Photo credit Amantha Perera, IPS

The current dialogue between development and devolution is taking too much time, getting too drawn out.  Very little information on the process is available for effective public dissemination.  In the meantime the space between the two positions is beginning to be occupied by ‘squatters’ with the Prabhakaran ethos.  Having spent so much time, money and energy to be rid of the reign of terror it would be foolhardy for want of a dose of realism to let the dreaded tiger enter the lair once again, quite effortlessly at that, only because of the lack of political acumen and foresight.

‘Only because of the lack of political acumen and foresight’ has become the signature tune of Sri Lankan ethnic conflict.  It is frightening to see the same direction, the same mistakes being made by politicians from all parties chasing the mirage of power; those in power in an attempt to keep it, those seeking power chasing the same mirage of securing power.  Lessons from history appear to delude those in the political arena.  That one has to avoid the repetition of erroneous judgments has been a hard lesson to be taught or learnt.  It has been equally difficult for the leadership to understand the seriousness of the fact that once the seeds of distrust are sown it is hard to control its multiplier effect.

It would seem that CHOGM 2013 ended on a positive note.  In the words of the Malaysian Prime Minister “there was a reaffirmation of the spirit and willingness of wanting to stay together as a unique collection of nations” in the context of the constituting nations being “different  but ……not divided”.  There was also “a reaffirmation of the spirit and ideals of the Commonwealth, the core values of the Commonwealth, namely democracy, the rule of law and human rights.’

The theme of the commonwealth for this session is growth and development.

These affirmations and declarations remain the whitewash.  What actually overshadowed the proceedings were the uncomfortable vibes from the boycott of the proceedings by India, Canada and Mauritius and the call for accountability for the unsubstantiated evidence for human rights violations by Sri Lanka towards the end of the war; equally shrill was the perception amongst several member states of the lack of interest by the Lankan authorities to aggressively pursue the implementation of the recommendations of the LLRC Commission constituted by the government.

These were the sound bites that emanated from the developed world that is once again giving anchor and strength to the disruptive forces that held sway over this island for over three decades. The dominance of the tigers was nurtured during the conflict without any countervailing influences to challenge their assumptions in the closed circuit that was the Northern Province.   The resonance feasible for the cry for Eelam and Tamil nationalism as opposed to Sri Lankan Nationalism was as much a fallout of the lack of accommodation by the Lankan government to Tamil aspirations as well as the short sighted intrusions by the international governments who now, on introspection, should echo mea culpa for they are most certainly in default positions.

Whatever the externalities may be, on a count of the total loss to the manpower and finances of the country along with the level of estrangement within the Sri Lankan community, the government, the people and the religious leaders should be impelled to take the leading role to knit the nation together.

What must be done to prevent and shrink the growing space between development and devolution, the two parameters that can effectively contribute to the process of reconciliation and the creation of trust and the rejection of Prabhakaranism?

Both development and devolution must be seen as complementary processes necessary to strengthen participatory government and welfare of the people.

Strong leadership is required to carry out this goal. The question is asked in the words of the former President of South Africa Thabo Mbeki, “Do we have the quality of leadership such as was exemplified by Nelson Mandela and others sufficient to respond to the challenges we face?” It would seem that the task of rebuilding and uniting the country poses greater challenges than the fight to end the war.  Having ended the war and continue  to consolidate that victory with military occupation would make the defeat of the tiger movement and its leader a pyrrhic victory, a costly end without substance.  Not everyone in the North and the East subscribed to the vision of Prabhakaran.  Therefore those left behind to deal with the situation in the North have to be given a fair deal with access to jobs, basic services particularly in the health  and education sectors, land and security, and above all, a free media and the right of movement to feel and enjoy the air of freedom.  This is what should translate into creating unity through an accountable process that will help create a caring society, a society that can dare to hope again.

There has to be a genuine change of heart.  Politicians and people at all levels must understand the imperative to make an emphatic commitment to peace, to reconciliation, to inclusivity, to an understanding of shared and diverse viewpoints.  It is necessary to see that the establishment does not continue to look at the ground situation in the North from a combative position. Violence and symbols of violence must be eschewed and large doses of empathy must be created to those who have lived under a dark spell that spelt only enmity and violence. This includes both the people engaged in the conflict and the services sent to quell the uprising.  It is possible to create the necessary peace atmosphere if the establishment is keenly focused in creating conditions for development and responsible governance by and for the people and give up the habit of watching over the victims of violence with unwavering scrutiny.

Both parties to the conflict have to be actively engaged in the process for peace.  Some concessions must be given to the ‘losers’ in the conflict who will remain licking their wounds and nursing bitterness over their defeat.  An environment for enhanced quality of life with equity and fairplay, the benefits of the peace dividend will be one way to narrow the space.

The government’s policy statements and actions must be consistent with the drive towards building a united nation. No doubt many pitfalls will be encountered, not least of all the obstructive approach of the Diaspora who living as they do in the first world, have ceased to relate to the context in which their compatriots have survived counterpoised as they have been between the State and the Tiger leadership.

Having successfully conducted the Northern Provincial council elections the council will want to stretch its limbs and exercise its potential within the parameters of the constitution.  They must have the flexibility to function in the interests of the people.  Any inhibiting approach to this  as are noted would be a setback to the process.  The members of the Provincial Council and the people may make some wrong turns.  The correctives can be worked out given the goodwill on both sides.  What has to be consistently cherished is the process towards peaceful cohabitation, a process that will bring the North to be an intrinsic part of the whole. This may not be an easy task but it is through hardwork  that any goal can be achieved.   This is the only way to dispel external intrusions- if peace and friendship prevails there will be no space for invasive foreign scrutiny.  Focus should be squarely placed on the CHOGM values of democratic rule, rule of law and human rights.  Growth and Development, the theme of CHOGM 2014, has to be focused primarily in the country of the CHOGM President.

Civil society groups must create awareness of peace and a society without violence, living in harmony and understanding of the true meaning of unity in diversity.  It is not by appealing to sectarianism or sectarian superiority that the march towards unity can be achieved.  If shortsighted policies are followed by emphasizing security surveillance in the North suspicion and schisms will appear paving the way for Prabhakaranism to be rekindled. The Chief Minister of the North did make a strong move for accommodation to work together with the Centre.  The country has a unique opportunity to make this possible with a Chief Minister who as a judge in his earlier incarnation has been trained to give his judgments based on facts and not emotions.  It was perhaps this factor that made it possible for him to rise above sectarian views within his group and extend a hand for coexistence.   There has been no white flag put out from the establishment. On the contrary, from reportage in the media the Chief Minister has time and again been embarrassed by acts of petty upmanship which hinders forward movement.  When Nelson Mandela was negotiating while he was still in prison he said ” What mattered was….. not how it started. .. we should move forward with negotiations and not worry about who knocked on the door first”.  This kind of confidence is what is essential. There will come a time when the Chief Minister may have to compromise his ideals to accommodate the radical elements within the TNA.  That is when the creeping ghost of the tiger will spring on the country.

Let us be forewarned.