16 December, 2017

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Second Chance To Deal With The Past

By Jehan Perera

Jehan Perera

Jehan Perera

Within a week of former government’s second electoral defeat, this time at the general election, two senior representatives of the United States paid a rare joint visit to Sri Lanka. They were the first representatives of foreign powers to visit the country after the elections. They came even before parliament has met and the new government has been formed. Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera was one of only three ministers to be appointed at the time of their visit. The speed of his appointment may have been due to the rapport he has demonstrated with the hitherto alienated sections of the international community. US Secretary of State John Kerry visited Sri Lanka after the presidential election and referred to him publicly as a friend. It can only help that Sri Lanka is viewed by the US positively at this time and not negatively.

The visit of US Assistant Secretaries Nisha Biswal and Tom Malinowski was a reconfirmation of the importance that the world’s dominant power places in Sri Lanka. At the height of the Rajapaksa presidency in 2009 when the confrontation between the former government and the US-led international community was building up, a visiting US Senate delegation recommended that Sri Lanka was too important a country for the US to lose. This was when the United States was leading the campaign to compel the Sri Lankan government to accept an international investigation into human rights violations in the last phase of the country’s internal war. The Rajapaksa government responded by mobilising anti-West sentiment both within the country and internationally to protect the Sri Lanka’s sovereign right to conduct investigations into itself.

MangalaThe basic problem for Sri Lanka during the Rajapaksa government was that it did not wish to deal with the past. This proved to be a fatal mistake and led that government on a course of confrontation not only with the international community but also with the Tamil and Muslim ethnic minorities that ultimately led to its political downfall. The last phase of the war was brutal, and it was not only the government that was to blame but also the LTTE and all who supported it. The gross human rights and terrorist record of the LTTE meant that most governments worldwide were willing to be understanding of the Sri Lankan government’s predicament in waging war against the LTTE. But instead of accepting that human rights violations had occurred during the war and that it would do its utmost to repair the damage, the government denied it all and behaved as if there was no problematic past to be dealt with or for which it bore responsibility.

Heavy Price 

During their brief visit to Sri Lanka the visiting US officials met with a range of parties in the country. Prior to their departure they announced that the United States would be advocating for a domestic investigation into the past as against the international one they had been pressing for with the Rajapaksa government. This provides a second chance to the Sri Lankan government. The first chance that Sri Lanka had was in 2009 shortly after the war ended. In that year the UN Human Rights Council discussed the end of the war in Sri Lanka and after a debate and vote, it agreed that Sri Lanka should investigate the past through its national processes. But apart from setting up the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, the Rajapaksa government did not meet the concerns of the international community.

Instead of establishing a domestic inquiry into human rights violations that occurred during the war, and also instituting political reforms that would address the roots of the conflict, the Rajapaksa government adopted a belligerent posture towards the Western countries and human rights organisations. It pointed out the double standards that were being employed by them and accused them of hypocrisy. It also took a decision to engage with other sections of the international community and looked towards Asia and Africa for new friends to support it in the diplomatic contest with the West. It found a champion in China with Russia playing a supportive role. It took reassurance in their support to ensure that its political and military leadership would not be taken before international tribunals. Within the country the former government leaders pledged to even go to the electric chair to defend the military that won the war and sought to gain political support from the people.

Sri Lanka’s dependence on the anti-West coalition had negative diplomatic consequences for the country that the Rajapaksa government failed to foresee. It put the country in the shameful company of countries such as Syria, Libya and North Korea which became its allies. It also meant a burdensome dependence on China from which the present government will need to carefully extricate itself. The massive loans the former government took from China for white elephant projects such as the Mahinda Rajapaksa International Airport at Mattala and the Mahinda Rajapaksa Port in Hambantota cannot be paid back as those projects have become disasters. No responsible lender ought to have made such loans. The Mattala airport has only one passenger flight per day, which is operated by a budget airline Fly Dubai, and with very few passengers. The port is empty of ships with the one moving around being a sand ship. Most of those who visit the airport and port are local tourists who come in three wheelers and in buses.

Overcoming Disappointment 

If the new government can obtain economic support from the international community to correct the mistakes of the past it will be a great boon. The willingness of the United States to revise its previous insistence on an international mechanism to investigate the past, and to express its willingness for a national mechanism, is a sign of trust in the new government. It is not only the United States that is placing its trust in the new government, but also the majority of voters, which includes a high proportion of the Tamil and Muslim minorities in the country. At the presidential elections President Maithripala Sirisena obtained an overwhelming majority of votes of the Tamils and Muslims. This is a trust that he and the new government will need to nurture by actions that are fair by the ethnic minorities who have placed their trust in him. At the general elections Tamil parties that contested on hard line nationalist sentiment were badly defeated.

