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Political will to settle national issue still not forthcoming despite awareness for permanent se...

Feb 5, 2011 3:35:08 PM- transcurrents.com

Whither reconciliation under the incompatible system and disconcerting situation? Part II

By Dr. S. Narapalasingam

The Honourable Sri Lankan Judge Christopher Gregory Weeramantry, Emeritus Professor at Monash University and formerly a Justice of the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka from 1967 to 1972, a Judge of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) from 1991 to 2000 and currently the president of the International Association of Lawyers Against Nuclear Arms in his submission to the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) on 29th November 2010 explained how Sri Lanka’s constitution blocks peace and reconciliation and the dire need for change.

He told, “....without confidence and trust (of the people) that their rights will be upheld and guaranteed without fear or favour, there cannot be contentment and harmony, especially among minorities whose confidence in law and order needs to be built on firm foundations”.

Reconciliation cannot succeed without trust and confidence in the fairness of the system. The distinguished judge also said: “It goes without saying that the Constitution of a country is the bedrock on which citizens build their sense of security. To build up trust and confidence among the citizens of a country, especially one which is emerging from a long and bitter conflict, it is essential that their rights and liberties be securely guaranteed by the Constitution. That is an essential prerequisite to nation building in the aftermath of conflict”.

Attention has also been drawn to the incumbent President’s awareness of the need for reform and his reluctance to act accordingly. This is evident from the following statements in his submissions to the Commission: “The Mahinda Chinthana of 2010 said that while the present President had been particular1y careful when exercising the powers of the ‘Executive Presidency’, the Executive Presidency had in the past been used ‘to postpone elections, to topple elected governments, to disrupt the judiciary, to ban political parties, to suppress demonstrations and lead the country towards a violent culture, to sell state institutions at under-valued prices, to defend criminals and to grant concessions to unscrupulous businessmen’.”

“This categorical statement was a very strong indictment of the Presidential system, coming as it did from the President himself, with access to all the sources of information. Indeed this Presidential statement confirmed the worst fears I had entertained, when the Presidential system was conceived, of possible abuses of Presidential power”. Moreover, “it is true President Rajapaksa gave a categorical assurance that he himself would convert the Executive Presidency into a Trusteeship, which honours the mandate given to Parliament by being accountable to Parliament, establishing equality before the law, being accountable to the judiciary and not being in conflict with the judiciary. Trusteeship is indeed a noble concept and such an assurance by His Excellency the President is most honourable and welcome. Yet it still is personal to him and does not have the force of law, however noble the intention behind it. Nor does it bind any future holder of the office”.


This inability to reconcile one’s political interest with the real needs of the entire plural society including the ethnic minorities is also the reason for the reluctance to devolve adequate powers to the provinces. The latter is perceived as empowering the ethnic minorities and weakening the centralized Sinhala majority rule. The inherent (collective) unit in the ‘unitary’ system to which the government is committed is not the one that corresponds with the island’s real demographic and traditional settlement features. Moreover, without the commitment to real democracy (not just the superficial confined mainly to the right to vote as it is now), devolution is not considered by the majoritarians essential for strengthening the democratic process, particularly in the context of the long established diverse settlement pattern of the population. Rejection of this reality is the root of the national problem.

The government’s decision to divert interest from the devolution plan in the aftermath of the military victory and triumphalism was evident from the declared intent to empower the people at the village level, implying some degree of decentralization. The Sunday Island of 26 December 2010 reported: “There is clearly no intention on the part of the centre to devolve power on the Eastern Provincial Council. This is borne out, among other things, by the recent budgetary provision to the effect that BTT should be collected by the centre and not the Provincial Councils. This is scandalous because the bulk of the PCs’ revenue comes from BTT. This is a complete violation of the 13th amendment, informed sources said. The problem of incapacity faced by the Eastern PC has been compounded by a recent central government circular that PCs need to get the approval of line ministries before statutes are passed by them which relate to the subjects of the respective line ministries”.

Recently, the Institute for Constitutional Studies conducted a workshop for media personnel on ‘Twenty Two Years of Devolution - An evaluation of the working of Provincial Councils in Sri Lanka’. In his address, Dr. Jayampathy Wickramaratne “pointed out that the past 22 years of experience showed that the devolution of power was not carried out in the proper spirit of devolution. Every Government is actively involved in party politics while in office. Certain powers have been devolved to the provincial councils, but the Central Government curtails those powers by enacting its own legislation and also by way of Cabinet decisions in the guise of making National Policy”. (Daily News 20 January 2011). The complaint of the Eastern Provincial Council tallies with this general observation. There is no similar complaint from other functioning Provincial Councils for two reasons. First, devolution was introduced via the 13th Amendment as a means to solve the ethnic problem. There was no demand for it from the Sinhala polity. It was not perceived then as useful for strengthening democracy. Second, the PCs also serve lucratively the elected councillors with attractive perks and privileges similar to those bestowed to the parliamentarians.

