By G K Nathan –
The pressure from world leaders on President Mahinda Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka, during his last term in office, to conduct an investigation on what happened during the last phase of the military conflict that ended in May 2009, was getting too hot to face and his claims that army fought an “anti-terrorists war” with “zero civilian casualties”, did not hold water with the world leaders nor with independent organizations. Rather than working cooperatively with the world leaders and the United Nation affiliated organizations, the ex-President Rajapaksa took the biggest gamble of his political career and called for a Presidential election two years ahead of the scheduled date, to meet the challenge from the world bodies with the mandate from the people. Timing of the election was determined by his astrologer and his hope of appealing to Sinhala Buddhist chauvinists to carry him over the line for a third victory in the last Presidential election; but his gamble failed and was voted out of office. The majority of people voted against him because they disapproved, setting up of a totalitarian regime and establishing a family dynasty in Sri Lanka; also big majority of multilingual, multireligious and multiethnic people of Sri Lanka wanted to live in harmony and in a free democracy showed their disapproval by voting against him and vent their revenge for their plight. This has happened in Sri Lanka at an election for the second time in the post independence era of Sri Lanka, where all the people joined hands and installed Mr Maithripala Sirisena as the new President of Sri Lanka. President Sirisena has promised to abolish the authoritarian Presidential system of government in Sri Lanka and said he will be only President for one term, which him more freedom to act; contrary to what ex-President Rajapaksa was trying to establish a life time presidency leading to family dynasty, like in North Korea. President Sirisena has many challenges to face and the hope of the country, but he was able to gain the confidence of the world leaders because of his humility, honesty and dignity shown, which led to acceptance in the world, in the shortest period after his election to the office of presidency. This was made possible with support coming from the immediate neighbour India and others like, the United States of America, the United Kingdom etc happened in the hope the situation in Sri Lanka will positively change for the good of the country and its people. Initial success arose from the efforts of new External Affairs Ministers Mangala Samaraweera who visited the key capitals of the world, in support of President Sirisena and conveyed a convincing message to the world leaders that determined the initial success. Now the onus is on the new National government to carry out all the “unknown promises” made to the world leaders that will be a challenge to President Sirisena. In Sri Lanka, President has said nothing publicly about resolving the long standing demands for recognition of Tamils’ rights nor responded to the call for accountability for what occurred during the military conflict, though agreed for an internal inquiry, the evidence from his election manifesto and the inaugural Presidential address given by him is less than convincing to bring about reconciliation. People have given the benefit of doubt to President Sirisena in the hope that he will be recognized as the President of Sri Lanka, who had brought unity among people?
The first time all the people of Sri Lanka joined together and made a similar election outcome was at the 1977 Parliamentary election in which Mr JR Jayewardene was elected as the Prime Minister with more than a two third majority. Unfortunately, Mr JR Jayewardene failed to usher in unity among people, instead grabbed power for himself as the President of Sri Lanka by proclamation of a new Presidential constitution at the expense of Parliamentary democracy. Under his Presidency two worst pogroms mostly against Tamils occurred in 1977 and 1983, no inquiry was conducted for 1983 pogrom; since then this practice has become the norm in Sri Lanka this explains why cooperation is not forthcoming from Sri Lanka leaders. Under J R Jayawardene authoritarian rule, the Tamil militancy became a force in Sri Lanka and India intervened and persuaded President Jayawardene to sign the Indo-Lanka pact in 1987. Following the accord, the 13th Amendment to devolve power to the Provinces was passed; unfortunately that remains partially fulfilled to date and successive governments too failed to fully implement the 13th Amendment. Looking back at the Presidential system of government for almost 38 years and what happened during this period, it can be said that this was the worst period, since independence in 1948. President Sirisena’s election and the promise to replace the Presidential system with a Parliamentary system was welcomed by many, especially after how the presidential system was exploited by ex-President Rajapaksa, which bestowed “pariah status” to his regime and he became unwelcome in International capitals. In contrast, the welcome carpet is being laid out to the new President Sirisena; which started with visit to India that was followed by to the UK and others countries are too waiting to welcome him, perhaps as the saviour of the country from Rajapaksa’s authoritarianism which was looked down by other countries. Many Tamil people are looking forward and welcoming the changes taking place in Sri Lanka, but more than six decades of deceptions and unimplemented political agreements to recognize Tamils rights’ have left many Sri Lankan Tamils living within and in foreign land as Diaspora, very uncomfortable to fully or openly support the new regime. President Sirisena has many challenges that will be posed by ultra-nationalists’ parties in Sri Lanka, but the National government that was formed with both major parties Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and United National Party (UNP), as main partners, together with other minor parties give hope of possible good outcome after six decades of suffering and uncertainty.
