By Jehan Perera
When assessing the government’s post-war performance it is the issues of accountability on human rights issues and a political solution to the ethnic conflict that take the international centre stage. On both of these counts the Government of Sri Lanka would fare poorly in international estimation.
The governmental decision to reject a request by the UN Human Rights Council to send a team to provide technical assistance on human rights issues would be the latest international black mark against the government.
Despite international interest in the issue of war crimes and human rights violations allegedly committed in the last phase of the war the government’s position has been consistently to reject this interest as unwarranted and hypocritical international intervention. The government’s defence has been essentially two-fold. One is to deny that any such violations ever took place as a result of government policy. The second defence is more an implied one rather than explicitly stated. It is to take the position that what happened was necessary to end the curse of the war once and for all.
On the issue of a political solution to the ethnic conflict the government has been prevaricating with a resolve that makes it clear that this is not a journey it wants to go on. The manner in which President Mahinda Rajapaksa has been dealing with the Indian political leadership is indicative of this. During their visits to Sri Lanka, top level Indian leaders of the caliber of their Foreign Minister and Opposition Leader have publicly announced that the Sri Lankan President had promised to improve the existing arrangements on the devolution of power. But soon after they leave, the Sri Lankan government issues a denial that such a promise was ever made.
In these circumstances it is unrealistic to expect the Sri Lankan government to proceed to undertake serious action with regard to accountability on human rights issues and on a political solution to the ethnic conflict. It appears that no amount of pressure, whether national or international, is going to make the government budge on these two issues. These two issues go to the heart of the government’s survival. The issue of war crimes and human rights violations potentially targets the very hierarchy of the government. The issue of a political solution to the ethnic conflict targets the voter base of the government.
There are many issues, other than the two mentioned above, wherein a change of government policy would benefit the people, and where the government could be willing to change. A more constructive approach to getting positive results would be to engage the government on issues where it is willing to be accommodative. One area in which there has been a great deal of positive change has been in access to the north of the country. During the war much of the north was inaccessible to those from outside of the north. Even after the war this situation continued with multiple check points where permission to travel beyond a certain point was very common.
However, my personal experience of travel to the north a fortnight ago revealed that the checkpoints that still exist are no longer to keep people out. This was true even of travel to the interior areas of the Vanni where the last battles were fought. Another positive feature is the ease of travel by air which is totally different from what it was in the past. There are no more double or triple security checks, photographing of passengers and interference by military personnel. Those who fly to Jaffna even have the benefit of picking up their baggage on the tarmac and boarding a bus from there itself that will take them direct to their hotel.
Another issue on which there has been significant improvement is the shrinking of the land taken by the military to be high security zones. This has been a source of much grievance to the people who lost their homes and agricultural fields for many years without compensation. According to the government about 70 percent of the land has been returned to their owners. Within a few minutes of leaving the airport by bus, I could see people cycling and walking on the roads. The high security zone around Palali Air Force base where the Jaffna airport is located has shrunk considerably.
While the government is refusing to move on issues of accountability and a political solution, it can be seen that there is also an environment in which life is steadily improving for people at the community level. A large part of this improvement is due to the natural resilience of the people themselves. By creating basic infrastructure, the government is contributing to this change. Accordingly the challenge before those who have the people’s best interests at heart is to persuade the government to serve the needs of the people rather than to be an oppressor.
There are elements of government rule in the north that continue to give it the impression of being an oppressor. An example is the practice of military personnel attending civil society meetings as unwanted guests. This is probably due to the mistrust that exists and the fear of insurrectionary impulses being resurrected at these civil society meetings, especially if they are sponsored by NGOs. It is understandable if a government in a post-war situation wishes to have some surveillance over its citizens and to have informants providing it with early warnings of security threats. However, it is not acceptable that this is done in a blatant and intimidating manner.
It may be the case that what is happening on the ground is not known to the political leaders of the government. The fact is that the military continues to have a dominant role in the governance of the north. Despite the role played by the military in the north, President Mahinda Rajapaksa has gone on record declaring that the north is now run entirely by the civilian administration. A cloud of unknowing may account for the president’s utterances. The elected representatives of the people of the north need to have a positive relationship and ability to take this information to the government leaders and make them understand that it is not in the national interest to have these grievances fester.
The key to Sri Lanka’s future as a reconciled and peaceful society is that the relationship between the TNA, which represents most of the Tamil people of the north and east, and the government should be healthy and based on partnership rather than enmity. The challenge for the TNA is to strengthen its working relationship with the government at the same time as it continues to demand justice and rights for the people whom it represents. It can do this by cooperating with the government in areas of common interest important to both parties.
President Rajapaksa has made it clear that he believes that the Parliamentary Select Committee is the way forward to a political solution in post-war Sri Lanka. It seems to be his way of sharing responsibility with the opposition parties for the outcome. The government also probably sees the PSC as one answer it can give to the international community that is constantly putting pressure on it and asking for a progress report on the solution to the ethnic conflict. This position has been contested by the TNA which sees this as yet another time-buying exercise on the part of the government. The TNA, and indeed all who want inter-ethnic justice in Sri Lanka, can point with justification to many other committees and commissions appointed by the government, whose reports either did not see the light of day or were suspended in mid stream.
There can be no progress if the TNA and government consider each other to be foes rather than partners. The recent initiative by Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe to bridge the gap between the government and TNA positions in participating in the Parliamentary Select Committee is commendable. He has called on the government to revive its dialogue with the TNA on the basis of past proposals, including implementing the 13thAmendment and further building on it to achieve meaningful devolution. Without such multi track engagement, it is difficult to build either positive relationships or trust that are needed to enable national progress.