22 March, 2023


Can Sri Lanka Counter International Pressures?

By Austin Fernando

Austin Fernando

Austin Fernando

There are two senior US officials who visit Sri Lanka these days. They are Stephen J. Rapp, Ambassador-at-Large of the Office of Global Criminal Justice of the United States, followed by Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs of the US government, Nisha Desai Biswal, the successor to Bob Blake.

Since the US could influence international thinking and responses due to its military, financial and international motivator might and influence on multilateral organizations, these visits cannot be considered simple or non-binding. They are here for serious business (notwithstanding street protests here) and reflect evidence of the international interest to intervene in our crisis.  Their stage will be at UNHRC Sessions in March with other co-actors like the British. The drama probably will be “Pinch Sri Lanka hard to be felt” in March, to be followed with “Maul Sri Lanka to kill,” in October and afterwards!

Internationals first deal with the immediate past of a conflict, and punish the guilty. Reconciliation is not essentially a parallel process for them. Therefore only the demands for war-crime investigations and accountability mechanism are demanded as pre-condition for post-conflict healing.

The ignored danger is that this attitude might push the ‘war managers’ or ‘political leaderships’ against the wall who would whip up nationalistic feelings in the face of potential atrocious punishments. This is why patience is virtue in post-conflict reconciliation.

Countering punitive consequences

Government has already commenced mitigation and pressurizing as observed by the President and senior bureaucrats meeting the Northern Province Council (NPC) Chief Minister (CM). Governor GA Chandrasiri was a notable, probably a ‘deliberate’ absentee at this meeting. Subsequently President’s Secretary and External Affairs Minster are to meet international groups to elucidate follow up actions by the government for reconciliation, development, resettlement and good governance.

Their points of view are important, but one should not forget that there are sources that submit counter information to Rapp and Biswal or other unfriendly “information seekers,” like the Canadian parliamentarian Rathika Sitsabaiesan. Those will not be ignored totally by other international players.

Finding durable solutions

Therefore, the conceptual backgrounds these groups honor have to be identified.  Their basic interest is to find palatable “durable solutions” for our crisis. Their palate may differ from ours! The criteria for durable solutions are (a) Long-term safety and security; (b) Enjoyment of an adequate standard of living without discrimination; (c) Access to livelihoods and employment; (d) Effective and accessible mechanisms to restore housing, land and property; (d) Access to personal and other documentation without discrimination; (e) Family reunification; (e) Participation in public affairs without discrimination; (f) Access to effective remedies and justice. Tamil National Alliance’s (TNA’s) representations orchestrate these criteria as ignored by the government.

These were lately addressed by Chaloka Beyani, who will report to UNHRC and will be addressed sooner also by Rapp and Biswal.  Beyani identified sub-standard status observed in certain areas, even though appreciated positive development and resettlement. However, the experiences of Rapp and Biswal will be important in the light of statements heard from the British and Canadians, and insinuations of Ambassador Yasushi Akashi.

Roping Northern Provincial Council (NPC)

President Rajapaksa and his super bureaucrats met CM Wigneswaran and Parliamentarian Sumanthiran last week, on the heels of a TNA’s Vavuniya decision to submit a status report for Geneva Sessions. The meeting was to discuss Northern PC related issues. It was reported that administrative and financial issues were the highlights of the dialogue.

There had been questionable administrative issues that had emerged, as I discussed in Sunday Leader (8-12-2013). There I drew parallel examples of administrative conflicts caused elsewhere by Governor’s “offensive behavior”. My emphasis was on the need for legality and consultation between the Governor and CM. In such background if one concludes that the Governor is acting on government pressure and the NPC CM on TNA pressure, irrespective of State or NPC priorities respectively, such thinker cannot be faulted. Both the Government and TNA are to be blamed for such deadlock. Nevertheless, the powers of the Executive President have to be admitted by the NPC and hence his cooperation has to be harnessed. The matching reciprocation from the government will enable serious reconciliation.