It is true the PC system as it is now is a white elephant, serving no useful purpose to the vast majority of residents. This too is another example of the costly self-serving politics unhelpful to the people and the country, except the elected politicians and their cronies. The PC concept is sound but the way the system is set to function is ineffective. No system will be beneficial to the public and the entire country unless it is free from bribery and corruption. Sadly, no serious efforts are being made to get rid of several blights in the system vital for steady socio-economic development. The nationally unhelpful political culture and poor political leadership are responsible for the predicament.

Following the Indian analyst N. Sathiyamoorthy’s article – ‘It has to be Devolution, not Decentralization’- in the Daily Mirror 27 December 2010, Austin Fernando former Defence Secretary responded promptly supporting this stance. Daily Mirror published his article titled ‘It is devolution and not decentralization that is good for Sri Lanka’ in two instalments on 28 and 29 December 2010. At the very outset Austin Fernando remarked forthrightly: had any Sri Lankan put forward the same view, he/she would have been branded as traitor by the post-war patriots. The two words, ‘patriot’ and ‘traitor’ have acquired chauvinistic flavour after the resounding military victory. Real reconciliation crucial for uniting the divided people on the basis of candid admission of past mistakes and corrective actions that ensure equality, justice, legitimate rights and security individually and collectively to all citizens is still not in sight. Austin has explained the reasons for devolution (power sharing) and not just decentralisation (power delegation) and also the possibility of devolving powers under the unitary constitution. This is confirmed by the 13th Amendment. The case for devolution has been advanced from the standpoint of meaningful democracy.

Economic development as the panacea

Nevertheless, President Rajapaksa is confident of securing unity and lasting peace via economic development. The supreme leader thinks the struggle for development can also be won just like the war in 2009. Besides, the promising rhetoric and occasional reference to devolution, the post-war situation remains murky. Apparently, the government believes development that is being imposed by the centre according to its priorities is the panacea.

Sustained economic development cannot be achieved solely by investment and economic incentives. National unity, continued prevalence of law and order, adherence to the rule of law, efficient public institutions devoid of bribery and corruption, dedicated managerial and technical staff, good governance which entails among others good work ethics and accountability are necessary. Reluctance to implement suitable policies for parochial reasons also undermines the development process. Monitoring steadily the progress in implementing projects and programmes as well as the utilization of the allocated funds is also intrinsic to sustained economic development. The present system lacks this kind of comprehensive monitoring.

Moreover, there are no determined efforts towards creating the conditions conducive for sustained development. This is the challenge that must be overcome which is relatively easy, if the political system is also conducive. The stark truth is the destructive war alone did not hinder socio-economic development. It definitely destroyed existing structures and prevented their restoration for decades. No sensible person will think the right conditions can be created by rhetoric alone.

Devolution helps to achieve balanced development beneficial to residents in all the various provinces. Not only the local needs but also the available resources in the different provinces will influence the development programme of each province under a devolved system. This is not a substitute for development from the national perspective but is an essential auxiliary. Sri Lanka is relatively a small island but in reality it has diverse demographic and other regional features. Given this natural diversity, the case for devolution is strong not only from the development standpoint but also for securing unity and lasting peace in the island. The realists know well that devolution is beneficial to all the ethnic communities not merely the Tamils and Muslims in the Northern and Eastern provinces.


The politically motivated discriminatory policies and practices and the violence unleashed against the victimised and politically weak Tamils that resulted in the ethnic conflict escalating into full-scale war are the root causes for the unresolved national problem. Ignoring them in the reconciliation process is unsound, from the standpoint of winning the trust of the disadvantaged ethnic minorities. Apparently, reconciliation is being sought unconventionally, without political appeasement, recognising the regional demographic realities but mainly from the expected development benefits under the incompatible system.

The Minority Rights International in its latest report titled 'No war, no peace: the denial of minority rights and justice in Sri Lanka' (posted by transCurrents on January 19, 2011) has opined that the government is doing little to resolve some of the original minority grievances that led to the conflict, such as violations of physical integrity including torture and enforced disappearances, lack of political autonomy and denial of language rights

Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Minister Dr Rajitha Senaratne in his submissions to LLRC said that the government has an obligation to protect the dignity of the minorities and ensure their rights are preserved. He also briefed the commission on the history that led to the 30-year-old war and blamed it on the politicians of that time. The Minister emphatically said that he was representing the people and not the cabinet and that his views would reflect the thoughts of the common man.

