By Jehan Perera –
Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau’s remarks on May 18 that “Canada will not stop advocating for the rights of the victims and survivors of this conflict, as well as for all in Sri Lanka who continue to face hardship,” in the context of the recognition of May 18 as “Tamil Genocide Remembrance Day” has met with a strong rebuttal from the Sri Lankan government. It is tragic that 14 years after the end of the war, and with a president as internationalist and liberal as Ranil Wickremesinghe at the helm, that Sri Lanka should be losing ground internationally and its embassies abroad are unable to stem the tide because there is no political progress on the issue of national reconciliation at home. This is particularly tragic as Sri Lanka, after its economic collapse, needs international support more than ever.
The reality is that Sri Lanka continues to be a divided society. This was seen when people in the North and East remembered their loved and missing ones who are no longer with them on May 18. The following day on May 19, the government remembered the war victory and the sacrifices of security forces who lost their lives to keep the country united. In view of the tragedy of divided sentiment in the country, the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission appointed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2010 recommended that commemoration of all victims of the war should take place on a single day: “A separate event should be set apart on the National Day (4 February) to express solidarity and empathy with all victims of the tragic conflict and pledge the collective commitment to ensure that there should never be such blood-letting in the country again.”
So far February 4 remains a pageant of military might and not of remembrance. It was so this year as well. It is worth quoting at length from the LLRC report at this time when views seem to be hardening on both side of the ethnic and political divides. “The process of reconciliation requires a full acknowledgement of the tragedy of the conflict and a collective act of contrition by the political leaders and civil society, of both Sinhala and Tamil communities. The conflict could have been avoided had the southern political leaders of the two main political parties acted in the national interest and forged a consensus between them to offer an acceptable solution to the Tamil people.”
Indeed, the time is opportune and the situation is ripe for a bipartisan approach to resolving the ethnic conflict. Speaking to a group of civil society members, Opposition leader Sajith Premadasa observed that the country’s ethnic problem had become easier to resolve in the aftermath of the Aragalaya. One of the protest movement’s notable features was the visible bridging of ethnic and social divides. There was a celebration of unity in diversity that befits Sri Lanka’s plural, multi-ethnic and multi-religious composition. During the Aragalaya the country, and world at large, heard the slogans of the youthful demonstrators who proclaimed the equality of all citizens and denounced the politicians who had come to power on narrow nationalist platforms that mobilized the sentiments of fear and suspicion against each other.
Opposition leader Premadasa also said that at the root of the ethnic conflict and difficulty to resolve it was the suspicion and insecurity that has existed between the communities, but which the economic hardships that precipitated the Aragalaya had contributed to mitigate by uniting the people. The unity of the people who came together to protest was brought about by the common problem they faced when the economy collapsed and there were shortages and queues for most essential commodities. However, while the protest movement could dislodge the government leadership in power, it could not replace it with a new leadership of their own. They were suppressed. Similarly, it would be the case that the unity of the people by themselves will not find a solution to the ethnic conflict. The answer needs to come from political leadership which will make them feel secure and represented.
President Ranil Wickremesinghe has been recently involved in a process of dialogue with the Tamil political parties to find a solution to the problem as has taken place many times in the past without success. In fact, a few months ago he even made a pledge to solve the problem by February 4, the day on which Sri Lanka celebrated its 75th anniversary of independence. He was statesmanlike in his aspirations when he said he did not wish to leave the problem to the next generation. Likewise, the Opposition leader’s invitation to civil society members to make their ideas on the reconciliation process known to him and his observation that the Aragalaya had made the ethnic conflict easier to resolve can be taken as indications of his willingness to engage constructively in the resolution of the ethnic conflict. This could provide the much needed bipartisan consensus necessary to both negotiate and implement a political solution.
The revival and empowerment of the provincial council system is at the heart of the long term resolution of the ethnic conflict. The issue of regional autonomy, which would enable the different ethnic and religious communities to run their own affairs in the areas in which they are majority has had a long history dating back to the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact of 1957 which was the first instance of a negotiated settlement between the leadership of the government and Tamil polity. This was followed by the Dudley Senanayake-Chelvanayakam Agreement of 1965, the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord of 1987, the draft constitution of 2000 of Chandrika Kumaratunga, the All Party Representatives Committee proposals of 2010 during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s period, and the constitutional assembly of 2015 by the Sirisena- Wickremesinghe government that came up with multiple proposals.he political solution to the ethnic conflict has been worked and reworked on multiple occasions. They have been accepted by the government in power or by sections within the government but rejected by the opposition that is out of power. This time it can be different. During the meeting between Opposition leader P
remadasa and the civil society members, when he was asked what his position on the devolution of power was, he replied that it was the maximum devolution of power within the unitary state, which was also his position during the presidential election of 2019. Such a position would correspond to President Wickremesinghe’s position that the provisions of the constitution should be followed by fully implementing the 13th Amendment.
Among President Wickremesinghe’s most positive qualities has been his lifelong rejection of ethnic nationalist politics. He has never tried to fan communal fears or prejudices in order to win votes at elections and has lost elections for that reason against less scrupulous political challengers whom the Aragalaya protestors rightly denounced. In a similar way, Opposition leader Premadasa has also never engaged in the politics of ethnic nationalism. It is important that these two non-racist leaders should work together to ensure that Sri Lanka can find a political solution. They also need to deal with the human rights issues of the past, such as what happened in the days and weeks leading to May 18 through the truth and reconciliation commission that the government led by President Wickremesinghe is proposing to set up. As a victim of the war’s atrocities himself, the Opposition leader has demonstrated magnanimity and non-hatred that can show the way to healing the wounds of the past and regaining Sri Lanka’s place in the community of nations.