Two countries that are directly interested and willing to take a lead role to bring about harmony in Sri Lanka are India our immediate neighbour with common heritage and the UK as the former colonial power both have moral responsibility for the welfare and prosperity of people of Sri Lanka, in particular Tamils who have been victims since independence. The first time external intervention occurred was in 1987 with signing of Indo-Lanka accord and it is an unfinished initiative for India. The uncertain current situation in Tamil homeland in Sri Lanka, following the end of military conflict and unfinished effort to advance amicable settlement, has attracted their attention of leaders of India and the UK to visit Jaffna. The first head of government to visit the North was Prime Minister David Cameron of the United Kingdom to Jaffna on 16th November 2013 that occurred on the eve of CHOGM 2013 in Colombo, Sri Lanka. The second foreign head of government to go to the North was the Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi in Jaffna on 14 March 2015. Both Prime Ministers were warmly welcome by the people of Jaffna and the assurances from them left the Tamil people of Sri Lanka with hope. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s address to Sri Lankans at Sri Lanka Parliament, will that make the parliamentarians to seek to build a united, peaceful, equitable and prosperous Sri Lanka recognizing the rights of all people? Foreign heads of government visit to the North give the people hope, but so far nothing to date has restored their normal livelihood. Hopefully, some of the current initiatives by Prime Minister Modi in the North will lay the foundation for the future. Prime Minister Modi’s speech in the Sri Lanka Parliament gives a glimmer of hope to the people of Sri Lanka to build a United Sri Lanka sharing power with all the people within the country, following the path followed by of our immediate neighbour India and other countries like Australia, Switzerland, the UK, the USA, small and big countries, all have successfully established a system of government that can be adapted by Sri Lanka to bring peace and prosperity to all. The first opportunity came our way in 1948 at the time of independence, but that was missed and led to more than six decades of suffering of people in Sri Lanka. If the people of Sri Lanka have learnt a lesson, the second opportunity under the new President Sirisena and the proposed National government could easily bring an end to the conflict which began with independence in 1948. Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India in Sri Lankan Parliament, the Secretary of State John Kerry of the USA via indirect communication and the Prime Minister David Cameron of the UK meeting with President Sirisena in London have all emphasized the need for “ethnic reconciliation”. The search for a solution must be preceded by knowing the truth and understanding of what happened to all the victims to date in the country, which will bring an end to waiting for many thousands of people not knowing what had happened to their loved ones?
Accountability is Knowing the Truth
During and at the end of the military conflict, there were repeated calls from world leaders and International Human Rights Organizations emphasizing the importance of knowing the truth, then President Mahinda Rajapaksa as Commander in Chief of the armed forces and his sibling Gotabaya Rajapaksa as then Defence Secretary refused to cooperate with the international organizations and also, prevented an internal inquiry that meets International standards. The United Nation Secretary General to meet the demand from the world leaders, unilaterally without the cooperation of Sri Lanka appointed two committees: Panel of Experts to look into the military actions of the combating forces and a Review Panel to look into the role played by United Nation officials on the ground and as well as at higher levels during the conflict. Summary of preliminary findings was that both combatants were in breach of International Human Rights Law (IHRL) and International Humanitarian Law (IHL); the first committee estimated the death at 40,000 and the second committee put the number at 70,000; the UN was also found to have failed in their role during the conflict.
