Colombo, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Post-War, Reconciliation

Amber Light Signals Requiring Pro-active Action by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission

5th October 2010

S. B. Atugoda Esq.
Presidential Commission on Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation,

24, Horton Place,
Colombo 7.

Dear Mr. Atugoda,

Amber Light Signals Requiring Pro-active Action by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission

Further to the submissions made by me earlier before the Presidential Commission on Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation (LLRC), I wish to draw the kind attention of the Commissioners to the undernoted amber light signals evident from a scan of the external environment. These signals point to an urgent need for the Commission to recommend appropriate risk mitigation strategies, with a view towards assuring sustainable integration and reconciliation in Sri Lanka;

  • Sri Lanka has several active political parties with popular support which are founded, based on principles or established for the purpose of promoting some ethnic groups and/or religious beliefs
  • During the presidential and parliamentary elections, these political parties and their leaders make promises and commit to action strategies that tend to promote the advancement of some ethnic groups or religious beliefs to the detriment of others. These promises include the promoting of ethnic homelands, superior claims over specific land areas and land holdings, demanding preferential national resource allocations, promoting changes in national policy (eg. education, teaching of languages and religions in schools and the use of the official languages),  devolution of state power and exclusive control over religious and cultural sites for the benefit of  designated ethnic / religious groups

The intensity and extremism of such demands have become more prominent during the recently held elections, commencing from around 2004.

  • During the last five years, along roadsides (mainly along popular highways), main towns and in residential areas, shrines, temples, statutes and commonly venerated tress and physical objects have been constructed /planted on an ad hoc basis. It is unlikely that these constructions / occupation / planting  have formal approval of the authorities nor the respective land allocation made with lawful regulatory approval (especially in respect of the rights attaching to the  use of such sites for religious purposes)

These illegal constructions and occupation will deter the use of these land holdings for future community value adding public purposes and will in addition restrict road network expansion and road widening linked development initiatives.

  • During heightened periods of internal strife (especially during the period leading up and during the Elam IV battle) and the post May 2009 period the citizens witnessed several attacks on religious sites, religious establishments. This period also witnessed the lodgment, by prominent and powerful politically connected religious leaders and lay persons, of claims over religious and culturally significant sites, including sites presently occupied and or venerated by alternate ethnic and or religious groups. These claims have been publicly supported by purported references to historical events, historical texts, old maps and other documentation.
  • Following the completion of the thirty year war on terrorism some of these religious, political and academic leaders of society have been actively engaged in research and excavations in the areas formally under the occupation and control of terrorist groups. They have since commenced a series of follow up action including the announcement of the ethnic / religious origins of these sites and areas. They have in addition begun public lectures, media interviews and publications by which they lodge claims over these land holdings and sites of importance. They have in some areas begun officially marking sites that are believed have been under the ancient control of alternate ethnic or religious groups and sites with archeological connections to some ethnic groups and religions different to the presently constituted demographic majority in the areas concerned.

I trust that from a review of the above scenario scan and other evidence that may be led before them, the Commissioners will appreciate the potential critical turning points of ethnic / religious tensions that can adversely impact on sustainable integration, harmony and reconciliation in Sri Lanka.

The recent court ruling in India on the petition claiming rights over the famous Ayodhya site has brought to the fore the historical carnage, loss of life and long term disharmony created by claims and counter claims over historical / religious site. The court verdict, which appears likely to be further contested by petitions to the Indian Supreme Court has brought out many useful guiding comments from leading members of civil society, some of which are listed below to highlight the context in which this note is addressed for the urgent attention of the Commission;

  • “The Ayodhya ruling dividing a disputed holy site between Hindus and Muslims may prove flawed, but could also allow a progressive India to turn the page on its unstable sectarian past. While legal experts debated the pros and cons of the landmark High Court judgment that carved up the site in the northern town of Ayodhya, historians and commentators focused on the implications for India’s image as an emerging global power committed to secularism and the rule of law. There was also unanimous relief at the measured response from all sides to the verdict. While some analysts wielded the word “compromise” as a criticism of the High Court ruling, others praised it for offering a viable way forward on a dispute with such an emotive and violent past.”[1]
  • “This verdict is not unassailable, but it seems like a workable compromise. The question to ask is whether the compromise takes us forward in the direction of the constitutional values we cherish. The court had succeeded in accommodating religious claims without jeopardizing the secular character of the state. This will not satisfy purists. But it is not an implausible way of strengthening secularism”.[2]
  • “The ruling was crucial for finally putting a “judicial stamp” on an issue that for too long had been the preserve of religious ideologues. It seems that modern India cannot be easily duped for a medieval cause anymore. A large number of Indians are cynical and tired of this issue and want to see it resolved through peaceful and constitutional means.” [3]
  • “Press reaction was largely positive, with some editorials seeing the judgment as a turning point for a country which is increasingly keen to shed the communal venom of the past”.[4]
  • “A new, resurgent India has emerged from the debris of the violent 1990s. A new generation has come of age since then and it doesn’t want to be tied down by ancient hatreds,” [5]
  • “Whether we have indeed moved on will not be known for some time yet.  Preferred to see the government take over the site years ago and put it to a non-religious use. That would have equally offended the Muslim bigot and the Hindu bigot, but perhaps struck a chord with the public as a whole. In the meantime, one can hope India moves on further, placing emphasis on decent education, affordable healthcare, and a dignified livelihood, rather than re-living the sectarian disputes of the recent or ancient past.” [6]

In the context of the external environment and the lessons from India as described above, the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission is urged to focus attention early in regard to the need to initiate risk mitigation strategies aimed at ensuring sustainable integration and reconciliation shedding the communal venom of the past and taking Sri Lanka forward in the direction of the constitutional values we too cherish.

