Colombo, End of war special edition, Human Security, IDPs and Refugees, International Relations, Jaffna, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Post-War

Opportunities and challenges facing post-war Sri Lanka

The recent Parliamentary Election has resulted in the United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance, obtaining a resounding victory at the general election. However, the number of seats won has fallen just short of a two-thirds majority which President Rajapakse was hoping for.  This election confirmed the fact that he has continued to maintain the popularity he had gained following the decimation of the LTTE in May, 2009.  It is likely he will be able to get the support of some of his sympathizers in the opposition to enable him to push through the Parliament the constitutional amendments about which there had been much talk before, during and after the elections.

This remarkable victory augurs well for a country which has for more than thirty years, been passing through a turbulent  stage in its modern history. During that period much of the resources of the country had to be utilized to contain the LTTE  at the expense of neglecting the  development of  the country, especially in the North and the East. Heavy burdens were imposed  on the civil society which had to bear with an alarming increase in the cost of goods and services.  None of the Presidents who were  in power during such   turbulent periods, had been  able to muster that amount of power and popularity as President Rajapakse has been able to do.  It was  that  which enabled him to conduct  the war ruthlessly  to a finish, ignoring appeals by several international bodies and countries for a ceasefire to avert civilian casualties.

Now that President Rajapakse has become the virtual king of Sri Lanka everyone is waiting to see what he is going to do to put the country on the road to prosperity.  The LTTE is no more and the Tamil National Alliance which is a reasonably moderate Tamil Party has indicated that it is prepared to accept a political solution to the ethnic problem which would enable the Tamils and the other minorities to live as equal citizens within a united Sri Lanka. The Jatika Hela Urumaya which was a virulent extremist Sinhala Party is no longer in the current Parliament.  An important faction of the JVP headed by a person who had been   vociferously  against any concession to the Tamils,  is now a Minister under his government.   The party of the contender for the post of President at the last elections and the main party which was in the opposition earlier,  are now in tatters.  Consequently, the key political party in the opposition in the parliament   has become impotent.  They are unlikely to oppose any reasonable measures that the President may take to deal with the urgent issues facing the country.  The President  who was once a champion of the cause of the victims of human rights violations in the late 1980s and the early 1990s needs no lessons on the importance of  protecting  and promoting  human rights in the country.

The extra-ordinary circumstances that prevailed in the country when he became President had made him turn a blind eye to human rights violations that had been taking place in the country  so that he may deal with the  conflict related issues that were more urgent then.  Now that is history,  the door is now open for him to become a champion of the rights of all the citizens of this country.  Besides, it is no secret that most of the key departments of the State are under  ministries held by him or his  kith and kin.  With all these circumstances and opportunities being favourable to the President,  one could  reasonably  expect President Rajapakse to  gear up  his team to tackle the burning issues  with acumen and put the country on the right track  to peace and prosperity.  He certainly knows that this cannot be achieved unless all the people living in the country are treated as equal citizens without any discrimination whatsoever. Sri Lanka needs to be made a country where there is law and order, respect for democratic traditions and human values,   and where the human rights of  all  the citizens are guaranteed.

In his efforts to accomplish these expectations the President will inevitably have to face  numerous challenges. He certainly is capable and well equipped to meet these challenges. All that is needed now is ‘the will’ to  meet the expectations.  Regrettably, he appears to have got his priorities mixed up. In spite of  Rajapakse’s  unrelenting  military offensive he had always been saying that there needs to be a political solution to the ethnic problem.  He had been repeatedly saying that he would put forward a political solution to the ethnic conflict after the LTTE is defeated militarily.

Though almost an year has lapsed since the war ended, no meaningful steps appear to have been taken in all earnest to table the promised political solution.  Instead, building of statues and monuments to commemorate the  victory  are been given priority and the triumphalism that followed the war continues to be  encouraged.  The social consequences of such measures immensely  damage the reconciliation process that needs to be promoted for the welfare of the  future of the country.  There is no need for a study by a social scientist to understand that the militancy of the Tamil youth which eventually turned into terrorism, was only a symptom of the unresolved  problems of the Tamils which  had been allowed to fester through sheer  default by successive governments.  Unless steps are taken in all earnest to swiftly and effectively   deal with the factors that led to the war,  the victory achieved in May last year would be squandered in no time.  Trampled people cannot be held down for long  using  military might.   The moves to appoint a team to study the reasons for the conflict would be an exercise in futility.  There are an innumerable number of  books  by independent social scientists and  researchers on the ethnic problem in Sri Lanka   with  suggestions for  possible  remedies.