Reportedly they have discussed NPC receiving foreign grants. There had been precedence with the Sri Lankan PCs receiving foreign loans through the Treasury and Indian States receiving foreign multilateral organization financing for development purposes. However, President as the Minister of Finance being concerned of such foreign financing cannot be protested as he has to be considerate of inflation, balanced regional growth, foreign exchange risks, the need to assure repayment etc.

However, if it is private sector investments they cannot be objected as they had engaged in such transactions and gone to the extent of private banks raising foreign exchange bonds in the recent past. These banks were involved with the initiations of the government due to other reasons of debt burden befalling on the Treasury.  Additionally the government had been pleading for Foreign Direct Investments for which unparalleled tax and duty waivers also had been granted in the recent past.

In the same manner there could be investments made through the stock market which has to be monitored due to the economic chaos that could be created by manipulated Stock Exchange collapse, which will embarrass the government and hinder further development. Hence, the President directing meeting with the Treasury officials and discussing the process of receiving grants also cannot be protested.

Displaced peoples’ interests

Much has been written on the needs of the displaced people including the widows, orphans and the detainees. NPC had raised these according to the media. These are not novel. However, defense authorities sitting on judgment is the main irritation for the politicians and many affected due to certain fallouts of such actions. After a 25 year plus war for the military to succumb to public pressures is difficult, as much as, the war affected for long not to desist military dictation. The need therefore is to find a via media where the interests of both parties are not jeopardized.

In it, High Security Zones (HSZs) are an itchy issue. There could be many options that could be utilized in this regard for which good understanding of the HSZs and settlements have to be created. HSZs were a response to enhanced fire power of the LTTE. HSZs have displaced people. They seek restitution of their lands, houses and properties, demanding return to their original locations.

The affected are people: (1) who lived at the boundaries of the core HSZ areas, e.g. Palaly Air Port /Kankesanthurai Port; (2) whose houses were acquired after paying compensation under the Land Acquisition Ordinance (e.g. around Batticaloa Air Field); (3) whose individual deserted houses “forcibly acquired’ during the conflict (e.g. near Chavakachcheri) and rent paid (4) where houses were occupied otherwise by the military.

The first and second categories may not be quickly returned or sometimes not returned at all since the LTTE regrouping is suspected by defense authorities. With the Diaspora thinking of separation even through other means predicates some justification of this stance. However, the LTTE fire power which needed countering then is now non-existent, demanding reassessment of threat perceptions by the military to decide on contracting HSZ boundaries, which had been already done in certain areas.

In such process it is important that examination is not monopolized by military decision-makers, but shared by a tribunal (inclusive of civilian managers) that could assess the ground situation and make realistic compensation to the owners without undue delay, if the lands are not returned. The complaint by TNA and pro-Tamil commentators is such does not happen.  As I have written earlier having a Governor with military understanding and skills could sometimes assist this activity, if he is ‘reasonable’!

It is reminded that during the United National Front regime, on peace negotiators’ request the Army planned for rationalized reduction of Camps in the Jaffna Peninsula. With terror eradicated the northern public queries the need to have strong field security arrangements. The fourth category has to be evaluated on a case by case, based on the threat perceptions. The NPC should as a part of an institutional structure of the State consider ‘security’ as an integrated arrangement and the   military also should avoid over-emphasizing security consciousness to detract resettlement, movement etc.

In addition to HSZs there are issues in documentation (i.e. deeds, leases) which should be cleared.  Due to Army / LTTE military activities the ground boundaries and landmarks would have been erased physically. The lands will need resurveying.  All these will require solutions before administering restitution. These may require changes to laws, procedures, institutional rearrangements etc as these are demanded to administer loans and building plans.

Restitution / Compensation issues

Internationally acclaimed interpretation of restitution is: “Restitution should, whenever possible, restore the victim to the original situation before the gross violations of human rights law or serious violations of international humanitarian law occurred. Restitution includes, as appropriate: restoration of liberty, enjoyment of human rights, identity, family life and citizenship; return to one’s place of residence, restoration of employment and return of property.” Unfortunately, the Government is criticized for not towing this interpretation.