It was reported in the media that the government has shared its draft of the mechanism that would deal with the past with the visiting US officials. It is also important that the government should open the discussion on its draft proposals with the Tamil parties and civil society and obtain their feedback. Sri Lanka is at a fortuitous place where the international community stands ready to assist the positive initiatives of its government and the government is willing to accept such assistance. However, the purpose of the national mechanism must be to ensure healing and reconciliation within the country, and this will not come from only satisfying the international community, but also must satisfy the people of all ethnicities and all communities that justice is being done, and in particular to those who require their lives to be rebuilt.

The decision of the US to support a domestic mechanism rather than an international one will be disappointing to those sections of the Tamil polity and civil society who are acutely conscious of the repeated failures of Sri Lankan commissions of inquiry and committees to deliver justice to them. They have witnessed these efforts come to naught so that their feeling of being let down is understandable. They were expecting an international investigation which they felt would be the best way to compel the Sri Lankan government to implement whatever findings were made or possibly face sanctions imposed by the international community. However, whether this would have been a viable option is open to question. An international investigation would have generated a backlash of Sinhalese nationalism which would have been beneficial to the electorally defeated nationalists who have now been relegated to the opposition and give them the opportunity to stage a political comeback. Even in the case of the domestic mechanism, it is necessary that the agreement of the Sinhalese majority should be obtained for the reforms and reparations that are needed. It needs to have everyone’s buy in, and must be seen benefiting the future generations who will live in the country.

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Latest comments

  • 9
    0

    Jehan Perera: Accountability has to be SEQUENCED and planned and the US is perfectly capable of understanding this, but in Sri Lanka it seems that there is no strategic thinking among politicians who are only concerned about the next Ministerial post. And civil society seems worse right now.

    What we see today is RECONCILIATION among the Sinhala parities to cover up corruption and preempt accountability to the minority Tamils. What a smart game!

    The total moral and intellectual bankruptcy and rotten state of political culture and of the political parties and civil society stand exposed when a new government for ‘good governance’ starts its tenure off by offering massive bribes of 90 Cabinet posts to recently elected MPs, while civil society does not as much as whimper in protest at this violation of the very spirit and practice of good governance!

    The planned national govt is in any case a SInhala Govt. with only the SLFP and UNP and no TNA. Everything is upside down, and the Sinahla National Govt. of Sirisena and Pathala Champika will ensure that there is NO ACCOUNTABILITY for the Rajapaksa criminals and stooges, while Ranil and his UNP can appoint corrupt criminals like Mahendran to the Central Bank.

    Sri Lanka has indeed seen a FALSE DAWN and the people are once again being taken for a ride by corrupt politicians in the SLFP under the guise of a national government with the UNP!

    90 Cabinet Ministers is an insult to the idea of good governance and will be a policy disaster with lasting implications for the entire economy. It will make for policy fragmentation and incoherence with so many ministers in such a tiny country – there will be a total policy log jam and corruption will be rife. Not to mention the cost of such an enormous cabinet on the treasury and tax payer. Sri Lanka is indeed a Miracle of Modayas.

    • 4
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      Spot on Don!

      “90 Cabinet Ministers is an insult to the idea of good governance because it is legalized corruption for all to see among those who are supposed to be the law makers and not law breakers in the country. It is also an example of how rotten political leadership and culture in Sri Lanka is today.

      ’90 cabinet and deputies would also be a policy disaster with lasting implications for the entire economy. It will make for policy fragmentation and incoherence with so many ministers in such a tiny country – there will be a total policy log jam and corruption will be rife. Not to mention the cost of such an enormous cabinet on the treasury and tax payer. Sri Lanka is indeed a Miracle of Modayas.”

    • 2
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      Yes DS,Politics may be the art of the possible but this is the lower depths! The ends don’t justify the means, especially when the ends are murky and a vague new constitution.

      The corrupt means of making a new constitution by bribing MPs at the outset will surely backfire on Ranil and Sirisena, as the only result will be a corrupt product – like the 19th amendment to the constitution.

