Colombo Telegraph

The Way Forward For Genuine Peace & Reconciliation In Sri Lanka

By V. Thirunavukkarasu

V. Thirunavukkarasu

While the processes of making a new Constitution are under way, there are conflicting signals emanating from the ranks of the Cabinet Ministers themselves, of the first ever UNP-SLFP National Unity Government as to the duration of this exercise, as well as its final outcome. It has been generally expected that the new Constitution will be promulgated before the end of this year. However, some Ministers, particularly from the SLFP, who entered Parliament through the National List after being defeated at the August 2015 Parliamentary election, are vociferously expressing contradictory positions. For instance, Minister S.B. Dissanayake has bluntly asserted that the new Constitution will only see the light of day by 2020. Moreover, while the Presidential election pledge was to abolish the Executive Presidential system by 2020, it is being maintained in SLFP circles that such is not the case, and that the incumbent President Mathripala Sirisena will be the Presidential candidate in 2020 as well, contrary to his own avowed public pledge made in 2015 that he would not contest the Presidential election again.

The extant public perception, increasing by the day, is that the National Unity Government of Good Governance is fast becoming devoid of these concepts. Firstly, in the matter of combating the twin evil of bribery and corruption, the pace of investigations and of bringing suspects to justice is markedly slow. Secondly, indirect interventions at the highest levels to protect highly placed suspects for offences allegedly committed during the last regime, are in place. Thirdly, there are emerging suspicions involving certain officials of the incumbent Government as well.

It goes without saying that the UNP and the SLFP, well-known traditional arch rivals which had held power alternately in alliance with their respective allies of all hues, had egregiously failed to resolve the burning politico-economic problems. Such failures, especially with regard to the checkered Tamil national question is really what led to episodic violence, intermittent anti-Tamil racial riots, and eventually the 26-year long war following the worst such riots in 1983. (Black July). And so, as if to atone for their collective sins of omission and commission, both major ruling parties came together in 2015 to form a consensual national unity Government following the election of President Maithripala Sirisena on January 8, 2015, followed by the August 17 Parliamentary elections. And both parties extended the original 2- year agreement to a full 5- year period to hold power together, but had vowed to part ways, come 2020. Meantime, certain conflicts which have arisen, based on party rivalries, have of course not been unexpected, but nevertheless the caravan should move on till 2020, giving the lie to the Mahinda Rajapaksa-led JO’s wishful bid to topple the Government this year.

As regards the vexed Tamil National question, it was pledged during the January and August 2015 elections campaigns that a durable solution would be incorporated into the a new Constitution, and that was all the more reason why the Tamils and the Muslims as well, extended their overwhelming support particularly for President Sirisena’s victory to be vouchsafed. It is clear already that there will be no change in the Unitary State system as well as the foremost place given to Buddhism in the new Constitution. Such a paradigm alone will satisfy the Sinhala majority constituency even though all communities or groups of people are equally sovereign entities as entrenched in any Constitution. Accommodation of the TNA’s demand, as per the mandate they received in August 2015, for a federal system is out of the question. And so is the demand for a merged North – East Province as had obtained for 18 years, albeit as an interim measure pending a referendum in terms of the 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka Accord, which was never held, but the demerger sought by the JVP was granted by the then Chief Justice Sarath N. Silva notwithstanding the bilateral dimension of the aforesaid Accord.

What then is going to be the Constitutional solution to the Tamil National question, having regard especially to the overwhelming support given by the Tamils in particular for President Sirisena’s victory on January 8, 2015? The principles encompassing this question are found, by and large, in the report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) that had been appointed by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa under the Chairmanship of a former Attorney General, the late C.R. de Silva. Here are some of the observations/ recommendations made by the LLRC in chapter 8 of the report:

  • People have come to the firm/decisive conclusion that the blood-bath witnessed was the outcome of the sustained unwillingness and inability of the political leaders to address this question;
  • It was the failure on the part of the Governments to address the legitimate concerns of the Tamils that constituted the root cause of the war and its consequences. Hence, it is imperative that a durable political solution to resolve the vexed problem has to be arrived at. There have been wide-ranging discussions on this question, but agreement has not emerged as to the underlying cause of the problem,
  • While considering the contradictions amongst the communities, the dominant factors boil down to the grievances of the Tamils , and this is the central question that led to the breakdown of mutual relations between the Sinhalese and the Tamils.
  • The 1958 anti-Tamils riots constituted the first monumental dent in the relations between the communities. That was followed by the 1977 riots, and then the worst riots in 1983 (Black July)
  • Unless there is a full and complete grasp of the causes for the breakdown of goodwill between the Sinhalese and the Tamils , devoid of a culture of violence, it will not be possible to find a lasting or sustainable solution.

In this connection, it is certainly not inappropriate to draw attention, vis-à-vis the 1958 riots, to the to the book titled “Emergency ‘58 – Story of the Ceylon Race riots” written by that doyen of English journalism. Tarzie Vittachi where he deeply lamented that first post-Independence blood thus bath thus: “What are we left with? A Nation in ruins, some grim lessons that we cannot afford to forget and a momentous question: Have the Sinhalese and Tamils reached the parting of the ways”

Such was the enormity of the disaster at that time in terms of death and destruction, the deep sense of alienation and the tragedy of Tamils in Colombo crowding into refugee camps, and then getting shipped off to the North and the East for their safety.

Thus, incorporation of a durable political solution to so vexed question in terms of substantive power-sharing, is a sine qua non not only for accommodating the decades-long concerns of the Tamils, but also, as importantly, for genuine peace and reconciliation to blossom in the country.

*V. Thirunavukkarasu, former Member, Colombo Municipal Council

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