Restitution is not limited to land, house and property. It encompasses: “restoration of liberty, enjoyment of human rights, identity, family life and citizenship; return to one’s place of residence, restoration of employment and return of property.” This UN accepted interpretation may be a guide. These facilitations could be the foundation for successful and sustainable reconciliation and sustainable peace. The GOSL focuses on development to achieve these ends, and the NPC election results showed the wrong ideology even at highest political levels in using development as an alternative to winning hearts and minds.  

Restitution will be complete when refugees and displaced persons have the right to full and effective compensation as an integral component of restitution.  One accepted principle of compensation is: “States shall, in order to comply with the principle of restorative justice, ensure that the remedy of compensation is only used when the remedy of restitution is not factually possible, or when the affected party knowingly and voluntarily accepts compensation in lieu of restitution, or when the terms of a negotiated peace settlement provide for a combination of restitution and compensation.” This is another issue that has to be addressed on the grounds of complaints made by TNA and even the affected on restitution cum compensation. Ignoring these will attract serious allegations against Sri Lanka.

There could be mechanisms and institutions that could be developed for restitution. We have the Rehabilitation of Persons, Properties and Industries Authority (REPPIA).  The UN Mission in Kosovo established, administered and managed the Kosovo Housing and Property Directorate and Housing and Property Claims Commission and UN Transitional Authority in East Timor institutionalized adjustment for restitution questions. But the UN Transitional Administration in Cambodia and UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan chose not to address restitution issues. Hence, if the government wishes to knock down demands on restitution quoting the latter, proving non-mandatory nature of UN principles they are at liberty, but will be squeezed internationally.  Nevertheless, the current census by the Ministry of Public Administration and Department of Census could provide important statistical data to create more effective institutions adhering to UN past experiences and lessons for effective reconciliation and restitution.

One important restitution demand is for identification of those killed civilians and disappeared. This is a local and international demand. The NPC and GOSL have two different attitudes for this issue. Life is one ‘item’ when lost that cannot be restituted, returned. But, the GOSL can find ways to compensate lost life as done in other times like Tsunami, military and police personnel, and other natural and manmade disasters.  If peace and reconciliation is aimed at, looking at every lost life as that belonged to a Sri Lankan citizen could be considered. Whether the political will to interpret it that way requires an extremely large heart, which I presume the President possesses. Anyway, there are several issues like death certificates, inquiry proceedings; confirmation of the disappeared as dead etc that could hinder payment of compensation. Required legal measures and propositions should be created in such event, especially after the ongoing census is completed.

One area where extremely focused attention is demanded is the livelihood improvement programmes and employment opportunities for the retuning displaced persons. The need to train the displaced, connecting production inputs as well marketing inputs, financing modes etc are important.

There could be women headed families, single parent families and families where the elders who have passed the employment age demanding sustained incomes etc. Beyani highlighted the women headed families and focusing on these groups may be an attractive proposition that could be undertaken.  Even in other development projects accommodating the local population in suitable jobs may be another alternative which the Tamil leaders complain of not happening.  Engaging seasoned expertise to manage these for which NGOs and civil society organizations could contribute in a large scale are possibilities.

Swift movement of NPC against Governor Chandrasiri

My contention is that NPC moved too swiftly against Governor Chandrasiri. Since he was considered partial towards the GOSL criticizing him during the campaign forced the NPC administration to follow-up political and legal medium to oust him. The impeachment was the result. However, it created a sordid status pushing the President against the wall of letting down a favorable Governor on the demand of the NPC.

The CM should have considered the stance taken by the President on Governor of the East, Mohan Wijewickrama. Wijewickrama was not in the good books even of the pro-government PC members. They were complaining and still complaining. Yet the President “shaped up matters” and keeps him in office. For Wigneswaran to hope a change of Governor when an opposing political group demands was too optimistic. As much as Chandrasiri allegedly lacks political experience, even with NPC members like D. Sidhdharthan being present in the NPC, Wigneswaran jumped the gun with the wrong political approach, it appeared. However, if reconciliation is to be achieved there must be this change taking place for sure.

