counter hit xanga
March 26, 2023

Reconciliation Initiative – the bigger picture

Last Updated on December 3, 2022 by Desman Chathuranga

It has been announced that the government of Sri Lanka is on a reconciliation initiative. In pursuance thereof, President Wickremesinghe has invited all Tamil MPs for talks next week to discuss issues faced by the Tamil people and how to resolve them amicably without outside interference before the 75th Independence Day. This is Indeed a laudable project, although some sceptics have described it as being due to the result of relentless pressure from outside and future international economic assistance and support being tied to the resolution of this issue. If this is true then it is all the more important that it be approached in a way which goes to the root of the problem and brings the ethnic parties together again in friendship and harmony, which is what reconciliation means.

President Wickremesinghe has mentioned certain subjects for the discussion which include the release of prisoners presumably those held in respect of the civil war, issues pertaining to truth and reconciliation again presumably those arising from the civil war. The list also includes development plans for the North and East which includes assessment of renewable energy potential in the North, and finally development of Trincomalee for Tourism.

Although the above are all worthy objectives, it fails to deal with the subject of reconciliation per se. Reconciliation means restoring friendship and harmony between parties who have been divided, and would include settling or resolving the differences between them. To my mind the most important question to be resolved is whether this Country is to be regarded as a Sinhala Buddhist State where all the other ethnic, religious groups are treated as guests, or as a multi- ethnic- multi-religious, secular country where all citizens have equal rights.

During the previous regime of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, it was publicly asserted to be a Sinhalese Buddhist state where other ethnic and religious entities were being allowed to live. This ideology was propounded by ethno-nationalist Sinhalese politicians, academics and media houses. The sole Sinhalese Politician of Stature who was brave enough to repudiate this claim was the late Mangala Samaraweera. He had to bear the consequences of stating that the country belonged to all the ethnicities and religious groups and was denigrated by ethno- nationalists. Even today this policy continues in the Eastern province, where under the pretext of Archaeology, and Buddhist ruins, Tamil speaking farmers of the area are being dispossessed of their lands, although historically many of these ruins are Tamil Buddhist ruins. In the Trincomalee district, administrative boundaries are being sought to be changed so as to make demographic changes to the population of the district. All these actions are analogous to those of Israeli settlements in Palestinian lands, and is only breeding bad blood between the communities, instead of reconciliation. It is also noteworthy that the Archaeological Task force for the Eastern province appointed during the previous regime does not contain a single member of either the Tamil or Muslim communities who constitute the majority in this Province. The above actions would call in question the credibility of the present reconciliation process to even the international observers, and should be discontinued.

This claim that the island belongs only to one ethnic religious group, is not entirely new, although it was given a public endorsement in the regime of President Gotabaya. From 1949 itself with the passing of the Acts disenfranchising the upcountry Tamils and the passing of the Sinhala only Act in 1956, this policy began to reveal itself. There were also pogroms against Tamil speaking people from 1956 onwards, culminating in the pogrom of 1983 which was said to be state inspired and directed. In the aftermath of the 1983 holocaust, the non-violent Satyagraha methods which had marked the earlier Tamil political resistance movement came to an end as people began to doubt its efficacy.

I might add that in my view, it was not the Sinhalese people who were responsible for this policy and the consequences thereof, but self-serving politicians and members of a political class, who found a path to power, position and wealth by espousing this ideology and deceiving their own people. It was this ideology that resulted in Sri Lanka losing so many of its professionals and talent, as sections of the population began to feel that they had no place in this Country. First the Burgher community which had made this their home since the 17th century, emigrated to Australia, subsequently many Tamil professionals who had skills that could benefit the country left for the UK, USA, Canada, Australia, and other first world countries. After the major pogrom of 1983, there was an outflow of Tamil refugees who had suffered the effects of the violence, to all parts of the world. The armed struggle also began to take shape, as the military repression caused many young people of the Tamil community to join the ranks of the militants and take up arms because they did not see themselves as equal citizens in this nation. All these factors had a bearing on the present catastrophic economic downturn which we now see. This of course is not the only reason as the incompetence and corruption of the rulers and the political class was also a major factor.

So, we can see that for true reconciliation to take place there must be a recognition that this Country is a Multi- ethnic, multi- religious country in which all citizens are equal and have an equal stake. We must welcome and be proud of our diversity as do countries like Canada and South Africa. Even in the United Kingdom our former colonial ruler, a Hindu of Indian origin is able to take his place as Prime minister. The British Conservative party has chosen to give recognition to ability and talent and not race or religion. We have to look to the day when the Sri Lankan nation will do likewise. In a country where all the citizens of diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds are accepted as equal partners, all the constituent peoples would be enthused to work together for the upliftment of ‘their’ country. The Tamil diaspora too would come forward to assist and invest in the Country. For this change of heart /mindset to take place there must be a revamp of the text books in the schools and particularly in the- Sinhalese medium. History books must show the common cultural links between the communities and not portray them in an adversarial way. The historical linkages between the South Indian kingdoms and Lanka should be brought out. The fact that South India was Buddhist too for many centuries, and the Chola Kings who ruled Lanka for almost a century were also patrons of Buddhism should be made known to the public, both Sinhalese and Tamil, as Tamils too are largely unaware of the common heritage they share.

