A year after

Print edition : June 18, 2010
in Colombo

President Mahinda Rajapaksa during a May Day rally in Colombo this year.-REUTERS

The political topography of Sri Lanka has changed beyond recognition since the military defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the death of its leader, Velupillai Prabakaran, in May last year. Contrary to the apprehensions in several quarters, there are no apparent signs of a revival of the LTTE within the geographical boundaries of Sri Lanka. It is significant that not a single incident of violence, ethnic or otherwise, has occurred for a whole year. For Sinhalese Sri Lankans, it is an ideal situation. But for the minorities, particularly the Tamils, it is an uneasy peace.

Tamils are neither mourning the death of Prabakaran nor yearning for a return to the era of violence. Their immediate worry is resettlement, and their medium-term and long-term worry is the protection of their rights and a reconciliation with the majority community a scenario in which they are treated as equal citizens in the island-nation. The extraordinary peace prevailing in the country has so far not resulted in a commencement of the journey towards reconciliation and a sense of security among the Tamils.

The ethnic war had displaced nearly 3,00,000 Tamil civilians. Of them, nearly 2,00,000 have been resettled in their original places of habitation. But it would take a while before they can resume their normal lives as the de-mining process is still going on. The reconstruction of the war-ravaged conflict zone in the north and in parts of the east is turning out to be a time-consuming and costly affair.

The war has orphaned and disabled a substantial number of people. Rehabilitating them is a gigantic task, and no government can make meaningful progress on these fronts without the help and cooperation of every conceivable source inside and outside the country.

Besides, there is the issue of rehabilitation of the nearly 12,000 LTTE combatants taken into custody by the military. Of them 2,500 have been trained and are being rehabilitated. The military intends to rehabilitate the remaining cadre in the next few months.

Rajapaksa's power

Unfortunately, the euphoria over the war victory among the majority community has led to the emergence of President Mahinda Rajapaksa as one of the most powerful political leaders Sri Lanka has ever seen in its post-independent history. Ideally, a strong government is good for political stability and economic development, but in a polarised society like Sri Lanka it is not a healthy proposition.

The fallout of the war has hurt not only the LTTE, but also the opposition. The extent to which the opposition has been weakened was evident in the January presidential election when it chose to back former Army chief Sarath Fonseka as the common consensus candidate. The hapless opposition parties thought Fonseka was the best bet to take on Rajapaksa since he had led the war against the LTTE. The assumption proved wrong, and Rajapaksa scored a resounding victory with a majority of over 18 per cent of the votes polled.

The general elections which followed in April saw a repeat performance by the combine led by Rajapaksa. For the first time since the adoption of the new Constitution in 1978, the ruling combine managed to come close to a two-thirds majority in Parliament.

These developments have not only widened the gulf between the ruling combine and the opposition but also left the Tamils in a state of confusion. The dilemma faced by the Tamils was evident at the time of the presidential as well as the parliamentary elections. In contrast to the rest of the island, the two provinces dominated by Tamils voted for parties pitted against the ruling combine.

Commission formed

The half-hearted initiatives taken by the Rajapaksa regime in the name of redressing the real and perceived grievances of the Tamils have not helped in providing the much-needed healing touch. The eight-member, multi-ethnic Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation' Commission appointed by the President on the eve of the first anniversary of the military victory over the LTTE best illustrates the point.

The commission, announced on May 15, has been mandated to report within six months the lessons learnt from the events between February 2002 and May 2009, and their attendant concerns and to recommend measures to ensure that there will be no recurrence of such a situation. Besides, it has been charged with reporting whether any person, group or institution directly or indirectly bears responsibility for the situation that prevailed during the period. It also has to recommend measures that can be taken to prevent the recurrence of such concerns in future, and promote further national unity and reconciliation among all communities.

May 19, 2009: Sri Lankan soldiers with the body of LTTE leader Velupillai Prabakaran in Mullaittivu.-AFP

While appointing the commission, the government acknowledged: [I]t has been apparent for quite some time to the government that the conflict situation, due to the very brutality and long duration of the violence perpetrated against Sri Lanka, would have caused great hurt and anguish in the minds of the people that requires endeavours for rehabilitation and the restoration of democratic governance, complimented by measures for reconciliation.

The constitution of the commission has raised several questions. The time frame for the probe is obviously politically motivated. It was in February 2002 that the then government led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe signed the Cease Fire Agreement (CFA) with the LTTE under Norway's mediation. Rajapaksa was highly critical of the CFA and had in fact fought the 2005 presidential election on the plank of abrogation of the CFA and replacement of Norway as the official mediator for talks between the Sri Lankan government and the Tigers.

