Western powers murmur but Sri Lanka yet to come up with roadmap for reconciliation and good governance
Positive features in LLRC report, but issue of accountability for military excesses not addressed, say international groups
Sri Lanka ushers in another New Year in just six days, with some of the most difficult challenges staring in the face of the government.
Matters arising from the military defeat of Tiger guerrillas in May 2009 will no doubt be one of them. The end of the separatist war has rid the countrywide fear psychosis and brought about an unprecedented wave of development activity. Yet, the peace dividend arising from the victory is still to be declared. Both the government and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) are at loggerheads. Their dialogue is floundering and a proposed Parliamentary Select Committee has not got off the ground. Hence, the formulation of any political package to address whatever ‘Tamil grievances’ there are has not emerged so far. The question is whether it will in 2012.
Last Tuesday, the TNA called upon “the international community to acknowledge the consistent failure of the domestic accountability mechanisms in Sri Lanka and take steps to establish an international mechanism for accountability.” The appeal came in a statement which said that the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) “has dramatically failed the victims of the conflict.” It charged that the Commission has granted “immunity to civilian and military leaders responsible for devising the policies that led directly to the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity.”
Six days before the statement was issued, TNA leader Rajavarothayam Sampanthan told Parliament, “the responsibility to protect (or R2P), the right of the international community to intervene in situations when the local state itself has failed in its responsibility to protect its citizens was recognized.” In other words, the first duty is on the part of the local state, the country concerned to protect its citizens, he said. The remarks were to infuriate his counterpart, Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP) leader Douglas Devananda, who is vying for political supremacy in the north. He sought a ruling on how to react from President Mahinda Rajapaksa at the weekly cabinet meeting on December 14. Rajapaksa declared that not only Devananda but others were also free to strongly counter such remarks coming from those in the TNA. It would be no easy task for Devananda because the LLRC has called for an investigation on his “alleged disrespect for the law.”
The political warfare between the government and the TNA seems to have reached its zenith. Therefore, the task of formulating a political package in the coming year has become more difficult if not impossible. Last Tuesday, during a media briefing, President Rajapaksa accused the TNA of getting “instructions from abroad” and declared this was a considerable obstacle when it came to conducting “fruitful negotiations” with the government. He ruled out police powers to the north and east as an impracticable proposition. Though the President did not name the country behind the TNA, diplomatic circles were agog with the question. It is no secret that TNA delegations have travelled frequently to New Delhi in the past to meet government leaders and officials. On the other hand, they also visited the United States of America on an official invitation by that country. This was during various phases of their talks with the government. The police powers referred to, together with land use powers, were conferred on Provincial Councils under the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. That amendment came during the administration of President J.R. Jayewardene. It was after consultations with the then Indian government of Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi.
A new dimension to these developments has come from the LLRC’s final report. In addressing the question of devolution, it says, two matters require attention. One is “empowering local government institutions to ensure greater peoples’ participation at the grassroots level.” The other, it says, “is also imperative that the lessons learnt from the shortcomings in the functioning of the Provincial Councils system be taken into account in devising an appropriate system of devolution that addresses the needs of the people.” It adds that, “it should at the same time provide for safeguarding the territorial integrity and unity of Sri Lanka whilst fostering its rich diversity.”
It is clear that the LLRC has given consideration to the functioning of the Provincial Councils. If they were originally conceived as an instrument of power sharing, particularly in the North and the East, only the Eastern Provincial Council is now in existence. Thus, other than the Eastern Provincial Council, seven Provincial Councils that function in other parts of the country, though intended for the same power sharing process, were largely different due to the diverse ethnic compositions in those areas. It may not be wrong to say the declared objective in introducing Provincial Councils as a means for power sharing with the minorities was therefore not served. In fact, the LLRC quotes Central Bank data which says that from 1999 to 2008, the Western Province contributed 50 per cent to the country’s GNP. This was in marked contrast to the Northern and Eastern Provinces that together contributed only nine per cent of the GNP. Now, the LLRC has sought a review of this by recommending that Local Government institutions “be empowered.” It wants the government to devise “an appropriate system” learning from the shortcomings of the Provincial Councils. If the government accepts these recommendations, that may see the end of the Provincial Councils system, which is not a bad thing at all. There would be the birth of another system based on local government institutions, more relevant to a small country like Sri Lanka.
An additional mechanism, the LLRC says, “is the possibility of establishing a Second Chamber comprising Representatives from the Provinces.” Such a mechanism, it notes, is likely to generate a sense of confidence among the political leadership and among the people in the provinces. The proposal for the setting up of a Second Chamber was first mooted by Basil Rajapaksa, now Minister of Economic Development. He was then President Rajapaksa’s special envoy to India and discussed this subject with Indian political leaders and officials. In fact, he declared that such a mechanism would be in place soon. However, other developments overtook the issue.
More than two weeks after the final report of the LLRC was tabled in Parliament (on December 16), not even countries regarded as friends of Sri Lanka have issued any formal statement so far welcoming the report. Not surprisingly, the External Affairs Ministry has not been vigorous enough to pursue diplomatic efforts in this direction. Even External Affairs Minister, G.L. Peiris told Parliament last week “Mey ratey vimarshana, deshiya ho jathiyanthara vimarashana kisi deyak nehe….. Api Mekata ida denney nehe…… Angili gahanta kaatath ida denney nehe…..Mey ratey prashna jathiyanthara police karakeyukuta bara denna apita kisima adishtanayak nehe….. Jathiyanthara Police Karayek apita oney nehe…..”
In essence, Dr. Peiris insists that there would be no investigation, either domestically or internationally over Sri Lanka. “We will not give room for that. We have no plans to hand over problems of our country to an international policeman. We will not allow them to poke their finger. We do not need an international policeman,” he declared.
Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva, Leader of the House, presented the LLRC report in Parliament. In a five-page statement de Silva carefully spelt out what seemed a “declaration of intent” on how the government would handle some of the salient recommendations in the LLRC’s final report. That did not give a “road map” or “specify clear mechanisms” on how all the recommendations of the report would be studied or implemented. There have, however, been some pronouncements that matter. The LLRC report said in view of the volume of evidence that was led before it in relation to disappearances and those who surrendered during the last stages of the military campaign against the LTTE in 2009, they needed to be investigated by the Attorney General. Significantly, the President’s Office has not made any comment on the LLRC report even though it had a picture taken of the President reclining on an arm-chair wearing a sarong and reading the report very intently.
From ST political column