      There will be no real change in political culture or governance, until this greedy and corrupt and intellectually bankrupt Jarapassa- Ranil Wickramasinghe-Sirisena generation of politicians is wiped out of the face of Sri Lanka.

  • 1
    3

    “Even in the case of the domestic mechanism, it is necessary that the agreement of the Sinhalese majority should be obtained for the reforms and reparations that are needed. It needs to have everyone’s buy in, and must be seen benefiting the future generations who will live in the country.”

    Jehan, it gratifying to see this understanding. I hope this understanding is common to all who are trying to help solve the problem. May not be palatable to some, even unjust, but reality is an inconvenient truth.

  • 3
    1

    Jehan this not only the second , but the last chance to prove that we follow civilised norms.

    I hate the duplicity of Americans who turn a blind eye to the atrocities committed by Israel.Howevet we need to show the world we uphold law and order and any perpetrators who have committed crimes against humanity should be brought against justice.This could have been done by previous regime but they didn’t .
    It will be a difficult pill to swallow when fingers are pointed at ” Ranawiruwo” .
    But we must not forget that thousands of soldiers have committed their lives fighting s legitimate war.
    The biggest honour one can do to the fallen heroes is clearing their good names of crimes.
    Small segment of criminals should be prosecuted and however given the rogue orders should be penalised accordingly.
    Crime is a crime.There should be no doubt about that .In the same sense the remnants of LTTE should be hunted for their crimes too.Dont let them go scot free.Karuna ,KP and few other killers are around still.
    I hope Adele Balasingham residing in London whould be called to these inquiries as
    she has sent so many youngsters to the death trap .

  • 4
    1

    The Culture of Sinhala Buddhist Nationalism has been ingrained in the majority Sinhalese for the past Thirty years, that it is difficult for the New Government to overturn that Mindset in a hurry.

    Don Stanley:- Be Patient. This Change from the former way of Thinking, into a Sane and Rational One for the Good of All the Citizens of Sri Lanka will take quite a While.

    As Foreign Minister, Samaraweera said, A Witch Hunt at this time will antagonise those who gave their preferences to MR, and will not achieve the desired Result of Reconciliation!

  • 4
    2

    The grave failure of the post-2010 MR government was its stubborn refusal to deal with the human issues of the war-affected and take Sri Lanka on a new course of reconciliation and human progress. Its refusal to deal with the breech of human rights violations during the war, with mulish stubbornness, added fuel to fire.

    The change of stance of the U.S. Government in response to how the Maithri-Ranil government is dealing with issues and how the people of the north and East of Sri Lanka have voted in two elections this year, confirms this. The rest of Sri Lanka has also repudiated the type of governance and leadership provided by the MR government, with considerable wisdom.

    Dr.RN

  • 2
    1

    We have little or no choice but trust in the new government to deliver. Like it or not, we need the West on our side. They could violate Human Rights with impunity, but we do not have the muscle to police them. The Rajapakse government relied on arrogance and a macho image that played well to our gallery of fascist Bikkhus and Sinhala racists, but laughed at internationally. We have earned brownie points Internationally not by doing anything but simply by not being the Rajapakses. I am convinced our trust will not be abused and that the Maithripala/Wickremasinghe government will deliver to the satisfaction of all parties.

  • 4
    0

    It is a recurring question as to why the Sri Lankan Government is not allowing an Independent International body to investigate into the alleged crimes committed by both sides during the war and is prepared to carry out the investigation by a domestic panel. If at all the Present Sri Lankan Government is genuine , sincere, humane and no one in the government at that time or the military was not involved in any Human Rights violations during the war, why is the present government fear for an International investigation. WHY?

    The Tamil people voted for the TNA in the parliamentary elections because there was no other individual credible to take up their cause. But still they had their doubts on the TNA as well. Is it the Devil or Deep blue sea problem for the Tamils. It is my firm belief that the Tamil question will never be solved by any Sinhala Governments. There may as a token do a little bit to show the International Community but nothing substantial as we had seen presently. Over 100,000 army personnel are stationed in Vali North forcefully taking over 70,000 acres of private lands, not allowing the owners to resettle or the fishermen to fish in their coastal areas, the farmers to farm their lands. Instead the army is building hotels in the occupied areas and cultivating the private lands and selling the produce in the northern markets. Whereas the owners of these lands are languishing in camps and relatives houses. To show the world that the government has released some lands, the Army has released 477 acres of land out of 70.000 acres. Ten complete villages are being occupied by the army in vali- north. Why because of National Security. That is the answer given by the Government. The TNA accepts it. How can there be a reconciliation. America and other International Community inclusive of David Cameroon who visited North should be aware of it.

