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Peace: the gargantuan challenge

May 28, 2010 6:18:20 AM- transcurrents.com

By Kalana Senaratne

The war which came to a conclusion on or around 19 May 2009 was a necessary one, for terrorism had to be defeated. It was evident that the LTTE did not know any other way of resolving disputes. Negotiations had failed. In fact, negotiations were meant to fail; for the desire of the LTTE was the creation of the separate ‘Tamil Eelam State’. Such demands, such separatist demands, were non-negotiable.

‘Terrorism’, however, was only one facet of the problem. The moment that ugly facet becomes non-existent, the moment there is an absence of a violent armed conflict, problems which remained unresolved, problems which could not be resolved through the use of force, re-emerge, re-surface. Political developments which soon followed the defeat of the LTTE proved this, to some extent. An acrimonious debate ensued concerning the 13th Amendment. Then, unfortunate developments surrounding a confused, misguided and revengeful Army Commander unfolded in quick succession. Thereafter the people, a vast majority, indicated on whose side they stood; at the Presidential and General elections. As a consequence, there is, now, a very strong government (i.e. one which cannot be brought down easily). There is also a very weak opposition (i.e. one which cannot be resuscitated easily).

Soon after the defeat of terrorism there arises the obvious question of whether terrorism would re-surface in the future. This question in turn raises much broader questions. Now that violent terrorism has been defeated, how, and in what way, should different ethnic groups co-exist within a multi-ethnic State, peacefully? How, and in what way, should we, the people, act? How long would it take for ‘peace’ to arrive, and from where (if not from our heart), would ‘peace’ begin its long journey? What should be done, what should we do, to achieve ‘peace’? And, why do we still ask this latter question, in a country which is full of ‘peace-loving’ and friendly people? Are we, really, a ‘peace-loving’ people, and if so in what way, to what extent? Are problems the creations of politicians only, of successive Parliaments, of Parliamentarians? Or is the Parliament, its composition, a microcosm of the larger society that we live in?

It’s not always possible to answer such questions, such complicated questions, in any satisfactory manner; there may not be any clear answers to such questions, anyway. Yet, there may be certain obvious facts which escape our attention. Perhaps, the answer to many of our political problems rests in our own attitudes and perceptions, in our ability to ‘compromise’. But how difficult it would be to reach a compromise, by changing our deeply-held, deep-rooted, beliefs, attitudes and perceptions?

Such changes in our own attitude and approach are necessary when considering some of the critical challenges facing the country, today. Two such challenges would be: the ‘devolution of powers’ and the ‘promotion and protection of human rights and equality’ - issues on which people hold very strong and uncompromising views.

Devolution and power-sharing

Consider the critical and contentious issue of devolution of powers - the “most intractable problem” - which touches that strong ‘nationalist nerve’ in many people, across the Sinhala-Tamil ethnic divide. It is one problem concerning which some form of a ‘compromise’ is quintessential, the resolution of which calls for that need to “hammer out a compromise”, as the late Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar put it, when he spoke in Parliament, in favour of the 2000 Draft Constitution (Kadirgamar: a distinguished politician, a statesman, who opposed the LTTE and was shot and killed by the LTTE, but nevertheless strongly believed in the idea of ‘power-sharing’, in the need for some resolution of the conflict, based, perhaps, on the lines of the 2000 Draft Constitution).

But, today, on the issue of devolution, is ‘compromise’ possible? Or is there any evidence to suggest that a ‘compromise’ is forthcoming?

On the one hand there are the strong opponents of devolution, who claim that devolution is unnecessary, that it is “development and not devolution”. The argument that the mandate received by President Rajapaksa does not make any significant reference to ‘devolution’ is also raised. The 13th Amendment is claimed to be unnecessary and an absolute failure. Recently, a subtle rubbishing of the 13th Amendment did take place when Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa was interviewed by Al-Jazeera. President Rajapaksa, during his interview on Al-Jazeera, did not make any significant reference to the notion of devolution or power-sharing too.

On the other hand, the case in favour of devolution/power-sharing resonates strongly in the views expressed by many Tamil politicians, in particular; from ITAK’s R. Sambanthan to UPFA’s Douglas Devananda. Reference is made not only to the 13th Amendment, but also to, for instance, the 2000 Draft Constitution and the APRC-Majority Report of the Panel of Experts.

