By Jehan Perera –
The government’s readiness to restart the reconciliation process and to engage with civil society organisations involved in it has been subject to both appreciation and scepticism. Those from civil society who have been involved have felt positively about the recent meetings they had with government leaders including President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The president’s unexpected tweet that he would work with the UN to achieve lasting peace and reconciliation by implementing necessary institutional reforms came as a surprise as they were out of sync with the stances previously articulated by the government. Both the presidential and general elections that brought the government to power emphasized the enemies within and without rather than reconciliation.
Unfortunately, scepticism regarding the government’s sincerity in restarting the reconciliation process received negative confirmation shortly after the meetings with government leaders. The Ministry of Defence which overlooks the National NGO Secretariat submitted a concept note to the Cabinet to draft a new law to replace the existing NGO legislation. This would tighten government control over NGOs. The cabinet was apprised that NGOs were currently able to register under different laws and this needed to be streamlined. This is no different from commercial enterprises which are also entitled to register under different laws most suitable to the nature of their businesses. There was also reference to the Easter bombing commission report that referred to the need to guard against terrorist financing. The question is why NGOs should be singled out for tightened surveillance.
The presentation of legislation to regulate NGOs at a time when the government is planning to restart the reconciliation process is indicative of an absence of coherence, where things are not seen to be connected. NGOs have played an important role within civil society in promoting the national reconciliation process. They have upheld values of pluralism and acted as human rights defenders when the need has arisen. They have also conducted relationship-building educational and advocacy programmes that have had a considerable impact on decisionmakers as well as society in general. An independent civil society is part of the system of checks and balances in a functioning democracy. The move to subject NGOs to greater governmental control at the same time as government leaders are pledging to restart the reconciliation process seems to be at cross purposes.
On the positive side, there have been informal reassurances that the NGO legislation will not be rushed through and that the NGOs will be consulted. On the other hand, the government’s commitment to restarting the reconciliation process is undermined by ongoing violations of human rights on the ground. The arrests of those who have dissented and protested against the attempted passage of the KNDU law which would bring the military into higher education for civilians, is an example. The manner in which student activists were arrested by police officers in civilian attire who boarded public buses on which they were traveling was both inappropriate and illegitimate. It is the ability to tolerate and accept dissent, and safeguard the space for it, which marks a democratic society and leadership that can aspire to reconciliation. It is through difference and dissent that all aspects of the truth may emerge to provide for a better solution to be found.
In the aftermath of the EU threat to deprive Sri Lanka of the benefits of its GSP Plus tariff privileges, the government agreed to bring the Prevention of Terrorism Act into conformity with international standards so as to reduce the level of human rights violations. The PTA was designed as a temporary war-time measure in 1979 but continues to be used a full twelve years after the end of the war in 2009. Although the president has appointed an expert committee to revise the law and make it align with international standards, the PTA continues to be used in its draconian form even at the present time. In addition, those who have been arrested without possibility of bail due to its provisions continue to languish for years without access to the legal process and to fair trial. This has led detractors of the government’s hoped for change of heart to claim it is eyewash that is disconnected from the ground realities.
The problem with the government’s approach to restarting the reconciliation process is that it does not seem to have a well thought out plan at this time. Instead there appears to be a series of ad hoc responses to the pressures exerted on it. International pressure has become an effective motivator of change at this time. The government is in dire need of international goodwill due to the Covid induced health tragedy and economic catastrophe. But instead the government has been at the receiving end of four strongly worded international resolutions this year, beginning with the UN Human Rights Council’s resolution 46/1 of March 2021. The government has also been subjected to the Ontario parliament’s resolution on genocide, the EU parliamentary resolution on GSP Plus and the US Congress resolution on the long standing failure to achieve a political solution.
Any serious attempt by the government to restart the national reconciliation process would require that the major stakeholders be involved in the process. As the main affected community is the Tamil community in the North and East of the country, getting the participation of the main political parties representing the Tamil people of the North and East in the reconciliation process in important. The largest Tamil party, the TNA, has expressed its desire to meet in direct talks with the president at this time. A planned meeting three months ago in June fell through at the last moment with a promise of an early meeting to meet and discuss issues. But so far there has been no date given in lieu of the postponed meeting, which adds to the sense of frustration of those who were getting ready psychologically for a restart of the reconciliation process.
As a political party that comes from the tradition of Tamil parties that fought for the political rights of the Tamil people to equality and self-governance, the TNA’s main priority in talks with the government can be expected to be a political solution to the ethnic conflict. The war and the human rights violations that accompanied it are the primary focus of international attention today. The issue of a political solution will encompass those human rights concerns as well as the issues of inter-ethnic power sharing that are at the root of the conflict. The TNA’s request to meet with the president has been accompanied by the call for a political solution. The full implementation of the 13th Amendment and the holding of provincial council elections could form the main agenda of the government-TNA talks.
TNA leader R Sampanthan has spelled out the parameters of a political solution in a lengthy letter to President Rajapaksa which details the many attempts that the Tamil polity made in the past to negotiate with successive governments but to no avail. TNA spokesperson MA Sumanthiran has called for US mediation if there is a renewed attempt to negotiate a political solution. The acceptance of a US role in a revived Sri Lankan reconciliation process could lead to the suspension of the US Congressional resolution that could otherwise be detrimental to the government. It could also serve as a guarantee to those who are sceptical within and without the country that the government is serious about restarting the reconciliation process this time.