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Friday, June 14, 2024

Sri Lanka: Reconciliation without political solution is unconvincing

By Jehan Perera

The 15th anniversary of the end of the war has made it clear that the war may have ended but the problems related to it have not.  Outside of the north and east, the site of military action, there is a sense of normalcy with the war being a receding memory.  This has given rise to the belief that the government could give its priority attention to other problems afflicting the country, most notably the economic collapse which continues to be a baleful presence in the lives of the great majority of people.  There was also the hope that under the leadership of President Ranil Wickremesinghe, and his relationships with the leaders of Western countries, that the international pressures from human rights groups and the UN Human Rights Council could be overcome.

 However, the events that have transpired have shown that the international community continues to maintain its focus on Sri Lanka.  The geopolitical strategies that the government has used, such as sending a naval ship into the Red Sea to protect merchant shipping alongside the US superpower, has not yielded dividends in international human rights forums.  Indeed, the situation appears to have worsened from the government’s perspective.  The visit of the head of Amnesty International to Sri Lanka, and her visit to the site of the last battlefield of the war was noteworthy.  Secretary-General, Agnes Callamard, called on the international community to take decisive action by referring Sri Lanka to the UN Security Council with a view to an International Criminal Court investigation.

 The appeal to the international community to prosecute those guilty of war crimes is an indication of a desire to sustain the moral legitimacy of Western countries that has been questioned in Gaza and Ukraine.  This may explain why despite the ongoing conflicts in Gaza and Ukraine there is no let up on the attention given to Sri Lanka.  On the contrary there appears to be an escalation.  The bipartisan resolution in the US Congress calling for a referendum on Tamil Eelam coupled with the Canadian Prime Minister’s yearly reiteration that genocide took place in Sri Lanka cannot be dismissed as beingå merely due to election-related ploys of foreign politicians.  These statements and positions can take on a life of their own, as seen in the Amnesty International statement.

 TWO PRONGED

 It appears that the government is responding to this international challenge through a two pronged approach.  The first approach is to counter statements issued by international critics with hard hitting responses of its own.  The government through its ambassador in Geneva has said the UN Human Rights High Commissioner’s report goes against the fundamental principles of impartiality, objectivity, and non-selectivity while being made at a time when the government was “engaged in a series of reconciliation efforts.”  On the Canadian allegation of genocide, the Sri Lankan foreign minister has stated Canada’s disproportionate focus on Sri Lanka is a clear example of “double standards” as it has remained “intentionally ambiguous relating to the daily dire humanitarian situations we see elsewhere.”

 The second approach of the government has been led by President Wickremesinghe himself who has made several forays into the north of Sri Lanka to engage with the state administration and civil intelligentsia there.  During the recent Vesak holidays the president took time to spend two days in Jaffna and meet with a range of people.  He spelled out a vision of development in which the north would become a central hub of large scale development.  He said, “I have made it a point to visit Jaffna regularly, both as Prime Minister and President, recognizing the pressing need to address the longstanding issues stemming from the conflict in the north and east. The time has come to shift our focus towards development. There are people here who are looking for jobs and the potential for Jaffna for development is great, to use that term. Jaffna, which has seen limited development in recent years, holds immense potential for growth.”

 The president also spoke of the need to prioritise reconciliation efforts. He said, “Moving forward, we must prioritise reconciliation efforts, address concerns regarding missing persons, and devise mechanisms for compensation and truth and reconciliation. I think this is the time now we have to deal with all these issues. These are complex issues that demand collective cooperation and engagement from all stakeholders. I have discussed this with the members of Parliament from North and the East, as to what measures we need to take.”  He added that “The government is committed to establishing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), but we must address the critical issue of judicial powers.”

 POWER SHARING

 However, despite his efforts, there remains a lacuna in the president’s efforts to reach out to the people of the north which needs to be taken into account.  According to media and intelligentsia in the north, the president did not address the issue of power sharing and devolution of power, which in its current form is embodied in the now defunct provincial council system in terms of the 13th Amendment to the constitution.  Dealing with the ethnic conflict requires attention to be given to this issue as well, and not only to issues of development and dealing with the human rights violations of the past. The roots of the ethnic conflict lie in the issue of how to share power equitably between the ethnic communities (nationalities) that inhabit Sri Lanka’s multi-ethnic, multi-religious and pluralist space.

 When the president was elected to the presidency two years ago by parliament he spoke boldly on the issue.  He not only said that the 13th Amendment needed to be implemented as part of the constitution, he also pledged to implement it in full, including the provisions for the devolution of land and police powers which no government has so far implemented.  But now as president who is contemplating facing the people at the presidential election in less than six months he appears to be less certain of the support of the political parties on whom he depends to deliver the votes outside of the north and east.  But silence on this issue could jeopardise his potential vote in the north and east where the Tamil speaking people are a majority.

 By way of contrast, one of his two main rivals at the forthcoming elections, Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa has staked out his position that a future government led by him would be committed to implementing the 13th Amendment to the constitution. Speaking at the SJB rally to mark the International Labour Day (May Day) in Colombo, he said: “We will be reaching out to the majority Sinhalese population to offer a sustainable solution to the serious political issues plaguing our bankrupt country, especially focusing on the difficulties faced by non-Sinhalese communities.” The political solution would include implementing the 13th Amendment, which is needed along with development and dealing with the past, if the country is to be truly and sustainably reconciled.

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