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

Will ‘Peace’ Arrive Before Death?

It was, unfortunately, a necessary war, for terrorism had to be defeated, eliminated. After some thirty long years, on or around the 19th of May 2009, Sri Lanka gained liberation; liberation from the clutches of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), from the clutches of terrorism (May, 2010: The Prime Minister states in Parliament that a new military wing of the LTTE is being formed, is getting ready to raise its ugly head).

‘Terrorism’, however, was only one facet of the problem. The moment that ugly facet becomes non-existent, the moment there is an absence of a violent armed conflict, problems which remained unresolved, problems which could not be resolved through the use of force, re-emerge, re-surface. Political developments which soon followed the defeat of the LTTE proved this, to some extent. An acrimonious debate ensued concerning the 13th Amendment (Did not, for a brief moment in our history, the 13th Amendment become something like the 6th Amendment, like ‘separatism’; something no one could utter a word in favour of?) Then, unfortunate developments surrounding a confused, misguided and revengeful Army Commander unfolded in quick succession. Thereafter the people, a vast majority, indicated on whose side they stood; at the Presidential and General elections. As a consequence, there is, now, a very strong government; strong here meaning a government that cannot be brought down easily. There is also a very weak opposition; weak here meaning an opposition that cannot be resuscitated easily.

Soon after the defeat of terrorism there arises, in the mind, that inevitable question of whether terrorism would re-surface in the future (suffering, anxiety, which knows no end, which is unending). This question in turn raises much broader questions. Now that violent terrorism has been defeated, how, and in what way, should different ethnic groups co-exist within a multi-ethnic State, peacefully? How, and in what way, should we, the people, act? How long would it take for ‘peace’ to arrive, and from where (if not from our heart), would ‘peace’ begin its long journey? What should be done, what should we do, to achieve ‘peace’? (Why do we still ask this latter question, in a country which is full of ‘peace-loving’ and friendly people? Are we, really, a ‘peace-loving’ people, and if so in what way, to what extent? Are problems the creations of politicians only, of successive Parliaments, of Parliamentarians? Or is the Parliament, its composition, a microcosm of the larger society that we live in?)

It is not possible to answer these questions, these complicated questions, satisfactorily. There may be no clear answers to such questions, anyway. Yet, there may be certain things, some obvious things, that evade us. Perhaps, the answer to many of our political problems rests in our own attitudes and perceptions, in our ability to ‘compromise’. But how difficult it would be to reach a compromise, by changing our deeply-held, deep-rooted, beliefs, attitudes and perceptions?

Such changes in our own attitude and approach are necessary when considering some of the critical challenges facing the country, today. Two such challenges would be: the ‘devolution of powers’ and the ‘promotion and protection of human rights and equality’ – issues on which people hold very strong and uncompromising views.

Consider the critical and contentious issue of devolution of powers – the “most intractable problem” – which touches that strong ‘nationalist nerve’ in many people, across the Sinhala-Tamil ethnic divide. It is one problem concerning which some form of a ‘compromise’ is quintessential, the resolution of which calls for that need to “hammer out a compromise”, as the late Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar put it, when he spoke in Parliament, in favour of the 2000 Draft Constitution (Kadirgamar: one who opposed the LTTE and was shot and killed by the LTTE, but nevertheless strongly believed in the idea of ‘power-sharing’, in the need for some resolution of the conflict, based, perhaps, on the lines of the 2000 Draft Constitution).

But, today, on the issue of devolution, is ‘compromise’ possible? Or is there any evidence to suggest that a ‘compromise’ is forthcoming?

On the one hand there are very strong views placed against the idea of ‘devolution’ – i.e. that devolution is unnecessary, that it is “development and not devolution”. The argument that the mandate received by President Rajapaksa does not make any significant reference to ‘devolution’ is also raised. The 13th Amendment is claimed to be unnecessary and an absolute failure (Was it not due to the inability and/or unwillingness to implement? Is the waste of resources a problem of the document or more of a problem regarding those who were supposed to implement it?). Recently, a subtle rubbishing of the 13th Amendment did take place when Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa was interviewed by Al-Jazeera (Question: in such a context, how could President Rajapaksa rubbish Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s views, by fully implementing the 13th Amendment, now, as promised?)

On the other hand, the case in favour of devolution/power-sharing resonates strongly in the views expressed by many Tamil politicians, in particular; from ITAK’s R. Sambanthan to UPFA’s Douglas Devananda. Reference is made not only to the 13th Amendment, but also to, for instance, the 2000 Draft Constitution and the APRC-Majority Report of the Panel of Experts.

How then would there be a compromise? One would not believe in the concept of a ‘traditional homeland’ or in a merged North-East, and would dismiss these ideas as political myths. But the fact that the majority of the North and the East consist of Tamil speaking people is not a myth, along with the fact that this demand for power-sharing had always been the predominant demand of the Tamil minority, or its representatives, elite or otherwise.

