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Whither reconciliation under the incompatible system and disconcerting situation?

Jan 29, 2011 12:39:03 AM- transcurrents.com

By Dr. S. Narapalasingam


The baffling moves and actions on the political front of the potent government led by President Mahinda Rajapaksa, since the war ended conclusively mid May 2009 have been considered discretely by many analysts, ignoring the many critical weaknesses in the system, which is not really democratic. Moreover, the confusing statements of the head of State on the widely anticipated political solution to the ethnic problem, which is not the problem created by the LTTE terrorists and the continuing inaction have also been considered similarly.

Considering the absolute power of the Executive President consolidated via the 18th Amendment (18A) and the intent not to weaken the system that facilitates supreme control over the entire island as well as serves the elites very well, there is concern among the realists over the future of the island nation and the freedom and rights of all residents, particularly those not close to the powers that be. This uncertainty is great, viewed from the long-term rather than short-term standpoint. Some have considered the post-war developments to be aimed at establishing a system similar to those that existed during the time of monarchs in ancient Lanka. There have been several popular monarchs, who waged wars either to defend their territories or take control of the land of other rulers. But they treated their subjects fairly, who in turn were loyal to the monarchs. 0f course, the people did not have the freedom and rights bestowed by modern democracy.

The adverse consequences of structuring the system to fulfil the ambitions of one political leader are well known. These should serve as a warning to all of us concerned about the future of Sri Lanka not just during but also beyond our lifetime. When the first Executive President J. R. Jayewardene brought in the current system via the 1978 Constitution, the focus of the people was on the economy and not on the possible manipulations for narrow political and/or personal gains by his successors. Without accountability, separation of legislative, executive and judicial powers and the vital checks and balances, the opportunities for abusing power increased enormously. These attributes were ignored by the then political leadership who viewed politics from a parochial perspective. They thought the power gained in 1977could be sustained to some degree for a long period.

Political leadership

It is not only the loose system but also the poor political leadership that has hindered Sri Lanka’s all round progress. In general, politicians do not realize that whatever power they wield has been delegated by the people for them to act responsibly in the wide interests of the people and the country. But their rash actions divided the society and the nation, denying peace and unity vital for creating and sustaining conditions conducive for economic, social and political development.

All along politics in independent Sri Lanka has been influenced by the short-term interests of political leaders competing passionately for power. Now, with the 18A, weak opposition and dormant civil society, a different political system (‘1978 plus’) has emerged. It evolved with the erosion of accountability, free and fair elections, rule of law, good governance, democratic principles and values and human rights. The spread of bribery and corruption as well as the rise in organised criminal activities in broad daylight reflect the chaotic situation in post-war Sri Lanka.

The Island in its editorial on January 19 opined: “Politicians in this country see eye to eye with one another only on one thing––feathering their nests. They fight like a pack of mad hounds in public, especially during elections, but readily make common cause where their pay hikes, perks and privileges are concerned”. There is no doubt the country is in the present pathetic state, because of egoistic politicians seeking power for short-term benefits by exploiting the loosely structured system. The ethnic division too was used as a tool in the power struggle. Promises given during electioneering, particularly on matters relating to the ethnic problem were dumped later. Unilaterally abrogated B-C and D-C pacts are significant events in the history of failures in resolving the ethnic problem during the pre-war period.

The observations of Harshi Perera, a lawyer who has worked on behalf of several human rights group cited in Sofie Rordam’s article – ‘Views and reflection on the police system's collapse through the eyes of women’- in SL Guardian January 25, 2011 also reinforce the view that it is the political system which after 1978 undermined further the separation of powers, independence of the judiciary and the police service and the parliamentary committee system for the rise in corruption, misuse of public funds, all sorts of crime including those committed by the law enforcement officers and the culture of impunity that has made governance unsuitable for ensuring peace, justice, security and freedom and promoting regional and national development for the betterment of all sections of the society.

She has also pointed out, it is a common misconception that there is a natural cause and effect relation between introducing a bill and achieving its intended function. With regard to the feeble policing system, Harshi has described the non-implementation of the relevant laws and not their absence as the main culprit. It is also well known that several laws introduced under the 13th Amendment and earlier in the wake of the 1956 ‘Sinhala Only’ Act intended to ease the grievances of the Tamil speaking people were not implemented for political reasons. Besides, the swift implementation of politically advantageous but nationally damaging policies also intensified the ethnic conflict. The centralized system with powerful Executive Presidency introduced in 1978 did not help to get rid of such abhorrent practices.

