COLOMBO: Prior to Independence Day there was an increasing concern about the extent of President Maithripala Sirisena’s commitment to the reconciliation process.

These doubts surfaced with the President’s declaration that there would be no international involvement on issues arising from the war. He followed this up by saying that no war crimes had been committed in Sri Lanka and that the UN report only alleged human rights violations.

Both of these assertions were given wide media publicity. They contradicted the government’s agreement with the UN Human Rights Council regarding international participation of foreign judges, prosecutors and investigators in a judicial accountability mechanism.

It was left to Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to exercise his damage control skills and assure the international community that Sri Lanka would stand by its international commitments.

In the course of his Independence Day speech President Sirisena fell in line with the Prime Minister’s position. He said “There are incorrect interpretations given about the resolution presented to the United Nations Human Rights Council. I clearly state that we are facing these resolutions in order to protect the pride and dignity of our country, our people and our security forces, and also to make our tri forces to be internationally renowned armed force. We should face these resolutions with patience, discipline and decorum so that our country could be respectfully recognized by all international organizations including the UNO and all states in the world.”

This change of direction ensured that the visit of UN Human Rights High Commissioner Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein to Sri Lanka would not start on a note of fundamental disagreement.

The government has used the presence of the UN High Commissioner to share its plans for an expedited series of consultations with the general public in the space of three months and to bring in an element of international participation into the process.

An eleven-member Consultation Task Force will work with the help of Pablo de Greiff, Special UN Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparations and guarantees of non-recurrence.

The framework for the consultation process, already formulated, will have two phases — a web-based process in all languages and a face-to-face consultation process which will focus on specific stakeholders –including children, military, disabled combatants, widows and ex-child combatants. The government has planned to mobilize civil society groups to undertake wide ranging consultations with multiple sectors of society to modify and supplement the mechanisms it has proposed.

It was not only the government welcome that awaited the UN High Commissioner. His arrival in Sri Lanka was also marked by angry protests led by nationalist members of the opposition. They expressed their concerns that the High Commissioner was part of an international plot to impose a Western agenda on the country which would be detrimental to its unity and sovereignty.

This is a sentiment that finds resonance in the majority of the Sinhalese people in particular who have a memory of long years of Western colonial oppression. In this context, the government’s warm reception and positive engagement with the visiting UN High Commissioner reflects is reflective of its top leadership’s commitment to addressing the long festering ethnic conflict and resolving it in a manner acceptable to all communities. However, this is not going to be an easy task.

President Sirisena’s efforts to limit the international participation into the inquiries about the past are likely to reflect the political concern that the majority of people need to be supportive of any government initiative taken to address the ethnic conflict.

History is replete with examples of government leaders trying to resolve the problem without having the necessary political backing to carry out their intentions due to opposition, and ending up on the rocks as a result. There would be the further concern that any inquiry into the military’s conduct of the war is fraught with uncertain potentials.

The Sri Lankan military is one that won the war at considerable cost, and it continues to remain strong both in terms of its physical presence in all part of the country and in the hearts and minds of the majority of people. In many countries that have undertaken investigations into the past, these have taken place after decades, and not after a few years.

Notwithstanding the president’s caution, there is reason to believe that he is serious in his determination to resolve the ethnic conflict and realizes that accountability is a key part of both good governance and reconciliation. Since becoming president he has had a consistent track record of public speeches in which he speaks of the war as a “cruel war” and has referred to the experiences of suffering of the people of the North and East as being much worse than those of the people who live elsewhere.

More recently, he said that if the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact of 1957 and the Dudley Senanayake- Chelvanayakam Pact of 1965 had been implemented, there would have been no LTTE.

Unfortunately, the media does not give a high degree of coverage when he speaks of his commitment to find a path to reconciliation. On the other hand, it gives coverage in great detail and with much emphasis when the President says that he will not accept international involvement or when he praises the role of the Sri Lankan military in ending the war.

There are those who would cast doubt on the president’s sincerity saying it is limited to words. But they were provided an unexpected answer when the national anthem was sung in full in Tamil at the Independence Day celebration on February 4. It was a significant actions taken with the intention to lessen the sense of alienation of the Tamil speaking people and make them feel a sense of equal belonging to the national polity. It will also increase hope and confidence that the government will stay true to its mission of healing the wounds of many decades of inter-ethnic strife and war. The issue of language has long been an emotive and divisive one. The boycott of the Independence Day events by the opposition and the government’s mixed messages on the implementation of the resolution of the UN Human Rights Council were indications of the pressures that exist within the polity.

It is in the face of nationalist opposition that the government led by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has taken the decision to go forward with the reconciliation process as their commitment for the unity of the country. The government had the courage and the wisdom to overcome the objections of nationalists and had the national anthem sung in both the Sinhala and Tamil languages. This was a message of care to the Tamil people. It is reported that Tamil leaders present at the Independence Day event has tears in their eyes. Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims have said they had tears in their eyes watching the event live on their home television sets. There is a need for more messages of care that would demonstrate to the Tamil people that they are not marginalized and are a part of the national polity.

Some other key areas for the government to tackle would be release of land taken over by the military, release of detained persons who have been incarcerated without charge for many years and ascertaining the fate of missing persons. Immediate steps taken in these areas would increase the trust and confidence of the Tamil people in the commitment of the government to resolve their problems and treat them as equal citizens. It would give more time and space to the government to tackle the contentious and sensitive issues of accountability for war crimes. There is the possibility of sequencing in the transitional justice process. Pablo de Greiff, who has been detailed by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to assist the Sri Lankan members of the Consultations Task Force is the Special UN Rapporteur for the promotion of truth, justice, reparations and guarantees of non-recurrence. The UNHRC resolution, which needs to be implemented, and the concept of transitional justice, are more than about accountability for war crimes, and include truth seeking, reparations and guarantees of non-recurrence which could be given priority at this time.