Besides the All Party Conference (APC) appointed by the President had, after prolonged discussions at its sittings that went on for years, was ready with a solution for the ethnic problem arrived at by consensus. It is no secret that that the President intervened and struck it down and wanted the learned Professor who headed the Conference to come out with an interim report on the lines suggested by him.  It is hoped that there will be no such dramatics in the future and that the President would take steps to prove his sincerity to arrive at a political solution for this problem.

We now have a political party which can rightly be called the elected representatives of the Tamils who have stated clearly in their manifesto  that they aim to achieve  a just settlement for the problems of the Tamils within a united Sri Lanka. This was re-iterated in the maiden speech of one of the newly elected  representative of the Jaffna electorate  where he eloquently stated  that reconciliation is the need of the hour to protect the country from sliding down the path of divisive politics which could lead to undesirable consequences for the whole nation.  It needs to be noted that in spite of all that had happened in the past, the TNA wants to live in a united Sri Lanka as equal citizens of this country. The President has to grab his opportunity and bring them into the fold to help him in his attempts to find a political solution to the ethnic problem.

There is an urgent need for a program of education of the people in the North and the South  to change their minds to look at each other with a sense of  amity rather than animosity, as is the case today. The President should be able to instill this into the minds of his supporters. A concerted effort is needed to make the people realize that ours is a land where there are neither oppressors nor oppressed.   As the President says, none should consider themselves to be minorities. If that be so, then there cannot be any room for anyone to think he belongs to a majority community.  The majority complex must also go.

There is no doubt that the continuation of the Emergency Regulations and the Prevention of Terrorism Act made way for serious human rights violations taking place in the country. Now that the terrorism is no more there is no justification for the continuance of the ER.  If the fear of the LTTE re-organising themselves  once more is the justification for this, then  it may be necessary for the ER to be kept in force till the ethnic problems is settled once and for all.  This means, the emergency rule is going to be there for a very long time to come.  Is that what the President wishes to do?  Despite the ER being in force abductions, disappearances of persons and extra-judicial killings still continue in the North and East, though on a smaller scale in the South.  Every effort should be made to make the frequent occurrence of these incidents,  a thing of the past.

With the non-implementation of the provisions of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution, the people have lost confidence in the  institutions that were designed to promote human rights and ensure there is law and order in the country.  The President should not be seen as a person who violates the supreme law of the land – the Constitution. When he took the oath of office he had sworn to uphold the Constitution and abide by  its  provisions.    The 17th Amendment is an integral part of the Constitution and was hailed as the first measure that the then Parliament had enacted  unanimously, restricting the discretionary power of the President to appoint anyone he pleases to the key institutions of the State.  The President should not be seen of availing himself of all the privileges and powers the Constitution has  conferred on him and not complying with the provisions of the 17th Amendment which restricts  his discretion in appointing persons to high posts and members of Commissions created by the Constitution. The President needs to face the consequent challenge and comply with the 17th Amendment without delay and  show the country that he abides by the Constitution and is not a person who would by-pass it on some pretext or the other.

The non-implementation of the 17th Amendment has had a serious impact on the law and order situation in the country.  It was enacted at a time when political interference in all the key branches of the State mechanism had become a bane and brought  disrepute to the institutions such as the Police Service, the Public Service and even the Judicial Service.  During the short period when the provisions of this Amendment were in force  these services began to show signs of improvement and the politicians found it difficult to interfere in the duties of the respective services.   This was probably the reason why,  when the term of the first Constitutional Council (CC) expired, an excuse was found to avoid  constituting  a  fresh CC.   And eventually when the terms of the commissions  that were appointed  by the CC expired,  the President  started appointing his own nominees to the  such positions and commissions where the need arose. The upshot of  this  was that the images of these institutions got tarnished and relevant services  went back to the state in which they were,  prior to the enactment of the 17th Amendment.   It is  hoped that the President would henceforth implement fully all the provisions of the 17th Amendment or make the necessary changes to it if possible, and implement them faithfully. Let not this matter be  referred to a Parliamentary Select Committee once more and the drama re-enacted again.  The President needs to project himself as a person who abides by every provision of the Constitution, even if it is to his disadvantage.