How then would there be a compromise? One would not believe in the concept of a ‘traditional homeland’ or in a merged North-East, and would dismiss these ideas as political myths. But the fact that the majority of the North and the East consist of Tamil speaking people is not a myth, along with the fact that this demand for power-sharing had always been the predominant demand of the Tamil minority, or its representatives, elite or otherwise.

In such a context, how does one approach the issue of ‘devolution’? Perhaps the responsibility falls on both (or all) ethnic groups. The political leadership representing the majority would need to understand that this notion of ‘devolution’ cannot be rubbished off easily, cannot be dumped in a political dustbin, so conveniently and easily as one would like to do. The political leadership representing the minority would also need to understand that their demands would need to be couched in less inflammatory language; a language which does not resemble that of the Provisional Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam, for instance. There would also be a need to approach the idea of power-sharing from a citizen’s perspective; to regard devolution as a tool that empowers the people at the periphery; as a tool that effectively challenges an all-powerful centre, whenever necessary. Yet, it would be a serious mistake to imagine that that kind of approach means that the unit of devolution ought to be the Gamsabha or Janasabha.

In reaching this compromise, or in trying to reach this compromise, there is also another critical factor which needs to be borne in mind; i.e. that ‘devolution’ would not work in any serious and meaningful sense unless there is a serious commitment, a parallel and simultaneous commitment, to constitutionalism, the rule of law, the establishment of independent institutions and a firm resolve to promote and protect human rights and equality. One should be naïve to imagine that significant devolution would resolve all problems, even if there is no serious commitment shown regarding the above.

Human rights and equality

But this too is a significant challenge. On constitutionalism and the rule of law, Sri Lanka’s track record, unfortunately, is a dismal one. And importantly, this is so with regard to the promotion and protection of human rights and equality; an issue over which many seem to have very fixed, even uncompromising, views; an issue, then, which needs to be approached with a changed attitude and mindset, today.

In this regard, there is too much emphasis placed by the present regime on the ‘Western factor’. Some of the major powers of the ‘West’ are certainly hypocritical when accusing other States of human rights violations. Such hypocrisy needs to be exposed. But in doing so, there is a tendency on the part of the regime to view the notion of ‘human rights’ as some Western-liberal notion, without realizing that the moment one considers ‘human rights’ to be a mere Western notion, one’s resentment towards the West shapes the way in which one approaches all notions perceived to be Western notions; forgetting completely and even conveniently, the importance attached to the topic of human rights protection in our own Buddhist teaching and philosophy (or in any other religion) for example.

Hence, unless this attitude changes in a more positive way, there wouldn’t be any progress in relation to the improvement of own human rights standards. President Rajapaksa reminded the world in September 2007 that human rights have been an essential part of Sri Lanka’s cultural tradition and human rights protection is “nothing new for us”. True. But one needs to go further, and prove, that this is so even today, that this cultural tradition has not stopped, that it continues. And, isn’t it a shame for a country with such a rich and glorious tradition, to be continually reminded of the importance of human rights protection, and that too, by the EU or the ‘West’?

Ensuring ‘equality’ too is a significant challenge, unless one’s attitude doesn’t change. Why so? If one is burdened by that problem highlighted by scholars such as KM De Silva and AJ Wilson - the ‘majority with a minority complex and a minority with a majority complex’ - then, ‘equality’ becomes a terrible problem; a problem that threatens one’s perceived status (that dominant or rightful status) in society. Demanding ‘equality’ or the respect for ‘equality’ is easy, but that demand becomes meaningless in the eyes of such a person with the majority/minority complex, if he/she is not ready to accept what ‘equality’ would necessarily mean; i.e. inter alia, equal status in society, equal citizenship, opportunities based on meritocracy, independent institutions etc. Ensuring ‘equality’, too, is a great challenge.


Numerous other problems and challenges confront Sri Lanka, one year after the conclusion of the war; in sum, a gargantuan challenge is before a nation and its people. However, an opportunity, a tremendous opportunity, has arrived, now that there is an absence of violent conflict. Success depends on how well that opportunity is used by the politicians and the people.