Half Yearly Review

Sri Lanka: Tough Questions, Slow Answers

08 Aug, 2013    ·   4077

Thiranjala Weerasinghe comments as part of the IPCS Database on Peace and Conflict in South Asia

All throughout the three decades of armed hostilities in Sri Lanka, many believed that the end of war will necessarily bring a lasting solution to the ethnic tension erupted specifically during the post-independence era. Basically it was this attitude that lead many leaders and policy makers of successive governments to solely comprehend the ethnic tension purely as a terrorist threat to be dealt militarily while underplaying the significant grievances-real and imagined-of the Tamil population. As it has been reiterated at several occasions, although the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) was successful in militarily defeating the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), over a period of four years since the end of Ealam War IV, it has shown less commitment and interest in generating solutions and alternative course of actions to remedy the causes for which the members of the LTTE stood for and sacrificed their lives.

The need for a process of reconciliation and peace has been evident all throughout the post-independent Sri Lanka. Notwithstanding its importance in Sri Lanka, a peace process was conceived only as a structured initiative between the GoSL and LTTE and a space for negotiating a peaceful settlement for the armed conflict. The need for a peace and reconciliation process had always existed, even prior to the outbreak of the conflict and now more acutely during the post war era. Hence, Sri Lanka cannot limit its initiatives in actively campaigning for a peaceful settlement to a signed MoU or the defeat of LTTE but need to translate the dynamics of peace and reconciliation into every fabric of its functioning: democratic governance, law and order, human rights, and rule of law. Hence, peace and reconciliation is a multi-dimensional process that needs to be translated into diverse areas of country’s economy, society, polity, and religion. A process of reconciliation and peace devoid of such intrinsically interwoven elements will prove to be null and void in due course of time.

It is with this understanding that we need to evaluate the peace and reconciliation process in Sri Lanka during January-June 2013. The first half of 2013 has been quite eventful and has provided many analysts a clear opportunity to evaluate the level of commitment of the GoSL in providing a lasting solution to the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka.  

The Failure of the Judiciary: Impacting Peace & Reconciliation
An effective judicial system stands to protect the right of citizens and the supremacy of the constitution. It provides the people the opportunity for fare-play in statecraft and a legal framework within which the executive and legislature is moderated. Especially in a country where excessive power is laid on the executive, a tremendous need arises for an independent and strong judiciary in maintaining a strong democracy; provisioning and promoting rule of law, human rights and citizens liberties and fundamental rights in a post-conflict scenario. Hence, a nation that is unable to uphold and promote an independent judicial system will hardly be able to protect its own citizens from abuse of power and human right violations, and least to mention its ability for a continued peace and reconciliation process.    

Sri Lanka welcomed 2013 with the politically charged impeachment of the Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake. This impeachment comes as a severe blow to the democratic functioning and the belief about the constitutional supremacy and rights of its citizens. The denial of natural justice to the Chief Justice and the manner in which the Parliamentary Select Committee proceeded ruptures the fundamental principles of democratic governance and the faith of citizens in the ability of the system to protect their rights and liberties. Moreover, in April more than sixty transfers were issued for District Judges and Magistrates by the Judicial Services Commission headed by the newly appointed Chief Justice, Mohan Peiris. The Bar Association of Sri Lanka and several other legal analysts have charged that some of these transfers to be implicated with personal and political reasons.   

The decision to impeach the chief justice by the Rajapaksa regime sends clear signs of its determination to consolidate undue political power with little regard for democracy, the rule of law and human rights. Although there had been several demands from international players for the need to uphold the supremacy and independence of the judiciary, the regime has refused to follow any logic. In a way this kind of action compliments its disregard for International Humanitarian Law, and other Humanitarian conventions clearly portrayed in the manner in which it failed to credibly investigate and remedy the alleged war crimes during the Ealam War IV.
The collapse of the judicial system in Sri Lanka, further weakens the demand on the rulers for accountability and transparency. The crippled and weakened law and order institutions provides a space for furthered atrocities and crimes against the minorities, critics of the ruling party and encourage impunity. Several human rights groups have accused Sri Lankan security forces of continuing to use torture, rape and other form of sexual violence against the suspected LTTE carders and their supporters. There are allegations of abductions and disappearances of LTTE suspects and those dissenting from GoSL’s viewpoints. Moreover, such unwarranted interferences by the executive and the legislature have provided a fresh lease for impunity and abuse of power.

