By Ranga Kalansooriya –
At a meeting on Wednesday (16) in Myanmar’s new capital Nay Pyi Taw with the country’s Minister of Information U Ye Htut who had been a friend of mine for the past several years, he started inquiring about the developments in Sri Lanka. The discussion centered around the developments in Geneva on the OHCHR report and the Minister made an interesting remark.
“You are trying to correct mistakes of ten years, but we are trying to correct those of fifty years. Imagine our plight and the challenge.”
When you embark on a change, the expectations – both locally and internationally – are very high and it is a real challenge to meet these expectations at the desired momentum and speed, especially within the existing mechanisms and systems, the minister explained. People expect changes on daily basis but it is a night mare to meet these hopes.
Of course the current changes in Myanmar and Sri Lanka are in entirely different platforms and paradigms. In Myanmar the military leaders who ruled the country for fifty years decided by themselves for a change and embark on a vigorous and rigorous democratization process since late 2010. The same military rulers who were accused of human rights violations and curtailing democracy became the leaders of the change and champions of democratization process. The information minister U Ye Htut was a Colonel of the former military regime but became a strong advocator on freedom of expression and democratic values. His ministry’s permanent secretary U Tint Swe was the country’s Chief Censor for seven years until it was totally abolished in August 2012. But then Tint Swe became a leading figure in state media reforms.
They welcomed international assistance but were extremely selective and careful in choosing partners. By adopting a policy of engagement, Myanmar walked a long way in democratization in a considerably short period of time. It had adopted many new laws with sound international standards and now facing country’s first free and fair polls on November 8. Today Myanmar has become one of the fastest developing economies in Southeast Asia combined with country’s political changes.
Thus, the former military leaders who were taboo characters of the international community became role models of democratization within a matter of few months. If not there could have been a series of OHCHR reports against them as well.
Thus, the minister was perfectly correct when he said that they were in the process of correcting (their own) mistakes for fifty years. Of course, mistakes are natural but admitting them in a transparent way and measures to correct them in an acceptable manner is the most pertinent matter – whether individuals or governments. Myanmar adopted this bold path.
Look at South Africa. Immediately after the end of apartheid, the visionary leaders led by Nelson Mandela adopted a policy of correcting mistakes and embarking on reconciliation process. All parties admitted their own mistakes and resolved for a process of compromise through unity and solidarity.
Sri Lanka, though the context was different from that of Myanmar or South Africa, on policy wise was following an entirely different procedure, a path of duplicity. It was a ruthless war for thirty years – a battle between a formidable terrorist organization with a strong international network and a conventional army. The war took the worst turn of its entire history in its last leg and who can on earth claim that there had not been any breach of international norms and practices of war when there is a massive clash between the two sides using the heaviest artilleries – and most importantly when a shield of human beings was deployed in between the two sides?
Probably this bitter reality could have been the reason behind President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s agreement to UN Chief Ban Ki-moon to conduct a comprehensive inquiry into the alleged incidents. He promised total transparency and accountability in the process.
In fact he delivered to some extent by appointing at least several commissions – LLRC, Paranagama and Udalagama et al. Almost all these commissions spoke on a common language and a common tone which the then regime was not comfortable of. Thus many retorts were not even made public – never tabled in House.
The reality on ground was entirely contradictory to what has been pledged to the international community. Thus the trust and confidence was lost and a hostile environment was in the making against Sri Lanka on international theatre. Mostly the politics of duplicity was clearly visible as the regime had entirely two different messages – one to the local audience and the totally opposite view to the international.
What were the immediate necessities in the aftermath of the war? Establishing law and order, releasing judiciary from the clutches of politics and making it independent, strengthening democratic institutions such as Parliament and independent commissions and establishing freedom of expression and basic democratic norms, apart from the most important process of reconciliation. This is the essence of all commissions report recommendations, and mind you – these commissions were appointed by President Rajapakse himself by handpicking his own choice of individuals as their members. But, at the end of the day he did not like what these professional individuals claimed and recommended in their reports. Thus, the reports were shelved and did entirely opposite.
When an army officer was accused of shooting a group of protestors who demanded pure drinking water in Rathupaswala, he was appointed to a diplomatic posting in Turkey. When the IGP resigned after a police shooting incident in Katunayaka where a civilian was killed, he was appointed Ambassador to Brazil. When the then deputy minister Mervyn Silva ran a full-day mayhem at the state run Rupavahini corporation, he was promoted to the rank of a Cabinet Minister to look after the subject of Public Relations. The list can continue with hundreds of such case studies. These issues should not be considered as confined to domestic theatre, but signs of total collapse of the governance system with deliberate motives.
Now the cat is out of the bag, the much expected UN report is out and the ball is in Sri Lanka’s court. The name of the game will be ‘Winning The Trust.’ It seems that the policy of the new government has diluted the tone of the report and the new regime should get the entire credit for converting the international inquiry proposal into a domestic mechanism. This is a major leap forward when rebuilding the lost reputation of the country.
Still the existing mechanisms within the country are not sufficient to handle such a bigger scale mechanism, UN says in its report. True enough. A lot to be done in strengthening democracy in the country and the clock is ticking. But those mechanisms could not be established in haphazard manner, the international community should understand. Speaker Karu Jayasuriya announced that the ten independent commissions will be established within a month, and these are the candid measures in establishing democracy and winning the trust.
Appointing international judges into a locally driven mechanism – hybrid or not – does not make sense. For me it is like parachuting experts for a particular task without strengthening the local systems. One could easily classify it as ‘typical UN way of handling matters’ through highly paid consultants. The local mechanism should be locally handled through a well-established international observation procedure. Such a procedure should not be viewed as a foreign intervention but a technical assistance to correct ourselves. That does not mean we have to obey to all these recommendations – but need a good mechanism of reviewing these suggestions and adopting the suitable ones for a locally driven process.
I cannot finish this piece without mentioning about the time frame of this report which 2002 to 2011 – entirely confining to the last decade of the war between the government and the LTTE. But what about the crime against humanity during 88-89 period, or even in the early 70s? Is this particular time frame is just because heavy lobbying by diaspora groups and the dramatic nature of an ethnic conflict? It was the very same Mahinda Rajapaksa who was detained at Katunayake Airport in September 1990 before boarding Geneva bound aircraft carrying details of disappeared persons.
He was to make a presentation on human rights violations at the 31st session of the working group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances was being held from 10-14 September. It was ironic that the regime of very same Rajapaksa had to face similar charges two decades later.
If we are talking about serious human rights violations and crimes against humanity, there are plenty of such time frames that could be investigated in Sri Lanka. But we need a permanent solution not to repeat them again, whether north or south.