Last week President Mahinda Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka issued a full pardon to J.S. Tissainayagam, a Tamil journalist who had spent 21 months in detention for his conviction under Sri Lankan anti-terrorism laws for criticizing the actions by the Sri Lankan army during the civil war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE). It is a welcome sign for Sri Lanka.
The Committee to Protect Journalists and prominent U.S. Senators had expressed their concern about Mr. Tissainayagam’s detention. In response to Tissainayagam’s pardon, Ranking Member of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Richard Lugar said, “I hope this action by President Rajapaksa signals an improvement in conditions for all journalists in Sri Lanka and will be a tangible step to bring about national reconciliation in the aftermath of the country’s long and bitter civil war.” The victory over the Tamil Tigers has given new hope for Sri Lankan development and relations with the U.S.; however, concerns about human rights during the last stages of the civil war, a lack of press freedoms, and increased government control still worry those following Sri Lankan affairs.
In light of these issues and to increase Sri Lanka’s international engagement, Sri Lanka’s Minister of External Affairs G.L. Peiris came through Washington in late May. During his trip, including a meeting at the Heritage Foundation, Foreign Minister Peiris was asked several questions about the lack of a full pardon for J.S. Tissainayagam. It appears this pressure finally helped spur the Sri Lankan government to make the right move by pardoning Tissainayagam.
With the civil war over, the U.S. has an opportunity to encourage democracy and development in Sri Lanka, an island nation strategically located in the Indian Ocean, and that is rapidly cultivating closer ties to China. But to avoid squandering this historic opportunity, Sri Lanka must build on the positive momentum presented by the pardon of Tissainayagam to demonstrate its full commitment to fostering national reconciliation in the post-war environment.
Co-authored by Lisa Curtis and Nicholas Hamisevicz