by MCM Iqbal, ‘Groundviews,’ Colombo, December 11, 2016
During the past few years much has been spoken and written about the need for reconciliation between the different communities in Sri Lanka. The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) was appointed by President Mahinda Rajapakse to hear what was needed to be done to bring about reconciliation among the tattered communities in the country. This Commission’s recommendations did not receive the earnest consideration they deserved. Instead that regime continued to indulge in activities that made the possibility of a reconciliation become more remote.
President Maithripala Sirisena came to power in 2015 realized, inter alia, the importance of reconciliation if he is to bring about the promised good governance and enable genuine peace and development in the country. He appointed a Task Force to conduct consultations with the public to get their ideas on the mechanisms that have to be set up to bring about a meaningful reconciliation. After extensive consultations the Task Force submitted a report with its recommendations. It is not the intention of this writer to go into the much publicised report and recommendations therein but to make an assessment on whether the daunting task before the government in this regard is achievable or a ‘mission impossible’.
Though the country as a whole suffered during the protracted conflict, it is the people of the North and the East who suffered the most. This fact is yet to be sufficiently driven home into the minds of the people in the South. Once that is done, the call for reconciliation should be made to originate from the majority community. The leaders in the South have not done enough to make them want reconciliation. Many are still with the superiority complex clinging to the Mahavamsa mind-set. They refuse to see that Sri Lanka has a plural society and every one living in the country has an inalienable right to live as a person with equal rights and obligations. Even recently President Maithripala Sirisena had to make a ‘passionate appeal for reconciliation’ saying that he is committed to the current process of constitutional reforms for the devolution of power to address the concerns of the minority Tamils. This plea was in addition to the plea of the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs who made a similar appeal a few weeks earlier. He had this to say “Reconciliation is not a box that can be ticked or a journey that can end as per a timeline. There are no magic portions to achieve what we set out to achieve. It requires hard work and constant striving, and a commitment towards which our nation should be bound across generations.”
Despite such appeals, a large majority of those in the South and even in the North are yet to realize the true meaning of reconciliation and its importance. Neither the government machinery nor its constituents both in the Parliament and outside, or even the State media, have made a sustained attempt to imbibe the importance of reconciliation into the minds of the people. Without the unstinted support of those in the South, achieving reconciliation will be an impossible task. It is this deficiency that has enabled the revival of hate speeches against the Tamils, Muslims and other minorities in the country. The hate mongers continue unhindered despite calls by various organisations to take stern action against them.
The recent disgraceful behaviour of the Buddhist priest of the Mangalaramaya in Batticaloa and the inaction of the police officers present at the scene has received wide publicity. This incident is symbolic of the inability of the State mechanisms to deal with such anti-social behaviour and has dealt a heavy blow on those calling for reconciliation. Subsequently many other Buddhist priests had organised a march to the Batticaloa District with an ulterior motive. In that instance prompt action by the Government has averted a disastrous consequences that could have followed if they had not be stopped from proceeding. A section of the Sinhala public and some extremist element among the politicians too, appear to support the behaviour of such priests. These incidents are perhaps those of the chauvinists in the South who expect the minorities to be subservient to the majority and do not want any kind of reconciliation with them. The deafening silence of the hierarchy of the Buddhist clergy on this matter is perhaps indicative of their tacit approval of the conduct of racist Buddhist priests.
In spite of such incidents, the Chief Minister of the Northern Provincial Council had appealed to the Sinhala protagonists to come for a dialogue to understand the problems of the Tamils. There appears to have been no response to this appeal. Even those having extreme views in the Parliament had not responded. With the defeat of the LTTE and the rejoicing that followed, many of those in the South thought the ethnic conflict is over. They are yet to realize the importance of finding out the circumstances that led to the rise of militancy among the Tamil youth and deal with the relevant issue to prevent the shimmering discontent amongst the minorities in general and the Tamils in particular. Without trying to understand the reasons why they are discontent, there cannot be lasting peace or reconciliation in the country.
Some have now begun a tirade against the Muslims and the Christians in the country. These communities have now become convenient targets to assert the dominance of the Sinhala Buddhist hegemony spearheaded by Buddhist priests. Those lobbying for such dominance have the backing of some unscrupulous politicians who want to ride on their backs to get back to power. Their lobby is quite strong and have the support of a considerable section of those gullible persons among the Sinhalese. The voice of the moderates in the South is not strong enough to restrain the extremists. The latter can be a stumbling block to the government’s intention to bring about reconciliation. The government is neither able to deal with them nor ignore them. There is therefore a strong need for an organised effort deal with the fears of the lobbyists. This can be done only by promoting elitist civil society groups in the North and the South to interact with the educated Tamils and Sinhalese to make them realise the importance of living in amity with the members of the other communities in the country as against living in suspicion of each other. This cannot be achieved overnight. It has to be a long and sustained process with the full participation of institutions such as the schools and the media. Doing so while there is simmering communalism is a challenge that has to be faced. Reconciliation is going to be a mission impossible unless this challenge is encountered successfully.