This indeed has given space for nepotism of the Rajapaksa regime, a hallmark of their politics and further strengthened during the first half of this year. Today the government of Sri Lanka, even after the reshuffle of the cabinet in end January, is dominated by the family of the president, Mahinda Rajapaksa with the cabinet portfolios: Defence & Urban Development, Finance & Planning. Gotabaya Rajapaksa in due course of time has become the second most powerful government official in his tenure as Secretary of Defence, Public Security, Law and Order. Basil Rajapaksa is the Minister for Economic Development. These three brothers control somewhere between 40-60% of Sri Lanka’s budget and manage five government ministries. Chamal Rajapaksa is the Speaker of Sri Lankan parliament. Moreover, several media have clearly indicated other extended family of Mahinda Rajapaksa holding positions within the government, civil service, media and industry.
Created Misconceptions about the International Community: Impacting Peace & Reconciliation
Since the end of Ealam War IV the international community continually demanded an inquiry into the alleged war crimes committed during the last stages of the war. The GoSL responded with the appointment of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC): to investigate the facts and circumstances which led to the failure of the ceasefire agreement that came into being on 27 February 2002, to identify the lessons that should be learnt from those events and the institutional, administrative and legislative measures which need to be taken in order to prevent any recurrence of such concerns in the future, and to promote further national unity and reconciliation among all communities.

During the first half of the year people have failed to witness any significant initiatives taken by the government in materialising the recommendations of LLRC. While the commission report had been a runaway strategy the GoSL has successfully used in times of international pressure to bolster its claims for a ‘home-grown solution’ for the conflict in Sri Lanka,  it has been unable to implement recommendation in establishing peace in Sri Lanka.

In March UNHRC adopted the US-backed resolution against Sri Lanka calling for an independent investigation into the allegations of war crimes during the last stages of war. Under these circumstances of increased international pressure, the GoSL tried to interpret the international intervention as a foreign conspiracy against the well-being and sovereignty of Sri Lanka. While there were actors within the international community working for different political agendas, at times inimical to the well-being of Sri Lanka, the demand for accountability and transparency need not be shunned away. The unnecessary creation of a sense of victimhood in the minds of people through propaganda had become counter-productive in an era where our prime concern is on reconciliation and peace-building. While the GoSL failed to credibly investigate the violations during the war, several other intimidations, abductions, rape, torture continued all throughout the post-war years and the first half of 2013. The ‘National Plan of Action to Implement LLRC recommendations’ remains vague at the policy level, having less clarity on its purpose, progress and mechanisms for evaluation.

The GoSL has failed to promote institutional capacity building in the area of peace and reconciliation. This has lead to several discontinued programes/projects on peace and reconciliation. 

Infrastructure Development: Impacting Peace & Reconciliation
There have been massive infrastructure projects during the post-war era. The construction of roads and bridges in North and Eastern provinces were carried out in accelerated speed. Some sections of North and East exposed to war had been badly damaged and the road links broken. The infrastructure rebuilding provided access to the areas devastated by the war and years of neglect. These new roads and the renovated/reconstructed bridges have provided an opportunity in better connecting with the rest of the country and have further facilitated movement of people, business and religious activities. Especially the A9 highway which connects the central city of Kandy with Jaffna has been a bridge for peace building, and could enhance mutual understanding of the Tamil and Sinhala communities. It is a main supply route, a crucial business line.

Notwithstanding its contribution for peace and reconciliation, over the year it had made a credible impact on the country’s GDP. Moreover, there were several other infrastructure projects like housing, power generation, and schooling initiated during the latter part of the last year and some during the first part of this year.

