Due to October, hunger strikes in prisons across the country (with prisoners demanding amnesty), President Maithripala Sirisena had given assurances that he would take a decision on this matter by November 7. Some have suggested that this meant prisoners would be released, but the next steps had always been somewhat unclear.
There were subsequent reports that 61 prisoners would be released by November 20.
Recently, a hunger strike has commenced anew.
More disturbingly, today, 31 Tamil political prisoners were granted bail, though they were not officially released. For the time being, these individuals will be allowed to leave prison, but will still be monitored closely by state security personnel. This is not genuine freedom.
Why does this matter?
In light of Sri Lanka's recent transfer of power, the issue of Tamil political prisoners (and other issues of importance to the Tamil community) could be looked at in at least two ways.
The first way deals broadly with human rights, justice and reconciliation. The Sirisena administration could send a clear signal to the Tamil community by releasing (or bringing to trial) most, if not all, Tamil political prisoners. Taking decisive action on this matter would at least give Tamils hope that the government may be serious about other issues, including accountability and creating a lasting political solution to the longstanding ethnic conflict.
Additionally, the central government's actions could be looked at through a broader analytical prism. On the one hand, we have a newly elected administration that is making a lot of big promises. The Sirisena administration has been saying that, with Mahinda Rajapaksa out of power, things will be different, that things in Sri Lanka are really changing. Yet, if one takes a prima facie glance at the government's reform agenda, it's obvious that the road ahead will be difficult. We're now talking about a plan with lot of moving parts and it's not even clear how the Sirisena administration plans to prioritize its variegated objectives.
When it comes to Tamil political prisoners, we are likely talking about a few hundred people. This is not something that would be politically convenient (with a country that is comprised mostly of ethnic Sinhalese), but it's definitely not anywhere near as controversial as many things that the government has promised it's going to do. The Sirisena administration is saying that things are really changing in Sri Lanka and yet it's not even willing to do the bare minimum to show that it's serious about healing the wounds of war.
Releasing Tamil political prisoners would build trust between the government and the Tamil community. It would also send a clear message to the international community that the hopes for more wide-ranging reforms and a credible transitional justice process are not naïve or baseless.
With today's news about Tamil political prisoners, concerns about the Sirisena administration's plans will continue.