It also behoves the Tamil community to move away from a mindset of victimisation and constant harping on the Civil war. Every war has its brutalities and crimes and these are not confined to one party alone. The Tamil community has to look to the future and while safeguarding their culture and identity they also have to break away from their insularity. Where the hand of friendship and reconciliation is genuinely extended, they should take it and go forward. We might take a lesson from the civil war in the USA, between the Northern States of the Union and the Southern states in the 1860s. Here too the Southern states, (the Confederacy) tried to secede from the Union and form their own state. The war that followed was a very brutal one. It is said that the northern Army of General Sherman followed a scorched earth policy while marching through the Southern states. But once the war was over and the North had won, the Union government followed a policy of Reconciliation. In the National War Memorial in Arlington Virginia, there is a memorial to the Confederate soldiers of the South too, thus honouring the dead on both sides. The reunited USA, a Federal state, went on to become a great power and one of the most prosperous nations in the world. In Sri Lanka too as a measure of reconciliation some memorial to those who died fighting for their cause would go a long way in assuaging the feelings of their relatives and friends, rather than the policy of destroying their cemeteries and preventing their family members from remembering them, as hitherto. The release of the prisoners who participated in the Civil war, some of them still imprisoned, while awaiting trial after so many years, is a good beginning, as too the idea of a Truth and Reconciliation commission which is being envisaged.

Next, I would also like to touch on the question of sharing of powers, as a necessary constituent of reconciliation. Since the Indo- Sri Lanka peace Accord of July 1987, there has been a process of putting in place a system of Devolution of powers. This Treaty gave recognition to the Tamil people as Historical inhabitants of the Northern and Eastern Provinces and provided for a system of devolution of powers through Provincial Councils. Under the 13th Amendment to the Constitution and the Provincial Councils Act the Provincial Councils were set up. Under the 13th Amendment, powers are given in respect of a wide spectrum of subjects, which are set out in the annexed Lists and Annexures. However, the Provincial Councils Act stultified many of these powers by giving the Governor control of Finances and the Provincial administrative services. Furthermore, the Central Authorities kept encroaching on the subjects allocated to the Provincial Councils. Hence the Provincial Councils have not been as effective as they might have been. This has given rise to the view expressed by some persons including Tamil politicians that the Provincial Council system is not workable, and should hence be done away with. To this, it must be pointed out that since independence seventy-five years ago the Tamil parties have been agitating for some measure of power sharing while seeing a federal Constitution as the ultimate goal. This agitation has been through Parliament and through peaceful ‘satyagrahas’, and through negotiations and pacts with Sinhalese majority Parties and Governments. Finally, the militants having lost faith in negotiations took up arms and a protracted civil war of almost 30 years ensued. But for all this the only political gains in the way of power sharing and devolution that the Tamils have obtained has been the Provincial Councils and that too through the good offices of the Government of India.

Hence good sense dictates that the Tamil political leaders make the best use of what they have in hand. With the ongoing reconciliation process, they could press for the necessary amendments to be made to the Provincial Councils Act, which could be done through legislation with a simple majority in Parliament, or a two third majority where some Provincial Councils do not agree to the changes. No Referendum is required Furthermore, it must be conceded that the Northern Provincial Council could have exercised greater authority and made more progress by making use of the powers to pass statutes on subjects allocated to the Councils, which I might point out the Northern Province Council as of date has been very remiss in doing. Even in the matter of spending funds allocated to it by the Centre the Council has been remiss and even returned such funds in some instances. So in my view, with greater commitment on the part of the stakeholders a more efficient administration can be ensured, once the necessary amendments are put in place.

The alternative is to return to the long-drawn-out process of endless negotiations and drafting committees. After the passing of the legislation in 1987, efforts to make improvements and changes were many, i.e. the Mangala Moonesinghe committee report in the 1990s, the Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga draft Constitution of 2000, which was incidentally the closest to a federal form of Government. Again in 2006 there was a multi -ethnic expert Committee appointed under the Mahinda Rajapaksa government which presented a report which was not implemented, next the APRC, (All Party Representative Committee) Report 2010, was shelved by the Government. With the change of Government in 2015 it was sought to revive the process and in 2016 a Constituent Assembly was formed to work on a new Constitution. Speaking on the recent reconciliation proposals Mr. Sumanthiran, MP on behalf of the TNA said that President Wickremesinghe had presented a draft of the new Constitution proposals to Parliament on 16th January 201 9 in the capacity of Prime minister, and this has to be taken forward. This is a sensible proposal as it is not worth restarting the same process again. I might mention that the Parliamentary Sub- Committee on Centre-Periphery relations, which was part of the above Constituent Assembly, made some very good proposals on the reforms to the Provincial Council system in its Report of 2019, which incorporated proposals in the 2006 Expert Committee Report and the APRC Report, and these can be drawn upon when making the amendments to the Provincial Councils Act, as proposed above.

With a view to making reconciliation a reality and restoring friendly relations and harmony between the communities, I have examined the background to, and underlying ideologies which have contributed to the estrangement between the communities. The strategies and steps to be taken in order to change perceptions and fixed prejudices and ideologies will require courage and transformational steps some outlined above. Reconciliation cannot be a one sided effort and both communities must be willing to make the effort. President Ranil Wickremesinghe is well suited to taking this process forward given his long experience of the political processes and understanding of the historical background.

­By Dr Nirmala Chandrahasan