Jehan Perera in Colombo
Secretary to the President, Lalith Weeratunge gave an early warning of things to come during his visit to Washington DC in February to lobby against the proposed UNHRC resolution on war crimes that was being led by the United States and reached its denouement in the vote in Geneva on March 27. The presidential secretary drew upon his knowledge of the workings of Sri Lankan society and government to warn of chaos if the resolution was passed. At that time he was criticized for making this statement. It was seen as reviving the ghosts of Sri Lanka’s most tragic episodes, the anti Tamil riots of 1983, behind which were sections of the then government. The larger implication of his statement was that an international investigation into the last phase of the war, which would implicate those who ended LTTE terror in the country would be resisted to the fullest extent possible.
Those who have been seeking to promote accountability in Sri Lanka, as the means to reconciliation, are perhaps thinking in rational terms in which concepts of Rule of Law, Due Process and Separation of Powers prevail. But it appears that what exists in most parts of the world is something entirely different. The March 31 issue of the Time magazine has a commentary on how geopolitics impacts on the way nations act. It refers to Russia’s takeover of Crimea, and the response of the United States and its Western allies who have been impotent to stop the course of events.
In Sri Lanka, barely five years after the bloody end of its three decade long separatist war, the patterns of the past are re-emerging. But on this occasion there is no disorderly chaos of mob violence, rather a more deliberate and controlled movement that would necessitate a state of national emergency. The shoot out in the North in which three persons, alleged to be gun carrying LTTE members, were shot dead in an encounter with the army, is a harsh reminder of how the present is inextricably connected to the past. The killing of these three persons has followed weeks of cordon and search operations, and the arrests of more than 60 persons which the government itself openly states as indicating a bid to revive the LTTE. These incidents suggest that the presidential secretary’s words are coming true, but not in the way anticipated by his critics.
However, the desire of the government to deal with the threats to itself emanating from the international community has to be balanced by its need to maintain its legitimacy in the eyes of the Sri Lankan people. In accordance with the country’s political ethos this legitimacy comes from winning elections, by hook or by crook, if need be, but they need to be won. The setback suffered by the government in the provincial council elections to the Western and Southern provinces loom large in political discussion. In particular, the loss of the ethnic and religious minority vote would be a cause for concern to the government. None of the minority candidates on its list got elected at the polls. This seems to be causing a serious rethink of government policy.
The National Unity Convention organized by the Ministry of National Languages and Social Integration last week gave the government an opportunity to begin the process of winning back that waning ethnic minority electoral support. President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s speech on the occasion was most impressive. He came across as reflective, thoughtful and conciliatory. The President commenced his speech by referring to the victory achieved by the Sri Lanka cricket team at the T20 world championship. He said that all communities had celebrated together. He also saw this same diversity of people and their unity at the National Unity Convention and rejoiced in it.
One of the main reasons for the flight of ethnic minority votes away from the government has been the increased number of attacks on places of worship of minority religions and disruption of their meetings in which they have sought to champion their causes. The President appeared mindful of this problem when he pointed out that Sri Lanka’s history and cultural ethos was to give diverse people the protection and space to live their lives without seeking to change their identities. He explained that when the Muslims were persecuted by the Portuguese in the 16th century, the King had given them refuge in the east. Likewise when the Catholics were persecuted by the Dutch they were given refuge in Wahakotte in the middle of the country.
The present Sri Lankan reality is one of confrontation and polarisation. The clock has begun to tick on the international investigation, which is set to commence after the passage of the resolution on Sri Lanka at the UNHRC. The government has decided not to cooperate with this investigation and to take action against those Sri Lankans who cooperate with it. It has banned the most important of the Tamil Diaspora organizations that lobbied for the passage of the UNHRC resolution. Among those banned are organizations that have met with world leaders and held meetings inside their parliaments. A blanket ban against so many Diaspora organizations who maintain close links with their kith and kin living in Sri Lanka will deal a heavy blow at any prospect of national reconciliation.
On the ground too, especially in the North, where the last phase of the war was fought, the tensions have risen dramatically. In the Kilinochchi, and Mullaitivu areas there is heavy presence of military and intelligence units. Frequent cordon and search operations, checkpoints and arrests are rife. Several cases of arrests of persons have been reported. Some of the arrested individuals were subsequently released after questioning. But this has caused fear and tension in the community. It appears that the main targets of the arrests are former LTTE cadres who have not undergone rehabilitation and individuals who have recently returned from overseas. The motivation for these actions would be to nip any possibility of future revolt in the bud. However, President Rajapaksa gave the insights that are necessary for a different type of peace building which is more lasting and more beneficial for all concerned.
In the course of his speech at the National Unity Convention the President pointed out that “We pardoned thousands of former combatants as we have national history in our minds. National unity cannot be established in a fraudulent manner.” This refers to the trust that is needed for peace building. In addition to President Rajapaksa, Ministers Vasudeva Nanayakkara, Tissa Vitarana and Rajitha Senaratne also spoke of healing, togetherness and the need for a political solution. The opposition was represented by UNP parliamentarian Eran Wickremaratne They were all present when the People’s Charter for Unity was ratified, which in its preamble stated that it was “Guided by the rights and duties enshrined in the Constitution of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and further obligations assumed in line with global and regional rights declarations and conventions ratified by Sri Lanka.” The challenge will be to operationalise this charter in an increasingly bleak environment.