that remnants of the Tamil Tigers, including "sections of the diaspora supporting LTTE (Tamil Tiger) terrorism", seize on any opportunity to damage Sir Lanka's image.

On community relations, ministers pledge in public utterances at least to combat the abuse of any religious groups.

A government committee is to investigate an alleged "hate campaign" against Muslims, who represent less than 10 per cent of the population of 20 million.

Mainstream Buddhist leaders distance themselves from monks who demonstrated last month with placards denigrating Islam in the northwestern town of Kuliyapitiya, besieged a Muslim-owned shop in Maharagama, 44 kilometres away, and posted offensive material on the internet.

Whatever the president's concerns on religious intolerance, his government is markedly less conciliatory when discussing the impeachment and human rights.

A delegation from the International Bar Association's human rights institute was refused entry last week on a mission to assess the country's rule of law relating to the insurgency. The external affairs ministry said it planned activity "of an intrusive nature to the sovereignty of Sri Lanka".

Mr Rajapaksa was dismissive of a US delegation's similar visit: "People come and go. No doubt they may work to an agenda."

The pro-government Daily News trumpeted a declaration by the International Council of Jurists, currently under Indian chairmanship, that the chief justice's impeachment was "absolutely in accordance with the prevalent Sri Lankan laws" - a view sharply at odds with hostile reaction from the UN, Commonwealth, EU and the island's own supreme court.

Opponents suspect a link with a series of judgments against the government. But the president says Ms Bandaranayake's impeachment and removal from office was "good for the country".

In his independence day speech yesterday, he promised "equal rights to all communities" while ruling out further autonomy for Tamils.

For many ordinary Sri Lankans, the plight of the deposed chief justice and even the country's reputation abroad matter less than everyday concerns. The government says 1.8 million people are living below the poverty line, itself only 3,611 rupees (Dh105) a month, but has set 2016 as a target for eliminating the problem.

Most still recall with horror the tsunami, a natural disaster that featured relatively little in the rhetoric surrounding the build-up to independence commemoration.

At Peraliya, south of the capital Colombo, a giant Buddha donated by Japan stands on the coast road in silent tribute to victims of the world's worst rail disaster on December 26, 2004. Some 1,270 people, according to the engraving at another monument nearby, died when waves engulfed the train. Other estimates put the figure as high as 1,700.

More than 200 villagers were also swept to their deaths. Homes, restaurants and other business were ravaged, leaving flattened sites and stumps where buildings once stood.

"For a long time, people would not return to live here," said Prabash Mendis, 26, a driver who lost five of his own relatives. "They swore they could hear the cries of the dead."

But it is the fate of others that will dominate debate at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva next month.

More than 12,000 names are cited in UN council's list of "enforced or involuntary" disappearances between 1983 and 2009 as a result of action by security forces. More than half are dead, even on official accounts.

Sri Lanka is preparing for a rocky ride, aware that the country is seen by some as descending into international pariah status.

Perhaps the most striking summary of the competing assessments came from the Sunday Leader newspaper.

Historically the loudest of opposition voices, the paper feels a special right to comment: its founder and former editor, Lasantha Wickramatunge, was murdered in 2009 during the final stages of the civil war and no one has been prosecuted. His successor, Frederica Jansz, claims she was threatened by the president's brother and defence minister, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, before being dismissed last September.

A recent editorial said Sri Lanka found itself in the dock of world opinion and declared: "The Mahinda Rajapaska government has been outstanding in fighting terrorism at home but has fared disastrously in diplomacy."

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

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