The undernoted recommendations are made for due consideration by the Commission:

  1. Develop and publish recommendations outlining strategies for effective risk mitigation of potential issues, events and actions that may jeopardize sustainable integration and reconciliation in Sri Lanka. Include in such recommendations a set of operating guidelines for Executive action, an applicable legal and regulatory framework and an appropriate dispute resolution mechanism to mitigate the potentially high risks (both in terms of probability and severity).
  2. The risk mitigation recommendations referred to in 1 above inter alia to cover issues, events or actions subject to ethnic or religious sensitivity or those likely to change the existing status quo and / or are likely to cause disharmony or discrimination of presently resident communities of specified areas and also specific communities engaged in venerating at religious/cultural  sites in these areas ;
    1. Legislation  or Executive actions granting preferential land allocation for exclusive use by some ethnic  or religious groups
    2. Legislation  or Executive actions designating new religious or cultural sites, archeological sites  and preservations
    3. Preventing archeological excavations by persons outside those empowered by statute
    4. Preventing public places, especially roadsides (mainly along popular highways), main towns and residential areas being used to set up shrines, temples, statutes and commonly venerated tress and physical objects on an ad hoc basis
    5. Preventing constructions, setting up reservations and designating new sites in presently publicly held land for the exclusive use of certain defined ethnic or religious groups , which may be deemed disrespectful to and cause disharmony amongst the relevant communities and or be deemed unjustified in the context of the present demography of the areas concerned
  3. Develop and publish recommendations outlining strategies, packages of incentives and directional guidelines towards fostering ethnic and religious amity and further integration, harmony and reconciliation amongst communities and promoting the setting up of sites of multi religious and multi cultural significance.
  4. Dispute resolution mechanisms to be structured  and resourced by capable, independent and community respected persons and enforced with efficiency and effectiveness in order that the objective of sustainable integration, harmony and reconciliation are realized
  5. By the enactment of new legislation titled “Anti-discriminatory promotion law” discrimination by any person (including but not restricted to be members of the executive, the legislature, the judiciary, self employed persons and employees of the state, business, enterprise, non profit organization) in any form on account of origins/language/race/religion/caste/creed/ disabilities and status be legislated to be a punishable offence carrying severe penalties.
  6. The legislation to make it a punishable offence to promote, advocate, guide, mentor or incite any person to discriminate against another person or a group of persons or label and or classify any persons or group of persons for purposes of identification in the promotion of discrimination and also publish or broadcast in any media any material discriminatory of any person or group of persons  on account of their identities; all political parties and other organizations having as an objective or engaging in the promotion of any discriminatory practices should be declared illegal; and citizen be empowered by right to information from all persons representing the state, state agencies and the executive certifying that their actions and policies are unbiased and non discriminatory
  7. The Human Rights Commission established under the 18th Amendment to the constitution be made accountable as the authority for implementation of the provisions of the new enactment; and also empowered to give directions to any person in the discharge of the duties as assigned by the Act; and further in the course of its duties the Human Rights Commission be empowered to make such directions and promulgate any rules/codes as necessary for the implementation and enforcement of the Act; and the Commission be further empowered to enforce  the determinations made by it against any person found guilty of an offence under the act and subjected to due punishment under the law, subject to such determinations being upheld by an appropriate judicial tribunal not less than a high court of law.
  8. The government in partnership with the private sector, professional organizations, media and not for profit organizations to launch awareness, educational, advocacy, promotional  and recognition campaigns  aimed at promoting acceptable values and societal norms, targeting the development of an integrated and unified “Sri Lankan Identity”, (especially targeting all school going children, adolescent, youth and middle aged parents ); and as a part of this initiative to develop codes of conduct applicable to all stakeholders engaged in publishing  and broadcasting in the media, advertising and promotions; and seek binding commitments that all such campaigns will be unbiased and without  political or egoistic promotional needs of any persons or groups .
  9. All new national policies, legislation and regulations made by the central and or provincial governments to be endorsed by the publication by the approving authority of a certificate confirming that such policies and regulations are unbiased and uphold the principles of non discrimination.
  10. ‘Affirmative  Action’ based policies, legislation and governance practices embedding in society of accepted values and norms which are honoured and upheld by the leaders of society to become the main pillars for the strategies towards reconciliation and integration

With warm Regards

Yours Sincerely,

Chandra Jayaratne

[1] International News October 2nd 2010- “Babri Mosque ruling allows ‘modern’ India to move on”

[2] Pratap Bhanu Mehta, President, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi

[3] Historian S Irfan Habib

[4] International News October 2nd 2010- “Babri Mosque ruling allows ‘modern’ India to move on”

[5] The Times of India

[6] Historian Ramachandra Guha