Hanbantota International airport in Mattala was opened in early 2013. The domestic airports that are currently functioning includes the Sri Lanka Air Force bases in Ampara, Anuradhapura, Battcoloa  Colombo (Ratmalana), Jaffna (Palaly),Trincomalee (China Bay),and Wirawila. Other major airport developments include the modernization of Bandaanaike airport, development of domestic airports at Ampara , Koggala, Chinabay, Jaffna and Ratmalana. Several major road developments that could positively aid the socio-economic well-being of people thereby providing a space for reconciliation and peace are currently in progress. The Phase 2 of the Southern express way (Galle to Matara) is expected to be completed by 2013. The Colombo – Katunayaka expressway, the new circular highway connecting Southern highway and Colombo –Katunayaka expressway and Colombo – Kandy expressway is also underway. The major development activities being undertaken by Sri Lanka Railways includes reconstruction of   the railway line from Mawachchiya to Talaimannar and reconstruction of 145 km line from Omanthai to Kankesanturai. 

Rise of Buddhist Extremism: Impacting Peace & Reconciliation
During the first half of 2013 there had been an increase of Buddhist extremist groups. First a group calling themselves ‘Bodu Bala Sena’ took up the anti-Halaal certification campaign and demanded the Buddhist from refraining eating halaal certified food and put a halt to the Halaal certification process in Sri Lanka. Many of these groups have attempted to portray themselves as a force attempting to recreate the Buddhist ethos, what they claim to have been lost in Sri Lanka. Many of their rhetoric provide space for the discrimination of ethnic minorities and other religious communities. While they have attempted to keep the masses reminded about the fact that Sri Lanka is a Sinhala Buddhist nation, they have been successful in creating unnecessary and unwarranted tension among communities. There have been several attacks on shops, places of commercial interest and religious places. While many analysts have not been able to clearly explain the political underpinnings behind this movement that took the moderates in Sri Lanka by surprise, the extremist groups have been able to cause significant damage to the process of reconciliation and peace by instilling fear, suspicion and hatred in some Sri Lankan.

Sri Lanka's Political Bankruptcy: Impacting Peace & Reconciliation
A unique feature during the regime of the current government is the failure of the opposition political parties to exert a credible force and an alternative to the current government. The United National Party, Janatha Vimulthi Peremuna, Tamil National Alliance and the Democratic National Alliance lacks political imagination and statesmanship. While the opposition has been limited in its criticism of the current government, they have not been able to provide a clear alternative to the people of Sri Lanka in terms of good governance, upholding rule of law and human rights conventions and respect the democratic state craft.  A weakened and a disoriented opposition in 2013 has indeed provided the government freedom to abuse state power and the ability to bypass all checks and measured instilled in a democratic form of functioning.

There have been several in-fights in the opposition political parties providing them less scope and opportunity to concentrate on much larger issues that affect the country. While there had been several strikes organised by the opposition political parties in connection with price hike, increase in the electricity bill etc, there is a less concerted effort and interest in building a political will and leadership that can move Sri Lanka towards reconciliation and peace.  

Sri Lanka lacks political will and leadership in creating and strengthening a space for the Sri Lankan society for reconciliation and peace-building. Although due to increased international pressure the GoSL has taken several measures in ministerial level planning, the progress that the people of Sri Lanka have witnessed during the first half of 2013 is very minimal. The massive rupture in the democratic form of government through mishandling of the judiciary, abuse of power, impunity and nepotism, restrictions on the freedom of expression, politicisation of law and order institutions will have tremendous repercussions in Sri Lankan society in the months to come. Such developments create an unhealthy environment where peace and reconciliation initiatives will not foster.

The moderate voices in the Sri Lankan society have been relatively silent. They have at times failed to proactively engage in challenging structures of oppression and radicalism, thus paving way for peace and reconciliation. The challenge in the coming months is the task of integrating the civil society activists and the moderates groups in peace initiatives thereby attempting to bridge the gap that has been created due to crippled political leadership and haphazard policy level initiatives. In the future such groups need to create a space for the reconciliation process to get rooted in the very societal functioning of Sri Lankans.

However, we are not all without hope. The call for provincial elections in the Northern Province and the discussions that are underway for 13/13+ amendment to the constitution could be utilised as opportunities in creating a space for the diverse ethnic communities to discuss, debate and amicably resolve the conflicting expectations. In the meantime, all throughout this process the spoilers have to be identified as they could cripple the process initiated for reconciliation and peace.