By Jehan Perera –
One of the striking features of the presidential election was the division of the country’s electoral map along ethnic lines. Over the weekend I was in Vavuniya to take part in an inter-religious exchange visit. Three groups consisting of religious clergy, civil society leaders, government officials and police officers from Akurana, Weligama and Vavuniya, which are three localities in which there has been inter-religious conflict, met together in Vavuniya. The purpose of this meeting of groups was to promote bridge-building and inter-community understanding. All of those present, especially the government officials, wanted to strengthen ground level inter-community relations so that they would have less problems of conflict to deal with. There was also the happiness of interaction and getting to know those who are different.
The event in Vavuniya showed that division is not necessarily the case at the person-to-person level or at the community level where non-political issues are concerned. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s recent statements that increased devolution of power is not politically possible is based on the assessment of the present (and past) levels of political consciousness regarding the issue of devolution of power. The president has said that the ethnic majority population is not in favour of devolution of power, which is why it is not feasible and cannot be implemented. The ethnic majority population placed its trust overwhelmingly with President Rajapaksa at the recent presidential election.
On the other hand, for the past nearly one hundred years, the Tamil demand for power sharing arrangements with the ethnic Sinhalese majority has been present despite being rejected time and time again. The first such demand was in the 1930s, when the Tamil political leaders called for a 50:50 power sharing arrangement between the ethnic majority and the ethnic minorities which was to be at the level of the central government. When this demand was rejected by the British colonial rulers at that time, the call changed to devolution of power at the regional level to the northern and eastern provinces. The post-independence demand of the Tamil polity has been for power sharing in the form of either a federal arrangement (where the constitution is supreme) or for a strengthened system of devolution of power (where the central government remains supreme).
The concept of devolution is viewed with suspicion by the Sinhalese majority on account of its association with the campaign for separation by Tamil politicians of the past and by the LTTE. But this is not an unchangeable perception. In 2000, the Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga government attempted to strengthen the devolution of powers in a new constitution. Her government carried out a public education campaign, called Sudu Nelum, that changed the perceptions of people so that public opinion surveys showed a majority in support of devolution of power. But the constitutional bill was defeated in parliament by the opposition parties. The most recent attempt commenced in 2015 when the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government sought to draft a new constitution, but it did not take off the ground due to the government’s inability to put forward its own formulation of the solution.
Since the watershed election of 1956, where the main election slogan was “Sinhala only” in which the Sinhala language was made the single official language over the opposition of Tamil speakers, the devolution of power has been akin to an article of faith to the Tamil polity. They have not been willing to move from that position despite its rejection by the Sinhalese majority or by the failure of successive governments to implement their promises with regard to it. If solving the problem is to be considered, the sentiments of the ethnic minorities will also need to be heeded and goodwill and trust-building from the community level needs to be taken to the national level. Just as much as the Sinhalese need to be made aware of the Tamil feeling of nationalism, so must the Tamils be made to realize what the Sinhalese concerns are.
President Rajapaksa’s preference for development as the way to peaceful relations within Sri Lanka has resonance in view of general Sinhalese opposition to the devolution of powers which has been manifested time and time again. The international trend too at the present time is in favour of ethnic nationalism, which the president’s campaign team skillfully used to mobilise Sinhalese nationalism at the presidential elections. But it also means that overcoming long standing Tamil nationalism through development alone is an unlikely prospect. With them too, nationalism will tend to prevail over all other considerations. If it is to be no to devolution, the problem will not be solved. There needs to be movement towards a midpoint in which there is a change of heart and mind on all sides.
President Rajapaksa’s strength as a national leader who can overcome the fear and suspicion of the Sinhalese majority is on account of his leadership in the war with the LTTE that secured a victory that few though possible. At the same time as he is the main national leader at this time he will need to reach out to the minorities and find solutions to their concerns. Apart from the longstanding issue of devolution of power there is also the more recent issue of missing persons. As a former army officer who had firsthand experience of the war with the LTTE, the president has pointed to the impossibility of identifying those who died on the military battlefields and left for dead behind enemy lines. The president pointed out that there were more than 5000 soldiers who went missing in that manner.
However, the unresolved problem lies with those who claim that they themselves surrendered their relatives to government forces and also those who claim that their loved ones were abducted in their presence. I was at a meeting recently with relatives of war victims when one of them came up and gave me a set of photocopies of an identity card and other documents relating to the case of his missing son. When I checked the dates it was after the war had ended. So this would not be a battlefield disappearance. We can be sure that the parents of those who went missing or wives of husbands who went missing will never stop hoping and looking for their loved ones. I personally know of a mother of a soldier who went missing nearly two decades ago, whose eyes lit up with hope when a fortune teller told her that her son was alive in a foreign country.
German Ambassador Joern Rohde recently shared his personal experience of being a beneficiary of a policy of government reparation at a meeting with war victims. He said that during the Second World War, his father was left without a single living relative at the age of 16. But he was able to grow into being an adult who could enjoy a good life due to a scheme of reparations instituted by the post-war German government. The most important thing that a government could do for people recovering from the trauma of war and death, according to Ambassador Rohde, was to show that it cared for them. The dead cannot be brought back to life and those missing may never be found. A compassionate society and a compassionate government will reach out to their relatives and help them to heal. Today the government has both an Office of Missing Persons and an Office for Reparations, both of which can give that message of care and heal hearts and minds.