By Jehan Perera –
There are indications that the government wishes to restart the reconciliation process that came to a halt with the defeat of the former government in November 2019 after four years of its rule and with many of its pledges unfulfilled. The victory of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the presidential elections brought the internationally backed reconciliation process to a halt. During the time of the previous government international experts set up offices, some even in the Prime Minister’s Office to work on reconciliation mechanisms. Two of them saw the light of day—the Office on Missing Persons and the Office for Reparations. However, the potentially most important one, the Truth-seeking Commission fell off the table due to the infighting between the former president and prime minister.
Government members might deny that the reconciliation process ever stopped and so that restarting it becomes irrelevant. But with the rise of Covid and the downturn of the economy they cannot, in good faith, use the government’s favourite formula for reconciliation which is development. NGO members have been publicly chastised by government officials for focusing their attention on the matters relating to reconciliation, whereas the priority as seen by these government officials are bread and butter issues that will directly impact on the development process. This accounts for the criticism levelled against the reconciliation process. They have described reconciliation programs as a waste of time and money.
The president’s tweet has put the government’s commitment to reconciliation back on the table in a more focused manner. “We are committed to work with the @UN to ensure accountability & human dev. to achieve lasting peace & reconciliation. We are dedicated to resolving the issues within the democratic & legal frame to ensure justice & reconciliation by implementing necessary institutional reforms.”-Tweet by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa July 21, 2021. It is only after the President’s tweet that it can be said with any reasonable amount of confidence that the government is accepting of the need for reconciliation that goes beyond development and encompasses the more politically controversial areas of peace, reconciliation, accountability and institutional reform.
The question remains regarding the government’s seriousness of commitment to the reconciliation process and whether the president’s tweet was only words or words that could become tangible manifestations of deeds. Making his words correspond to deeds, the president recently met with a group of committed peacebuilding NGO leaders to whom he explained his thinking on a wide range of topics but with a focus on reconciliation. He also said he would like to work with them to take forward the process of reconciliation. On the other hand, barely a week later the Ministry of Defence which reports directly to the president has presented a proposal to the cabinet of ministers to bring all NGOs under one authority but without discussing the contents of this proposal with the NGOs or even making the draft available to them.
Another statement by the president during his meeting with the peacebuilding NGOs was regarding the holding of provincial council elections soon. He mentioned that he had a discussion with the Election Commission and advised them to come with a plan to hold the elections and make the necessary legal amendments in the law for this purpose. On the other hand, the government’s coalition partner, the SLFP which is headed by former president Maithripala Sirisena has put forward a proposal to the constitutional reform committee that provincial councils should be replaced by the much smaller sized district councils. This is a throwback to the early 1980s when this scheme was tried and failed. The district as a unit of devolution has never been accepted by the Tamil political parties and it is hardly likely to get their assent at this time.
The desire of a section of the government to limit the size of the unit of devolution of power to the district is on account of the long standing apprehension that the Tamil people want a separate state as their final goal. But this was not the way that the demand for the devolution of power began. This was highlighted by Dr Nirmala Chandrahasan, the daughter of one of the founders of the Federal Party, Dr E M V Naganathan, whose 50th death anniversary was commemorated recently with local and international participation on Zoom. She said that her father had wanted a federal solution to make the Tamil and Sinhalese people partners rather than antagonists. He had said “the Sinhalese people are our friends; the unitary constitution is our enemy.” The vision he had was of a united country in which the Sinhalese and Tamils worked together collaboratively rather than undermine each other.
There were many participants at the webinar on the late Dr Naganathan who were from the Diaspora. There are an estimated 3 million members of the Diaspora today, most of them Tamil. Many of them have done well in their adopted lands and hold positions of influence and wealth. They can be a great asset to Sri Lanka’s development if they can be convinced that the reconciliation process is for real and is not a short term one for narrow political purposes. At that webinar was a member of the Diaspora who had come back to Sri Lanka and spent nearly five years working in the north for the displaced people there, only to leave the country after the Easter bombings when the security forces began to look at anyone out of the ordinary, and especially from the Diaspora, with suspicion.
In March of this year, the government banned 15 Tamil Diaspora organisations and 424 persons after it lost the vote at the UN Human Rights Council on Resolution 46/1. The government had reason to be upset as the resolution authorized the setting up of a special unit in the UN High Commissioner’s office to gather information and evidence on human rights violations taking place in Sri Lanka. But whether the knee jerk reaction to ban the diaspora organisations was a wise one is the question. This action has set in motion a vicious cycle in which these organisations and individuals will work in opposition to the Sri Lankan state rather than seek to support it. It is significant that in the aftermath of these bans, the Ontario Parliament in Canada passed a resolution on genocide in Sri Lanka, the US Congress has a pending resolution on the failure to negotiate a political solution and the EU Parliament’s resolution threatening GSP Plus withdrawal was passed.
One of the prerequisites of a reconciliation process is to rebuild trust that has been lost as a result of conflict. The government has already embarked upon a confidence building process by releasing 16 long term LTTE prisoners held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act with more such releases in the pipeline. The government has also pledged to revise the PTA in accordance with international standards due to the recommendations of the Nawaz Commission which has been set up to look into the recommendations of previous commissions. Another confidence building measure could be the lifting of the ban on the Tamil Diaspora organisations which were banned instantly following Geneva failure. Engaging in constructive dialogue with them will determine whether they become friends and not enemies in Sri Lanka’s bid for development, as envisioned more than half century ago by Dr E M V Naganathan.