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Confusion over national reconciliation, unity and lasting peace in post-war Sri Lanka

Sep 7, 2010 1:09:52 PM- transcurrents.com

By Dr. S. Narapalasingam

Not surprisingly, many confusing and contradictory comments have been made on the ‘Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) set up by President Mahinda Rajapaksa on May 15 this year; 12 months after the prolonged self-destructive war ended with enormous losses to the country and the citizens of all ethnicities.

The main aim of the LLRC is to look into the happenings between February 21, 2002, when the Cease-Fire Agreement (CFA) brokered by Norway came into effect and May 19, 2009, when the Eelam war IV ended to ensure that the abysmal situation that prevailed in the recent past should not arise again. Actually political violence in independent Sri Lanka has a long history starting from the time the Sinhala Only Act was enacted in 1956. Tamil youth militancy emerged much later when discrimination against the ethnic Tamil minority intensified in the 1970s.

The war mentality

The distrust, disunity and the related ethnic problem that endangered the unitary structure of the island nation emerged decades before February 2002. These have been worsening since then by the continued implementation of discriminatory policies disadvantageous to the ethnic Tamils and the lack of balanced development taking cognizance of the natural resources and the skills available in different provinces, the needs of the people there and the future well-being of the entire nation. The neglect of the grievances, security concerns and aspirations of the politically marginalized ethnic Tamils was also a major cause for the intensification of the national problem, which was seized by the LTTE to justify the war for partition.

Their strategy for boosting the armed struggle for separation included the exacerbation of the ethnic division created by the nationally damaging ways the two rival political parties in the South competed for State power. The influence of Sinhala nationalists that gave vigour to this competitive politics was also considered useful for achieving the separatist goal. The moderate Tamils who wanted devolved and shared political power within undivided Sri Lanka, useful for safeguarding the collective interests and rights of the ethnic minorities including their safety and security, consistent with the pluralistic nature of the island nation were regarded as traitors to the ‘Tamil cause’. Had the genuine grievances of the Tamil speaking people been addressed and political power shared equitably, the case for a separate Tamil State would have been undermined. To the militant Tamil separatists, the enemies were the moderates who sought a political settlement within one unified nation and not the ultra Sinhala nationalists. The advocacy of Sinhala nationalism for political gain has also contributed to the emergence of the concept of two nations.

The contributory factors

The widely esteemed leader of the Federal Party, S. J. V. Chelvanayakam perceived the disfranchisement of ethnic Tamils in the plantation sector, the descendants of the labourers brought from South India during the British colonial period, soon after independence as the start of the process of marginalizing the Tamil speaking people in the entire island. It was only after 1956 the majority of Tamils in other parts of the island realised the veracity of his prognosis. The disturbing events that occurred with growing intensity since Sinhala became the sole official language of the multi-ethnic State are due to the failure to settle this problem as agreed then with the Federal Party leader.

Mistrust in Sinhala political elite as a result of broken promises and unilaterally abrogated pacts also propped up the case for separation. These were mainly because of the desire to please the Sinhala nationalists, including the Buddhist priests, who unjustifiably believed the future of their religion in Sri Lanka depended on absolute Sinhala dominance in national politics. Nevertheless, giving timely promises to resolve critical issues and ignoring them later for some narrow political benefit has become a facet of the country’s political culture. Recent victims of broken promises include foreign dignitaries, whose conventional ideas of democracy, sovereignty, equality, freedom and civil rights do not conform to those of the shrewd political leaders at the helm in the island liberated from Tamil Tiger terrorism. The neglect of minority rights is intrinsic to the Sri Lankan concept of democracy.

The fact that the seeds of division were sown much earlier with the moves to politically marginalize the ethnic Tamils must not be ignored in the complex task of rebuilding the damaged nation. Development of the previously neglected and damaged infrastructures is only one aspect of nation building. The past acts of commission and omission cannot be ignored in the ways and means being sought to avert another revolt in the foreseeable future. Significantly, many occurred after the enactment of the first Republican Constitution in 1972. Although the second Republican Constitution declared Sri Lanka to be democratic and socialist, these depictions have become meaningless. A durable political settlement under a truly democratic and socialist system is imperative for the good of the future generations of Sri Lankans.

