Groundviews

Is reconciliation achievable without separation in Sri Lanka?

Image credit Steve Chao, via Al Jazeera

“The general population doesn’t know what is happening and it doesn’t even know that it doesn’t know” – Noam Chomsky

Introduction

In the article Post-War Sri Lanka: Way Forward or More of the Same? published in May 2010, I concluded:

If peaceful coexistence through power sharing is not achievable, the probability of another conflict cannot be ruled out. Even though the Sri Lankan state has managed to militarily defeat the LTTE and physically eliminate its leadership, the lack of a just political solution could see the secessionist forces re-emerge. A way out of this would be the implementation of a constitutional framework that strengthens democracy and good governance and provides regional autonomy to the Tamil and Muslim peoples. Such radical political reforms, in the long term, will reduce mistrust and enable the populace breathing space on how best to go forward.

The emphasis of the article was on several macro issues such as demilitarization of society, de-politicisation of the public service and the security forces, participatory democracy and equitable distribution of the results of development. If such issues are not internally tackled in a genuine manner to unify its disparate political and communal tendencies under the blanket of social justice and harmony for all, I emphasised that external forces could interfere. This paper is an extension of my discussion in light of the above.

The UN Resolution

Sri Lanka’s commitment to reconciliation has been brought into sharp focus by the UNHRC Resolution (The Resolution). The Resolution was concerned with whether Sri Lanka was genuinely committed to conduct a credible investigation to ensure accountability for the alleged war crimes committed by both those affiliated to the Government of Sri Lanka (the GOSL) and to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (the LTTE) during the last phase of the military operations in 2009. At lack of genuine commitment by the GOSL is said to be the cause that led to this Resolution.

Instead of taking constructive measures to address any valid criticisms made in the UN Resolution, the government is increasingly mobilising the majority on a nationalist basis to fight against interference coming from overseas. The GOSL has accused the US of bullying and intimidating many countries into voting for the resolution while hailing India’s abstention. The GOSL has also accused western countries of using groups “ever ready to betray the motherland” and NGOs dependent on western funding to create “various unwanted situations in Sri Lanka” with the objective of launching a regime change.

Reacting to the Resolution, the GOSL has designated certain Tamil diaspora organisations / individuals as foreign entities / individuals advocating / assisting terrorism, and banned citizens of Sri Lanka from having any links with those organisations or individuals. The aim of this designation appears to be to create a fear psychosis by criminalising contact between locals, the diaspora and media, thus preventing any organisation or individuals from contributing any information to a future international investigation. This should have been expected in light of what the regime has done regarding domestic inquiries on mass graves found in Sri Lanka. In a retaliatory move, some Tamil diaspora organisations are said to be working to release a list of names of alleged war criminals and perpetrators of mass killing of Tamils and raping Tamil women. Hence, a process of alienation rather than reconciliation continues.

According to the GOSL, it has been promoting investment, economic growth and resettlement of the Tamil people in the north and the east of the country as measures for reconciliation. The facts on the ground belie the assertions the GOSL has made. It is partially true that infrastructure development and rehabilitation of former child soldiers and settlement of internally displaced people (IDPs) has taken place in the North and East of the country. However, response of the GOSL to the allegations of militarisation, harassment, intimidation, lack of rule of law, accountability and transparency, and continued violation of human rights has been less than forthcoming. In summary, the regime has become increasingly authoritarian and centralised, and appears to be continuing to harass, intimidate, torture, and kill.

Ground situation

The GOSL’s response to The Resolution is a continuation of its reluctance to commit itself to a genuine process of reconciliation. In 2009, in a joint communiqué with the UN Secretary General, Sri Lanka’s Executive President agreed to work towards a lasting political solution, proceeding with implementing the 13th Amendment to the Constitution and beginning a broader dialogue, expediting the necessary basic and civil infrastructure and means of livelihood necessary to help internally displaced people resume normal lives, resettling the bulk of them, promoting and protecting human rights in keeping with international human rights’ standards and Sri Lanka’s international obligations, and setting up an accountability process for addressing violations of international humanitarian and human rights law.

Instead we have seen campaigns to repeal the 13th Amendment, or to weaken it with a proposed 19th amendment. The 13th Amendment has not been fully implemented, even after 25 years since its incorporation into the Constitution of Sri Lanka. The devolutionary measures pledged, promised and much talked about prior to the end of the military phase of the conflict, are not even being discussed, contemplated, or implemented.

