By Jehan Perera –
The country is heading towards provincial council elections in which the government is the strong favourite in two of the three provinces where elections are to be held. The victory in war enables the government leadership to have a strong hold over the larger number of voters in the country, who continue to be grateful that the government succeeded in what once seemed impossible. But unfortunately, the government has been unable to broad-base its political support to extend to the ethnic minorities. The pragmatic political calculation of the government appears to be one of continuing to rely on Sinhalese nationalism to deliver it the votes. But if the country is to be truly united, the government has to show that it is embracing all communities, and not just the largest one.
All indications are that the government is on the back foot in the Northern Province, where the Tamil people are an overwhelming majority in the province. It is unfortunate that the likely winner in the Northern elections, the TNA, is itself resorting to a nationalist campaign in which the government is portrayed as its enemy. This is going to be bad for both the country as a whole and the Tamil people in particular, as the further polarization of the polity, and of the people, is not in the interests of national reconciliation, and developing the country together. No provincial council can serve the people by itself without the cooperation of the government.
The starting point for national healing after the three decade long war is that all people should become more aware of the basic problems, fears and hopes of those of the other communities. Unfortunately the signs are that the vicious cycle of conflict due to ethnic majority and minority nationalisms feeding on each other is likely to start spinning again. The government leadership, with its access to the government machinery and to the mass media, has the primary responsibility in educating the general population about the values and strategies necessary for reuniting this divided country in heart and mind. The TNA as the front runner in the north, needs to do the same with the Tamil people.
Being a part of the international community and seeking international support to take its projects forward require living in conformity with international standards. When the UN Human Rights Council voted in two successive years in favour of a resolution on Sri Lanka, they stated that their intentions were to improve accountability, transparency and human rights in Sri Lanka. The fact that they chose to ask the government to implement the recommendations of its own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission was to take the country in the direction of reconciliation. The two successive UN resolutions ought to have been seized upon by the government and been largely implemented by now.
Although the government is adamant that it is implementing the LLRC in keeping with the UN resolutions, there is much that remains undone. According to the July 2012 Action Plan of the government, 82 recommendations were taken on board by the government which was subsequently increased by 53 and added up to 135. However, there still remain a total of 32 recommendations that continue to be ignored. These include the recommendations relating to the devolution of power, where the government action plan only states that the government will show leadership in this regard and act in good faith, which are vague promises. In addition, none of this information is provided in the Sinhala and Tamil languages, which means that the people for whom all these measures are supposedly being taken are ignorant about what is happening.
The recent visit of UN Human Rights Commissioner Navanethem Pillay has been one that is difficult for nationalists on all sides of the divide, including the opposition, to deal with. Among the key issues that Ms Pillay raised were addressing the trauma of among those whose relatives had been killed or gone missing during the war, conducting an independent investigation in the conduct of the war, investigating allegations of civilian casualties and battlefield executions, reducing the role of the military in post-war Sri Lanka, addressing the vulnerability of women and children due to sexual harassment and abuse, expediting the cases against remaining detainees, providing counseling and psychosocial support to war victims, dealing with the increase in attacks against minority religions, and ensuring the rights and safety of human rights defenders.
Prior to her departure, Ms Pillay issued a comprehensive statement as well as answered questions from the media. So far the appraisal she has made of the prevailing situation in Sri Lanka has only evoked a hostile response from the government. Instead of taking concrete steps to remedy the problems she pointed out, the government has been denying that they exist. It is also unfortunate that the opposition is not taking up with due seriousness the twenty or more issues that Ms Pillay highlighted for remedial action in her departing statement. The letter written by the Opposition Leader to Ms Pillay asking her whether she had called for the removal of the statue of the first Prime Minister of the country, from Independence Square is hardly a positive example of a priority issue.
The task of restoring accountability, good governance and human rights to the country is one that the opposition parties should be championing. It is unfortunate that the opposition political parties have taken stands that divert attention from the main issues rather than put pressure on the government to deal with the problems pointed out by the international community. The TNA’s apparent election related efforts to justify the LTTE are contrary to her observations in that same statement where she said that “there should be no place for the glorification of such a ruthless organization.” The invocation of the international right to protect will not necessarily favour those who continue to idealise the LTTE. The issues raised by the international community, whether in the form of observations by Ms Pillay, or by the UN Human Rights Council itself, need to be addressed by Sri Lankans of all communities to prevent these issues from being internationalized and backfiring on them in an unexpected way.
Those who have worked inside the UN system, such as Japan’s special advisor to Sri Lanka, Yasushi Akashi, have noted that the international community tends to see only the broad outlines of the problems in specific countries. It is difficult for them to see the complexities. Therefore the best answer to a country’s problems will come if they are resolved internally. The main protagonists within the country, the government, opposition and civil society, must work together to address the issues that Ms Pillay has raised in a way that clearly shows the international community that we have sorted out our problems by ourselves
The problem is that taking up some of these issues could be politically costly. They require a public awareness campaign that the government and opposition are loath to do. It may be more politically profitable to divert attention to peripheral issues. The UNP’s accusation that the government is using Ms Pillay as an excuse to remove the statue of the leader who is commonly, but not unanimously known as the Father of the Nation, is an example. Undoubtedly, the opposition is entitled to oppose any government bid to engage in revisionism about the meaning of Independence and Independence heroes. But it is unfortunate that Ms Pillay has been dragged into this controversy, which serves to sidestep the issues that she has raised.