Photograph courtesy ‘The Brother’s Grip‘, Global & Mail, by Ishara Kodikara, AFP
May 19th 2020, marked the eleventh year of the end of the fighting in Sri Lanka’s civil war. A protracted long drawn out conflict, which when it ended in 2009 was the world’s second longest running civil conflict after Lebanon’s. As a nation as we enter the second decade after the end of the war, there is a need to continue the process of reconciliation, which made slow progress during the first decade after the war. There is a continuing need to address both the effects and the causes of the war, to ensure a durable and just peace as well as heal the ethnic polarizations in our society.
The effects of the conflict are still around and visible, mostly in the Northern Province and the Vanni, much more than in the Eastern province. Especially in the districts of Killinochchi and Mullaitivu which bore the brunt of the fighting and the scene of the final existential battles of the LTTE. In the first decade after the war, the former Rajapaksa Government, rapidly rebuilt the physical infrastructure, especially the roads and government administrative buildings and structures, while its successor, the Sirisena / Wickramasinghe Administration followed up with land release, smaller scale community infrastructure and perhaps most importantly opening up and creating the space for civil society and the non-governmental sector to address the needs of the conflict affected. Especially those of the most vulnerable sectors of those communities, women and children, the war widows, the orphans and the injured, including many suffering from post-traumatic stress and other mental distress. A generous Indian housing project, granting as aid not loans, fifty thousand housing units, ensured that housing stock in the North and East was also rebuilt. However, as yet an unaddressed and continuing post war need, is the sustainable livelihoods for women headed households as well as rehabilitated ex-combatants.
The challenge of reconciliation under the SLPP
The election of the first Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) administration in November last year and the foregone conclusion of a comfortable victory for the SLPP, in the forthcoming parliamentary elections, once the Covid-19 threat in epidemic proportions is over, means that reconciliation for the next five years is going to be under the policy framework of the SLPP. While there has been no clear articulation of a reconciliation policy by the administration, the statements by the Foreign Minister at the UNHRC at the end of February, the appointment of ideological hardliners to key positions in the Administration among other insights into thinking demonstrate at the minimum, that the Government elected solely on the votes of the majority ethno-religious community, is disinclined at best to move forward a process of reconciliation or the famous home grown solutions it refers to with international audiences.
This absence of a drive for reconciliation, at the high levels of the new government means that reconciliation would need to be advanced through other actors and stakeholders, including minority political leaders, provincial and local government institutions, community leaders and civil society. Where ever Sri Lanka has done well, be it in the apparel or IT industry or cricket, we have done well with minimum government involvement and progress has generally stalled once politicians got involved. It is also useful to learn of reconciliation processes of non-western and non-European experiences, particularly from Africa like Rwanda and South Africa and even from South America, like in Colombia, all countries which suffered political violence, loss of life and property and collective community trauma.
In that context, the abysmal non performance of the first TNA controlled Northern Provincial Council was both a disappointment and complete let down for the Tamil people of the Northern Province. Led by former supreme court Justice CV Wigneswaran, his administration seemed inept and incompetent. In it’s first year, it even had to return money sent from the center for projects due to non-completion and subsequently only refrained from doing so, by diverting the funds elsewhere in a manner which stretched Government financial regulations. It ended its term in internecine squabbles, where the ITAK resigned from his administration and the Chief Minister ended up in court over his provincial ministerial appointments. On the contrary, the performance of the SLMC-TNA Coalition Administration in the Eastern Province under an SLMC business minded chief minister, performed much better. The provincial administration, assisted in resettlement, worked in harmony with the center and generally managed the delicate Tamil-Muslim relations in the East in a manner which makes another joint SLMC-TNA provincial administration in that province, a distinct possibility.
Having a go at M.A. Sumanthiran
With parliamentary elections called and the date pending a Supreme Court determination, the preference vote battle in the Jaffna District heated up and distinctly discarded the Queensbury rules, when the political competitors of the former Jaffna District Parliamentarian, president’s counsel and TNA Spokesman, MA Sumanthiran launched an unprecedented personal and political attack against him. Their weapon of choice was comments Sumanthiran had made in a Sinhala language interview, “Truth with Chamuditha” and specifically his reiteration that he never accepted or condoned armed struggle as a political project. An overarching well known pacifist philosophy, he subscribes to, is best known by its global champion from our region, India’s founding father, Mahatma Gandhi, after whom it is named, as Gandhian non violence philosophy.
There were strange comments in social media, that Sumanthiran and the TNA had achieved nothing through eleven years of democratic politics. This from clear LTTE sympathizers, who are never willing to honestly explore what exactly the Tamil people achieved through twenty-five years of the armed struggle. An armed struggle whose self-harm to the Tamil community included, the conscription of their children as child soldiers, universally accepted as an international war crime and the political murders of Tamil democratic political leaders like Alfred Duraiappa, Appaapilai Amirthalingam, Neelan Tiruchelvam, Sam Thambimutthu and Joseph Pararajasingham, who never actually opposed the LTTE, but either did not dance to their tune or were competitors for political power. Certainly, the Tamil community had made no strategic gains, when the LTTE’s armed struggle ended. Indeed, the LTTE were left with few friends internationally and banned in most countries of the world.
Suren Surendiran, the de facto head and articulate spokesman for the Global Tamil Forum (GTF), best sums up a most rationale and principled approach in this manner. Writing to the Colombo Telegraph on May 26th, he states “More than a decade has passed since the war ended, and the Tamil community must embark upon honest self- reflection and learn valuable lessons from its successes and failures of the past. In this journey inclusivity of different political viewpoints is fundamental”. Surendiran begins his essay with the observation that resolving the issues of the Tamil people, requires engagement with the Sinhala and Muslim communities and endorses Sumanthiran thus “We always found Sumanthiran highly knowledgeable, articulate, hard working and honest and we reiterate our utmost confidence in him”.
(The writer served as Chairman / Resettlement Authority and Advisor / Ministry of Foreign Affairs from 2015 to 2017)