By Laksiri Fernando –
When the government moved the army decisively against the LTTE in July 2006, it did the right thing, and there was no other viable alternative left. The peace process since February 2002 was not working and the LTTE was making a mockery of the peace effort by amassing arms and ammunition and blatantly violating the ceasefire agreement (CFA).
It was also correct on the part of the government to launch the Northern offensive after liberating the East, as the menace of terrorism was taking a heavy toll in life and property year by year since 1983 with only temporary intermissions and illusive peace efforts. The issues of controversy were so intractable and irreconcilable.
The LTTE was too fanatical to compromise its Eelam dream of a separate state in this small island of intermingling populations belonging to three ethnic groups of Sinhalese (74%), Tamils (18%) and Muslims (7%). This is not to speak of their internal diversities or other groups. The creation of a separate state would have been a colossal disaster than a solution, and the country could have been in perpetual state of war between the two states if that had happened by any chance of history.
Equally adamant, if not fanatical, have been the Sinhalese extremists who have always influenced the incumbent governments since independence in 1948 not to compromise on minority rights of the Tamils or the Muslims or otherwise an amicable resolution to the conflict could have been reached well before even the separatist demand had strongly surfaced.
Sri Lanka has unfortunately been devoid of this middle path. Otherwise a basic framework for an amicable solution is already in existence in the form of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution whatever the changes or adjustments that may require through past experience.
When the war against terrorism was launched, there were two main strands of people within the government and outside who supported that effort. First were the ‘rationalists’ who considered terrorism as a menace and its defeat as legitimate by the constitution and by all means of civilized thinking i.e. liberal, democratic etc. Second, obviously were the Sinhalese ‘extremists’ who always equated terrorism with Tamil aspirations and wanted to defeat the LTTE as part of subjugation of the Tamils by the majority Sinhalese.
The official government position was the first and it was very clearly stated that the war was against terrorism and not against the Tamils. The war was named a ‘humanitarian operation’ although at times it was not clear whether this was a façade or a genuine policy. Zero civilian casualties also were the announced policy. There was no doubt, however, that the extremists worked within the government and within the armed forces throughout the war effort. This was understandable, if they were not the dominant forces.
Three years on after the war, however, it has now become clear that the Sinhalese extremists have now become influential if not completely dominant within the government. After the war, if the war was to be legitimate, the reconciliation should have been the first priority. Since reconciliation, first and foremost, is a political matter the negotiations and discussions should have begun with the major Tamil political party, the TNA, without ignoring the Muslim community. This is a simple political logic that the government ignored or gave less priority.
It was true that the TNA was aligned with the LTTE at the last stages. This is understandable. This is more reason to initiate discussions with them since the influence that the LTTE has left within the Tamil polity is substantial. It is unlikely, however, that the Tamil people will go back to separatism, if a viable alternative to safeguard their legitimate rights are presented.
The last stages of the war undoubtedly have created enormous misfortune within the Tamil community. It is not simply a matter of resettling the internally displaced people. There are controversies about how many civilians got killed by the army and the LTTE and whether some of the killings were deliberate or not. There is much evidence about atrocities and what the international community call as the ‘violations of international law.’
These cannot be easily swept under the carpet by shouting against the international community or claiming sovereignty. Accountability is undoubtedly an issue of reconciliation. The pain and agony of the remaining victims or their relatives should be healed.
Winning the war took only three years to complete. This is commendable and the credit should go to the government and the armed forces. Winning peace however is purely a matter for the government and the people and not for the armed forces. That is why the presence of the armed forces in the North should be reduced to the necessary minimum and civilian administration should be established including the proper Provincial Council administration.
Apart from the extremist influence on the government, there is an ideological or policy disorientation that precludes its move towards reconciliation. First is the belief that after the defeat of the LTTE, there is nothing left to reconcile and the Tamil people might slowly adjust to the ‘new reality.’ Apart from LTTE terrorism, there has always been an underlying ethnic issue whether you agree or not.
Second is a kind of ‘economic determinism’ that says if the country is developed, particularly the North and the East, then the problems will disappear. While there is a strong economic underpinning to the ethnic and other issues in the country, it is simply wishful thinking to believe that development will automatically resolve all the problems. People are not simply ‘rice eating robots.’ They have values and feelings; feelings for their culture, religion and community. This is common to all communities alike.