Youth Affairs and Skills Development Minister, Dullas Alahapperuma is reported to have said in his speech on 15 January in Embilipitiya that Sri Lanka has a shortage of leaders in every sphere. He also said some after entering politics become leaders by foul means. Daily Mirror 17 January 2011 reported that the Minister told the audience: “There is a belief that leadership is built through politics. It is entirely wrong”. Some contest local government elections with the aim of getting into Parliament where the personal benefits are substantial. Sri Lanka did not have national leaders the developed countries had that helped them to succeed. National leaders must have the will and the moral courage to act magnanimously for the good of all residents, respecting their rights, freedoms and reasonable aspirations, regardless of their ethnic, religious and regional connections.

When democracy is defective, as is the case in Sri Lanka, should we abandon it or try to make it meaningful to the people? This question deserves serious consideration from the standpoint of the future of the nation in the long-term.

Vacillating on the ethnic problem

Soon after crushing the LTTE in May 2009, there was a strategic move to propagate the belief that the ethnic problem too had vanished. This failed to get rooted because of the international community, notably India. The crucial support given by New Delhi to Colombo in the war against the LTTE declared as a terrorist outfit and banned in India (the ban still continues) was on the understanding that the ethnic issue would soon be settled politically based on meaningful devolution within one unified State. Evading actions on timely promises given earlier to Sri Lankans is not unusual but the circle has now grown bigger.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa is reported (BBC Sinhala.com January 14) to have told the foreign journalists at a breakfast meeting that “he is ready to ‘go beyond’ the 13th Amendment to the constitution as a political solution to the national question. But he will never agree to devolve police powers into the regions”. The Island on January 14 also reported that the President said at another meeting with the local media heads and editors the previous day (January 13) that “his challenge was to achieve his development goals. Reconciliation, communal amity and unity were essential for developing the country, he said urging the media to work towards bringing communities together and to eschew hatred”. He also rightly ‘stressed the need to heal the wounds of the past’.

The Indian daily, ‘The Hindu’, reported on January 15 that President Rajapaksa at the meeting on January 14, “reiterated what he had told The Hindu in an interview earlier: that he had a solution in mind, but was not in a position to reveal it”. This was last year during the meeting with the Editor-in-Chief N. Ram in Colombo. Astonishingly, on his return to Colombo from London he said that he was going to disclose his devolution plan (the political solution) in Oxford, England but he couldn’t as the Oxford Union meeting was cancelled at the eleventh hour. This statement too does not give much belief in the government’s zeal to seek an early resolution of the problem. The vast majority of citizens who were tired of the prolonged war expected an early political settlement to the national issue soon after the war ended, wishing to live amicably in their homeland with dignity, equal rights and hope for a better future. But there is still no clear sign of permanent settlement, except for some hopeful statements. With no sign of demilitarization of the North and East, the ground situation is also not very promising for sincere reconciliation.

The idea of a boosted 13th Amendment (13A plus) that was in the limelight in 2009 and subsequently dumped has re-emerged recently. Reaffirming his commitment to ‘13A-plus’ formula, to bring about an amicable political solution to the Tamil question, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa insisted that “the plus” would be a product of the hope and aspirations of the people of Sri Lanka. Asked if police powers would be part of the formula, he categorically said, “No… It's not practical.”

If the government stands by its declaration on the 13th Amendment this time, despite the known abhorrence of the Sinhala ‘patriots’ to devolution, there will be some exclusions (minuses) too. In the post-war era, only those who supported the hard line Sinhala nationalists have been considered as ‘patriots’. President Rajapaksa had their full support since Eelam war IV started in 2006 and became their hero after the military victory in 2009. He too was careful not to damage this new standing which was politically beneficial. But some developments locally and internationally seem to have induced him to take tactically a different course.

