Frustration Over Slow Progress In Sri Lanka
Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe with Commerce and Industry Minister Nirmala Sitharama
COLOMBO: The co-sponsoring of the Geneva resolution by the government and the support given to it by the TNA is a positive indication of the evolution of a spirit of partnership and joint problem-solving at the highest levels of national and international decision making that is necessary for promoting Reconciliation, Accountability and Human Rights in Sri Lanka.
However, this goodwill needs to be seen in practical terms at the ground level too in which people become the direct and immediate beneficiaries. Most people appear prepared to give the new government a chance at this time. It is important that the people’s confidence in the process of transition is sustained.
However, observations from the ground are that the majority of people are not aware of the significance of the resolution or the content of its recommendations. In the North there is frustration at the slow pace of change.
There are groups both in the North and South of the country that are trying to generate opposition to the UN resolution. A group of 71 Sinhalese university academics have issued a public statement expressing their opposition to the involvement of foreigners in the accountability process.
In the North, on the other hand, there are Tamil groups that are angry that the resolution does not provide for the setting up of a fully international judicial mechanism. In Paris, Tamil Diaspora activists even went to the extent of violently attacking a meeting at which parliamentarians from the TNA were speaking. They accused the parliamentarians of betraying the Tamil people by agreeing to less than an international accountability mechanism. The TNA which won the overwhelming majority of parliamentary seats at the general elections has been taking a moderate approach in its relationship with the government.
The appointment of TNA leader R Sampanthan as the Leader of the Opposition in Parliament is one positive outcome of this process of constructive engagement with the government. The TNA has also shown seriousness in acknowledging the negative role they and others in the Tamil polity have played in the past in aggravating the conflict. it has said “We also accept and undertake to carry out our responsibility to lead the Tamil people in reflecting on the past, and use this moment as a moment of introspection into our own community’s failures and the unspeakable crimes committed in our name, so as to create an enabling culture and atmosphere in which we could live with dignity and self-respect, as equal citizens of Sri Lanka.” It has also called on the government to cooperate fully with the TNA and the international community in dealing with the past in a manner that will assuage the feelings of the victims of all communities.
On the issue of the UN Human Rights Council resolution also the TNA has been playing a constructive role. The ideal position of the Tamil polity is an international accountability mechanism on account of the failure of previous domestic attempts to address human rights violations and bring the perpetrators to justice. On the opposite side is the view expressed by the 71 Sinhalese academics who oppose the international involvement. However the TNA has also said that it will support the outcome of the UN resolution which recommends a Sri Lankan judicial mechanism that has an international component in it. The TNA statement on the Geneva resolution said, "Nevertheless, the Resolution - if implemented - provides a genuine opportunity for real progress on accountability and reconciliation. We are grateful to the co-sponsors of the Resolution for engaging with the TNA throughout the process, and accommodating our concerns and views.”
The main concern of the Tamil polity with regard to the proposed Sri Lankan judicial mechanism is that it will end up without delivering anything tangible either in terms of truth, justice, reparations or institutional reforms. There is a deep mistrust of Sinhalese-led governments due to past failures that needs to be bridged. Therefore it is important that the present government shows the Tamil people, in deeds and not only in words, that it is different from the past governments. The government has announced that it will set up the basic elements of the mechanism by January next year. But from a realistic perspective, the government cannot show its goodwill and trustworthiness by focusing only on the setting up the accountability mechanism as this is likely to take more time than anticipated.
The government’s intention to setup the accountability mechanism soon may not materialize for a number of reasons. One is the need to obtain consensus within the government itself. There needs to be coordination between the various institutions and power centres involved in its materialization, including the President's office, the Prime Minister’s office, the Foreign Ministry, the office of National Unity and Reconciliation headed by former President Chandrika Kumaratunga and the Ministry of National Dialogue, in addition to all the other government institutions that need to cooperate in implementation. It may be several more months before the mechanism becomes functional and begins to deliver results. In this interim period it is possible that opposition forces will gather in strength and discredit the process.
The setting up and implementation of the accountability mechanism is of primary importance to international human rights organizations and also local activists and civil society groups. Although the TNA seeks to work in partnership with the government, it has said it will “urge the government to implement the Resolution in a spirit of honesty and cooperation, in particular, the Council's affirmation of the need for the participation of Commonwealth and other foreign judges, prosecutors, investigators and lawyers in a court enabled to try international crimes, through a Special Counsel for prosecutions.” But it is also important to bear in mind that the Tamil people on the ground have a wider interest. They want justice for past wrongs and non-recurrence of human rights violations through institutional reforms. They also want immediate changes in the ground situation that impact upon their lives.
A priority concern in the North, especially in Jaffna its capital, is the return of land taken over by the security forces for the purpose of establishing high security zones. These were established to prevent the LTTE from infiltrating and firing their long range artillery into military bases. But today the elimination of the LTTE and total destruction of their long range artillery means that there is no need for the high security zones. This land is now either growing wild or is being utilized for commercial purposes by the security forces, while the people who own the land are in camps for the displaced. The conditions in these camps are poor in general and become atrocious in times of rain and in some cases the people do not have access to basic amenities such as their own wells. There are about 30,000 internally displaced persons still living in Jaffna.
Another issue is the continued imprisonment of persons accused of being members or supporters of the LTTE. Recently one of them, a woman, was released by the High Court without charge after having been held in prison custody for 15 years. In court she complained she had been tortured and had marks to show it. The government did not have any evidence other than her confession taken by torturing her. These are the sores that rankle in the Tamil polity, and which were told to me when I visited Jaffna last week. Those who spoke to me said that the people had voted for the government in the expectation that it would take immediate steps to release their land and those kept in government custody. They had expected these changes to take place immediately after President Maithripala Sirisena was elected in January and the new government was formed.
There is a sense of being let down by the slow pace of change that can become metamorphosed into a sense of betrayal by those who are in opposition to the TNA and do not believe in its constructive engagement with the government. The government needs support and understanding from the North when it deals with the pressures from the South.