Following the above findings, the United Nation Secretary General referred the matter to the United Nation Human Rights Council (UNHRC); successive resolutions were passed in UNHRC, the session number and the year of passing resolutions are: 19th (March 2012), 22nd (March 2013) and 25th (March 2014), but Rajapaksa regime steadfastly refused to cooperate nor set up any internal mechanism. Finally based on the resolution at the 25th session the Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) set up an Investigation on Sri Lanka (OISL), the OISL report to be released at the 28th Session in March 2015, but was deferred to session 28th (September 2015) based on the undertaking of the new government of President Sirisena. President Rajapaksa after his military victory failed to take actions against perpetrators who went on attack on places of worships of Hindus, Muslims and Christians. Sri Lanka President Rajapaksa had the distinction of being a head of “a Pariah state” and being shunned by the democratic countries like India, the UK, the USA etc, but continued by to be received by totalitarian heads of government.
A comprehensive study titled The Social Architects numbers never lie was based on an independent investigation and a survey covering the period from September 2008 to May 2009 in the seven districts of North East Sri Lanka and concluded that 118,036 people died, the report was released on 14 March 2013. The period of investigation covers from the unilateral abrogation in January 2008 of the internationally sponsored Cease Fire Agreement (supported by the USA, EU, Japan and Norway) by then President Rajapaksa, to the end of the military conflict in May 2009. There is more than one reason why President Sirisena should engage the expertise available within the country to come out with a new report as to what really happened in the country. This initiative will get the support of all the International leaders and the United Nation which is well disposed to provide useful data, especially with the work done by the OISL, is well placed to play a key role. Knowing the truth will make reconciliation a reality in Sri Lanka that will be most appropriate response to the call from the world leaders.
Challenges facing President Sirisena
A day after the Presidential election, results were officially announced and Mr Maithripala Sirisena of SLFP was sworn in as the President of Sri Lanka, in the presence of Justice Sri Pavan who was later appointed as the Chief Justice of Sri Lanka; contrary to practises of the former regime where nepotism played a key role in determining the appointment to higher offices. On the same day, Mr Ranil Wickremasinghe of UNP took oath as the Prime Minister and the cabinet was formed with members of political parties representing all ethnic, lingual and religious groups. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) decided to stay outside the government, but to support the National government from outside. Both main political parties the SLFP and the UNP coming together to form a National government, after six decades of competitive or adversarial politics between both major parties to gain power, often on the basis of communal politics at the expense of minority rights’, offers the best opportunity for the future. The new government announced a 100 day program, which is very ambitious and mainly focuses on: the restoration of democracy by abolishing of authoritarian presidential system of government which has brought Sri Lanka under very close International scrutiny; restoration of all independent commissions to increase transparency in governance, hopefully will tackle corruption and nepotism that peaked in the previous regime; re-establishment of democratic practices and good governance; introduction of right to information bill and a promise to dissolve Parliament on 23rd April 2015, followed by a Parliamentary election. It is unfortunate that the main reason for the current predicament of Sri Lanka resulting from Sinhala-Tamil conflict that began with “1956 Sinhala only bill”, has been set aside to be considered after the Parliamentary election, middle of this year; also nothing is said about the accountability and reconciliation between communities in Sri Lanka in the 100 day program. The slow progress and partial implementation of the 100 day program may have not met the expectation of all, but the good relationship that has been established with foreign countries welcoming the new President Sirisena and willing to engage with Sri Lanka; in particular, India, the UK and the USA their stand will greatly influence the final outcome and people of Sri Lanka should put to good use the new bond President Sirisena has established.
The new government has to re-examine their stand to hold the General election, prematurely while the 100 day program is only partially implemented and accountability for corruption, nepotism, human rights violation has not been fully examined and culprits identified. President Sirisena’s commendable efforts have unshackled Sri Lanka as “a Pariah state” named after actions of previous Rajapaksa regime. The regained recognition in the International arena has to be consolidated by cooperating with the Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights to establish Accountability for past contraventions of human rights and for committing punishable acts in Sri Lanka, which will enhance Sri Lanka as the beacon of human rights in the world. President Sirisena, is in an enviable position to achieve this height, as he has already declared that he will be only a one term President, the question that arises is should he take accountability seriously at all levels that will bring all the sufferers together, which will lead to reconciliation of all. On the contrary rushing to a General election, which is not constitutionally due for another year will undo all the good work that has been started by the National government. Premature election before the culprits are identified may put the wrong people in the seat of power and premature end to good work that began under President Sirisena.