by Jehan Perera
(April 26, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The report by the Expert Panel set up by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has sharply polarized Sri Lankan society and is likely to do so even more unless the government takes remedial action. The report on alleged violations of human rights and international humanitarian law in the last phase of the country’s separatist war was totally rejected by the government as being biased and factually inaccurate and failing to give adequate recognition to the role played by the LTTE in the tragedy that occurred. On the issue of the war, and post-war developments, the government has repeatedly obtained the strong endorsement of the electorate, and especially of the Sinhalese majority. In media commentary as well as private conversation there is a great deal of emotion. The statement of President Mahinda Rajapaksa that he is prepared for the "electric chair" has deeply anguished many of his supporters.
On the other hand, the report received strong endorsement from the Tamil National Alliance, which is the political party that represents the majority of the Tamil people of the north and east. In its statement the TNA said that the report "confirms the truth of what happened to unarmed Tamil civilians in the course of the recently concluded war and is an irrefutable confirmation of the accounts of the events as reported by us to Parliament as and when they occurred." The TNA’s full endorsement of the Expert Panel report was surprising in view of its ongoing discussions with the government to arrive at a mutually acceptable solution to the problems faced by the Tamil people over the past several decades and also in the immediate post-war phase. Previous statements issued by TNA spokespersons were more cautious in their recognition that full scale political confrontation was not in the interests of the Tamil people.
The fact that the TNA has thrown caution to the winds with regard to the Expert Panel report suggests that there is a renewed sense of confidence that has come into it, with regard to its bargaining strength. After the total military liquidation of the LTTE, it seemed that the government was overwhelmingly powerful and had no need to consider meeting Tamil demands even half way. The fact that the UN Secretary General has taken up a position that vindicates their sense of grievance would be empowering to the TNA, which up to now has been a marginal actor in Sri Lanka’s majority-based politics. However, this hardening of attitudes on either side of the ethnic divide is not a positive development if conflict resolution is to be the outcome. The international community that seeks to uphold international standards of human rights also needs to be mindful of the polarising consequences within Sri Lanka of its own actions.
In situations of crisis it is easier to mobilize support on the basis of nationalist sentiment that sees one’s own side as being completely in the right and the other as completely in the wrong. But international politics goes beyond nationalism and includes global interests which encompass even countries such as Russia and China that have been sympathetic to the Sri Lankan government’s position of national sovereignty. Under international pressure both these countries permitted UN action to be taken against Libya, which had been an ally and important trading partner of those two countries. As global powers, both Russia and China also cooperate with the UN system in which its Secretary General holds an important place. In this light, meeting the challenge presented by the UN Secretary General’s Expert Panel calls for a moderate and conciliatory approach and not a nationalistic and confrontational one.
One of the government’s initial reactions have been to call for a massive show of public support on May 1, which is traditionally celebrated as International Workers Day by large scale mass mobilization undertaken by political parties and trade unions. The government needs to ensure that this mass demonstration takes place peacefully. When the population takes action in this protest, the message they ought to be trying to send to the international community will be one conveying Sri Lanka is a peaceful country that is completely capable of managing its own matters. When the people gather, their manner of organizing and the slogans expressed will need to reflect this message in every aspect of the protest. The reports that placards and posters that are insulting to the UN and to its Secretary General are in the process of being printed is deeply disturbing and likely to be counter productive in creating a positive impression of the country.
In the context of the deepening polarization of sentiment the government needs to take special precautions to ensure social harmony in the country. The inclination of the vast majority of people would be to live together with their fellow citizens of different ethnicities in harmony. Over the past weekend, I took part in a New Year festival in Ratnapura at the foothills of the central hills, where people of Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim communities live together in conditions of relative amity and harmony. The Ministry of National Languages and Social Integration had supported this programme which included a wide variety of activities, including dances and games and a marathon that spanned several villages. The emotions caused by the Expert Panel report was nowhere to be seen, neither in the speeches that were made nor in the efforts to include all communities as equals.
There is a tendency to see the government as a monolith on account of the over-centralisation of power. The 18th Amendment to the constitution that was passed last year epitomizes the weakening of institutional checks and balances that ensures accountable governance. The UN Expert Panel’s report devotes considerable attention to the weakening of the systems of checks and balances and the impunity that exists on a day to day basis in the governance of the country. At the same time, however, President Rajapaksa’s political flexibility has given space to both nationalist and moderate tendencies within the government. At the New Year celebrations in Ratnapura, the national anthem was sung by schoolchildren in both Sinhala and Tamil languages in rhe presence of Minister Vasudeva Nanayakkara. On the other hand, in the north of the country, where the military is in the driving seat of governance, the national anthem is reported to be sung only in Sinhala at official functions.
While nationalists see the Expert Panel’s advisory report to the UN Secretary General as a violation of the country’s sovereignty that has to be opposed tooth and nail, others within the government can consider it to be a wake up call to the country. Moderate sections within the government need to start publicly voicing their opinions instead of permitting the extremist elements to take the centre stage. The report needs to be taken as a notice or forewarning that there continues to be unresolved problems within the polity that the government’s current approach of economic development and centralization of power alone will not resolve. What happened during the war, whether or not it is described as the government does as a humanitarian operation, needs to be explained and repaired to the maximum extent possible. At the same time, Sri Lankan society needs its own space to negotiate and foster its own approach to peace building and reconciliation. There is a danger that changes sought to be imposed from the outside will not be sustainable if the population is not a part of this process of change.
The most sustainable path forward in the country will have to be constructed within the country and in a manner that will ensure that people make their own investment in the processes of democratization and justice. Without internal acceptance, no popular change in Sri Lanka will be sustainable. The government could set up its own national mechanism that meets international standards as an alternative to the UN report’s recommendation of an international investigative mechanism. This creation of a national mechanism would need to be inclusive of opposition and ethnic minority participation in its design and implementation. If the government decides to work with the opposition and civil society to devise an investigating mechanism that meets international standards, implements a negotiated political solution to the ethnic conflict, and marshals its resources to develop the North and East and compensate the victims of war, it is very likely to receive international cooperation and support rather than international censure.