|Rememberence of the Dead – LLRC recomendation discarded|
”The government has committed itself to implementing the LLRC recommendations; though its achievements in this regard are not great. This is partly due to divisions within the government. The lobby with obscurantist views that is opposed to the LLRC recommendations (on reconciliation and the rule of law) seems now to enjoy the confidence of the President. That has to change in the New Year. The President has to be convinced that for the sake of the country he has to heed the voices of sanity and resolve issues in a manner that will unite rather than further divide our people on sectarian lines. ”
Let Reconciliation and Rule of Law be our wish for the New Year
NOTEBOOK OF A NOBODY, by Shanie
I said to the man who stood at the Gate of the Year:
‘Give me a light
that I may tread safely into the unknown’
And he replied:
‘Go out into the darkness,
put your hand into the hand of God,
That shall be to you
better than light and safer than a known way.’
- Minnie Louise Haskins (1875-1957)
This was the poem that was quoted by the then King of England King George VI at the end of his Christmas Day broadcast to the nation in 1939 on the eve of World War II. This was stated in a Christian context but since then has been used as an inspirational message by people of many faiths and in a variety of contexts. When in doubt or in need of help, adherents of all four major religions in our country pray for support from an external power, theistic or non-theistic like the Triple Gem. So, as we enter a new calendar year, we quote this poem which we are sure will resonate with people of all faith groups, and even with those of no faith. The year that is now ending has not, by any yardstick, been a very happy one for our country and for our people. Let us hope that in the New Year, our leaders on all sides of the political spectrum will see the true light and tread the known democratic ways, and separate the good from the bad and the ugly.
The Report of the Commission of Inquiry on Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation identified two main areas that needed immediate attention. One was Reconciliation and the other the Rule of Law. If these two issues were resolved through consultation and consensus, the other major problems facing our country like a solution to the National Question, equitable urban/rural economic growth, poverty alleviation, human rights, development in the education and health sectors and a healthy relationship with the international community will fall into place. The government has committed itself to implementing the LLRC recommendations; though its achievements in this regard are not great. This is partly due to divisions within the government. The lobby with obscurantist views that is opposed to the LLRC recommendations (on reconciliation and the rule of law) seems now to enjoy the confidence of the President. That has to change in the New Year. The President has to be convinced that for the sake of the country he has to heed the voices of sanity and resolve issues in a manner that will unite rather than further divide our people on sectarian lines.
National Anthem in Sinhala only
The singing of the National Anthem is a supreme example of an issue where an opportunity for reconciliation was squandered. For over fifty years, the National Anthem was sung in Sinhala and/or Tamil. A few years ago, an order went out that it should only be in Sinhala. Wimal Weerawansa stated and President mahinda Rajapaksa followed him by claiming nowhere in the world was the National Anthem sung in more than one language. It was quickly pointed out that many bi- and multi-lingual countries had their National Anthem in two or more languages. It was surprising that the President himself was so careless in not checking the facts before making statements that impact on ethnic relations. It is reported that in the North, the Army insists that Tamil students in state schools should sing the National Anthem only in Sinhala; surely, an absolutely certain way of putting back the process of reconciliation.
Pluralism and Inclusivity
It is getting close to four years since the Velupillai Pirapaharan’s LTTE was defeated, crushed and buried. There is little doubt that an overwhelming majority of Tamils within Sri Lanka want to live in peace and amity with all communities in an undivided Sri Lanka. This is evidenced by the publicly stated policy of the TNA that has received overwhelming support of the Tamils at elections. It is only a tiny minority of Tamil Diaspora who seem to be living in a world of their own, giving themselves cabinet portfolios in a ‘government’ created by themselves. They have, of course, no functions to perform and naturally represent no one but themselves. They are best left to themselves to enjoy the positions they have created. This columnist’s impression is that the majority of the Tamil Diaspora share the views of the Tamils in Sri Lanka.
That said, it is for the government of Sri Lanka to extend to the Tamils in the North and East the dignity and respect that is their due. Distancing the TNA, who obviously enjoy the confidence of the Tamils in the Noeth and East, by continuing to refer to them as ‘LTTE proxies’ does not help in drawing the Tamil people into the mainstream of the national political life. The government must adopt a policy of pluralism and inclusivity. Unfortunately, that does not appear to be happening.
Last month, the Army moved into the Jaffna University campus, shamelessly separated the Sinhala students from the Tamil students and proceeded to abuse and intimidate the Tamil students, both men and women. The next day, several student leaders were arrested, four of whom have yet to be released. In addition, a round-up is going on in Jaffna and over thirty young people have so far been arrested. Last week, in what was obviously an intimidatory gesture, the President of the Jaffna University Teachers’ Association was summoned to the TID Office at Vavuniya. Similarly, the Vice Chancellor and Deans were summoned by Gotabaya Rajapaksa to his office in Colombo. Such actions by the Army, undoubtedly with the concurrence of the President, will only undermine efforts at reconciliation as recommended by the LLRC. Referring to the recent incidents, a petition from the University community to the President stated: “The result is to cause considerable fear, anxiety and trauma among the students that is detrimental to the academic character of the University. More importantly dragging innocent students through police stations and police cells, as happened in the 1970s and 1980s, is frightening at the start and then hardens them and breeds contempt for the law and for the officers entrusted to uphold it. Where there should be trust and co-operation there is fear, resentment, and then defiance. Surely, we do not want the consequences of that again.”
