by S. Venkat Narayan, ‘The Island,’ Colombo, January 20, 2015
NEW DELHI, January 20: Sri Lankan Minister of External Affairs Mangala Samaraweera has outlined a series of steps President Maithripala Sirisena’s Government will undertake to achieve national reconciliation in the civil war-ravaged island-nation.
Talking to a select group of journalists here on Monday, he said the new government will demilitarise the Northern Province, order a domestic probe into the excesses reportedly committed during the last phase of the so-called Eelam War IV in 2009, and take suitable steps to provide relief and justice to victims of the civil war that tore the country apart for nearly three decades.
He also said the government will soon initiate a dialogue with the one-million-strong Sri Lankan diaspora scattered across the globe to seek its help to rebuild the North.
The minister expressed the hope that the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) will respond positively to President Sirisena’s invitation to join the government and actively participate in executing its plans to transform the country into an inclusive liberal democracy.
Samaraweera said the appointment of veteran diplomat HMGS Palihakkara as the civilian Governor of the Northern Province in place of one-time Jaffna military commander and Major General GA Chandrasiri, and the lifting of restrictions banning foreign nationals visiting former war zones are initial signals of what the government wants to do to achieve national reconicliation.
When I asked what the government plans to do at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) meeting in Geneva when the human rights situation in Sri Lanka will come up for discussion in March, he said the government will soon set up a domestic probe with UN assistance into what actually happened in the war zone in the months before the LTTE was militarily defeated by the security forces in May 2009.
He said he has summoned Sri Lankan envoys in Washington, New York and Geneva to Colombo to discuss this issue on Tuesday.
He dismissed apprehensions that such a probe may upset the majority community in the island, and said: “There is no question of anybody being upset by an honest domestic probe into the crimes the world community says were committed during the last stages of war.
“We owe it to those of our people who were wronged, who were displaced, and who were made to suffer. As an inclusive democratic government, we should try to provide justice, relief and compensation to all those who suffered,” Samaraweera declared.
When he made an appeal to Sri Lankan Tamil refugees who fled the island during riots and civil war and living in India and other parts of the world to return home, a journalist said former LTTE cadres and banned Tamil terrorist groups may come back and make trouble again, the minister said nothing of the kind will happen.
He explained: “They all are our people. They left their homeland for certain reasons. We are now trying to set things right by running an inclusive government. For decades, we have been trying to achieve national reconciliation without success. People of all communities have voted our government to power. There is a consensus that we all must live together in peace and harmony.”
He said it was primarily to dissuade the Sinhalese from voting for the opposition that the previous regime tried to instil in their minds the fear that the LTTE will be reborn if drastic steps are not taken to put the Tamils down. I have met some of the people in London whose groups were banned by the earlier government. I do not believe that they are terrorists.”
Samaraweera said the government has been talking to the TNA. “We have invited them to join the government. We are looking forward to having them in the government, and to their active help and participation in achieving genuine national reconiciliation.”
He said there are already lots of proposals made to achieve national reconciliation, such as the Thimpu Proposals, the Mangala Moonesinghe Proposals, the CBK (Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga) Proposals, to name but a few. Who go for a new Parliament Select Committee? There’s no need to reinvent the wheel.
“All these years we failed to achieve national reconciliation because there was no political will. Now there is a political will. We are optimistic about pulling it off this time,” the minister asserted.
The new Government’s real agenda
Who and what do we take more seriously? Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s promise made to the Sri Lankan Parliament of ‘the implementation of the 13th Amendment within the unitary state’, or that which his Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera has disclosed in New Delhi, India, while “talking to a select group of journalists”?
I’d go with the latter, not only because of the venue, but also because Samaraweera is known to be the bridge between Wickremesinghe and his influential political ally and partner, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga.
The Foreign Minister has given us the first clear inkling of the real political agenda of the new Government: “Sri Lankan Minister of External Affairs Mangala Samaraweera has outlined a series of steps President Maithripala Sirisena’s Government will undertake to achieve national reconciliation in the civil war-ravaged island-nation.” (‘Mangala Promises De-militarisation of The North’, Domestic War Crimes Probe’, S. Venkat Narayan, the Island, Wednesday, 21 January, page 1 lead story.)The Foreign Minister is bullish and he is on the record. ‘“All these years we failed to achieve national reconciliation because there was no political will. Now there is a political will. We are optimistic about pulling it off this time,” the Minister asserted.’ (Ibid)
What is the Foreign Minister upbeat about pulling off? ‘National reconciliation’ it would seem. Why has no one pulled it off as yet? Going by Minister Samaraweera’s version it was because “there was no political will”.
I am deeply appreciative of this perspective because I had mistakenly thought for 30 years it was because of the war and the obduracy of the Tigers, and in the decades before and the half-decade after the war, it was the lack of broad bipartisan consensus. Now I know different. It was the lack, not of consensus or of a reliable peace partner, but precisely of political will. Well, you live and learn.
