Photo courtesy Al Jazeera
“Don’t judge us on broken promises of the past government.” Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera told the 30 Session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on 14 September. ‘This is a different government with a political will to solve issues’, was the gist of his statement made. If this was made to an audience here, it would not be anything less than a joke. After all, forming of the new government was all about breaking the promise of a decent, reasonably small cabinet of ministers. Most in the huge new cabinet of ministers and in the bandwagon of State and deputy ministers are from the previous Rajapaksa government that minister Samaraweera wants to dissociate from.
Let’s also not forget that this new regime led by both President Sirisena and PM Wickramsinghe with no deviation from Rajapaksa have pledged the Sinhala Buddhist voter, they will not compromise with and would uphold the “Unitary” character of the State with the oft repeated promise, not to let down the “security forces that played a heroic role in uniting the country”. Let’s also not forget PM Wickramsinghe created parliamentary history by presenting the 19A drafts only in English language violating the very Constitution that says Sinhala and Tamil are official languages of this country. Wickramsinghe in fact forced a minority Tamil MP to sit in parliament by shouting at him, “You shut up and sit” when he rose to ask for his right to have the draft in Tamil. That speaks volumes of how the government will be led by this duo, the President and the PM.
Since January 08 presidential elections the period under two of them heading the State and the government up until the August 17 parliamentary elections, saw no serious indication for improvement of civil life in the North and the East. That was even noted in the Report made public by HC for HR Prince Zeid on 16 September, Wednesday. It said, “Local civil society sources recorded 26 cases of harassment and intimidation by military and intelligence services in the North and East during the period January to August 2015. This highlights the reality that the structures and institutional cultures that created the repressive environment of the past remain in place and will require much more fundamental security sector reform.”[page 05/para 15 – emphasis added]
Therefore despite what the US and its allies would want to compromise on with this new government, the two most crucial and important issues for us here are, (i) what political commitment will there be in a government that is more “Rajapaksa” still than MS & RW and (ii) how practical will the application of the domestic investigating mechanism be with no change in the political ideology of both the government and the State that yet remains a “Sinhala State” as much as it was under Rajapaksa.
It is in such political context the promise of a domestic investigation into war crimes, crimes against humanity and accountability is promised in Geneva. On transparency and accountability, let’s stress on the fact that no details of this proposal were given to and discussed even in the parliament here in Sri Lanka before minister Samaraweera laid it out in Geneva. Wonder how many in the cabinet of ministers were privy to the outline of thate proposal presented by minister Samaraweera. That the Sinhala media too spins this issue on a very rabidly racist platform is quite evident from the cartoon that appeared the day before (Sept.15) in the Sinhala daily “Divayina”.
Though very much less and wholly Sri Lankan than the “Hybrid” mechanism proposed in the Report, it is still extremely difficult for the Sirisena-Wickramasinghe government to carry the largesse minister Samaraweera left on the floor of the UNHRC sessions although local English media termed his speech a “landmark statement” and as “soothing”. His promises that are too many for a government that plays hide and seek on the issue of reconciliation and a political solution for long standing Tamil grievances, this seem like Santa on Christmas night stuck with too heavy a load for “Rudolph” the reindeer to pull along. According to the official foreign ministry website he has promised strengthening the national HR commission in line with Paris Principles, signing and ratifying the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances without delay, disengagement of the military from commercial activities, investigate and punish in future those in security forces responsible for torture, rape, sexual violence and other human rights violations, review and repeal PTA but replace it with anti-terrorism legislation in line with contemporary international practices, review Victim and Witness Protection Act enacted this year and a whole lot more.
While these by themselves are too much in the clouds and too farfetched for this government that lacks a political will and confidence to tell the Sinhala voter as to how it would solve issues of war related crimes and accountability, there is no mention what so ever about how the North-East would be de militarised, how the complicated land issues and disputes would be approached for reasonable settlement, what is in offer to almost one hundred thousand war widows, to an unaccounted number of children who had lost one or both parents and about large numbers detained under the PTA for very long durations without charges. What in fact minister Samaraweera said about the PTA if read between the lines means it would not be “repealed”, but “replaced” with same anti terrorism (!) clauses brought to life through other legislation(s).
All this thus negates serious commitment for a “Commission for Truth, Justice, Reconciliation and Non-recurrence” promised by minister Samaraweera. The promise of working with “relevant authorities of South Africa” will only turn out as a popular tagline for marketing the “promise” of a domestic mechanism. With a militarised North-East, with police and military intelligence units operating freely as accepted in the SL Report, with displaced still living with no future hope, there is no space for “truth, reconciliation and non-recurrence” in Tamil society. That provides the fundamental contradiction with South Africa in establishing a “truth commission” here in Sri Lanka.
