Colombo, Economy, Politics and Governance, Post-War

Post-conflict Transition and Aid Effectiveness: Reconstruction and Reconciliation in Sri Lanka – Part 1

In the heydays of the Non-Aligned Movement Sri Lanka’s politicians and diplomats wielded an influence disproportionate to the county’s size on the international stage. However, the last 30 years of armed conflict and the form of its ending has tarnished the island’s international reputation. Yet at home, the Rajapakse government by comprehensively defeating the LTTE  has secured the lasting gratitude of the majority of the people and is widely expected to sweep the general and presidential elections to be held in 2010. The Sri Lanka government also has a golden opportunity to move quickly to heal the wounds of 27 years of conflict through timely reconstruction and reconciliation. The international community would need to support the transition by ensuring aid effectiveness and good donorship.

The President of Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapakse, had planned to attend the 64th Sessions of the United Nations General Assembly in New York in September 2009 and showcase the success of the island’s military strategy in defeating Terrorism. The current regime in Colombo had argued all along that it was fighting a “war on terror” and various experts had suggested that the country may be a role model for defeating terrorism. However President Rajapakse’s trip was later cancelled and Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake went instead. In the same week the United Nations sent two high profile representatives of the Secretary General to Sri Lanka for consultations on the post-conflict resettlement and reconciliation process.[1]

Though the UN annual meetings in New York may have provided an ideal venue to showcase Colombo’s success on the terrorism front, the failure to resettle approximately 250,000 displaced people still held in internment camps in the north and develop a roadmap for reconciliation and power sharing with the Tamil-speaking minority communities in the northeast, as well as the general human rights situation in the country seems to have caught up with Colombo. Western countries with large Tamil diaspora communities that protested the war in northern Sri Lanka in the days of the final dénouement had been circumspect about Colombo’s credentials to be model of how to defeat terrorism. While the President’s office remained tight-lipped on why he had changed his mind about attending the United Nations General Assembly meetings, he suggested that there is an international conspiracy to de-value the victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The President also stated that he is willing to face any judiciary and defend the soldiers who fought for the motherland and defeated the LTTE.

The first country that the President of Sri Lanka visited after defeating the LTTE was Burma, where the military Junta is set to hold elections, having locked up the leader of the opposition, Aung San Su Ki, who also won the previous elections and was locked up for that. During the pro-democracy movement in Burma, several Buddhist monks who supported the students and ordinary people who want liberty, freedom and democracy and the end to the rule of the military Junta in that country were killed and their monastries sacked.

Four months after the war ended, Sri Lanka is in transition. The challenge of winning the peace, demilitarising democracy and governance, and integrating the minority communities to ensure reconciliation and lasting peace remains. The government continues to act as if the LTTE presents a clear and present danger even though the organization has been dismantelled. Given the highly centralized organizational structure of the LTTE the remaining foot soldiers are unlikely to present a significant threat as was the case with the JVP once its leadership was gone. In the context, the current levels of militarization and securitization, particularly of Colombo and the north east regions, seems to merely serve extending extraordinary executive privileges for the ruling Rajapakse family.

Lanka’s post-conflict challenges may be divided in two – immediate humanitarian and human rights issues; and long-term political settlement with devolution of power to the conflict affected regions, and recognition and institution of multiculturalism.  On both these counts, the Sri Lankan government is under considerable pressure from India, the United States, the European Union and the United Nations to speedily resettle those held in camps and come up with a political solution to the conflict to ensure lasting peace. At the same time, Colombo has secured the support of India and China as well as Iran with which it recently inked and oil deal with a loan on an extended payment plan. Japan too remains actively engaged in Sri Lanka and historically has been its largest donor. The Sri Lankan government has secured an International Monetary Fund loan of US$2.4 billion to stabilise its balance of payments crisis and post-conflict reconstruction in the aftermath of the war. The Sri Lankan Central Bank announced last week that its foreign reserves have never been larger.

Resettlement of 250,000 internally displaced people (IDP) held in camps
The resettlement of 250,000 IDP held in internment camps is an immediate humanitarian and human rights concern. These people lack the ability to move about freely and engage in income generation. Many are held involuntarily. The government argues that there is mine clearing to be done before they can return safely and that there are LTTE cadre in the camps and it needs to carry out rigorous screening in the interest of security. Some of the camp inmates may be witnesses to war crimes committed by both parties.