People and their political leaders

The political leaders of the naïve people, many indoctrinated by racial prejudices propagated by the power seekers lacked the will to act courageously from a truly national perspective, recognising the diverse regional cum demographic realities. Instead of building a strong unified nation based on democracy, equality and justice, political leaders have been concerned primarily on furthering their self-interests. Astoundingly, the basic concepts of democracy, national unity, peace and reconciliation have distorted meanings to the political elite. To the egoistic leaders, fundamentals like national interest, unity in diversity and even religious beliefs have no relevance in Sri Lankan politics. There are signs now even democracy has relevance only during elections held periodically to select the representatives of the people. These are characterized by deceptive election promises and irregularities in the conduct of polls.

The opportunistic politics that focused essentially on gaining and consolidating State power, disregarding the long-term interests of the people in the different provinces and the entire nation has been the curse that blighted the future of the promising island that was the envy of many less developed countries at the time of their independence. In fact, it is the rise in parochial politics after independence that led to many national problems. The denial of the rights and freedoms of the minorities as in totalitarian regimes undermined democracy and was inherent to the customary cutthroat politics in independent Sri Lanka. But, this has been at a heavy price borne by all citizens, including the members of the majority community.

Towards undemocratic rule

The low priority given to important national issues such as those concerning good governance, rule of law, basic rights and freedoms of citizens and impartial police service, judiciary, election office, public service etc indicate the shift away from the Western European model of democracy towards totalitarianism. Sri Lanka’s key benefactor, totalitarian Republic of China has now become the world’s second-biggest economy, overtaking democratic Japan. There are concerns in the West about China overtaking the United States sooner than previously thought. There is some anxiety among committed Sri Lankan democrats about the future of constitutionalism in their motherland.

China’s view of peace is discernible from the statement issued by Sri Lanka’s Ministry of External Affairs, following the meeting External Affairs Minister G. L. Peiris had with Li Kegiang, Vice-Premier of China in Beijing on August 11, 2010. Chinese government has welcomed “the current situation in Sri Lanka, characterized by durable peace and stability”, and looked “forward to intensifying its initiatives to offer Sri Lanka every assistance in developing its economy and strengthening its infrastructure”. (Transcurrents August 12, 2010).

Both China and India are competitively providing financial and technical assistance for reconstruction and development of the infrastructure. But many doubt whether the development of the kind taking place per se will obviate the need for political settlement of the multifaceted ‘ethnic problem’. It is true post-independence development was regionally biased for political reason, which also damaged national unity and the trust of the Tamils in the central government. It is just wishful thinking that sensible development alone will reunite the divided nation. China has no interest at all in Sri Lanka’s written Constitution. India’s interest too is considerably less than during the 1980s and 1990s.

Devolution of powers is intrinsic to the democratic process. Without devolution, democracy in a plural society like India and Sri Lanka is not very meaningful. Democracy is not a hindrance to development if it is not distorted as in Sri Lanka by centralized ethnic majority rule. Multi-ethnic Singapore developed fast under Lee Kuan Yew while consolidating national unity and ethnic harmony because of his honesty, impartiality, selflessness and liberal views. Merit and not ethnicity or loyalty to the ruling party/minister influenced appointments in the public sector. Meritocracy has been the fundamental canon of the administration there.

LLRC and the Constitution

In his written submission made to LLRC, Jayantha Dhanapala, a career diplomat in the Sri Lanka Foreign Service from 1965-97, who served as Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations Office in Geneva (1984- 87) and Ambassador to the USA during1995-97, who had also worked for the United Nations before his brief tenure as Secretary-General of the Secretariat for the Co-ordination of the Peace Process (SCOPP) from 2004-2005 and as Senior Adviser to the President of Sri Lanka from 2004-2007 has warned against “a strategy of postponing Constitutional change and a political solution to the problems that culminated in three decades of conflict until the Commission concludes its work and makes its recommendations. That would only exacerbate existing grievances and widen the gulf between the Government and the public at large especially those belonging to the minority communities.” It is unlikely the Government is waiting for the recommendation of the LLRC to change the Constitution meaningfully as envisioned. The present and previous Republican Constitutions sadly failed to promote unity in diversity. On the contrary, these exacerbated the ethnic majority–minority division.

In his oral presentation (transcript posted by transCurrents on September 2, 2010) too, the senior diplomat has drawn attention to many important issues which are, undoubtedly, relevant to the permanent resolution of the protracted political conflict that culminated in the futile war. From the warrant issued by President Mahinda Rajapaksa, the Commission is expected to submit its report before 15 November 2010. Obviously, one cannot expect recommendations for amendments to the present Constitution in order to ensure a balanced governing structure consistent with the real make up of the multi-ethnic sovereign nation with customarily and linguistically diverse population across the island from North to South and East to West. This writer is not competent to comment on the controversy over the relevance of existing international laws to deal with the crimes committed during conflicts of the kind that caused many civilian casualties in Sri Lanka. However, the need for UN approved international laws in the civilised world cannot be overlooked.