In South Africa, the “Truth Commission” had much social space to draw in the Black society with confidence, as their “Truth Commission” was established after the ‘apartheid’ rule they fought against was defeated. Their “hero” Nelson Mandela was elected President with an overwhelming majority. The apartheid regime was thereafter dismantled. Black South African people were thus able to take charge of the fate of their collective life. Therefore the issue of “Victim and Witness Protection” (I dealt with this topic at length and on impunity in SL in my previous article in GV) was no issue in South Africa under Mandela as it would be here in SL.
In total contrast and politically opposed to the South African context, Sri Lanka is dominated by an acutely polarised urban Sinhala mind set. The war waged against the separatist LTTE under President Rajapaksa further polarised ethnicities allowing space for hard line Sinhala extremism to claim this island as the “Land of Gauthama Buddha” in the precious hands of the Sinhalese to save Buddhism for posterity. It is with this sentiment the Sinhala State is governed under an ill-conceived political partnership that would oversee the “Commission for Truth, Justice, Reconciliation and Non-recurrence” promised by minister Samaraweera. How confident, how hopeful and how eager can the Tamil people be to accept such an arrangement as victims of a Sinhala celebrated war openly sponsored by the State and still ruled by that very same State?
It is in such socio political background the Tamil society here in SL and displaced elsewhere will not be willing to accept a wholly domestic process even with international support and expertise as spoken of by minister Samaraweera. It is prudent therefore for the Sirisena-Wickramasinghe government to work within the “hybrid” process of investigation as proposed in the SL Report. For it is important to have the most important stakeholder the Tamil people on board whose voluntary and freedom of participation would decide the credibility of the investigation.
Yet the core problem is in the two main political parties in the Sinhala South believing the majority of the Sinhala constituency are confirmed “Sinhala patriots”. A belief that keeps them catering to the Sinhala constituency purely to be in power. This thinking is rationally wrong but rationale is not what matters. In reality all past elections prove Sinhala extremism have only been a noisy nuisance ballooned by Colombo based media. In year 2000 when “Sihala Urumaya” first contested parliamentary elections with the total backing of the “Sinhala Veera Vidhanaya” a city-trader based organisation, they could muster only 127,000 plus (1.47%) votes nationally. In 2001 they crashed to a national total of 50,665 (0.56%) votes. In predominantly Sinhala Buddhist districts like Moneragala and Hambantota they could not poll even a thousand votes. They managed a national total of 552,724 (5.9%) votes in 2004 with 09 MPs that included 02 from national list, when all the candidates fielded were Buddhist monks. But that did not keep the JHU intact and expanding. Almost all the monk MPs except 02 left them within a year. In all these elections the most votes polled were from Colombo district and that too in Maharagama electorate. This is reason why the JHU and Champika Ranawaka do not contest on their own after 2004 April elections.
Despite such rejection of the JHU by the larger majority, Sinhala political leadership in both traditional parties do not want to accept the argument the Sinhala constituency could be consciously and politically led on a secular, inclusive path, IF a political leadership is willing to take up the challenge. In any society when political convictions go unchallenged for decades and are given religious overtones as well, they become as good and strong as religious beliefs. As Prof. Arjuna Parakarama said on 14 September (2015) at the launch of Dr. Nirmal Dewasiri’s book “Demalage Prashnaya” (Problem of the Tamil), beliefs don’t work on a rational and on logic. They thus don’t accept proof and counter arguments that challenge their pre conceived positions said Prof Arjuna Parakrama.
Here lies the political logjam. This coalition though seen as a convenient necessity in the Sinhala South to find a decent, workable answer to Tamil demands, it lives with its own Sinhala supremacist “belief” to remain in power. That “belief” doesn’t allow them to understand nor accept these Sinhala Buddhist voters are ideologically not necessarily a noisy nuisance as JHU. That a larger majority can be convinced to accept a shared future, for peaceful and decent prosperity. It is this mediocrity of the Southern leadership that allows an urban but a loud Sinhala nuisance to have the State behave with impunity and derail any domestic investigation into war related crimes and accountability. It is this Sinhala “possibility” proved a hindrance in the past that keeps the Tamil society suspecting the Colombo government. This MS_RW government does not show any signs it would face up to that challenge. If they don’t, they would have difficulty in pleasing Tamil politics, though Sinhala extremism would stay pleased.