The restoration of the rule of law would necessarily mean that all the checks and balances  in the  laws of the land which had been rendered in-operative  by the Emergency Regulations, should  be made operative. This would mean the provisions of the Fundamental Rights Chapter of the Constitution would have to be complied with. In other words there cannot be the rule of law  in the country as long as the ER is in force with  provisions that negate this concept.  If   the ER are not in force no one could be taken into custody on a mere suspicion and detained indefinitely. All those who are in custody for long periods without any charges being framed against them would be released.   Deterrent action should be taken against police officers who violate the human rights of the citizens. Torture of persons taken to custody should be a thing of the past. There should be no more deaths in custody.  Every incident of disappearance of a person, abduction or extra-judicial killings should be swiftly and thoroughly investigated  and the culprits brought to book.   Blaming ‘unknown persons’ as being responsible for such incidents should never be allowed to be the finding on any investigation into such a crime.  Ensuring that this happens  is  one of the  challenges  the President has to take in all earnest.  Recent reports indicate that the Attorney-General’s Department is to be  brought under the direct control of the President. This is a step backwards.   When most complaints of human rights violations are at the hands of state officers, how could one expect the Attorney-General to conduct prosecutions effectively against such officers who are the servants of the State.  Many Commissions of Inquiries into Disappearances of Persons have emphasized the need for an Independent Public Prosecutor in place of the Attorney General  to deal with cases pertaining to human rights violations because the Attorney General’s Department was, according these reports,  ‘not an independent institution’ . The International Independent Group of Eminent Persons who were invited by the President to  oversee the work of the then Commission inquiring into serious human rights violations, aborted their assignment  after making a scathing attack on the manner in which the Attorney General was  guiding the proceedings of that Commission.  There again the role of the Attorney General became questionable even while it was under the Ministry of Justice.  Now if it goes under the President’s direct control, one could imagine what would happen to its image which is already tarnished. It was revealed in a survey of the prosecutions initiated by the police who act on the advice of the Attorney General, that only four per cent of the cases so filed, end up in conviction.   Therefore improving the procedures  followed to  maintain law and order in the country  is another challenge facing the President.  He should not only ensure that there is fair play in the maintenance of law and order  but should also make it appear to be so.

The country has earned a reputation as being one of the dangerous places for journalists and that the State is hostile towards the independent media.  This is confirmed by the fact that several media personnel have been killed or have disappeared while many others have fled the country.  Perhaps the government thought a strict control of the media was necessary to fight the war effectively. Now that the war is over, it is  left to the President to  ensure that restrictions of the free media are removed.  A climate  conducive  to practice the   freedom of expression has to be created where  the media could function independently  and not only reflect the thoughts of the people but also to expose maladministration and  promote good governance.  Let us  hope the  President would take up this challenge head on and lift the restrictions on the media and make way for transparency and the freedom of expression.

The President wanted a 2/3rd majority in the Parliament to enable him to make changes to the Constitution.  Whether the changes he is having in mind relate to the political solution to the ethnic problem or to whether they are to make his position and those of his kith and kin more secure, one does not know. But the fact remains that it is going to be a big challenge he would have to face in whichever way he is planning to amend the Constitution.  The 17th Amendment to the Constitution is said to be flawed because it was pushed through Parliament in a mighty hurry without allowing room for a wide public discussion on the provisions of this Amendment. Let not the President repeat this mistake.  Any amendments to the Constitution he has in mind must be made public well in time to enable a wide discussion on the  pros and cons of the proposals.

President Rajapakse’s sweeping victories had been on the support he had received from the marginalized groups in society based on the expectation that there will be post war opportunities which would lead to  prosperity to the country and benefit his supporters.  Given the state of the finances of the government that is not going to be an easy task.  It would not take long for the disappointed supporters to eventually become disillusioned. They  may even turn against the President. There appears to be no letup in the lavish expenses incurred in providing without delay,  privileges and positions to the newly elected  Members of Parliament.  They have wasted no time in ordering duty free limousines for them to get about!   It is time the President took stringent austerity measures and got the parliamentarians to set an example in prudent living before advising the people to do so.  Then he needs to crack down on government expenditure on unproductive ventures. There had been many of that kind in the recent past. Thereafter the President has to devise ways and means of dealing with the unprecedented rise in the   cost of living before it reaches the breaking point.

The other challenge the President will face is the  need to  increase the production of food crops and providing employment opportunities to the ever increasing number of unemployed.  Rice production which was once nearing the point of self-sufficiency, has now dropped far below the expected levels.  Sri Lanka was once the largest supplier of tea to the world. But last year Kenya has succeeded in pushing Sri Lanka to the second place. The war has resulted in  large extents of agricultural land in the North  being  not  utilized for cultivation.   There is an urgent need to revive agricultural activities in the North.  The irrigation canals around the Iranaimadu Tank in the Kilinochchi District and the Giant’s Tank in the Mannar District have to be repaired to enable those being re-settled in those areas to commence cultivation. Cultivators in the Jaffna Peninsula  and the other  districts in the North were one of the leading suppliers of   plantains, seasonal fruits,  onion, chillies and other vegetables to the South. The best area for cultivation is inside the high security zone.  With the displacement of the residents around Mutur, Kinniya and Sampoor  the lands they had been cultivating  are now fallow. All these cultivators need to be given every possible assistance to resume their traditional activities and contribute to the increase of food production in the country.  The same could be said about the fisherman in the Northern Districts whose activities have been curtailed due to restrictions on their movement in the sea. These restrictions  need to be  relaxed  without delay and their activities encouraged to increase fish production.  Meeting these challenges  would help the President  to reduce the cost of living at least to a certain extent and provide employment opportunities to the people in the respective are areas.

While  the President is talking of reconciliation, it is desirable that all  the members of his party in the Parliament should also talk on the same tenor.  Regrettably,  the Defence Secretary, who is the de facto Defence Minister, appears to play a  different  tune.  He has launched on a project to   wipe out all the LTTE cemeteries in the North and is going on a spree of putting up monuments to commemorate the government’s military victory.   There had been reports of such cemeteries being bull dozed one after the other.   These graves contain the remains of  LTTE personnel and others who had died during the war.  Each of them has surviving members of his family, to whom the grave is a place where they perform solemn religious rites  during  anniversaries. The survivors could be  grieving widows  and their children  or even the aged parents of the persons concerned.  Demolishing these graves is a highly inhuman, immoral  and vengeful act which is not going help in the reconciliation process the President hopes to set in motion.

One needs to remember that the war has left behind a large number of victims who have been rendered destitute.  An estimate says that there are nearly 50,000 war widows languishing without anyone to care, either for them or their siblings. In the North nearly 5000 men have been  maimed during the war.  About 11,000 to 15,000 youth are detained as LTTE suspects without their next of kin being informed. 250 university students are also in custody.  Even the Members  of Parliament  are not allowed to visit them.  The names of those  detained are not made public.  Many grieving Tamils have no way of finding out if their loved ones are dead or alive.  These are all citizens of Sri Lanka.  It is the responsibility of the State to inform the next of kin of those detained, that they are under detention.   If the President is serious about reconciliation these problems of the war victims’ should be addressed without delay.  There must be a permanent rehabilitation policy at the national level for the war widows, the maimed and those under detention. They need to be helped to begin a new life.  The education of  the children among the displaced  needs to be  ensured so that eventually they may become assets to society and not liabilities.

The announcement that a truth and reconciliation commission is to be appointed raises many questions.  Many would look at this move with skepticism.    The same fate that befell to the several commissions of inquiry into disappearances of persons that were appointed in the past, may happen to the proposed Commission as well.   It is a well-known fact that the reports of these commissions are gathering dust in the archives of the President’s Office while  many of the perpetrators against whom the Commissions had found credible material indicative of their involvement in these disappearances, are enjoying high positions in their respective services.  The President is aware of this.

Be that as it may,  the proposed truth and reconciliation commission,  even if it is determined  to get to the bottom of all that happened during the offensive,  it will not be able to make headway without an effective witness protection law in place.  One remembers how many witnesses to the killing of 17 NGO workers in Muttur were scared to come and given evidence before the Udalagama Commission for fear of reprisals.  A medical doctor, who was an eye witness to the killing of his undergraduate son in Trincomalee where  five  students were shot dead  near the beach in the high security zone,  had to flee from the country before he could give evidence  before this Commission due to threats to his life to stop him from giving evidence.   In the circumstances the President has an uphill task  in achieving his objective of finding out what actually happened during the last days of the war  while  there is no witness protection law in place.   Whether  the aim of the President is to sincerely  find out what actually happened or  whether  the idea of appointing a Commission had been put forward for some other sinister motive, is anybody’s guess.  Further,  even if the Commission is appointed and conducts proceedings to achieve the objective of the President, what is there to prevent  the same fate that happened to the Commission  of Inquiry appointed by him in 2007 to inquire into  fifteen high profile human rights violations happening  to this Commission too.  The former Commission was disbanded before they could  complete their inquiries into even one third of the cases they were tasked to inquire. Their report  is yet to be published, and may not be made public at all.   Let the President not take the people of the country and the international community for granted. Let him not  think that they will not  realize his dubious maneuvers.  He needs to do much more to  improve the credibility of his moves, if he is to take the country forward.

Finally the President has the daunting task of improving the seriously damaged  impression of the country abroad. The repeated denials of what  is alleged to  have happened before, during and after the war  has not done any good to the  government. The international community looks at  Sri Lanka as a country  fast approaching a status similar to  pariah states such as Myanmar, Sudan, Somalia,  etc.  This was confirmed by the fact that the first  overseas visit the President made after the war,  was to Myanmar, perhaps to get the blessings of the leader of the ruling military junta General Than Shwe.  He  is known the world,  over as a ruthless dictator who was responsible for the massacre of a large number people of his country, including Buddhist Priests and suppressing democratic movements in Myanmar. He is also notorious for imprisoning  a democratically elected leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, for more than  fourteen years.   On his return visit to Sri Lanka this General  was given a grand reception much to the dismay of the Sri Lankan Buddhist clergy.  This exchanges of diplomatic courtesies  did not augur well for the good name of the country.

In the eyes of the UN,  Sri Lanka is a State that is alleged to have violated many  International  Conventions during the conflict  and the Secretary General even contemplated appointing a UN team of experts to advise him on what is actually happening in Sri Lanka  as against what the government is saying.  Sri Lanka has been doing its best to prevent  such a team being appointed. The UN Secretary General appears to have had second thoughts about it.    Visits of UN fact finding missions to Sri Lanka are looked upon with scorn. That has only made the outside world feel  that the government has many things to hide.  There is speculation whether the decision of the President to appoint a Commission to find out what happened during the last days of the war, could be a ploy to avert the UN appointing its own team for this purpose.  It is now left to our all powerful  President  to initiate measures to  restore  the good name of the country.

The newly appointed Minister of External Affairs has expressed concern about the activities of the Tamil Diaspora. The Prime Minister has also  joined in the fray and has taken umbrage against the international community for not curtailing their activities in the respective countries.  They need to realize they have  only to strengthen  the hands of the President  to  find  an amicable solution to  the ethnic problem  so that  they could easily  take the wind out of the sails  of the   instinctive machinations  of the Tamil Diaspora  to  rescue their brethren in distress.  If  the President succeeds in this effort,  it is likely that this same Diaspora could make a remarkable financial contribution to the re-building of the war ravaged infrastructure in the North.    If otherwise, the Tamil Diaspora has the potential to becoming  the bane of Sri Lanka in the years to come and sap its energies away from  the goal of  the President to  usher into the post-war  Sri Lanka,  the dawn of a golden age.  He has proved his mettle in winning the war. It is now left to him to prove his ability to win the minds of the Tamils.

End of War Special Edition