By Jehan Perera –
The highlight of last week’s visit to Sri Lanka by Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee of Liberia was the presentation of a Sri Lankan Women’s Agenda on Peace, Security and Development to the government. The many co-sponsors of this Women’s Agenda would have wished to make this presentation directly to President Mahinda Rajapaksa himself. However, they had to be content with handing over the document to senior minister Tissa Vitarana whose commitment to minority rights and inter-ethnic reconciliation has made him a popular and trusted figure to civic activists. At the event organized in Kandy by Visaka Dharmadasa whose soldier son went missing in the war and now heads the Association of War Affected Women, it was Professor Vitarana who took to the floor on behalf of the government.
In his keynote speech, Prof Vitarana bemoaned the prevalent political culture in the country on two counts. He revealed that during deliberations at the Parliamentary Select Committee on electoral reforms, he had advocated that as much as 30 per cent of seats in elected bodies to be allocated to women. At present the proportion of women in elected bodies languishes as little as 2 percent at the local level, 3 percent at the provincial level and 6 percent at the national level. As chairman of the All Party Representatives Committee appointed in 2007 by President Rajapaksa to find a solution to the ethnic conflict, Prof. Vitarana was in a unique position to press the polity for political reform. But in a manifestation of one of the disappointing features of the country’s political culture, the women MPs in the committee opted for ten per cent, much to his surprise, he said. Perhaps they have felt that an incremental approach was the safer one.
Another important observation made by Prof. Vitarana on this occasion was that post-war reconciliation practices in the country needed to be improved. He said that although the war ended three years ago, sufficient steps had not been taken to ensure the reconciliation process and the country needed to expedite steps towards reaching that goal. He also praised the efforts of the women’s organization in preparing the women’s agenda for peace, security and development and said that the proposals would be useful in the government’s programme to bring about reconciliation. He said that in particular, women and children suffered heavily during the 30-year turmoil.
The report of the All Party Representatives Committee that Prof Vitarana headed for two years and met over one hundred times to prepare, gave pride of place to the devolution and sharing of power between the centre and provinces. It recognized that the political marginalization of the ethnic minorities and their inability to have decision making powers over matters that concerned their vital interests was a root cause of the war that lasted nearly three decades and shattered tens of thousands of families and their lives. Addressing the women activists in Kandy he said that “to create the Sri Lankan identity we all must look forward to unity and devolution of power at all levels”.
The visiting Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee had her own observations to make with regard to the need for better practices of reconciliation. She called for the greater participation of women in political decision making processes in Sri Lanka. She also spelt out some of the reasons why women needed to be in positions of decision making. She observed that “the clashes of ideologies are fought over the bodies of women and children.” Unlike men who see each war as different and as having unique political features, women see sameness in all wars—this is the suffering that war brings and need of women to protect their families. The report of the country’s Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission stressed the welfare needs of war affected women and women-headed households as matters that need urgent priority.
Even three years after the war’s end there is still a need for the larger Sri Lankan society to be concerned about, and caring for, the victims of the war. A few days ago some of the last of the internally displaced persons still living in the central welfare camp of Manik Farm in Vavuniya were taken out of it and resettled in their home areas of Puthukudirippu in Mullaitivu where the last battles of the war were fought. Almost all the buildings in that part of the country were destroyed during the last phase of the conflict. School buildings, hospitals and churches were also destroyed by heavy artillery shelling. The displacement resulted in the abandonment of private lands and in this three year period the residential areas have become jungles. There are still unexploded mines and bombs in those jungles where the people have been resettled.
Women in decision making positions would tend to be more empathetic to the plight of families who have lost generations of their wealth during a war that was no direct fault of theirs, and would seek to assist them instead of dumping them in the middle of jungles. At the present time Sri Lanka is under the international spotlight on account of alleged violations of human rights that occurred at the war’s end and also for failing to expedite the post-war reconciliation process. One of the main responses of the government has been to appoint the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission and to pledge to implement these recommendations. Recently the government even came up with an Action Plan along with key performance indicators to show its commitment to the implementation of the LLRC report.
Among the 135 main recommendations of the LLRC was the need to remember all those who had lost their lives due to the three decade long war. The LLRC recommended a special event be set aside on National Day for this purpose. However, these past three years have only seen victory celebrations at which the military might of the nation that crushed the Tamil Tiger rebellion is displayed. The only lives that are officially commemorated are those of the war heroes of the Sri Lankan armed forces. This was what occurred on both February 4 when the country celebrated its Independence Day and again on May 19 when it celebrated the war victory over the LTTE.
At her last public event in Sri Lanka, which was held in Colombo and attended by government and opposition members, business and civil society leaders and diplomats, Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee said in a manner that evoked comparison with Martin Luther King, “If fairness, justice and democracy are the tenets of your country, then they will stop celebrating the violent war victory. If fairness, justice and democracy are the tenets of your country, women will be brought into decision making positions, they will not be seen as burdens but will be supported and all people will be treated as equals…” As implementing the LLRC is going to be a major part of the Sri Lankan reconciliation process, the government needs to consider giving women the driving seat in the implementation of the LLRC Action Plan. The President’s wife would be a better symbol of change of heart than a brother to take charge again.