Jehan Perera in his recent article titled ‘A new ethos to obtain electoral and economic victory’ opined: “War-time governance required the centralization of decision-making capacities, emergency laws and an enhanced military budget. By way of contrast, post-war governance requires a non-violent style of leadership that alone can heal the wounds of war and unfetter the economic energies of the people. When decision-making power is concentrated in a few hands, emergency laws prevail and the (large) army is entering the vegetable trade, the message being sent to potential investors is not a positive one.” One can see clearly the prevailing post-war ground situation that is in conflict with the reconciliation and peace building processes.

In recent weeks there have been several distressing reports in the national papers on the tragic incidents in Jaffna, the cultural centre of the Sri Lankan Tamils.

The Sunday Times 2 January 2011 reported in December alone at least four murders, two abductions and 15 robberies took place in Jaffna. In Vadamarachchi, an earth supplier was shot dead in his house, while a woman shop owner was abducted from Point Pedro the same day. In Chavakachcheri, a vehicle broker was abducted, killed and his body dumped by the roadside. In Urumparai, the Deputy Director of Education, Waligamam was shot dead in his house, and a youth there was abducted in a van. Numerous robberies at gunpoint have taken place in Jaffna. In early December, thieves went to a Hindu priest’s house at Chankanai, shot the priest and his son, and robbed the house. The priest died later.

The veteran journalist, T. Sabaratnam in his column in the weekly ‘The Nation’ of 2 January 2011 also referred to the above shocking incidents as well as some disturbing activities in the East. Contrary to the supposed reconciliation process, some hostile activities have been taking place recently in the East. These smack of bringing in religion into the ethnic conflict. The temple row in Batticaloa centres round Thanthamalai Murugan Temple of Paddipalai District Secretariat division. TNA Batticaloa district parliamentarian Pakiyaselvan Ariyanethiran’s complaint “against the officers of the Archaeological Department who were obstructing the performance of daily poojas and threatening to take control of the temple and the 25 acres of land belonging to it on the pretext of conducting archaeological excavations” remains unheeded. “He had informed the Prime Minister that the temple known as Sinna Katirgamam is a historic Hindu temple and its historicity was confirmed by judicial decision of March 13, 1959”.

The columnist also stated: “Three months ago Trincomalee Government Agent Major General (Rtd) Ranjith de Silva stopped the Trincomalee Town and Gravets Pradesya Sabha from effecting maintenance work in the historic Kanniya Hot Wells and the adjoining Pillayar Kovil saying that the area belonged to the Department of Archaeology. He had also ordered the removal of the name board put up by the Pradesya Sabha stating that the Hot Wells were constructed by King Ravana.

The board reflected the Hindu tradition associated with Kinniya Hot Wells. Hindus believe that Ravana, the villain in the Indian epic Ramayana, built the Kinniya Hot Wells to perform the religious rites for his mother on the 31st day after her death. Hindus in the Trincomalee district perform the 31st day rites of their dead parents or relatives at Kinniya. A special madam had been constructed for that purpose.

There is a move by the post-war government “to discover and restore ancient Buddhist relics in the northern and eastern provinces and name them as proof that Sinhalese lived in those places”. The reality is in ancient Lanka or E-lanka-i in Tamil, there were Tamil Buddhists in these provinces. Clearly these moves are contrary to real reconciliation process. Such incompatible moves will lay the grounds for activating the ethnic conflict which no peace loving Sri Lankan wants.

The Catholic Diocese of Mannar also in their submission to LLRC stated: “We are deeply disturbed that some signboards in villages in Manthai West are only in Sinhalese and that some roads names have been given Sinhalese names. These are seen as indicators of “Sinhalization” of traditional Tamil areas and these are things that should be avoided if we are to move towards reconciliation.

Building a Buddhist place of worship (Pansala) in Murunkan Town where there was a Hindu Kovil is something that has caused a lot of concern, particularly as there is no Buddhist population in this area. Erections of Buddhist statues in prominent public places in many new locations in the North have also made our people fearful of Buddhist domination of majority Hindu, Christian and Islamic areas.

While being deeply respectful of Buddhism and believing in religious freedom for all religious communities all over the country, we believe the erection of Buddhist statues and places of worship in public places in the North, will not help in reconciliation efforts and in fact, may lead to further tensions and polarization amongst different religious communities.”