Economic development also can bring more conflict than usual. This was shown by the connection between the open economic development after 1977 and the 1983 July communal riots. The development in the North and the East is necessary but not as a solution to the conflict but as a basis for reconciliation. In the name of development, southern encroachment in business and economy also will be resented if not resisted by the local communities whether they are Tamils, Muslims or Sinhalese. The synergy between development and reconciliation is a more complex matter than the government seems to believe at present.
The present government position on reconciliation is somewhat like the LTTE argument during the peace process. During discussions, the LTTE always liked to talk about displacement, resettlement and day to day economic issues but not the substantive political matters. This was considered as a tactic to buy time and postpone a settlement. The government is exactly doing the same minus any discussions.
What is important for reconciliation is for the government to place its cards on the table. Leadership for reconciliation should come from the government and from the President himself. To say that a solution should be reached through a parliamentary select committee is an utter abdication of proper leadership. The parliamentary select committee might be useful for broader consensus, but there should be clarity on what basis that consensus should be achieved.
Hiatus on reconciliation is not the only ailment that the government is suffering three years after the end of the war. That is a major problem affecting even reconciliation. The second term of the President does not seem to go well for the country or for him.
His predicament reminds me of a Mudalali whom I knew several years ago. He was living next to my house at Peradeniya in the early eighties. Coming from a modest background in the South, the Mudalali amassed so much of wealth and business thanks to his initial hard work and toil. After amassing so much of wealth, however, he was clueless how to handle the business properly even with the aid of his family and good number of stooges. The final result was his ruin.
After winning the war, the President could not prevent his army commander contesting him in the elections in January 2010. But the country gave him a bigger mandate both at the presidential and parliamentary elections in gratitude of leading the war politically. The army commander was then jailed not on so clear charges but apparently for revenge.
End of the war saw the revival of the economy linked with the Asian and the Indian resurgence. The stock market was the second best in 2009. The economy however could not grow as much as the opportunity allowed, due to extravagant expenditure by the politicians and due to undue interferences, Presidential Secretariat being the most pivotal.
Otherwise, the growth rate could have been a double digit. The stock market also was interfered with and the cultivation of a ‘political-business-class’ has been the order of the day through contracts, commissions and under-deals. The present author was a Director of the Colombo Stock Exchange during the period witnessing some events. The ultimate result of economic mismanagement has been to burden the people with undue price hikes recently.
The passage of the 18th Amendment marked the complete abuse of power by extending the terms of office that the President could contest and bringing the Independent Commissions of the 17th Amendment under direct Presidential control. Before that the present author was a ‘constructive supporter’ of the government. The 18th Amendment was a turning point.
The end of the war did not see the resurgence of democracy as expected. Instead, blatant violations of freedom expression, human rights and coercion of dissent by ‘white van syndrome’ were prevalent. If not for the international pressure, including the recent resolution by the UN HRC, the situation would have been much worse.
The government has made several foreign policy blunders one after the other. In Geneva, during the human rights sessions, the government declared war against the international community. Now it obliquely says the policy was wrong and has sacked its (Tamil) Ambassador for the defeat in the resolution as the scapegoat. The Ministry of External Affairs is in a virtual mess.
Whatever the decay of the regime and its stench, the main responsibility for reconciliation rests unfortunately with the incumbent government. The people may have to wait for a proper regime change for few more years. However, if the main party of the SLFP and its traditional leaders realise the gravity of the situation where a democratic party has been hijacked for family and close-clique domination of politics, a change might not be impossible in the foreseeable future within Parliament in alliance with the opposition. It might take some time.
As the killing of Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra, ostensibly a Presidential Advisor, in October 2011 and many other incidents reveal, the ‘family-clique’ dominates within the UPFA through internal violence. Mervyn Silva is only one personification of this trend.
Among several issues, reconciliation, human rights, good governance, rule of law, corruption, violence and cost of living are some issues that the democratic forces in Sri Lanka now should work on irrespective of ethnic or other differences.