Though provincial council elections were held in the north and east of the country, in effect the two governors of the north and east from the military and the extremely dense security forces present in the form of uniformed, plain clothed and para-militaries and reservists appear to govern that province. Those who have been released under strict surveillance after rehabilitation are reported to have been being harassed and intimidated.

In addition, there are many outstanding issues, for example, the case of investigations into the killing of five school boys in Trincomalee, or the assassination of seventeen aid workers of Action against Hunger, have not made any headway. Many private lands acquired during the armed conflict are yet to be returned to the legitimate owners. Often, the GOSL states that those areas have not been cleared of land mines and artillery shells. However, even in the case of private lands cleared of land mines, handing over those to the original owners has not progressed. Moreover hundreds of persons still remain detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). The military is continued to be deployed island-wide to handle civilian issues under the Public Security Ordinance, which incorporates most provisions of the Emergency regulations. To cap all this, the GOSL also stopped Tamils from singing the national anthem in Tamil since 2009.

The General who led the war on behalf of the regime was framed; his title removed and imprisoned for political involvement while high level ‘public servants’ engaged in open pro-regime political activity. Independent Commissions that existed or planned for were purged through the 17th Amendment to the Constitution. The 18th Amendment consolidated the prolonged hold on to Executive Presidency. The executive deposed the 43rd Chief Justice was without adhering judiciary or Parliamentary codes or norms.

Press freedom continues to be curtailed with the application of overt and covert pressure through manipulation, containment and/or censorship. Manipulations can take the form of buying independent media over, to offering journalists incentives or disincentives so that they would stop from being critical of the regime. Those journalists and media outlets, who continue to take risks by being critical of authoritarian trends of the GOSL and its armed forces, pay a high price and work in a climate of fear of being subjected to attacks physical, violent and armed. They are subjected to smears and threats; attacked, abducted and/or assassinated; their printing presses set on fire; and on line web sites blocked. Some of them escape and go into exile. Those who do not wish to take the risk, appear to apply high levels of self-censorship. The Uthayan newspaper in the North, The Sunday Leader in the South and Colombo Telegraph are some of the examples.

Human rights violations in the country have been continuing even when the Resolution was being debated in Geneva, and still continues unhindered. Human rights activists have been harassed, detained and intimidated. The state forces act with total impunity and non-transparency even undertaking to do the dirty political work of the regime, trying to destroy opposition political activity. The Sri Lankan state continues to promote its monolithic view that it is defending the Sinhala Buddhist community against western and Indian threats and conspiracies based on non-Sinhala and non-Buddhist entities. Mosques and Churches have become free targets of violence by organised groups.

The great majority of the Tamil population resident in the island and the diaspora Tamils are branded separatists. The regime made a sham of statistics in relation to the human and property damages caused by the war. The GOSL since 2009, rather than entering into a constructive and participative consultative process with the diaspora population, has created a conflict paradigm by branding them solely as militant, separatist and financially backing separation.

I believe that democracy and people’s rights are increasingly being undermined by the power of big finance in and its proximity to the state. Rampant corruption at the highest levels of public life continues to corrode the vibrancy, efficiency and effectiveness of the democratic system. Neo-liberal policies pursued by governments everywhere have denigrated the power of parliaments to formulate policy. A nexus of big business, foreign financial institutions and pliant ruling politicians and bureaucrats determine the analysis, development and implementation of policy frameworks and calculi. Increasingly ultra-conservative and communal forces are making attempts to grab power, which has already posed challenges to the secular, democratic values of certain societies.

Truth commissions

A genuine Truth Commission could help bring reconciliation to Sri Lanka. However, such a Commission can be established only with having appropriate changes made to the nature of the state of Sri Lanka. No such changes have yet occurred. The current approach appears a little akin to establishing a commission to suppress or cover up the Truth and to develop a process to simply forget the past. Rather than healing wounds, such commissions would help them to continue to fester, then erupt spreading the seeds of a generational conflict. Sri Lanka’s history sadly is full of such examples. If the GOSL continues to avoid addressing the issues underlying the country’s conflicts, long term damage to the Sri Lankan society would be unavoidable.

The international experience of Truth Commissions stands starkly different to the local experience. Their experience shows that Truth Commissions have helped telling the truth, identifying victims and perpetrators, nature of crimes, and exploring the circumstances that led to such crimes. The victims and their families were not urged simply to forget. Blanket amnesty was never offered as the GOSL attempts to do. Any amnesty had to be earned by each perpetrator by telling the truth while being face to face with the victim or victim’s family in public. Publication of Commission reports with details of every crime dealt with, ensured dissemination of relevant facts in the public domain.