A reconciliatory relationship can only be built where there is trust and respect for each other. Regular round-ups like what we are seeing in Jaffna today, nearly four years after the end of the conflict with the LTTE, not just keep reminding people of the fear and violence of the past but continue to keep the people locked in fear. By repeatedly raising the bogey of the dead LTTE, they will only continue to keep the communities apart and undermine any efforts at reconciliation.
The need for civilian adminstration
The other important point stressed by the LLRC for reconciliation is that the North and East should revert to civilian administration. Having a civilian Government Agent and civilian public servants manning the District secretariat does not mean that there is civilian administration. If that were so, then there would be no need to have ex-security services commanders as Governors in the two Provinces. The local people know that important decisions are made only by the Governors and/or the local military commanders. Recently, Somapala Gunadheera has also stressed the need to have civilians as Governors.
If the government is serious about reconciliation, it is absolutely essential that the role of the military in civilian affairs be curtailed. Having a Tamil-speaking civilian as Governor in the North and East is also a necessity. In post-independence Sri Lanka, there were many Sinhala speaking Tamils who served as Government Agents in predominantly Sinhala areas and many Tamil-speaking Sinhalese who served as Government Agents in predominantly Tamil areas. All these officers were respected, enjoyed the trust of the people and undoubtedly provided for good relations between the different communities in the districts where they served. That position can quickly be brought back if imaginative policies are followed by the present government.
Upholding the Rule of Law
The second important issue to be addressed in today’s context is the upholding of the Rule of Law. Enough has been said and written in recent weeks on the impeachment process initiated by the government against the Chief Justice. That the government has denied basic fairness to the Chief Justice and violated all norms of natural justice in the farcical hearing has been stressed by all independent observers. It will be self-defeating for the President to persist in wanting to go through with this. The sooner he drops this impeachment proceedings and allows the three branches of the government to function as they should, the sooner we will have better democratic governance in our country. At the same time, the Chief Justice has to continue remaining firm in maintaining the dignity of her position and ignore attempts to lure her into political posturing. Once the heat has gone out of this issue and in the light of recent events, it will not be easy, as Izeth Hussain has pointed out, for her to maintain the independence and detachment that is required of a Judge but her integrity, training and experience will probably enable her to walk the tight rope with professional impartiality.
Politicisation of Law Enforcement
There are several instances where there has been failure on the part of the authorities to maintain law and order because of political interference. One of LLRC’s important recommendations was that Police being civilian department should be detached from the Ministry of Defence. Unfortunately, the government seems in no mood to heed this recommendation. The politicisation of the Police service has resulted in the harassment of political opponents and a free rein to pro-government political thugs. It is an year since a British tourist Khuram Shaikh, a Red Cross worker and his female companion were brutally assaulted resulting in the death of the tourist. The Chairman of the local body who belongs to the ruling coalition and is close to politically powerful persons was reportedly the chief suspect. Sadly, no charges have yet to be filed against him and his accomplices. Sri Lanka’s acting High Commissioner in London has given the Guardian newspaper and the family of Khuram Shaikh the routine excuse: He has been told by the Attorney General’s Department that non-summary proceedings are to begin shortly. But no plaint has yet been filed and all suspects released on bail. This is only one of several cases involving people with political connections who are able to escape the legal consequences for their criminal activities. In the North and East, political groupings which are part of the ruling coalition have been accused of being armed groups which terrorise political and personal opponents. The LLRC recommended that such groups be disarmed. This recommendation has also been ignored, presumably because the presence of such armed groups helps to keep the local population from speaking out for justice and fairplay. Sooner rather than later, this attitude will boomerang on the authorities.
In 2003, the late K C Kamalasabayson, who was then the Attorney General, stressed the importance of upholding the rule of law when he delivered a lecture in memory of Kanchana Abhayapala, the courageous young lawyer who was assassinated because he sought justice for the suspects taken in by the Police during the second southern insurgency. In his lecture the Attorney General candidly posed a question: Is it more important in a civilized society to spend millions of dollars in building roads to match international standards or to have a peaceful and law abiding society where the rule of law prevails?
A Bishop’s Reflection
Bishop Duleep de Chickera is one of our more perceptive of commentators on public affairs. He always writes from a national perspective providing much food for thought. We had begun today’s column with a quote from a Christian poet. In this season that is holy to Christians, we can end with a quote from Bishop de Chickera’s contemporarily relevant Christmas reflection published in last Sunday’s Island: “(Jesus Christ’s) life and teaching stirs the human conscience and opens the way to liberating truth and fullness of life. This truth and life sets people free from the impulse to violate and victimise others, and awakens a yearning to include and safeguard the dignity and freedom of the other, now seen as sister and brother within one human family.
It is this new release of perspective and energy rooted in the human conscience which relentlessly discovers ways of overcoming barriers that deprive and divide humans. The human instinct to protect and care for each other is much stronger than the sum of greed of the violent empires of the world.
This then is the strong message of hope that Christmas brings; the oppression of empires, whether yesterday or today, do not last forever. When contested with the much more dynamic forces of truth, love, justice, humility, forgiveness, healing and reconciliation they are destined to collapse and give way to a higher order. The prophetic words of the late Martin Luther King that ‘the arc of history is bent towards truth and justice’ are a precise summary of this reality.”