Significantly, LLRC has not been asked to make recommendations for constitutional reforms. According to the Warrant issued by President Mahinda Rajapaksa, the Commissioners are to inquire and report on the following matters that may have taken place during the period between 21 February 2002 and 19 May 2009:

(i) The facts and circumstances that led to the failure of the ceasefire agreement operationalized on 21st February 2002 and the sequence of events that followed thereafter up to the 19th of May 2009;

(ii) Whether any person, group, or institution, directly or indirectly bears responsibility in this regard;

(iii) The lessons we would learn from those events and their attendant concerns, in order to ensure that there will be no recurrence;

(iv) The methodology whereby restitution to any person affected by those events or their dependants or to heirs can be effected; and

(v) The institutional administrative and legislative measures which need to be taken in order to prevent any recurrence of such concerns in the future, and to promote further national unity and reconciliation among all communities, and to make any such other recommendations with reference to any of the matters that have been inquired into under the terms of this Warrant.

Clause (v) needs some elucidation, as it can be misinterpreted to mean constitutional changes needed for “national unity and reconciliation among all communities”. My understanding is that “the institutional administrative and legislative measures” sought are within the existing structure and the “concerns” mentioned refer to those prevailed during the ‘peace and war’ period viz. from 21 February 2002 to 19 May 2009. It also assumes with the war over and subsequent resettlement and rehabilitation of the majority of the persons displaced (IDPs) during the tail end, there is some national unity and reconciliation and what is needed is further promotion of these attributes. However, on the real situations there are conflicting reports.

Dr. Daya Somasundaram has revealed the disturbed mental state of the traumatized people in his report titled, ‘Collective trauma in the Vanni’. Some others who recently visited the post-war Vanni have said, although the fear of sudden shell attacks has vanished, the living conditions there are far from normal. As mentioned earlier, development is the key instrument to the Government for restoring normality and furthering national unity and reconciliation.

The UK daily ‘The Guardian’ on 5 September reported: “There are genuine concerns that the Lessons Learned Commission will serve only to whitewash allegations of serious abuses, and that its conclusions will be used to brush off calls for an international investigation. The panel's mandate is deliberately limited: its main responsibility is to understand the reasons for the collapse of the 2002 ceasefire agreement, and there is no express mandate to investigate laws of war violations”.


The lessons to be learnt from the happenings during the restricted period from Feb. 2002 to May 2009 cannot help in finding the effective solution to the political problem that culminated in enormous destruction of life and property and suffering to the helpless survivors. These are useful to avoid the mistakes made in negotiating with an intransigent militant group under a contentious Cease-fire Agreement (CFA). The considered view of many analysts, for instance the aforementioned commentary in ‘The Guardian’ that the LLRC was set up belatedly to pacify the foreign powers clamouring for independent international investigations into the violations of human rights, international laws, UN covenants and Geneva Conventions during the final phase of the Eelam war IV is credible.

The All Party Representative Committee and the Expert Committee for assisting the former (APRC) were set up by the President during the war for finding a widely acceptable political solution. The APRC report submitted to him last year has been buried. The main reason for this can be surmised from the controversial amendments to the Constitution submitted to Parliament by the government which are at odds with the APRC proposals. Certainly, LLRC has not been set up to examine the weaknesses in the Constitution and the official decision-making process. It is the decisions made in the run-up to the signing of the cease-fire agreement (CFA) and afterwards that are at the centre.

Regardless of whether or not the LLRC has to recommend the kind of political solution needed to avert another destructive conflict in the foreseeable future, the following comments of Jayantha Dhanapala are useful, if and when a political solution is sought to the national problem. To quote:

“The lessons we have to learn go back to the past – certainly from the time that we had responsibility for our own governance on 4 February 1948. Each and every Government which held office from 1948 till the present bear culpability for the failure to achieve good governance, national unity and a framework of peace, stability and economic development in which all ethnic, religious and other groups could live in security and equality. The political expediency of apportioning blame will not serve the purpose of national reconciliation. A collective apology to the people of Sri Lanka is owed by all political parties”.

“The supreme law of the land is its Constitution and we have still not been able to frame a Constitution that elicits the confidence and trust of all our citizens. It is not possible within this brief note to outline the form of devolution that I think is vital to prevent future conflict in our land. Suffice to say that constitutional reform is vital and I trust that the excellent talent we have among our constitutional lawyers will be harnessed in this vital task………..”

