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Govt.-civil society collaboration when North met South in Matara

by Jehan Perera

(June 14, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian)  The government was able to hold the international human rights community at bay at the recently concluded June session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. Notwithstanding the airing of a documentary that purports to be battlefield executions and other human rights violations committed by government soldiers in the last phase of the war, the government was able to ensure that the report of the Expert Panel appointed by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon was not tabled for discussion. The government delegation pointed out that the Expert Panel’s report was merely an advisory one. It also made the case that there was no need for an independent international mechanism to investigate the last phase of war, as the government’s own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission was addressing those same issues.

However, there is no guarantee that the government will be able to continue to prevail in keeping the Expert Panel report, also known as the Darusman Report in recognition of its Chairman, off the agenda when the next session of the UN Human Rights Council commences in Geneva in September. The most obnoxious and indeed threatening feature in it from the government’s point of view is its call for the setting up of an independent international monitoring mechanism. There is a possibility of the report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission coming out with its final report by then. The international human rights community is likely to await the LLRC’s findings before deciding whether or not to accede to the UN Panel’s recommendation to establish an independent international investigation mechanism regarding the allegations of war crimes in Sri Lanka.

The main domestic thrust of the government’s strategy in coping with the UN Panel Report has been to discredit it within the country and thereby have the backing of the country’s people in any showdown with the international community. The government has accordingly denounced those groups that have been supportive of the UN panel report, including national and international human rights organizations and the Tamil Diaspora. The government has also carried out a major awareness campaign which has included getting a million signatures against the report. Although the report itself has not been translated into the Sinhala language, and only short excerpts of it have been published in the national newspapers, the general population is aware of the general contours of the allegations.

The tussle between the government and the international human rights community on the issue of human rights violations during the war has undoubtedly had an educational impact upon the general population regarding the problems faced by the people in the former conflict zones of the north and east. Most people would have been content to believe that the government had brought peace to the country by eliminating the LTTE on the battlefield. However, now they can see that since the end of the war, the government has been on the defensive in regard to human rights and a political solution to the ethnic conflict. They are seeing that the government, so powerful at home, is steadily losing ground internationally on these issues. This has brought home to the thinking section of the people that there is a need for them to get involved in peace building to safeguard the country.

People to people

The visit to Sri Lanka last week of a high powered Indian delegation including its Defence and Foreign Secretaries and National Security Advisor to the Prime Minister is suggestive of the considerable pressures that the government is under. The issues of resettling of displaced persons, ending of emergency rule and the implementation of the 13th Amendment relating to the devolution of power are reported to have figured in the discussions between the visiting Indian delegation and the Sri Lankan government. Along with the meeting of the UN’s Human Rights Council in Geneva, the Indian visit to Sri Lanka would give a message to the general population about the still far-from-finished business of peace-building in Sri Lanka.

During the period of the war, the government was successful in mobilizing the sense of patriotism and nationalism of the majority of people to obtain their support for the war and also to win massive majorities at election after election. Those who surround the government leadership at the highest levels come with this sentiment of the past. However, the challenge for the government today is to mobilize the more peaceful and accommodative sentiments of the same people to enable them to reach out across the ethnic, religious and regional divide. This ought not to be an overly difficult task because evidence from the ground suggests that the people are ready and even eager to be peacemakers with their fellow citizens, by getting to know each other better, to host them and to be friends with them.

In the past month, there were two people-to-people programmes I was involved in as a member of a non-governmental organization. In the first instance we got more than a hundred students from six universities that spanned the north, east and south of the country. They were Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims and many of them were mono-lingual, speaking only their mother tongue, either Sinhala or Tamil. The students came together for a week in Colombo to learn about the life and non-violent political strategies adopted by the great black American civil rights leader, Rev. Martin Luther King, which eventually culminated in the substantial healing of the sharpest divide in American society.

In order to reduce the problem of translation, the need for translators and time for translations, the organizers initially asked the students to divide themselves into Sinhala-speaking and Tamil-speaking groups so that they could discuss issues arising from the plenary discussions between themselves. Several of the students immediately disagreed, saying that they preferred to work in mixed language groups, even though it would cause problems of translating from Sinhala to Tamil and vice versa. So this was the way the arrangement was made. At the end of the weeklong programme, when they were asked to evaluate their experience, several of them voiced the opinion that the most valuable feature of the programme was simply the opportunity they got to meet each other, north, east and south. For this reason more than any other, they were grateful to Rev. Martin Luther King.

Welcome partnership

The second programme involved members of inter religious groups in the north traveling to the south to meet with counterparts. Initially there was some apprehension on the part of the northerners about going south, especially to Matara in the deep South, which they believed to be a hotbed of Sinhalese nationalism. However they were soon reassured. The first defining moment was in Anuradhapura, where the members of the local inter-religious group welcomed their northern counterparts with a betel leaf in the traditional manner of greeting. In addition, they took each member of the northern delegation by hand to a seat, and sat down by their side for the rest of the programme. This act of courtesy and caring did much to bridge any possible divide.

The visit to Matara was even more significant to the visitors from the north. In Matara, it was not only members of civil society who greeted them, but also senior government officials. This included the Government Agent, who is the most senior government official in the district, and the Deputy Inspector General of Police for the entire Southern Province, both of whom attended the closing cultural show and spoke warmly of shared sorrows and future hopes. The police even provided the visitors from the north with a motor cycle escort to go before them, which the visitors from the north likened to VIP treatment. What moved them was the evidence that people in the south were trying very hard to welcome them and make them feel at home.

The presence of government officials at the events in Matara was unexpected. On inquiring I found out that among the inter-religious group in Matara was an official of the Ministry of National Languages and Social Integration. When doubts had surfaced within the district administration about the advisability of working in collaboration with an NGO, he had contacted his seniors in the Ministry who had approved of the collaboration. This made all the difference, and convinced the other senior government officials in Matara that they could join the programme of an NGO to reach the hearts and minds of the representatives of civil society of the north who were visiting the south. A civil society that is united north, east and south, and works in partnership with the government to bring reconciliation and trust, will be Sri Lanka’s best answer to the concerns of the international human rights community.

In opening the communication tower in Kokavil in the north, President Mahinda Rajapaksa pledged to give a political solution that the people wanted, and said that such a political solution must come from the hearts of people and not be imposed from outside. The government as a whole needs to be prepared to act in a manner that supports this sentiment of the President. The government can act at the macro level and have a mass impact that surpasses all other organisations. The two examples of small scale and micro-level interventions that brought the hearts and minds of people in the north and south closer together can be replicated, and can be done on a large scale and on the macro-level too, if the government is prepared to give such civil society work its blessings as was done in Matara.

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