Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

  • September 2010
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Reconciliation the priority – President Mahinda Rajapakse tells the world

Posted by harimpeiris on September 30, 2010

Excellencies, The entire focus of our nation, is now on building a lasting peace; healing wounds, ensuring economic prosperity and guaranteeing the rights of the whole nation to live in harmony. We are mindful that in order to fulfill these aspirations, economic development and political reconciliation must go hand in hand. Towards this end, constitutional changes which appropriately reflect aspirations of our people will be evolved with the full participation of all stakeholders ….. Sri Lanka recognizes the challenges we face, among the greatest of which is healing the wounds of the recent past”. (President Mahinda Rajapakse / United Nations 65th General Assembly, 23rd September 2010)

Late last week, President Mahinda Rajapakse spoke to the world, through the medium of the 65th General Assembly of the United Nations. There he made some statements that one does not often hear mentioned to domestic audiences in Sri Lanka about the need for reconciliation and healing the wounds of the past. Cynics would argue that the speech was just window dressing, telling the world what they wished to hear, while pursuing domestically in Sri Lanka an entirely different path. Notwithstanding such skepticism, which time would prove right or wrong, the very fact that the President deemed it necessary and desirable to strike the conciliatory tone and language which he did, is both encouraging and most welcome.  The President’s speech makes clear some self evident truths which we would do well to examine.

  1. 1.       We need reconciliation because of the obvious divisions of three decades of conflict

President Rajapakse states that the post conflict development needs to go hand in hand with reconciliation. Post conflict reconciliation is broadly defined as that process that brings together former antagonists or parties to a conflict towards a harmonious relationship. Reconciliation is needed because Sri Lanka’s three decades long conflict ended with Sri Lankan society bitterly divided and polarized along ethnic lines. While the Tamil political classes are undoubtedly relieved at the plurality and political space opened up by the LTTE’s unlamented demise, the nature of the conflict, namely the mono ethnic nature of the LTTE, meant that the Sri Lankan State and particularly its security apparatus in response had also become a near mono ethnic entity. Much more so than from the Sri Lankan State of the early nineteen seventies, from which the Tamil polity sought to secede originally before the conflict. It is largely the Tamil civilians of the North and East who bore the brunt of the fighting in their backyards or their villages and towns, lost property and loved ones in droves.

A rather unfortunate lacuna in the President’s administration seems to be that those closest to him and the most vociferous are neither interested in reconciliation and worst seem to believe it unnecessary. The thinking being that Tamils should be duly grateful for the destruction of the LTTE and all that is now required is some catch up development in the North. Speaking to the whole world, the President has himself laid to rest such fallacies, stating rather clearly the need the need for development and reconciliation to go hand in hand.

  1. 2.       Constitutional amendments to increase (not decrease) regional autonomy

Some State reform is required for the Sri Lankan State to reflect the full diversity of its society. As the late Dr.Neelan Tiruchelvam often stated, Sri Lanka has the anomaly of “a mono ethnic state imposed on a multi ethnic polity”. Sri Lanka has devolution of power already on its statute books in the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan constitution. It is former militant, now long term Government minister and respected Tamil political party leader Douglas Devananda who used to and still calls for a three step implementation of devolution. Firstly the immediate implementation in the North of the provincial devolution already existent in all other provinces of the country including in the East, which in practice would require the overdue Northern Provincial Council (NPC) elections to be held and the establishment of the Council and the provincial administration. Unpalatable for the government perhaps as an election it is likely to lose, in even a moderately free and fair election and would result in handing over the NPC to the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). The second step is moving towards implementation at least in stages and to some degree of the features of the 13th Amendment that are not yet implemented. The third step would be to focus on dialogue with the political parties represented in the North and East on improvements to and increasing the scope of the 13th Amendment, perhaps to bring it line with the Indian experience on devolution, that has remarkably succeeded in united a much more diverse society and creating a unique multi ethnic, multi religious Indian identity.

  1. 3.       Reconciliation measures

President Rajapakse states that “Sri Lanka recognizes the challenges we face, among the greatest of which is healing the wounds of the recent past”. The Presidential acknowledgement on the existence of wounds of the past is in itself welcome in a situation where one suspected that the dominant view was the denial of any societal wounds, excepting the South’s trauma of being subjected to terrorism for close upon three decades and the violent totalitarianism of LTTE politics in the North. However healing wounds have a rather obvious policy framework to follow. There are short term steps that require and can be immediately implemented, generally a quick transition to a civilian led and humanitarian focused rehabilitation effort in the former conflict areas. Then there are the medium term policy measures that can be adopted, generally through executive and administrative action, which require no new laws or other legislative, constitutional or serious political efforts except of course for political will. Finally there  are the longer term state reforms that would be a political process in seeking to transform the Sri Lanka State to enable it to better reflect the full diversity of her peoples.

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