Sri Lanka has never had such a process; rather it has a disgraceful record of previously junked reports related to the Round Table conference, 1984; the All Party Conference, 1989; Proposal for Constitutional Reform, 1995; Presidential Truth Commission on Ethnic Violence, 2001; All Party Representative Committee (APRC), 2006; and The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), 2010. The regimes who appointed those Commissions, after completion of their deliberations, never attempted to use reports or recommendations made by those commissions, for working towards a just and long lasting solution to the prevailing national question in Sri Lanka. The above disgraceful array of reports gives lie to the rhetoric of its ability to conduct a ‘really independent’ investigation by setting up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission assisted by South Africa.

Without a rights based reconciliation process, real change towards reconciliation cannot be achieved. For the only way to achieve reconciliation is to work in partnership with aggrieved communities to overcome the socio-political, economic and cultural inequities that exist. This means recognising the rights of aggrieved communities of people to be treated as equals and given equal opportunities as everyone else and also recognising that problematic issues can be resolved in a long lasting manner, both swiftly and efficiently, if the aggrieved communities are supported to manage their issues themselves.

Social justice needs to be grounded in the daily encounter of life’s realities. It is about ensuring that everyone irrespective of their ethnic, linguistic, religious, cultural and gender differences can be able to enjoy the right to choose and decide their way of living. It spreads beyond the material circumstances of satisfying their basic needs. It is also about their access to education and healthcare, about respecting and recognising their identity and culture, and accepting their individual rights and collective rights. At the grass roots level, entities that are standing for reconciliation need to take responsibility to promote awareness, respect and understanding of these rights among the broader community in Sri Lanka.

Conclusion

The Sri Lankan regime lacks serious and sincere political commitment towards advancing meaningful and long lasting national unity firmly based on reconciliation, the rule of law, respect, recognition and inclusion of diversity and the eradication of impunity. Since the end of the armed conflict in 2009, the regime has not only failed to unite the society, but has created further barriers to reconciliation and unity by allowing ethnic and religious extremists to violently act, while the security apparatus are made onlookers to such violence. The social, political and cultural engineering the regime has been undertaking needs to stop, if Sri Lanka is to move towards a holistic reconciliation.

The only way to move forward will be by assisting the search for truth, and taking social and political measures required for ensuring democratic rights, rule of law and genuine reconciliation of society. Such radical political reforms, in the long term, will reduce mistrust and enable the populace breathing space on how best to go forward. Staring from kindergarten in schools, a campaign for this can be launched to combat prejudices, racism and discrimination and to provide awareness of the rights and freedoms an active citizen enjoys.

As pledged in the joint communiqué with the UN Secretary General, in working towards a lasting political solution, the GOSL can proceed by implementing the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. It can do this by beginning a broader dialogue inclusive of the diaspora, assisting internally displaced people resume normal lives, resettling those who are yet to be resettled, promoting and protecting human rights in keeping with international human rights’ standards and the country’s International obligations, and setting up a transparent accountability process for addressing violations of international humanitarian and human rights law.

The unfairness, injustice and distrust created over six decades of discrimination, repression and suppression cannot be redressed until a genuine process of reconciliation is set in motion to defuse that situation. The conceptualisations that developed during this history as represented by demands for parity, autonomy, federalism and separation cannot be destroyed by using brutal state force. Such conceptualisations could become extraneous, if the unfairness, injustice and distrust felt could be dissipated by solutions that provide the aggrieved communities justice. Movement towards such solutions can be progressed by taking the first step of framing discussions in consultation with others including those who are aggrieved, based on the findings and recommendations deliberated by the many previous committees. Indeed, most of the findings and recommendations of such committees would have many parallels and similarities.

Only by establishing and maintaining a just and fair system of governance can a lasting social reconciliation be possible, without separation!

[Editors note: Lionel Bopage was a former General Secretary of the JVP and was involved with the party since 1968 until his resignation in 1984.]

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This article is part of a  larger collection of articles and content commemorating five years after the end of war in Sri Lanka. An introduction to this special edition by the Editor of Groundviews can be read here. This, and all other articles in the special edition, is published under a Creative Commons license that allows for republication with attribution.