However, many of the people held in camps have relatives with homes where they may stay before returning home and the government has announced that those whose relatives apply for their release and are willing to house them may leave. The government has been working with selected international non-government organisations (International Committee of the Red Cross) and United Nations agencies to provide food shelter and medical care to the IDPs (internally displaced persons) and has assured the United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, that it plans to resettle 80 percent of the IDPs by the end of the year.

The Sri Lankan government has also solicited aid from the international community to help fund and speed up the demining process, as well as assist with return and resettlement of IDPs in villages. This entails rebuilding villages, housing infrastructure, providing electricity, water, access roads and basic services, as well as a cash grant as a start-up allowance. Leaders and members of the Tamil-speaking minority communities themselves appear to have adopted a pragmatic stance, and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) [formally the party that represented the LTTE], has pledged to work with the government to facilitate speedy resettlement of IDP.

Long-Term Political Solution for Sustainable Peace: Implementation of 13th Amendment to the Constitution
Unless the root causes of conflict are addressed, terrorism may return years or decades later. For a sustainable peace in the long-term, the highly centralised post-colonial state in Sri Lanka would need to devolve power to the north-east regions and share power with the minorities. The substance of power sharing with the Tamil and Muslim minorities in the northeast is contained in the 13th Amendment to the Constitution which was effected when India intervened in Sri Lanka in 1987 to ensure a peace settlement between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE. The 13th Amendment to the Constitution established Provincial Councils as a means to de-centralise power and enable self-governance in the regions. However, it was never properly implemented in the north and east due to the secessionist struggle.

There are two models of post-conflict reconciliation. One is reconciliation based on addressing the root causes of the conflict and the second is a more pragmatic model of reconstruction and development sans address of the thorny issues of human rights violations and war crimes by both parities to the conflict, or the devolution of political power to ensure greater autonomy for the regions. In the near-term, the Sri Lankan government appears to favour the latter model of reconstruction and development of the conflict affected areas without redress of the political grievances and demands of the Tamil minority community living in the north and east for greater devolution of power to the provinces. This may be largely be due to the fact that some ultra-Sinhala nationalist coalition members of the ruling United Peoples’ Front (UPF) are against devolution of power or power-sharing with the Tamil minority, but this could change after the presidential and general elections to be held in 2010.

The All Party Representatives Committee (APRC), which was convened three years ago to develop a framework for a political solution, after consultation with all political parties, has recommended a new Constitution and pruning of Presidential powers. The APRC process was meant to go beyond the 13th Amendment and fix deficiencies in it. The report recommends maximum devolution of power to the provinces within a unitary state. The APRC report recommends that the provinces would have the power to formulate legislation for the provinces without interference from the centre. There would be a clear division of powers between the centre and the provinces by doing away with the concurrent list which was one of the obstacles to implementation of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution which ensured setting up of the provincial council system. However, land, police and security would not be devolved subjects.

Obstacles to a Political Solution the 2010 Elections
It is widely believed that the next general elections would enable the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), the principle party of the government, to dump its ultra-nationalist coalition members and move towards implementation of the 13th Amendment and, thereby, offer a political solution to Tamil demands for self-government in the north and east by devolution of power to all regions. The current ruling coalition comprises the ultra-nationalist Janatha Vimukti Peramuna and the Jathika Hela Urymaya, formally a Buddhist monks’ party. Both of these coalition partners are opposed to devolution of power to the north and east and a political settlement with the minorities. It is hoped and anticipated that the 2010 general election would enable the President Rajapakse to address the issue of the political solution to the conflict if its reliance on these two parties is diminished.

As long as the LTTE controlled significant parts of the north east, the central government feared that the groups would use the devolution of power to consolidate a separate state. Hence, the provincial council system was never properly implemented in the north and east. However, now that the LTTE no longer exists as an organization on the ground, one of the obstacles to devolution of power has been removed. The principle stumbling block at this time is the ultra-Sinhala nationalist coalition parties of the government. The principle opposition the United National Party has stated that it would support devolution of power to the provinces as a means of power-sharing with the Tamil and Muslim minorities in the north and east of Lanka.

To be continued…

[1] – Walter Kaelin, United Nations Representative on the Human Rights of Displaced People and B. Lynn Pascoe, Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs.