Photo courtesy Official Website of the President of Sri Lanka
Ten years surviving a tempestuous period of contemporary Sri Lankan political, economic and social change, as an English language electronic platform introducing the most modern forms of communication is surely an accomplishment to be proud of. Greater still is the achievement of contributing substantively to the discourse on the issues and helping mould public opinion across a broad swathe. My warmest congratulations go out to Sanjana Hattotuwa and his innovative and enterprising team at the Centre for Policy Alternatives.
Groundviews began in 2006 in the midst of Sri Lanka’s horrible fratricidal conflict, with the daily terror of exploding bombs and carnage, reports of violations of human rights and the futile search for peaceful solutions through failed ceasefire agreements brokered by well-meaning and not so well-meaning foreign mediators. This decade sees the end of conflict, but with a stable peace still eluding us. Debates around transitional justice, which include a new Constitution, continue to divide our nation on the same ethnic and ideological lines that caused the conflict.
Within this period a watershed transition took place in 2015 with a National Unity Government being elected on a liberal platform that promised political, economic and social reforms. That platform has yet to be implemented. Indeed, it is being jeopardised by the combined action and inaction of those in power. The global situation has also changed with the election of a populist as President of the United States, who is wedded to isolationist and protectionist policies, encapsulated in the slogan “Make America Great Again”. Further, the threat of a Cold War, trade wars with the Russian Federation and China while a wave of extremism sweeps the Middle East, and proxy wars triggering an exodus of displaced persons and refugees in unprecedented numbers. Curiously, chauvinist elements in Sri Lanka have hailed the Trump victory as a victory for nationalism and the assertion of majoritarian rights over minorities. Uncertainty and instability threatens our island nation with no reliable GPS system to guide us. Groundviews is one of the few direction finders firmly entrenched in a durable value system.
The Lessons Learned and Reconciliation commission of inquiry appointed by Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa in May 2010 after the 26-year-long civil war in Sri Lanka was reported and commented on by Groundviews in the hope that it would provide for the healing of war wounds and solutions providing closure to the conflict. The commission was mandated to investigate the facts which led to the failure of the ceasefire agreement made operational on 27 February 2002, the lessons that could be learned from those events, the institutional, administrative and legislative measures that needed to be taken in order to prevent the recurrence of such concerns in the future, and the promotion of national unity and reconciliation among all communities. After an 18-month inquiry, the commission submitted its report to the President on 15 November 2011. The report was made public on 16 December 2011, after being tabled in Parliament. Sadly, the implementation of the LLRC recommendations has been inconsistent and incomplete.
In my own presentation before the distinguished Commissioners, conscientiously reported by Groundviews, I said in my introduction before going on to specific proposals,
“I think that the conflict that has ravaged our country is not only the result of the perversity and the venality of the LTTE and its leader Prabakaran, but also the cumulative effect of bad governance on the part of successive Governments in Sri Lanka. Our inability to manage our own internal affairs has led to foreign intervention but more seriously has led to the taking of arms by a desperate group of our citizens. I think we need to rectify this bad governance and the first task before us is to undertake constitutional reform in order to ensure that we have adequate devolution of power. We have already missed several opportunities in the past…We need to have State reform; we need to have rule of law established; we need to ensure non-discrimination amongst our citizens; we need to have a tolerance of dissent and a strengthening of democratic institutions… I would say that constitutional reform is one of the highest priorities that we must address…. I think also that the importance of education as a primary tool in creating a tolerant society has to be addressed. We have all gone through a national trauma; we have all seen the brutalisation of our society and we must ensure that never again should our children be exposed to the violence and to the false values that have been encouraged. I think as the UNESCO preamble says, “war begins in the minds of men”, and conflict in Sri Lanka began with the attitudes of our people towards each other. And we must do everything possible to ensure that through education these attitudinal changes take place, such as through the study of each others language as a primary tool.”
That was said in 2011 – five years ago. We are still drafting a new Constitution. It represents great opportunity to weld our nation together in a belated nation-building exercise. And yet despite wide public consultation at the grassroots by an independent group, regular briefing on the process and the democratic engagement of all political parties in Parliament in the discussion, wild rumours are being mischievously spread by extremists alleging that a federal solution is secretly being hatched and that existing provisions of the Constitution on Buddhism being given its foremost place are to be changed. Groundviews has devised innovative graphics as educational tools to depict the Constitution in architectural terms and taken its exhibit “Corridors of Power” to the Southern, Northern and Eastern Provinces. This is a decisive time in the history of our nation and as the Government spokesmen have said, if we as a nation miss this unique opportunity to adopt a new Constitution resolving the centre-periphery devolution of power, entrenchment of human rights for all and ensuring an inclusive, development oriented economy we may not have this historic moment come again. It is vital therefore that in 2017 we adopt the new Constitution with a two-thirds majority in Parliament and by a referendum conducted peacefully in the country.
The transition in 2015 was most significant in the area of human rights that was the area of dispute pre- 2015, particularly with the UN and significant parts of the international community. The resolution adopted in 2015 with the co-operation of Sri Lanka has changed that confrontational position. Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera’s said in his statement to the Human Rights Council in June this year,
The Government recognises that, in order for the transitional justice process to be effective in achieving the desired objectives, the necessary mechanisms should be properly sequenced, integrated and coordinated. This will consist of:
-A Task Force consisting entirely of civil society representatives to seek the views of the public that will inform the designing of the truth-seeking, justice, accountability and reparations mechanisms;
-The task of working on reconciliation and non-recurrence is being coordinated by the Office of National Unity and Reconciliation
-The draft Bill to establish a Permanent and Independent Office on Missing Persons
-A Bill to amend the Registration of Deaths (Temporary Provisions) Act No 19 of 2010 to enable the issuance of Certificates of Absence in respect of Missing Persons
-The International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance was ratified
-A ‘National Policy on Durable Solutions for Conflict Affected Displacement’ has been evolved through wide consultations, and with technical support from the UN. The Policy is presently before Cabinet for approval, and has been released to the public as well;
-A Committee is now putting the final touches to the first draft of the new counter-terrorism legislation that will replace the much criticized and much abused Prevention of Terrorism Act, in keeping with Sri Lanka’s commitment and obligations to human rights and countering terrorism.
– Assistance of the National Human Rights and Police Commissions in Sri Lanka to create greater public awareness, initiate public discourse, and other measures aimed at combating and eliminating torture including addressing the need for prosecution and conviction, and dedicated training programmes for the Police
-A Cabinet approved Inter-Ministerial Committee tasked with drafting the National Human Rights Action Plan for 2017-2021;
-The return of lands to conflict displaced civilians The Government has clearly instructed the military that all the land obtained from civilians must be released latest by 2018, and that the owners of whatever land that may be required for national installations or development purposes would be fully compensated.
– The Government is also working towards a new Constitution for Sri Lanka. This Constitution, while entrenching the democratic gains we have achieved during the last year, will also be a celebration of Sri Lanka’s diversity as a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-lingual country that will guarantee equal rights, justice and dignity for all, and address some of the issues that have plagued us since Independence and has stood in the way of our unity as a nation.”
While this timetable is being adhered to by and large much more undoubtedly remains to be done and with greater speed than has been the case so far. Meanwhile extremist groups continue to create problems and the latest incidents of hate speech and blatant incitement have not been effectively countered by the Government through its law enforcement agencies. However, a strong statement from the Office of National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR) by its head former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaranatunga is a timely signal warning to extremists.
In my recent Gamani Corea Memorial Oration on November 10 in Colombo I warned against the prevailing trend of populism saying
“Populism offers simplistic solutions to complex problems. It is based on an antagonistic relationship between “we” and “they”, which sometimes translates into “we the genuine patriots” and “they the foreign funded agents of imperialism”. Political scientists do not regard populism as an ideology but see it as a strategy. Populism, being inherently anti-institutional, challenges the institutional safeguards of democracy beginning with the Constitution itself, which has to be amended if it cannot be flouted. It seeks, cleverly, to conflate authoritarianism with leadership while ensuring the ascendancy of the individual at the expense of the Institution.
The separation of powers, so fundamental to any democratic system, is blurred if not eliminated as the Executive emerges to be the dominant branch of government on the basis of being the elected representatives of the people who are indisputably sovereign. ”
“Populism” I concluded “is ultimately counterfeit democracy”. Sri Lanka cannot and must not succumb to that trend having reinforced democratic norms in the Presidential election of 8 January followed by the Parliamentary Election of August 2015.
Jayantha Dhanapala is a Sri Lankan diplomat who served as member of the Board of Sponsors of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and a governing board member of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Dhanapala was also the Senior Special Advisor on Foreign Relations to President Maithripala Sirisena, and was Sri Lanka’s official candidate for the post of Secretary-General of the United Nations, before withdrawing from the race on 29 September 2006. From 2007 he has been the President of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs.