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

Post-war Sri Lanka: Challenges and opportunities

This Government, as it commences to address the many challenges facing post – war Sri Lanka, stands today at a watershed of major, unprecedented and possibly never to be replicated, opportunity. Wherever one is located in the Sri Lankan political firmament that obvious and pre eminent condition would have to be admitted. The sense of overall stability about the new Government  pervades all thinking, writing and action, both local and foreign.

How valid is this assumption of political, economic and societal stability that the Government so bountifully enjoys today – the first anniversary of the defeat of the LTTE, or of ‘separatist terrorism’, as the government calls it and would like it to be known?

The elements of that apparent stability which both local and foreign observers prefer to comment on are well known. They are broadly the massive majorities obtained by the President and his Party at the recently concluded elections. The arguments of the many who contest the accuracy and the manner in which these results were obtained are also well known. But what are some of the many vulnerabilities that lurk overtly and covertly below the surface of the apparently favourable political, economic and social crust and which cannot be discounted as one assesses future progress? This essay will seek to explore some of the more obvious of these ‘torpedoes’ that the unwary and the historically uninitiated may overlook.

Indeed the recent history of our blessed and serendipitous land has some telling lessons of great electoral victories not being a sufficient condition for undiluted growth and success. Take for example the 1970 United Front government which, decimating the UNP incumbent won a two-thirds electoral majority under Sirimawo Bandaranaike’s resurgent leadership. All seemed set for a long reign of unparalleled prosperity.  But what happened ? Within a year and a half she was fighting a guerrilla revolt from below (it was not called terrorism then) which all but upset her government. In 1977, J R Jayewardene won a five-sixth victory in the elections which he thought would have enabled him to turn a man into a woman and vice versa. But what happened? In 4 years the accumulated deficits of his predecessors, and his own unenlightened policies, ignited an ethic imbroglio which was seismic and whose reverberations continue unabated to this day. Both these movements which presaged instability came not from a political, parliamentary opposition but from forces which seemed to arise, unexpectedly to those in the seats of power, from deep subterranean, systemic causes. How far have these ‘structural faults’ in the terrain on which the game of politics is played, been resolved or eradicated by what has happened in the last few years ?

Not to any great extent in this writers assessment.

Take poverty and the unemployment of educated youth which were the triggers of the J V P rebellion of the 1970’s and eighties, for example. The official figures based on data from 18 districts (the other seven in the North and East were not counted for well known reasons) say that the level of poverty has now been reduced from 23% which it was, according to World Bank figures in 1998, to 13%, while some districts like Moneragala record figures as high as 37%. The President frequently quotes a Central Bank mantra that per capita GDP has doubled from $ 2000 to $4000. Nice, round sums which carry the image of people with nice, round bellies. (No one contests this, although surely the GDP denominator on which these statistics are based is not corrected for inflation).

Anecdotal evidence from our rural areas hardly supports this improved state of well – being. If at all, the sight of more tiled roofs, cement floors and so in our villages  is due to increased foreign remittances from foreign employment of our women or the hours they spend in the nearby garment factory. And, Employment (with ever increasing educated unemployment as a result of more students exiting the school system each year) has been through heavy recruitment into the armed services, or politically motivated entry into a heavily overloaded state system. Other than these two avenues for the politically correct there has been hardly any other absorption of new entrants into the workforce. Both avenues – garment factories and military service are now drying up. Even the safety valve of low – paid employment abroad will shrink as firms abroad economize in line with the lessons the recent global recession has taught them.  The powder keg of frustrated youth can be explosive.  One of the post-war priorities will be how to assuage this compelling need.

If the prosperous future based on rapid, sustainable and equitable  development in the South is one strand of the Governments post-war vision, the other must be the fulfilment of its hope that the ‘defeat of terrorism’ would free the North (and East) for investment and re – connection with the rest of the country. Here too as we saw in the discussion above there seem to be some ‘torpedoes’ which should caution any expectation of immediate high returns. There appears to be much work yet to be done before that goal could be realized.

How zealously, for example, is the defeat of terrorism being celebrated in the North and how is this to be made congruent with the reconciliation objective with the now alienated bulk of the Tamil people. The end of Prabhakaran and the militarism of the LTTE may be widely welcomed by the mothers of children who were forcibly drafted into its cadres. But is the cause for which he fought misguidedly and hopelessly maybe, also be forgotten and put away so easily? The strength which the trans- national government idea seems to have derived in the Tamil diaspora after the LTTE should caution us that the incipient drive for autonomy or major devolution has not been killed along with Prabhakaran and the demise of the LTTE. Indeed the results of the recent Parliamentary elections and the strong performance of ITAK should serve as an early warning that a political solution to the ethnic problem must remain a priority in the business of Government. Regrettably there has been little evidence of this in the recent actions of Government.

After all the pain and suffering they have been through in so many years the Northern Tamil may not disclose his or her thoughts in any public poll. But any disinterested observer of the evolving situation in most of the five districts which make up the Northern Province would see the following three elements as being highly important in any real recovery programme.

Firstly, urgent and effective action on devolution of power from the Centre which feeds into the constitutional reform process now being planned. Mere representation in a Senate of indeterminate status will be a cheap substitute for a degree of autonomy resembling at least that of an Indian state government.

Two; urgent action on reducing the high military component in the Jaffna Peninsula, the symbolic home of the Tamil people. The Mahinda Chintana 2010 states that ‘By the year 2012 Jaffna city will be made one of the most outstanding cities in South Asia’ (page 62). Leaving aside the hyperbole which accompanies this Manifesto of the Government let’s hope that as a preliminary step the army vacates the locations it occupies in the city and that the High Security Zones which apparently take up one-third of the arable land of this densely populated peninsula will as a follow up to an election promise, be soon restored to the rightful owners.

Three; that the process of reconciliation between the Sinhala and Tamil people be conducted on a tested basis using the lessons learned from other parts of the world which have experienced similar trauma. In this respect a word about the proposed Presidential Commission of Inquiry into alleged ‘war crimes’ may be not out of place. This has been announced along with the promise of ‘restorative justice’, a la Bishop Desmond Tutu’s South African Truth Commission. While the names of the seven Commissioners (from here and abroad) and the Commission’s Terms of Reference are eagerly awaited, some have already averred that the timing is singularly appropriate given the impending visit of the Secretary of the Treasury, the Secretary, Foreign Affairs and the Attorney General to Brussels to plead for reconsideration of the E U decision to terminate the GSP + concession. If the Commission were only to forestall the E U intention and lacked sincerity of purpose it would hardly help the reconciliation process. The untimely fate of the Presidential Commission headed by Justice Udalagama two years ago, into the 17 high profile political murders of that period of history and the summary treatment which the International Body of Experts headed by Justice P N Bhagavati received in its review of the work of the Presidential Commission is still remembered.

The experience of Presidential Commissions appointed to examine the misdeeds of Police and military officers by earlier administrations too has not been great. Public Commissions of Inquiry into allegations against military officers in the past have generally been of no credibility as President Premadasa’s Commission into the pitiable alleged massacre of 167 civilians in Kokadocholai in 1991 would show. Independently financed and staffed Commissions of Inquiry might do a better job but which President’s Office would agree to such an arrangement, ‘interfering with the sovereignty’ of the country. But not ensuring a process with the modicum of sincerity and some possibility of getting at the facts would be worse than useless. No reconciliation would result. Only the pain and inextinguishable memory of those scarred will remain.

End of War Special Edition