By Jehan Perera –
The invitation to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to visit Sri Lanka that was issued by Chief Minister of the Northern Province, C V Wigneswaran, has shown the positive side of the current reconciliation process in the country. The first weeks of the new born provincial council have been marked by expressions of goodwill at the highest levels, most notably between President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Chief Minister Wigneswaran. There was no better an example of goodwill at this time than the invitation extended by the Chief Minister to the Indian Prime Minister to visit Jaffna and therefore Sri Lanka. The invitation came at a time when the Indian state of Tamil Nadu had passed a unanimous resolution in its legislature calling for an Indian boycott of CHOGM. Chief Minister Wigneswaran’s invitation to visit Jaffna has given the Indian Prime Minister another legitimate reason come to Sri Lanka for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting.
Chief Minister Wigneswaran has come in for criticism by those who have been campaigning for an international boycott of CHOGM. He has himself being complaining of blockages in his provincial administration due to restrictive practices of the central authorities continuing even after the elections. But his willingness to think of the larger interests at stake for the Tamil people who elected him is to be appreciated. It is also clear that the wellbeing of the Tamll people in the North will be best assured if there is cooperation between the Northern Provincial Council and the Sri Lankan government. However, there are other sections that are more focused on issues of human rights and war-time accountability. They have been campaigning hard to prevent the Commonwealth Summit being held in Sri Lanka and against Sri Lankan President Rajapaksa from taking on the Chairmanship of the Commonwealth after CHOGM.
The challenge in Sri Lanka is for the government to be able to show its detractors that it is serious about tackling the problems of human rights and accountability that accompanied the war. The most recent Channel 4 video which shows the fate of an LTTE newscaster in the last phase of the war is an indication of the seriousness of a problem that refuses to go away. This is where the government’s relationship with South Africa has become important. The South African example of reconciliation is today entrenched in the consciousness of the international community as a great success and a beacon of hope to other countries in conflict. It may not have been a coincidence that the first Sri Lanka-South Africa Joint Dialogue on Post-Conflict Reconciliation took place a fortnight ago in the final run-up to the Commonwealth Summit. The government’s partnership with South Africa in this event would go a considerable part of the way to win over many Commonwealth countries to support the Sri Lankan government’s position.
At the conference on reconciliation, which was held at the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute for International Relations, a leading government think-tank, the presentations made by the South African delegates also showed that issues of truth, accountability, reparation and institutional reform have to be dealt with if reconciliation is truly the goal. This is likely to be difficult in Sri Lanka where the practice has been entirely different. After the two JVP insurrections there was no action taken against those who were accused of human rights violations. Instead all was forgotten and was buried along with the past. The same practice appears to have been the desired one after the end of the LTTE war also, if not for the international pressure. The Channel 4 videos and other evidence of war crimes that the government denounces as fakes, but which continue to be aired in the UK and internationally, keep pricking the conscience and desire for retribution.
At the present time, Sri Lanka has moved forward in relation to reconciliation primarily in terms of the devolution component of institutional reform. Sri Lanka took an important step towards national reconciliation since the end of its three decade long war in 2009 by establishing the Northern Provincial Council after 26 years. This provides a unique opportunity for inter-ethnic power sharing which lay at the core of the country’s civil war. The Northern Province is the only Tamil-dominated province in the country. It is also the only opposition-controlled provincial council. This offers a unique opportunity to the Northern Provincial Council to spearhead a new relationship between the central government and provinces. Among the factors that are taken as evidence of reconciliation is crosscutting political support and the acceptance by local communities of the process. Taking the country farther along the path of devolution and sharing of power will also be important for national reconciliation and to the easing of international pressures.
It is widely believed that the Indian government made its international cooperation with Sri Lanka contingent on the Sri Lankan government delivering on its war-time promise to implement the 13th Amendment. In addition, it is believed that the Sri Lankan government stepped back from its own plan to have a 19th Amendment passed that would have either abolished the provincial council system in its entirety due to Indian pressure. In particular, the constant questions posed by visiting Indian government leaders to their Sri Lankan counterparts regarding the devolution of power would be an important factor in the establishment of the Northern Provincial Council. Continuing Indian pressure will be more acceptable if it is seen to come from a friend which is why the Indian Prime Minister’s presence at the Commonwealth Summit is important.
Obtaining a healthy responsiveness from the Sri Lankan government will require constant pressure being put on those who control the central levers of power. One of the lessons from South Africa is that reconciliation only became possible in the context of a mutually acceptable political solution. Those who have power are seldom if ever willing to relinquish it. This is especially marked in Sri Lanka at the present time when the government leadership has shown a determination to centralize decision making power. The only constitutional reform so far by the government was the 18th Amendment which further centralized power in the hands of the already over-powerful presidency. In these circumstances, one of the major reasons for the devolution of power taking place to the Northern Province has been the international factor.
But despite the devolution of power, the issue of human rights and war crimes has also to be dealt with. The huge agitation that is taking place internationally even before the Commonwealth Summit regarding the allegations about what happened in Sri Lanka is a warning of what lies ahead if the issues of the past remain unsettled. It is better for the government leaders to address this problem now when they are in power, and in a position to influence the process, rather than to wait till it is too late. Obtaining the support of friendly countries like India and South Africa, as the government appears to be doing, is the best possible thing to do in the circumstances. Even as the international agitation on the issue of war crimes in Sri Lanka continues to increase, with no sign of getting less, there is a need to think creatively and together about how best to deal with the situation.
At the South Africa-Sri Lanka Joint Dialogue it emerged that the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission cannot be taken as an easy way for persons accused of serious human rights violations to get amnesty and escape having to deal with the past. Only three of the 40 or more Truth and Reconciliation Commissions in the world have granted full amnesty. It is also noteworthy that in South Africa, out of over 7000 persons who applied for amnesty little over 1000 were granted amnesty. Those who received amnesty had to be prepared to tell the whole truth, and those who failed to convince the Truth and Reconciliation Commissioners that they were telling the whole truth failed to get amnesty. There was no provision in South Africa that a blanket amnesty could be given in which all who are accused are given automatic amnesties. The road ahead is going to be difficult but it is still in the interest of the government leadership to move towards settling these issues in partnership with those sections of the international community whose goal is to solve problems and not punish.