By Chamindry Saparamadu –
Of the ‘Yahapalana’ pledges, the one least fulfilled, in my view, is its rhetoric in achieving national reconciliation. Four and half years into government, we witness increasing polarization of ethnic and religious communities in a deeply fragmented society. Needless to say that the recent terror attacks by Islamic extremists, although coming within a network of a global phenomenon, have caused considerable strain on relations between Muslim and other communities locally making national reconciliation an even more challenging aim to be achieved. These have resulted in aggravating fear and mistrust between communities leading to further polarization. However, it would seem that the tensions that were prone to manipulation and ignition were omnipresent in our society, even prior to the recent terror attacks, as was evident from the Digana riots that we experienced early last year. In understanding the failures to achieve reconciliation, or even part of it, in the backdrop of Yahapalana rhetoric, I would first reflect on the way in which reconciliation was understood and approached in the Yahapalana programme as a precursor to the failures that followed.
Conceptualizing ‘Reconciliation; under the ‘Yapahalana’ Programme
Reconciliation was a hyped up theme that underpinned the Yahapalana discourse. However integral the theme was to Yahapalana discourse, the theme received relatively less significance in the Yahapalana design as the political discourse was not concretized in to an operationalizable programme of action in the Yahapalana manifesto as was evident from the 100 days programme or the document titled ‘A Manifesto: a Compassionate Maitri Governance: a Stable Country’.
I could imagine two explanations for the omission to define as well as lay out objectives, a design and a programme of action relating to reconciliation The first being, the presence of divergent views among the Yahapalana stakeholders and the inability to reach a common position with regard to a conceptual understanding or design on Reconciliation The views and approaches to reconciliation varied along polar extremes from land releases to demilitarization and war crimes investigation to state reforms. For example, the approach to state reforms between two main stakeholders in the Yahapalana programme, the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) significantly varied. It is no secret that the TNA has consistently lobbied for a federal state structure while the JHU has been firm with regard to preserving the unitary structure of the Sri Lankan State while agreeing to make limited concessions.
The second explanation is as a deliberate political / electoral strategy to keep things vague in order to reach out to minority communities, particularly the Tamil political forces, whilst also appeasing the Sinhala constituency. It seems therefore, prudent to have avoided dealing with the contestations surrounding the term. The Yahapalanaya movement succeeded in converging diverse groups into a single platform of abolishing the executive presidency, although contestations existed on secondary matters. Needless to say that implicit in the objective of abolishing the executive presidency was the desire to prevent a return of Mahinda Rajapakse. Then there was the issue of the ideological leanings and commitment of the common presidential candidate to the core objectives of the Yahapalana programme, whose selection was solely based on the need to defeat the incumbent. The movement, therefore, became a populist movement when it got enmeshed in electoral realities. Years later, various statements made by the same common candidate, make one wonder if there was ever a commitment to the objectives of the Yahapalana programme.
The term was therefore conceptualized vaguely and loosely and no effort was taken to harmonize the diverse views. The movement as such was imbued with internal contradictions from the outset. I argue that this omission in conceptualization and design created a void leaving for interpretation particularly those externally imported and allowing the national narrative and agenda relating to reconciliation to be defined along those lines. I believe this set the stage for the confusion that ensued at the implementation stage.
The Geneva Solution
Reconciliation is an empty signifier – it is a term that can be variously interpreted and signified. It is a term that is new to the Sri Lankan context and as such needed definition and interpretation. In the Yahaapalana programme, the theme itself lacked conceptual clarity from the outset. The absence of a fermented national definition, focus and an operationalizable programme of action, created a void which led to reconciliation to be conceptualized predominantly through an institutional framework that came along with the Resolution 30/1 adopted by the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in October 2015.
The framework proposed institutions to be designed along the four pillars of truth, justice, reparations and non-recurrence. The institutions along the four pillars were developed by a Working Group which was tasked to conceptualize the four mechanisms the government undertook to set up under the UNHRC Resolution 30/1 that is to set up the Office of Missing Persons, the Office of Reparations, Truth and Reconciliation Mechanisms and the Accountability mechanisms. While the capacity and integrity of the members of the Working Group is not in the least being questioned, concerns have been on whether the Working Group was an exclusive group with similar ideological leanings and did not represent the broader Sri Lankan society and its diverse and complex facets.
The reconciliation discourse and the agenda being shaped along the lines of this framework led critics to say that alternative approaches outside the given framework were not considered and that the idea generation was in the hands of few stakeholders engaged with the Geneva processes as well as the technical groups that stemmed from similar political and ideological backgrounds. Some of the main concerns have been on the limiting nature of such framework, its suitability to local context as well as sustainability, and whether it is sufficiently representative of the domestic context to define a national narrative and agenda. Critics have alleged that the conceptualization has been on fixed conceptions and views devoid of a deeper and more nuanced understanding of Sri Lanka’s history and culture and that there were also no linkages or continuity from the previous processes, particularly the Lessons Leant and Reconciliation Committee (LLRC) process.
The consultation processes that preceded such conceptualization were said to be outcome oriented having predetermined outcome preferences and were conducted on a given framework and by implication limited to and by such framework. Discussions based on frameworks have a tendency to steer and fashion discussions towards an expected outcome. In addition, many eye brows were raised regarding the manner in which the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) Act was passed in Parliament. The OMP was established with the objective of ‘tracing the missing and disappeared and to inform the relatives of those persons, the circumstances of the disappearances and the fate of their loved ones.” There are concerns that while the establishment of such a body to address the grievances of the families of the disappeared was meant to be an outcome of the nationally mandated consultation process on reconciliation mechanisms (the Consultation Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanisms (CTF)), the legislation relating to setting up of the OMP was presented and passed by Parliament prior to the conclusion of the CTF process. The process leading to the establishment of the OMP therefore raises serious doubts as to whether it was based on local demands or on a preconceived idea imposed by few and legitimized by local consultations
The present section of the article looked at the reconciliation process vis-à-vis the Yahapalana movement as an entry point to understanding the confusion that followed during the implementation stage. The second part of the article to be published next week would look at how the reconciliation agenda unfolded through the multiple institutions crated to achieve national reconciliation.
To be continued..