The failure to address the immediate issues of the severely distressed families in the former war zone also undermines the credence of the reconciliation process. There are many Tamils who are desperate to know the fate of their missing kith and kin either in custody after surrendering or earlier. There have been many involuntary disappearances during the war and their fate too is unknown. For some reason the authorities did not release the lists of the names of the detainees in various places. It is a well-known fact many youths some below 16 years were forcibly recruited by the LTTE leadership to fight for Tamil Eelam. On February 3 at the joint meeting of the ministers and members of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the government team assured that the list of Tamils detained soon after the war on suspicion will be displayed. Presently, this is available only in Vavuniya. It is not certain whether the Defence Ministry concurs with this move.

There are many other actions and inaction which are unhelpful for realizing reconciliation. These too were in the several submissions to the LLRC. There is no intent for some reason to expedite the normalization process. There is a political need to keep the Emergency Regulation and the armed Tamil groups operating in the North and East. They are under the influence of some Tamil politicians in the coalition government. No action has been taken to disarm them, despite the recommendation of the LLRC last year.

The reconciliation envisaged by the government under the present disconcerting conditions in the North and East with no sign of demilitarization and no intention of amending the incompatible system discussed earlier is something similar to that necessitated the leaders of the left parties LSSP and CP to join the present government. Amazingly, it is the present political leadership and not the vast majority of Sinhalese who are unwilling to seek a political settlement to the ethnic problem, the nation’s destroyer. Apparently, the military victory is being exploited further for sustaining the dominant status of the regime, which some analysts have termed ‘authoritarian’. Discussion on this subject is outside the scope of this paper. But it is important to mention here even if all sections of the populace feel secure and accept this kind of regime; from the long-term perspective its suitability for Sri Lanka is questionable. The recent wide-spread uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, which pose serious threat to similar regimes in the Middle East, cannot be overlooked. The demonstrators have been clamouring for democracy, freedom and social justice.

Mistaken belief in Mahavamsa exposed

J. L Devananda’s earlier article titled, “Mahavamsa Mindset: Re-visiting Political Buddhism in Sri Lanka” has evoked an interesting debate. His well researched response to the arguments of the believers of the ‘Mahavamsa’ version of the history of ancient Lanka reveals further the many contradictions arising from the mistaken belief that the chronicle written originally in Pali depicts the island’s complete history. “The Mahavamsa (Great Chronicle of historical poem) was written not as a history of Sri Lanka (or Sinhalese) but as a history of the Mahavihara (Theravada Buddhists). The Mahavamsa and Dipavamsa speaks ONLY of Theravada Buddhists and NOT Sinhala Buddhists. The original Mahavamsa (Mahawansha), is a historical poem written in Pali, which covers a period starting from the arrival of Vijaya (543 BC) to the time of Mahasena’s rule (334-361 BC) written by the Venerable Mahanama Thero, an uncle of King Dhatusena” several centuries later.

On this fundamental point, Devananda has pointedly said:”The Pali chronicles were written long after the events described took place (some of them more than 1000 years). Therefore these cannot be considered as accurate records of the events. These were written by Theravada Buddhist priests who mainly tried to convey a religious message using the events to illustrate the importance of the Theravada Buddhist religion, hence a very biased version”.

His two-part article based on in-depth analysis of the subject was posted by D. B. S. Jeyaraj January 31 on his blog (dbsjeyaraj.com). In Part I, Devananda has said: “The number of ancient Buddha statues found other than in Sri Lanka was in Tamil Nadu showing a strong presence of Buddhism. The well known Tamil Buddhist epics found were Manimekalai, Silappadhikaram, Valaiyapathi, Kundalakesi and Jivaka Cintamani. The lost Tamil Buddhist works include the grammar Virasoliyam, the Abhidhamma work Siddhantattokai, the panegyric Tiruppadigam, and the biography Bimbisara Kada. Manimekalai, a purely Buddhist work of the 3rd Sangam period in Tamil literature is the most supreme and famous among the Buddhist work done in Tamil. It also talks about the Tamil Buddhists in the island/Nagadipa but, neither Manimekalai nor Silappathikaram is a historical work.

