Sri Lanka Needs to Rev Up Reconciliation and Reforms
COLOMBO: The visit last week to Sri Lanka of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was in contrast to his previous visit in 2009, a few weeks after the country’s three decade long internal war came to its violent denouement. With the aftershocks of the war still subsiding ,his visit was neither encouraged nor welcomed by the then government.
This time around the Sri Lankan government actively sought the visit of the UN Secretary General. It had achievements to show, and highlight, as they were oriented to good governance and reconciliation.
In a speech the UN Secretary General said “This is my first visit to Sri Lanka since 2009, when I saw great suffering and hardship. Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced and in need of humanitarian aid after the terrible conflict that tore the country apart…Today, the picture is very different. I congratulate the Government and people of Sri Lanka for the progress you have made.”
The aftermath of the war’s end in 2009 saw the incarceration of about 300,000 people who had been living in the battleground areas of the last phase of the war. These included tens of thousands of children, nursing mothers and the elderly and feeble. With single minded zeal to safeguard the country from terrorism, these war survivors were held in barbed wire camps in primitive conditions to ensure that LTTE members amongst them could be weeded out.
The rebuilding that has been taking place in the north, and which favourably impressed the visiting UN Secretary General is not a recent phenomenon. The large scale investments in infrastructure, including roads and public buildings, began shortly after the war ended under the previous government. It was unfortunate that the suspicions of the then government towards the Tamil people and international community meant that they did not trust members of the international community to come and see for themselves how life had changed in the country after the war.
The previous government even debarred the handpicked team of investigators appointed by the UN Secretary General to visit Sri Lanka to investigate the last phase of the war. If they had been permitted to visit Sri Lanka and collect their information they would have seen for themselves that changes for the better were taking place after the war.
The major transformation in Sri Lanka at the present time is the openness of the government to the international community in all aspects. The passage of the Office of Missing Persons Act through Parliament shows that the government is serious about keeping its promises regarding the transitional justice process.
The government is aware that it co-sponsored the UN Human Rights Council resolution on achieving post-war reconciliation and upholding of human rights, and therefore needs to keep its side of the agreement. It also knows it has to honour economic contracts, such as those with China, even if they were signed by members of the previous government on unfavourable terms to Sri Lanka.
In addition, Prime Minister Ranil Wickemesinghe is travelling to different countries taking with him the message that Sri Lanka can become an example of post-war reconciliation and economic development.
Now that the government is winning the hearts and minds of the international community, it is necessary to focus its attention on achieving similar success with the local population. At the time it defeated the previous government headed by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, the new government generated enormous goodwill and positive expectations, particularly from those sectors of the population who felt under threat from the ethnic nationalism of the previous government which utilized the hard power of the state to intimidate and suppress them. However, this goodwill is in danger of being eroded due to the failure to implement changes on the ground. In recognition of the disillusionment that can set in,
There is also a need on the part of the government to keep the general public informed about the reforms it is planning both with respect to constitutional reform and the reconciliation process.
However, the general public knows little or nothing about the content of the constitutional reform proposals. The problem with the present lack of transparency is that it enables the opposition to make the case that both the constitutional reforms and the reconciliation process are jeopardizing the sovereignty and unity of the country.
The less than enthusiastic local media coverage of the UN Secretary General’s visit reflects this suspicious thinking within the larger society whose hearts and minds are yet to be won over to the government’s political reform process.
(Jehan Perera is the Executive Director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka which was established to facilitate a people's movement for peace, justice and reconciliation in Sri Lanka. He has served on two government advisory bodies. He is also a political columnist for several Sri Lankan newspapers)