The emphasis throughout has been on ‘home grown’ solution. What is meant by this term remains a mystery because after India’s involvement in 1987, there have been solutions recommended by elected or officially appointed bodies. Their recommendations posed no threat to the unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka. It is recalled that the now discarded APRC project was launched by the incumbent President in 2006 soon after the war started to arrive at a consensual set of proposals for constitutional reform that will set the firm foundation for the building of a harmonious, united and truly democratic socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. The several rounds of discussions and the dedicated and painstaking work of the members of the Commission as well as the Expert Committee came to nothing, when the President rejected the APRC recommendations just before the January 2010 Presidential election. No reason was given for the rejection. Some key proposals were definitely in conflict with the 18A introduced after this Presidential and parliamentary election last year. Nevertheless, there are other useful proposals that deserve serious consideration.

President Rajapaksa is also reported to have told the journalists at the aforementioned meeting that he has requested the Tamil parties to discuss their proposals and come up with an agreed solution to the national question. He told them, “If the government comes up with its own proposal, the Tamil parties might raise objections”. This mode of reaching prior agreement was missing in the case of the controversial 18th Amendment. The constitution of commissions and committees to address embarrassing or not politically advantageous issues to incumbent governments is well known to be pretence from the past many disappointing experiences. This shortcoming is also intrinsic to the myopic decision-making process, influenced often by political expediency and not long-term national interest.

According to Harim Peiris, Presidential spokesman during 2001-2005, “it was Indian Foreign Minister Krishana who articulated the need for what he calls a structured dialogue between the Government and the TNA. Pressed by the West on accountability and human rights and by India for dialogue with the dominant representatives of the Tamil people, the Rajapaksa regime finally opted for the latter presumably as the lesser of two evils and commenced a low key but structured dialogue with the Tamil National Alliance earlier this month (January 2011), to work towards reconciliation through a political settlement and to address the urgent humanitarian and reconstruction issues”. (‘Increasing violence with impunity in Jaffna’ Daily Mirror 27 January 2011).

Anyway, the three-member committee of ministers headed by Senior Minister Ratnasiri Wickramamayake had discussions on current issues in the North and East with the TNA. They had their first joint meeting three days before President’s meeting with the journalists. The TNA agreed to cooperate with the government to find a durable solution for the ethnic question and for the rehabilitation and resettlement of the displaced Tamil citizens.

Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Catherine Bragg, who went to Sri Lanka recently told a news briefing in New York on 26 January: “The Government has committed significant resources to infrastructure in the return areas (of the displaced persons) but there’s so much more that still needs to be done and most of the returnees have limited access to basic services such as shelter, water, sanitation and health care.” She also said: “These communities remain extremely vulnerable. The future of the north is about investing in people. They need skills, livelihoods and social development to help them move on with their lives.” It is clear there is a dire need to work on several fronts to ease the suffering of the people and rebuild the run down island nation on firm footing.

On the reaction of the Tamil media to the joint meeting between the government and the TNA, the veteran journalist T. Sabaratnam in his weekly column - ‘Tamil perspective’- in the January 16 issue of ‘The Nation’ has observed: “Tamil media welcomed the talks as positive development” and “was also cautious that these talks should not be another exercise to drag on the peace process”.

In this regard, he cited the editorial in the popular Tamil daily Virakesari which stated: “We wish to remind that this talks too should not be like the ones held in the past- pay lip service to peace by using the words ‘reconciliation’ and ‘talks’; Tamil people expect that this talks should be conducted with dedication” ‘The Nation’ columnist in conclusion opined that the Virakesari editorial reflected “the mood of the people that this talks too should not be another exercise to delay a solution (to the ethnic problem). Since 1984, they had seen talks, talks and talks and the people have grown sceptical about them”. The one who used peace talks to buy time in the recent past was the intransigent LTTE leader. Although the entire country suffered as a result, it was the Tamil community that incurred heavy losses. This should be a lesson to all initiating talks for settling differences on national issues.