What is lacking in national politics in Sri Lanka is evident from his concluding remarks. “A return to basic ethical principles and values is urgently needed in our country today when advocates of exclusivism, prejudice, hate and violence stand in the way of rebuilding a peaceful and prosperous nation.” (Posted by transCurrents on August 30, 2010) No sensible person will disagree with this vital need. But the knotty question here is who can bring about this much needed reform in politics? The civil society has handed over its responsibility to the unprincipled egoistic political elite. Even Buddhism, the religion of the majority has been used deceptively for gaining political power, which is later exercised contrary to Its noble principles! Observations on the sudden shock that awakened the civil society following the 18th Amendment are in the section below under the sub-title ‘Lessons from the 18th Amendment’.

Meeting of minds

The surprising partnership between the government and former
LTTE chief arms procurer, Thambiaiya Selvarasa Pathmanathan alias ‘KP’ also indicates the planned method of post-war reconciliation. From the extensive telephone interview D. B. S Jeyaraj had with KP last month, the circumstances that brought about this amiable relationship are fathomable. To quote the interviewer (August 6th instalment): “Though under detention, KP has been afforded great autonomy of action by the Government to play a constructive role in uplifting the Tamil people and achieving ethnic reconciliation. The ex-LTTE chief has set up a new non –governmental organization known as the North – East Rehabilitation and Development Organization (NERDO). The NERDO is focusing on the release, rehabilitation and re-settlement of ex –LTTE cadres and IDP’s of the North – East. KP himself is concentrating on garnering aid and assistance from sections of the Tamil Diaspora for the NERDO to formulate and implement projects”.

The mutually useful relationship is also seen in the interview given to ‘The Island’ (August 7 issue) by the Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. He is reported to have said: “KP could play a vital role in Sri Lanka’s efforts to patch up differences with the Tamil Diaspora. In a post-war era, nothing could be as important as reaching an understanding with the Tamil speaking people, both here and abroad. KP can play a pivotal role in the ongoing reconciliation process”. Without the lessons from the happenings during the period indicated in the Warrant, the reconciliation process is under way. The Diaspora to cooperate fully in the development process and building trust and unity, there must be at least convincing sign of trustworthy political settlement acceptable to all communities if not a final settlement. This dilemma has also significance to the proposed 18th Amendment.

For obvious reason, KP has not shown interest in political settlement requiring constitutional changes, which from recent developments are clearly the prerogative of the government. The present situation has made it necessary for minor parties and powerless groups in post-war Sri Lanka to depend on the politically powerful leadership, whose powers have been consolidated following the military victory in May 2009, to depend on the magnanimity of the government for any salvation from the ethnic cum regional discrimination, insecurity, indignity endured as second class citizens and denial of the sovereign right to protect their collective interests, fulfil their common aspirations and shape their future. The current moves of Colombo and KP are only the initial step towards national reconciliation, unity and lasting peace.

The situation now is comparable with that prevailed at the time of independence. Assurances were given by the then Sinhalese leaders that the minorities would be treated justly and they have nothing to fear about their future. What happened shortly afterwards is a good lesson. A realistic approach now to national reconciliation, unity and lasting peace cannot ignore these deep-seated fears.

Lessons from the 18th Amendment

The debate on the 18th Amendment has ignored one crucial issue in the same way when the 1978 Constitution was structured by its chief architect J. R. Jayewardene. He never thought about the country’s future after his tenure as all powerful Executive President. He was fully aware of the powers he had as Executive President. He declared publicly he could do anything, except to make a man into a woman and vice versa. It is difficult to believe that he believed all his successors would be benevolent persons like some ancient noble monarchs.

In short, the sensible and not just hypothetical question the supporters should have asked themselves is what kind of person will be at the throne later? Will he or she be like the incumbent? The remarkable way the government succeeded in progressing towards its objectives is mainly due to the prevailing jubilant and hopeful climate, despite the confusion on several fronts. The muddled political situation created with considerable assistance from the main opposition party, whose leadership is in disarray has also helped to lend support to the government’s political agenda. Most of the concerns raised about the 18th Amendment are from civil society organizations (e.g. OPA, CRM) and learned persons not actively involved in party politics. The conspicuous division between the myopic political elite and the far-sighted segment of the civil society could be the turning point in the political life of the nation since independence. Sadly the historic victory that liberated the nation from terrorism has not obliterated the doubts about the future of the country.

[The writer is Former Additional Deputy Secretary to the Treasury, Sri Lanka and UN Advisor, Development Economics/Planning]