  • 0
    0

    Independent today ????

  • 5
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    Sellam.
    Please see the report below
    http://www.oaklandinstitute.org/sites/oaklandinstitute.org/files/OI_The_Long_Shadow_of_War_0.pdf

    For those of us who had traveled within the North, helping the families and especially children from 2010 to present, the military establishing permanent bases and its appropriating the coastal and inland civilian land and the forests know the official figures on the pervasive presence of the military and its incursions into all aspects of civilian life is underestimated.
    The military presence is now thought of as a preparation for Sinhala colonization of the North. This is thought of by the people as a repeat of What happened and is happening in the East. It reminds one of JR’s policy of 7:3 population spread of all electorates in the East and the North.

    Now that the elections are over Srisena and Wickremasinghe has to publicly schedule a military withdrawl from the North and East and redistribute the military equitably to defend the country from foreign economic poachers and drug smugglers and ensure that the Army and Navy are not involved in such activities.

    Reconciliation is the buzz terminology now. We need to ask the question, What are the issues that the communities have to reconcile and in what linear or multilinear order? Independent International investigation of War Crimes; substantially reducing the military and its engagement in economic, social and other space that are of no concern of the military in the North and East; or debating and agreeing on a political solution; war reparations, rehabilitation and reconstruction or agreeing on a political solution?

  • 4
    0

    Jehan,
    You wrote, “The last phase of the war was brutal, and it was not only the government that was to blame but also the LTTE and all who supported it. The gross human rights and terrorist record of the LTTE meant that most governments worldwide were willing to be understanding of the Sri Lankan government’s predicament in waging war against the LTTE.”

    As a neutral observer of the “Peace Council” the above statement is wanting. The part of the statement “…not only the government that was to blame but also the LTTE…” seem fair. But when you added “…LTTE and all those who supported it.” one would have expected you to have also said, “…the government ‘and all who supported it.” By not adding that you have absolved the Sinhala and others in Sri Lanka and the international actors who supported the last two years of the war. You also said in the same paragraph, “… Is this not to antagonise the majority of the supporters of the war and those international actors whom you want to go soft in Geneva in September?

    You also said, “The gross human rights and terrorist record of the LTTE meant that most governments worldwide were willing to be understanding of the Sri Lankan government’s predicament in waging war against the LTTE.”
    Here you fail to mention, though I am sure you knew, the terrorist acts the government had conducted since 1977 to 2009 against the people, surrendered and non-combatants.

    Your last paragraph shows that you still pander the Majority who voted for Rajapaksas who has only one solution – a Unitary Sinhala State.
    You said,”An international investigation would have generated a backlash of Sinhalese nationalism which would have been beneficial to the electorally defeated nationalists who have now been relegated to the opposition and give them the opportunity to stage a political comeback.”
    It appears that you prefer appeasement of the Sinhala Nationalism at the expense of independent international investigation of war crimes and for the current government to be in power without any power to effect a just political solution – because the Sinhala Nationalist in parliament will never vote for any constitutional amendment or new constitution that may contain a political solution.

    I wonder what your and the international Actors position on independent international investigation if Tamils have voted for Rajapaksas and made him President or now made him Prime Minister. Has Tamil voters trusted Srisena-Ranil-Chandrika to be cheated once again?

    For that we will have to wait till the internal investigation farce begin.

    • 6
      0

      Thanks Ethir.
      I am a medical witness to the crimes committed by security forces on non combatant Tamils. Though LTTE was branded a terrorist organisation the crimes committed by security forces is more in number and severe in brutality. In none of the instances, security forces were brought to justice. I have sent medico-legal reports on the deaths caused by security forces, but the courts presided by Sinhala racist judges ignores it and takes up the false evidence presented by the police and delivers judgement as either collateral damage or justifiable homicide which were actually punishable first degree murders.
      The same thing will happen to the internal investigation to be carried out by Srilanka government, where some scape goats may be found to apportion blame to hoodwink the international community, while the major culprits will go free. TNA is powerless and has to go along with the trickery that will unfold in the future. Why should Srilankan war criminals be treated in a different manner from those of Cambodia, Bosnia, Liberia or Rwanda where investigators were independent from the country of perpetrators of crime. Government must know that cover up of war crime will not bring about reconcilation.

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