Political Prisoners and Sri Lanka's Sincerity Crisis

03/25/2016 10:08 pm ET | Updated Mar 25, 2016

In Sri Lanka, President Maithripala Sirisena had promised progress regarding Tamil political prisoners, although we've seen little of that. Unfortunately, the president's dithering project has continued -- with no end in sight.

More broadly, the Sri Lankan government has made big commitments regarding transitional justice and those changes, if they ever happen, will come incrementally. However, we haven't seen much in the way of incremental change since Colombo co-sponsored a U.N. Human Rights Council resolution on Sri Lanka in October 2015.

In terms of optics and rhetoric, Mangala Samaraweera, the country's foreign minister, continues to deliver strong speeches (that are designed primarily for international consumption). The problem is that Samaraweera is not running the country and his view regarding the (expansive) reform agenda doesn't appear to align neatly with other key players in the government, including the president and the prime minister.

Worries about the government's capacity to implement bold reforms, specifically as it relates to the pursuit of high-level corruption cases and transitional justice, are not baseless. That said, members of the international community who are greatly concerned with the provision of technical assistance and capacity-related matters may be missing a crucial point that precedes any thorough discussion regarding capacity: the coalition government's sincerity. Is Colombo actually serious about fulfilling all of the promises it's made? Are President Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe really prepared to connect words with actions and stand up to Sinhala nationalism?

Sri Lanka wants the world to believe that things are really changing. And yet the dubious detention of Tamils continues. To be clear, releasing or bringing to trial all Tamil political prisoners would be a big deal, though that's the ground floor of war-related reforms that the government should move on. A proper truth commission? A robust accountability mechanism for wartime abuses? Putting senior members of the Sri Lankan military on trial? Moving on political prisoners would be scratching the surface of the politically inconvenient.

To conclude, Colombo's cowardice regarding Tamil political prisoners is deeply troubling. Finally making a meaningful concession to the Tamil community could mean that the government is prepared to embrace bold changes, instead of cosmetic fixes. But until that happens, skepticism should remain the order of the day. If we've learned anything about Sirisena thus far, it's that his Sinhala nationalist credentials are impossible to deny.

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