In such a context, how does one approach the issue of ‘devolution’? Perhaps the responsibility falls on both (or all) ethnic groups. The political leadership representing the majority would need to understand that this notion of ‘devolution’ cannot be rubbished off easily, cannot be dumped in a political dustbin, so conveniently and easily as one would like to do. The political leadership representing the minority would also need to understand that their demands would need to be couched in less inflammatory language; a language which does not resemble that of the Provisional Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam, for instance. There would also be a need to approach the idea of power-sharing from a citizen’s perspective; to regard devolution as a tool that empowers the people at the periphery; as a tool that effectively challenges an all-powerful centre, whenever necessary. Yet, it would be a serious mistake to imagine that that kind of approach means that the unit of devolution ought to be the Gamsabha or Janasabha (In this regard, would one forget that even the APRC-Minority Report states that the unit of devolution should be primarily the existing ‘province’?)

In reaching this compromise (‘would there be a compromise?’ is a recurring question, a doubtful prospect) there is also another critical factor which needs to be borne in mind; i.e. that ‘devolution’ would not work (or logically, it cannot work) unless of course there is a serious commitment, a parallel and simultaneous commitment, to constitutionalism, the rule of law, the establishment of independent institutions and a firm resolve to promote and protect human rights and equality. It is a great fantasy to imagine that significant devolution would resolve all problems the moment it is agreed upon and put down on paper. Even if there is a compromise reached, it would not be long lasting, unless there is commitment shown concerning the above issues as well.

But here again, there is an enormous challenge. On constitutionalism and the rule of law, Sri Lanka’s track record, unfortunately, is a dismal one. So too, with regard to the promotion and protection of human rights and equality; an issue over which many seem to have very fixed, even uncompromising, views; an issue, then, which needs to be approached with a changed attitude and mindset, today.

There is too much concern about the problem of the ‘West’. The ‘West’ displays hypocrisy when it talks about human rights protection, since it continues to show that its practice, elsewhere in the world, is no different. Such hypocrisy needs to be exposed. But in doing so, there is a tendency to view the notion of ‘human rights’ as simply a Western-liberal notion, without understanding that the moment one views ‘human rights’ as simply a Western concept, one’s resentment towards the West shapes the way in which one approaches all that is perceived to be Western concepts’; forgetting completely and even conveniently, the importance attached to the protection of human rights in our own Buddhist teaching and philosophy (or in any other religion) for example. Unless one’s attitude changes in a more positive way, there will not be any progress in relation to the improvement of own human rights standards. President Rajapaksa reminded the world in September 2007 that human rights have been an essential part of Sri Lanka’s cultural tradition and human rights protection is “nothing new for us”. True. But one needs to go further, and prove, that this is so even today, that this cultural tradition has not stopped, that it continues (And what a shame for a country with such a rich and glorious tradition, to be continually reminded of the importance of human rights protection, and that too, by the EU or the ‘West’).

So too is the case of ‘equality’. If the country and its people are burdened by that problem of complex – the ‘majority with a minority complex and a minority with a majority complex’ – then, ‘equality’ becomes a terrible problem, one that threatens one’s perceived status (that dominant status, that rightful place) in society. Demanding ‘equality’ or the respect for ‘equality’ is easy, but that demand becomes meaningless if one is not ready to accommodate what this ‘equality’ would necessarily mean; i.e. inter alia, equal status in society, equal citizenship, opportunities based on meritocracy, independent institutions etc. (How would a strong Sinhala or Tamil nationalist view ‘equality’? Does ‘equality’ shatter ideologies, nationalist ideologies?). Ensuring ‘equality’, too, is a great challenge.

The year was 2005, the year in which he was killed. Mr. Kadirgamar, who had delivered a lecture (“Third World Democracy in Action: Sri Lanka’s Experience”) at an event organized by the SAIS-Johns Hopkins, was asked a question (the audio recording, which I listened to on the web, seems to be, unfortunately, unavailable now). The question was asked by one; whether there would be an end to our conflict during his lifetime. Mr. Kadirgamar (was it a humorous or poignant tone) answered: ‘it depends on how long you are going to live’ (Was he thinking about the difficulty of resolving the conflict with an armed and violent terrorist group, or of the conflict, in general). How would one answer, how differently could one answer, that question, today?

There would be no announcements made; ‘The Government of Sri Lanka officially declares and confirms that peace has finally arrived and all the people are living peacefully’. There would be no possibility of lighting fire-crackers or cooking kiri bath, to celebrate ‘peace’. An opportunity, a tremendous opportunity, has arrived, now that there is an absence of violent conflict; but success depends on how well that opportunity is used, or utilized. There is, therefore, that challenge, as always: to try and make today a more ‘peaceful’ day than yesterday, to make tomorrow a more ‘peaceful’ day than today, however arduous that may be – until, suddenly, a different kind of peace overwhelms one, as it inevitably should, one fine day.

[The writer thanks the editors of Groundviews for the kind invitation extended to him to contribute this article for a Special Edition which marks the completion of one year since the military defeat of the LTTE, in May 2009]

End of War Special Edition