Gotabaya on reconciliation

Print edition : November 08, 2019

The United Nations panel of experts estimated in 2011 that 40,000 civilians had been killed in the last stages of the war between the Sri Lankan forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Various other independent reports have recorded deaths in thousands and almost all of the dead were Tamils in the Northern Province, which is still under a heavy blanket of security. Many thousands more went missing, and though the Sri Lankan state promised accountability for any wrongdoings on the part of the armed forces, more than a decade and two governments later, there has hardly been any action.

For the families who lost a loved one, there has been no justice. Worse, many families are not even sure if their near and dear ones are alive or dead. Mass burials and disposal of bodies by burning or other means have also been recorded. But for the main Sri Lankan political parties, dominated by the majority Sinhalese-speaking politicians, reconciliation is about the future and not about the past.

Of the top four candidates, two are former Army officers, Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Mahesh Senanayake, while a third, Sajith Premadasa, has promised to place the responsibility of national security with the war-time General, later elevated as Field Marshal, Sarath Fonseka. Of the four, Gotabaya has a distinct edge because he was the first to launch the campaign and has deep pockets and the image of a no-nonsense bureaucrat who won the war for Sri Lanka. He has very definitive ideas on reconciliation—much of which will sell in Sri Lanka but will not meet the hopes of a Sri Lankan Tamil citizen looking for closure over a relative missing or presumed dead.

The Sri Lanka Podujana Party (SLPP) candidate, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, thinks that giving citizens “the opportunity to live in dignity” is the key to reconciliation for Tamils in the island nation. When Frontline asked him what his philosophy of reconciliation was, he said his philosophy was that “everybody, every citizen in this country, [must be given] the opportunity to live in dignity. How can a person live with dignity? Give them education, give them the opportunity of peace and employment, and give them the opportunity where every person is aspiring to a good living, good education, and able to access affordable housing. These are the things we have to develop irrespective of the region, irrespective of the ethnicity, irrespective of where one comes from. This is where, unfortunately, because of the 30 years of war [with the LTTE], certain areas were not developed like the other areas.”

He highlighted the Mahinda Rajapaksa government’s development work after the war ended in May 2009 and asserted that no one had done more:

“But, I want to mention here that... the Mahinda Rajapaksa government should get the credit not only for ending the war but also for the post-war development that we did. We have pumped a lot of money into the region [Northern Province], and if you take what is existing there—the road network, the two railway lines, electricity for every village, drinking water projects, the rehabilitation of irrigational canals—all these were done under the Mahinda Rajapaksa government.

“Lots of people talk about releasing the lands. Actually, we are the people who released 90 per cent of the land. In 2005, when we took over the government, just imagine the Jaffna peninsula. It was like a camp. Earlier, the LTTE was occupying this land, and then, in 1998, when the military cleared it, the military was occupying the land…. If you take the peninsula, we have released more than 90 per cent of the land to the owners…. Even I have relocated the camps on government land…. I had discussions to give the owners even land surrounding the Palali Airport [the Jaffna airport, which will see its first international flight on October 17].”

His grouse was that nobody talked about the achievements of his brother’s government. “We are the ones who settled people in those areas [three lakh people]. We are the ones who developed the area. But, unfortunately, whether it is the NGOs, the local politicians or the international community, no one talks about these things,” he said.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa also insisted, in his first press conference on October 15, that it was possible to look at the future without considering what happened in the past.

R.K. Radhakrishnan

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