It was reported that “the TNA has refused to participate in the Government’s reconciliation programme, either through the Parliamentary Select Committee or through talks, until the Government makes its proposals public. This had been a constant un-responded demand.  Since international pressure is mounting on the GOSL such stance from the TNA is unsurprising. It appears that TNA has forgotten of what happened to the All Party Representatives Committee Report handed over to the President a couple of years back by Senior Minister Tissa Vitharana. However, in this regard the role of the Government too has to be somewhat compromising. Rigidity will not bring solutions. Where to be relaxed and where to be hardened will be the prerogative of the GOSL and TNA/NPC.

Futuristic hopes

As seen above there is still hope if the government and TNA/NPC can adjust their stances and look at the issues as a nationally important challenge. Whether they are ready is known only to them.

A few weeks back I wrote quoting Sanyuktha Nikaya, on dealing with “internal” and “external” problems and Lord Buddha’s responses to a query made from him on internal and external problems. Lord Buddha has said that it is by being “disciplined, wise and rational with a developed mind” that problems could be untwined.

Once again I repeat what I wrote: “It is time to prove our commitment for disciplined, wise and rational behavior. Nation’s request from the President, TNA and internationals is to cooperate in this exercise” and I may add even the Opposition and civil society to herald such initiatives before we are ridiculed internationally.

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Latest comments

  • 2

    arrrf course arrrseteeen, no problem machan, shape shape shape ekeng no!

  • 2

    Yes,rigidity will never bring solution.As far as TNA is concerned,Tamil issue is their political capital.The government should understand that there is no point of talking with TNA to reach a consensus.

    • 2

      Ramany K

      “As far as TNA is concerned,Tamil issue is their political capital.”

      I never understood this Tamil issue.

      Could you explain to us what this “Tamil Problem” is all about.

      How exactly do you want TNA to behave, act, conduct itself, …..?

      What are your demands from TNA?

      “The government should understand that there is no point of talking with TNA to reach a consensus.”!

      If not with TNA whom should government speak with?

      I am confused.

  • 3


    I appreciate your earnest and reasoned approach. Unfortunately the real world doesn’t work that way. If it does, we would all be “living happily ever after” without any of these man-made disasters.

    It’s naive to assume that the TNA/NPC depending on Tamil nationalism for their vote base would ever want to solve the problem sincerely. They are the proverbial beggar not allowing his wound to heal.

    Similarly, it is ingenuous to expect the LTTE rump, Tamil diaspora and Tamil Nadu fanatics to settle for reconciliation – even if it is a genuine one within a pluralistic and united Sri Lanka. Because that would mean their losing the special international recognition they now enjoy and forgoing the benefits and entitlements of “victimhood politics.”

    US and its allies who are effectively the so called “international community”(including the UN system) are not interested in a just solution and reconciliation acceptable to all communities in Sri Lanka. The political parties in these countries are greedy for immigrant vote-banks which can be easily manipulated to vote en bloc. Therefore they will continue to bat for the LTTE rump which will never renounce separatism as they don’t care a damn about the plight of the Tamils living in Sri Lanka. Also it is in the geo-political interests of US and its allies to keep the conflict in Sri Lanka simmering. At the next episode of the “Emperor Has No Clothes” show to be staged in Geneva in March, the whole world will once again refuse to see the “obvious” dangling in the international crotch.

    The above factors will only boost Sinhala nationalism in the south pushing true reconciliation even further away. But everything is not bad.

    There is a ray of hope in that, as Buddha taught, things never remain the same. Everything is subject to change, and therefore down the road things have to change and all those who love Sri Lanka and all its people must remain positive in the challenging months ahead:

    Aniccaa vata sa”nkhaaraa
    uppaada vaya dhammino
    Uppajjitvaa nirujjhanti …

    [Impermanent are all component things,
    They arise and cease, that is their nature:
    They come into being and pass away …]

    — Mahaa-Parinibbaana Sutta

  • 1

    “super bureaucrats”, do I detect a trace of envy ?

    We also eagerly await the impermanence of the Rajapaksas’ !

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