I also learned what Foreign Minister Samaraweera regards as the components and contents of “national reconciliation”; what the ingredients of “national reconciliation” are. Consensus at and within a roundtable process such as the Parliamentary Select Committee certainly isn’t one. “Who [would] go for a new Parliament Select Committee? There’s no need to reinvent the wheel.” That’s what he said, according to S. Venkat Narayanan.
The ‘Mangala Chinthana’
If broad consensus is not an indispensable ingredient of ‘national reconciliation’, what is Minister Samaraweera’s program? Going by ‘Mangala Chinthana’ it seems to be threefold:
1. “Demilitarisation of the Northern Province.”
2. “A domestic probe with UN assistance into what actually happened in the war zone in the months before the LTTE was militarily defeated by the security forces in May 2009.”
3. “The Thimpu Proposals, the Mangala Moonesinghe Proposals, the CBK (Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga) Proposals, to name but a few”. (Ibid.)
To recapitulate (a) demilitarisation (b) a domestic probe with UN assistance and (c) political proposals ranging from the Thimpu principles to Chandrika’s political packages. The problem is two-fold: not only is each and every one of these three points downright wrong and bad as policy, but the triangle they constitute is a recipe for catastrophe – a political and strategic Chernobyl.
Demilitarisation of the Northern Province
The north is a strategically ultrasensitive province because it is separated by only a narrow strip of water from Tamil Nadu which is much larger and several times more populous than Sri Lanka; which has been a source of repeated aggression against Sri Lanka over millennia; and in which there remains a large pool of hysterical pro-Tamil Eelam and anti-Sri Lankan sentiment. No country would demilitarise such a vulnerable border province from which separatist or irredentist pulls can originate.
It would have been entirely different had Foreign Minister Samaraweera said “demilitarise northern society,” which would have meant reducing the military footprint in the north to a point that it is not overtly and excessively intrusive and alienating. However, that is not what Minister Samaraweera said. He said “demilitarise the Northern Province”. It took the Union armies 12 years to “de-militarise” the defeated Confederate states of the South after the American Civil War, and that was despite the fact that the Southern states did not have a much larger and more populous neighbouring state with a reservoir of secessionist sentiment.
A domestic inquiry with the assistance of UN agencies
The new Foreign Minister should have stuck strictly to a pledge of fully implementing the recommendations of the LLRC. No less and no more. The LLRC listed several incidents which it said required independent investigation. Differently put, the LLRC recommended an independent yet specific and limited, domestic inquiry. That is not what Minister Samaraweera proposes.
No legitimate, sovereign state which has defeated a terrorist army, has subjected itself to any inquiry within five years. Many states have taken three to four decades, and with good reason. Some, such as democratic Spain, an EU and NATO member, has rendered illegal, any inquiry even into the numbers of dead in a civil war that ended 75 years ago!
Cambodia did have a domestic inquiry assisted by UN agencies as Minister Samaraweera proposes, but that was precisely against the defeated, genocidal Khmer Rouge, not against the legitimate army of the state – and in any case, there was a three-decade lag between the inquiry and the events it investigated.
From Thimpu to the Mangala Moonesinghe and CBK proposals
The Thimpu proposals of 1985 were presented by a united front of Tamil Eelam organisations including the Tamil Tigers represented by Anton Balasingham. The main planks were (i) the recognition of Tamil nationhood, (ii) the right of national self-determination and (iii) the Northern and Eastern provinces as the traditional homeland of the Tamil speaking people. They were rejected out of hand by the UNP government of the day.
Samaraweera represents a UNP Government—albeit one that was not unelected as such. Precisely which aspects of the Thimpu proposals does he think should be permitted on the table? The Mangala Moonesinghe proposals contained a straight swap which was perhaps acceptable in wartime: federalism for de-merger. Is Samaraweera proposing federalism instead of the unitary state with devolution? The Chandrika packages proposed the removal of the term unitary and the re-definition of Sri Lanka as a “union of regions”.
These proposals could not be implemented even while the Sri Lankan State was under the gun of the Tigers. By what logic does Samaraweera think that compromises which the majority found unacceptable even during the war are necessary or will be acceptable after we have won it?
Does Samaraweera think that any of it will get past the masses at a referendum or does his Government now possess “the political will” to push on without a referendum?
Is this triadic “national reconciliation’, consisting of the “demilitarisation of the Northern Province”, a “domestic inquiry with the assistance of UN Agencies” into the last months of the war, and a political outcome which takes as building blocks the Thimpu proposals and Chandrika’s ‘packages’, what our soldiers fought and died for? Is this what the war was for? Is this to be the political edifice erected over the great victory of 2009?