The ancient Tamil literature and the excavations (archaeological findings) in Jaffna proves the existence of Tamils including Tamil Buddhists (Theravada and Mahayana) but there is no evidence what so ever to prove the existence of a separate Tamil Kingdom in Jaffna before the 13th century AD and the same goes to the Sinhalese. The temptation to consider that everything Buddhist in Sri Lanka is necessarily Sinhalese has to be resisted, as it must be remembered that the Tamils, Andhras, and Kalingas, also were at one time Buddhists, and had a very large share in the dissemination of Buddhist culture in the countries of South-East Asia”. Part 2 of Devananda’s article too contains vital information that disproves the claim of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists that the entire island is solely indigenous to the Sinhalese. Readers eager to know about the origin of the Sinhala race and the demography of ancient Lanka are urged to read his very informative article. The patriotic Sinhalese must reconcile themselves to the reality that the traditional homeland of the Lankan Tamils is in the North-East part of the island and not in Tamil Nadu.

In conclusion

Incumbent President Rajapaksa is very well aware of the political reasons that led to the national problem. In his speech on January 10, when a sales complex ‘Lakviru Sevana’ at Battaramulla was opened to market products made by disabled war heroes, he said: “Sri Lanka as a whole had to suffer due to a protracted conflict because of betrayals, subjugations and blunders made in the past. He was of the opinion that the conflict could have ended much earlier and the devastation caused by it to both man and property could have been avoided to a great extent, if certain administrators in the past had engaged in prudent and selfless decision making on behalf of the country”. (Release of the Ministry of Defence, Sri Lanka 11 January.)

Although there is the realization of the imperative need to end the protracted conflict, how it will be ended is a mystery. This is an issue that concerns not any one community but all communities aspiring to live peacefully and hopefully not just for the short term but much longer for the benefit of future generations. The political will to settle this national issue is still not forthcoming, despite the awareness for permanent settlement. Instead, the setting for the blame game seems to be ready.

The Rt. Rev. Duleep de Chickera, Metropolitan’s Commissary and Vicar General of the Diocese of Colombo, in this year’s Independence Day message has very aptly said, what our country needs now is a new political will

Apparently, the unity that pops up normally during periods of foreign aggression (LTTE’s violence also is in this category) is expected from the articulation of the presence of conspiracies against the people and the nation. This invention has surfaced in various forms after the war, despite the ‘unity and peace’ said to be prevailing in the entire country. Before the emergence of the LTTE threat which was real, the perceived combination of Tamils living in Sri Lanka and India was said to be a likely threat to the future of the Sinhala race/nation. After proclaiming triumphantly that the ruthless LTTE including the leaders have all been annihilated, the government found some other ‘enemies’ to sustain the threat to the Sinhala psyche. This has not been difficult with some foreign governments and NGOs calling for independent investigation into alleged war crimes and demonstrations by some disheartened Tamils in the Diaspora during the recent visit of President Mahinda Rajapaksa to London to address the Oxford Union. A section of the Tamil Diaspora acting rashly is helping the government to find a convincing aggressor to justify the continuation of the undemocratic system and emergency rule.

Had there been some positive developments in the political arena soon after the war ended, none of the war-related issues would have been this critical. The one-track approach taken to elevate Sri Lanka as a developed country soon, as mentioned earlier is unhelpful. In this context the editorial comment in the Daily Mirror 4 January 2011 is very pertinent. “Any outward mega development will be of lasting value and for the common good of all the people only if there is also inward transformation of the nature and attitude of leaders. Those in leadership and those hoping or striving to take leadership must be aware of and accept a vitally important factor for any leader- he or she must be ready and willing to be a sincere servant of the people and be prepared to make sacrifices or even suffer for the people. Any other form of leadership for personal gain or glory and to dominate people or abuse power is dead leadership and it will be a case of dust to dust or ashes to ashes”. It is illogical to urge the poor people to sacrifice without the self-sacrifice of those wielding power and the discard of the institutionalized corrupt practices.

In this regard the editorial has stressed emphatically the urgent need for inner transformation. The concluding portion, very relevant to the points stressed in this article is reproduced here. “Those in leadership, whatever spiritual power they believe in, must allow that power to transform their self-centred and greedy nature into a new nature of other centeredness, sincerity, compassion and other spiritual values like forgiveness, patience and kindness, humility and meekness. When this happens, the choices they make or the decisions they take will be for the common good of all. Then and only then will we see a new Sri Lanka with lasting peace, justice and equitable distribution of wealth and resources”.

It is wishful thinking to presume that the power-wielders and power-seekers in the political class will voluntarily change their unholy self-centred attitudes. Without the dynamic intervention of apolitical groups in the civil society, the much needed transformation is unlikely to materialize. The civil society is largely responsible for many politicians to have acted inconsiderately.

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

Whither reconciliation under the incompatible system and disconcerting situation? Part I