Centre for Policy Alternatives on 22 June, 2016

Seven Years Since

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Seven Years Since.

Dr Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu

It is now seven years since the end of the war and the onset of a post-war situation.  In that time the roots of conflict were not addressed but sustained and even reproduced. In the North and East, people observed that things may have looked better, but felt worse.  There and throughout the country, rights were at best irrelevant and at worst subversive.  Then, sixteen months ago there was an election that promised to change everything.  In order to do that though, some things had to be put on the backburner if those things were to be ever addressed at all.  The overarching priority was to win the election and irrespective of ethnicity and religion, people voted for change, hitherto considered impossible.

Are we now on the road to reconciliation, to a post-conflict world in which the sources of conflict are not sustained and reproduced?  Yes, No, Perhaps, Maybe?

The trajectory of developments, are in general, in the right direction, albeit with shortcomings in respect of the pace of change and the communication thereof.  A not altogether easy paradigm shift to complete, perhaps, for a coalition of historic rivals in government navigating differences within and challenges without, not to mention the plethora of promises made on a number of other fronts.  Yet, as far as the people of the North and East are concerned, they did their best and more for change and in the context of democratic politics, it is still overdue and insufficient payback in the currency of rights and equal citizenship.   As the supreme law of the land is to be changed and submitted to the country at large for approval, this acquires a political salience that cannot be ignored.  A result amongst the majority community that is too close will once again require the voter from the North and East to come to the rescue in full force.  They will likely stay at home if that supreme law is not convincingly founded on their equal citizenship, in this their home and country.

As the anniversary is marked, Geneva approaches, the constitution is to be written and GSP Plus applied for, the “low hanging fruit” argument in respect of corruption is relevant to reconciliation and national unity as well. Land has been returned, but there is more to be returned and without a convincing explanation for delay.  It appears that the government is keen to show demonstrable progress in respect of the promised mechanisms for reconciliation by bringing legislation to parliament on an Office for Missing Persons before the Geneva Human Rights Council sessions commence.  It is under criticism however regarding process, since the all- island public consultations have not commenced and no proper consultations with victims’ families in particular on this mechanism have been held.  There is time to rectify this and dispel the perception that the commitment to transitional justice and reconciliation is more than about ticking boxes to meet pre-determined deadlines.

The PTA is to be repealed and replaced with new legislation.  Whilst that is being done, it is surely incumbent on the government to communicate to the security forces and police at ground –level, the procedures that apply to arrest and in doing so emphasise the paradigm shift effected in January 2016 and the crucial importance of its practical demonstration on the ground.  Were the attention this important issue requires paid to it, the directives of the Kumaratunga government on this score adhered to for example, the concern and fear about a return to the “white van” era could have been avoided.

At the same time, the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation is working on a National Policy for Reconciliation. As to why this is being attempted now, some sixteen months after the new dispensation is not at all clear; that it is being attempted at al holds out some hope that beyond retrospection, premature perrhaps – quite a few policy initiatives having commenced – it will bring some strategic coherence to bear on how best to move to a post-conflict Sri Lanka.

Above all else though, the substantive and material issues aside, the spirit of reconciliation needs to be prioritized and projected.  Reconciliation is after all about mutual acknowledgement of pain and loss, the shared responsibility for a broken relationship and the felt need for repair born out of interdependence, recognition and commitment to a common destiny.  We have yet to have a commemoration, a simple ceremony, of the loss of life and livelihood of all Sri Lankans, combatant and non-combatant, citizens and soldier, who perished in the 30- year conflict. March -pasts, victory parades, private commemorations to the extent possible, do not bring together the peoples of the country.  This columnist suggested this at the end of the war and repeats the call to the government to take the lead in convening such a ceremony – perhaps an inter-religious one at Independence Square?

Constitutional reform and transitional justice are going to test the reconciliatory potential in the polity to the full.  Whilst lamenting the time and opportunities lost in the last seven years and even in the last 16 months of it to bolster and expand this potential, we must not loose hope and thereby lend credence to the thesis that nothing has really changed – only the parties and the people at the helm of affairs.

Maybe the president and the prime minister will mark this seventh anniversary of the war with the people in the north and thereby unite the private and the official in a simple, significant display of unity of all the peoples of Sri Lanka?