By Jehan Perera –
The setback suffered by the government at the local government elections has not dissuaded it from following through on its plans for national reconciliation. This is a cause for hope that the battle for national reconciliation through a lasting political solution is not yet lost, although it has got much delayed and the best time for moving forward is now gone. The government recently appointed the members of the Office of Missing Persons and is preparing to pass a new law on enforced disappearances. However, the time frames for visible action may change, with constitutional reform being pushed to the back. The political vulnerability of the government will be greatest with regard to constitutional reform that changes the nature of the state, and brings into focus the long term apprehension regarding the devolution of power.
One of the key themes of the opposition’s campaign at the local government elections was the alleged weakening of the state by the proposed constitutional reforms that sought to replace the current unitary state with a fragmented one, as a federal solution demanded by the Tamil polity has been described. The decades-long claim of Sinhalese nationalists has been that the devolution of power will weaken the central government, and will pave the way for the division of the country. At this election, as at previous ones in which the character of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa has loomed large, the clarion call has been for a strong leader who centralize powers once again. In this context it will be politically costly, maybe too costly, for the government to wish to revitalize the constitutional reform process that has been steadily evolving over the past three years.
There is presently a draft framework, albeit one in which there are still alternatives and options given, and in which the answer is not a single given. The leaders of the government need to be willing and able to show a do-or-die type of commitment to resolve the ethnic conflict with its seventy plus years of grievance, trauma and mistrust. That is indeed the only way in which the problem can be solved. But it is unlikely the government will wish to deal with constitutional reform regarding the ethnic conflict at this time given the internal and external travails it faces. The next opportune time for constitutional reform will come after the next round of national elections in late 2019 and early 2020. The best that might be done until such time with regard to constitutional reform will be for the government and those committed to promoting and supporting such change, to continue with the challenging task of public education on controversial political matters.
The strategy of the government at this time is likely to be more on issues pertaining to the UN Human Rights Council resolution where the focus is on human rights issues than on larger constitutional issues. The ability of the political opposition to prejudice the minds of the people will be less on human rights issues than on constitutional issues. Human rights violations tend to focus on the deeds of individuals whereas constitutional issues focus on matters that concern the country as a whole. In going ahead and appointing the commissioners to the Office of Missing Persons, the government has shown it is prepared to deal with issues of human rights violations, and promoting national reconciliation through addressing the grievances of individuals.
The recent appointment of members of the Office of Missing Persons is a positive example of continuing governmental commitment to the national reconciliation process. The government’s continued commitment to the reconciliation process and meeting the concerns of the victims of human rights violations is also be seen in its bid to pass the legislation pertaining to the crime of enforced disappearances. Many of those who went missing, and continue to be missing, were abducted by armed personnel who came in white vans, which was a branding symbol that struck terror in to all and sundry. The general public has been at the receiving end of this type of human rights violation on several occasions, not only during the period of the LTTE war, but also during the two JVP insurrections. However, it can be expected that those in the opposition, and who fear they will be held accountable for the human rights violations of the past, will seek to conjure up negative images of these new institutions.
The opposition to the OMP came immediately from members of the former government. They did not dispute the fact that there are tens of thousands of missing persons. But they questioned the usefulness of this new body in the context of previous commissions of inquiry into missing persons having submitted their own reports. They sought to undermine the credibility of the OMP by questioning the appointment of NGO leaders who had already taken a stand against perpetrators of war crimes. With their charisma and formidable communication skills, these former government leaders can be extremely effective in taking their negative message to the general population and generating opposition in them too.
It is therefore important that the negative messaging of the opposition leadership should be countered by positive messaging by government leaders. It is important that they mainstream this counter-messaging without being satisfied with a niche audience, as those who oppose the reconciliation process are catering to the mainstream. Former President Chandrika Kumaratunga is playing a central role in this through the Office of National Unity and Reconciliation that she heads. Last week ONUR launched a national policy on reconciliation and also three short movies by three of Sri Lanka’s most prominent film producers. The film “Thundenek” (also titled Her, Him, the Other in the English language) co-directed by Prasanna Vithanage, Vimukthi Jayasundara, and Asoka Handagama is composed of three inter- connected short stories with three parts. They deal with themes that all Sri Lankans can identify with—loss, memory and inter-connectivity (dependent origination).
The first story in the trilogy is that of a soldier’s fiancé who goes through the agony of awaiting news of her missing love’s fate. There are over 5000 soldiers still missing in action and there will be as many families with unhealed wounds. It helps us to reflect on the plight of the 15000 plus families of the missing from the Tamil community. The second story is about the exploitation that a poor Sinhalese family is subjected to when an LTTE member is reborn to them. It shows us the vulnerability of those who are poor and defenceless. The third story is about a yearning of a Tamil mother who mistakenly sees her missing son in a disabled soldier. It is about the love of parents that never dies. These are sad themes, but each one of them is realistic and could be for real. They enable us to see the other side of life, and the other side of our country’s people and generate empathy within us, as great art would do.
At the launch of the movies the three leaders who led the movement for the change of government in 2015 were present together in a show of unity that has not been since the honeymoon days of their victory. Former President Kumaratunga spoke about obtaining the unity of the three film producers who pooled their talents to create a unique story line. President Sirisena spoke of the fomenting of violence against sections of the people which would not be permitted. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe spoke of the Sri Lankan ideal of uniting the people and the country that has existed from the times of the ancient kings. The small number of national leaders who speak in this manner and inspire all Sri Lankans on public platforms is a matter of concern. This has been seen most recently in Ampara in the case of the mob attacks on Muslims. The leaders of the Muslim and Tamil political parties have condemned these incidents and made calls to the government to take deterrent action. However, the paucity of government and opposition leaders making similar calls is most disturbing. It is to be hoped that these three leaders will resolve to fight for national reconciliation with the same determination that they fought for election victory in 2015 while sorting out the power political problems that divide them. There is less than two years more for this to be done.