Noble goals but attainment doubtful

President Rajapaksa has been conveying resolutely the importance given by his government to unity and development in many of his messages to the people. This was seen in his New Year message as well as in his speech on 17 January during the special Thai Pongal ceremony organised in Jaffna. In the New Year message he said: "We look towards the future at the dawn of this New Year with renewed determination, firm commitment and many positive expectations. It is a great achievement that freedom and peace is now established in our motherland to make such aspirations possible." He also said: "National unity is key to both uniting and developing the motherland. Thus, the time has come to rise above all differences. Only then could all conspiracies to deny coexistence, and those against the people and the nation, be defeated. With great determination and patience, we have built mutual understanding and trust among the people about the nation’s development. Strengthening this should be among our wishes for the New Year ....” (The Island 31 December 2010). The real freedom and peace desired by many direct victims of the conflict and other harassed citizens continue to remain in their prayers. The freedom and peace gained by ousting the Tigers are only a part of what is needed.

It is apparent from this and several other pronouncements that the prevailing ‘no-war’ situation is the professed peace. The continued dependence on the military to safeguard this superficial peace is evident from the functions assigned to the security forces after the war ended, despite the considerable drain on the public funds. Sadly, even this is marred by the unchecked violence in the former conflict zone which has been liberated fully from the LTTE menace. Shockingly, there have been many incidents of killings, abductions, robberies and molestations in the Northern Province which is under the intense surveillance of the security forces. The official explanation that the reported incidents in the North are not peculiar, as the crime rate is similar to those in other parts of the island is an admission of the poor enforcement of the law in the entire country. The culture of impunity that grew during the war still exists but not to the same degree as during the heydays of the ‘white van’ syndrome. There is no victim and witness protection law in Sri Lanka, which is an impediment to bring to justice those engaged in organised crimes. Some of them are believed to have the backing of powerful persons.

Senior lawyer Gomin Dayasri in The Sunday Times 23 January 2011 Columns has observed: “Good intentions of the President remain un-implemented; like burning tyres tied round the government’s neck, searching self-immolation. Worse, there is no monitoring to douse the flames. The interim recommendations of the LLRC on burning issues still remain in filing cabinets; fast implementation would answer critics. Absence of effective implementation and monitoring the progress are setbacks to reconciliation and all other live problems”.

In the context of many anomalies in the system, it is very clear that a holistic approach is needed to achieve national objectives like reconciliation, unity, durable peace and development in a country damaged by internal conflicts and manipulations of the political system structured to help the exploiters seeking narrow benefits. The President himself has acknowledged that unity, peace and development are interconnected. It is therefore imperative to seek all simultaneously.

This broad-minded approach, in turn, requires a favourable change in the attitude of the majoritarians, specifically those in the government and the Buddhist clergy. The tolerant stand taken by the current Prime Minister D. M. Jayaratne based on the teachings of Lord Buddha with regard to the ethnic and religious minorities in Sri Lanka is encouraging. He is reported (Newsfirst.lk 19 January 2911) to have defended his earlier statement, namely, “all religions in the country are equal and no religion will be afforded special attention or special treatment”, which was objected strongly by the leader of the JHU, a coalition partner in the present coalition (UPFA) government. The Premier, a devoted Buddhist, said: “There is a special place for the Sambuddha Sasana in the (Sri Lankan) Constitution. There are five ethnicities and four religions in this country. If we don't take into consideration these four religions and five ethnicities, there will be a conflict. It will be against the Buddha Sasana as well as the teachings of the Lord Buddha.” Accordingly, “no religion or person should be hated”. Had these noble principles been observed in national politics after independence, Sri Lanka would now be an illustrious island not only for the natural beauty but also for her stability, pluralism, tranquillity and all round development.

The prime minister and Buddhist, Christian, Hindu and Muslim religious leaders in Sri Lanka have jointly formed a peace council to promote communal harmony in Sri Lanka. During the inauguration on January 22 in Colombo, Venerable Bellanwila Wimala0ratana Thero, president of this ‘Sri Lanka Council of Religions for Peace’ (SLCRP) is reported to have said: “Our aim is to play a dynamic role at the national level to build peace, harmony and justice in Sri Lankan society.” This is definitely a good move but religious peace alone is not a substitute for the general peace needed to strengthen national unity and promote infrastructural and socio-economic development that benefits all residents throughout the island. This requires positive moves in the political domain too, since the present system as explained earlier does not serve the whole society equitably. It serves the privileged in many ways by allowing them to abuse freely the power delegated by the people. The less privileged are not only the ethnic minorities but also the poor Sinhalese in many parts of the island.

To be continued

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