There had been a great deal of debate in the past few years within and outside Sri Lanka on the merits of the CFA, but now the subject is considered as closed. The question is what purpose is going to be served by raking up the past. Since the military defeat of the LTTE, Rajapaksa had on several occasions talked about the need to move forward in a constructive manner to find a political solution acceptable to all stakeholders in the ethnic conflict. Setting February 2002 as the starting point for an investigation by the commission is contrary to the promise made by the President himself.

Even assuming that the government is earnest in its effort to find a political solution to the conflict, questions have been raised as to why it had to wait one full year to appoint a commission. While approving the setting up of the commission, the Cabinet noted that the President had allowed Sri Lanka's Permanent Representative in the United Nations to mention in his remarks at the U.N. Security Council Interactive Briefing on June 5 that the government was in the process of initiating a domestic mechanism for fact-finding and reconciliation.

This statement stemmed from the government's commitment to the promotion and protection of human rights, as consistently articulated and affirmed by Sri Lanka at sessions of the Human Rights Council. The President informed the Cabinet that in order to accomplish this task it has become necessary to set in motion a mechanism which will provide a historic bridge between the past of a society characterised by inflicted strife and a future society founded on the continued recognition of democracy and peaceful co-existence and the affording of equal opportunities for all Sri Lankans as guaranteed by the Constitution, a press statement issued on the occasion said.

War Crimes

Obviously, though the government had committed itself to such an initiative nearly a year ago, it was in no hurry. It is against this backdrop that the timing of the announcement of the commission has raised doubts. Since the end of the war, the government has been under pressure from various quarters within and outside the country to initiate an inquiry into the charges of human rights violations, particularly in the last phase of the war.

For several weeks now, the Rajapaksa government has been at loggerheads with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon over the latter's proposal to appoint a panel of experts to advise him on the subject of human rights violations in Sri Lanka. Similarly, Colombo is engaged in a war of words with the European Union (E.U.) over the former's alleged failure to conform to some of the international conventions on human rights.

The E.U. has decided to withdraw tariff concessions to the Sri Lankan apparel industry from August onwards, and currently negotiations are in progress between the two sides for the restoration of the facility.

Tamil refugees return home from the camps on a tractor, at Kathankulam village in Mannar, in October 2009. Nearly 2,00,000 Tamils have been resettled in their original places of habitation.-ERANGA JAYAWARDENA/P

Some international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are also seeking an inquiry, particularly into the last phase of the war. Two days after the appointment of the commission by the government, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) said in a report titled War Crimes in Sri Lanka that there was enough evidence to show that repeated violations of international law were made by both the Sri Lankan security forces and the LTTE during the last five months of Eelam War IV (which was fought from August 2006 to May 2009).

Seeking an international inquiry into the alleged war crimes, the ICG said that the Sri Lankan government had conclusively demonstrated its unwillingness to undertake genuine investigations into abuses by the security forces and continued to deny any responsibility for civilian casualties. It said a true accounting was needed to address the grievances and hence the international community had to take the lead.

The scale of civilian deaths and suffering demands a response, says ICG president Louise Arbour. Future generations will demand to know what happened, and future peace in Sri Lanka requires some measure of justice.

Maintaining that the international community has a responsibility to uphold the rule of law, the reputation of international agencies and respect for international humanitarian law and, more importantly, to protect civilian lives, the ICG warned:

Today, a number of other countries are considering the Sri Lankan option' unrestrained military action, refusal to negotiate, disregard for humanitarian issues, restrictions on international observers including mediapersons and humanitarian workers as a way to deal with insurgents and other violent groups.

An international inquiry is necessary not only for justice and long-term peace in Sri Lanka but also to help prevent a repeat elsewhere, Robert Templer, ICG's Asia Program director, said. It would serve as a warning to other governments that may be considering the Sri Lankan model' to address their own internal conflicts.

It is certainly not a coincidence that the newly appointed External Affairs Minister of Sri Lanka, during his first visit to New York, in May, made repeated references to the Reconciliation Commission. The Minister made it a point to tell the U.N. Secretary-General that the commission appointed by the Rajapaksa government would look into all aspects of the conflict, including accountability'. He also questioned the U.N. chief's move to appoint a group of experts to advise him on matters relating to Sri Lanka.

Emergency laws still in place

The scepticism that critics of the government harbour about the commission is not difficult to understand. Afew days earlier there was an announcement regarding the scaling down of emergency regulations. Since the end of the war, questions have been raised by the opposition as well as NGOs about the need for continuing with the emergency laws. However, the government overruled the objections on the ground that the laws were necessary to enable the armed forces to hunt down the remaining Tiger cadre.

Emergency regulations have been in vogue in Sri Lanka since the assassination of Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar in August 2005 by the LTTE. Under the Sri Lanka Constitution, emergency laws could be enacted only by Parliament and they are valid for a period of one month only. Since August 2005, the emergency laws are being extended on a monthly basis. In fact, in March and April, the dissolved Parliament was summoned to extend the life of the laws.

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