The lethargic attitude of the Government of Sri Lanka in implementing the provisions of the Resolution passed at the UNHRC in March 2014 is another matter that could completely stymie the reconciliation process. The victims of the war saw this resolution as a step towards the fulfilment of their hope for justice for the suffering they had endured during the conflict, in general, and during the vicious war, in particular. But subsequent conflicting statements by the President and the Prime Minister diminished the hope of justice for the war victims. The Foreign Minister who had personally spoken at the UNHRC saying that unlike those of the previous regime, this regime is an honourable one and that promises made would be kept, was a silent observer of the contradictory statements about honouring the pledges given. The President has repeatedly stated that he will not let any ‘war hero’ to be charged for any crime he has committed during the war against the LTTE. That statement added insult to injury on the victims of the war, waiting for justice. Many of whom are waiting to find out what happened to those who surrendered to the military during the war in the presence of witnesses, and the others who had been arrested and have disappeared. Their expectations for justice have turned to be a mirage that keeps drifting further and further away on the road to justice. Though an Act to set up an Office of Missing Persons (OMP) was passed in a haste ostensibly several months ago, the Government has shown no hurry in setting it up to help the victims. The effectiveness of the provisions in this Act to find the disappeared and provide compensation to the victims have also been found to be ineffective. The promise of re-settling all those who were displaced by the war is yet to be fulfilled. Many are still in refugee camps in the country and in India. Even the promise that all lands taken over by the military in the North, would be returned, still remains to be honoured. So is the promise to repeal the obnoxious provisions of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). The draft of an Act to replace it, prepared recently, caused uproar among those concerned as it contains provisions that are worse than those in the PTA.
The promise to set up an ad hoc hybrid judicial mechanism to deal with human rights violations during the war, has now been toned down to a Sri Lankan judicial mechanism ‘which has the confidence of the Tamils’. This is in spite of the UN Secretary General mentioning in his Oral statement of 30th September, 2015, as follows – “the total failure of domestic mechanisms to conduct credible investigations, clarify the truth of past events, ensure accountability and provide redress to victims” underlines the need for a hybrid judicial mechanism. However, President Sirisena has ruled that out completely and stated that the participation of any foreign judges in any probe into alleged offences by the military during the war will not be permitted.  Without accountability for the human rights violations during the conflict reconciliation is bound to be a mission impossible.
Yet President Sirisena believes that without any of these being done, he could bring about reconciliation through a new constitution with greater devolution of powers which will address the concerns of the minorities. He seems to be very optimistic that the provisions in the draft proposals prepared by the Parliamentary sub-committee on Constitutional Reforms would be accepted by the Parliament with a 2/3rd majority, in spite of the sabre rattling by President Mahinda Rajapakse, even before the proposals are placed before the Parliament. Besides even if by some jugglery the President manages to get the required support in the Parliament, it is doubtful that he would be able to muster the required number of votes at the referendum to get the peoples approval for the Constitution. In the circumstances even this expectation of the President to bring about reconciliation through Constitutional reforms is going to be wishful thinking.
The ‘Yahapalanaya’ Government has already wasted two years in office without doing anything meaningful to heal the wounds of the war. It has done practically nothing serious to imbibe into the minds of the victors of the war of the need to understand the extent of the damage done to the psyche of the Tamils to make them want to live in peace with the Sinhalese. Efforts should have at least been made to appease the losers at the war to forgive and forget the past for the sake of a better future. With over 90,000 women who had been made widows by the war and many still waiting either to find their husbands or sons and/ or to start life afresh, there is no well planned national development programme to directly deal with their problems. Many are still waiting to get back their lands from the military. With the presence of more military personnel in their areas than during the days of the war, the people are still living in an atmosphere of an occupied territory. As if these problems are not enough, there has arisen a new threat to the Tamil and Muslim communities from Buddhist priests taking a lead in erecting statues of the Buddha in places where no worshippers of the Buddha lived in the days before the conflict escalated. It is clearly an attempt to change the demography of the North and the East with the tacit approval of the authorities. While all these problems persist, lawlessness and use of drugs have become common place in this part of the country in spite of the presence of police and the army in massive numbers supposedly to maintain law and order. In such an environment and while the issues mentioned continue to prevail, bringing about reconciliation is certainly going to be a mission impossible.
The author was formerly Secretary to two Commissions of Inquiry into Disappearances in Sri Lanka.