Challenges to reconciliation, the Sri Lankan experience

Lessons learnt: reconciliation mechanism applied in Sri Lanka, an overview and current challenges
Presentation By Prof Rajiva Wijesinha, MP, Advisor on Reconciliation to HE the President to the Association of Sri Lankan Lawyers In The UK on October 11th 2011

When the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission was established, I thought its most important function would be with regard to the future. Through a study of what had happened in the past, it would report on how best all the people of Sri Lanka could live together amicably, and productively, instead of engaging in the rivalries that had dogged us previously.

It seemed important therefore to look at the grievances on all sides, but in particular those of the Tamils who had sought solutions for their problems through political negotiations, before their cause was taken over by violence and terrorism. It seemed clear to me that changes in language and educational policy, plus a more inclusive administrative system that empowered people in the regions, were essential. In addition there was great need to assuage the worries of those who had suffered most in the conflict, namely the Tamils of the Wanni who had lost out even on the little development there had been in Sri Lanka in the preceding period, and who had suffered appallingly when forced to become hostages of the Tigers in the first five months of 2009.

Many of those who appeared before the Commission spoke however of what had gone wrong in recent years when political negotiations failed. While that is a subject of great interest for historical reasons, it does not contribute much to reconciliation, for clearly we are talking of intransigence on the part of political players who had disproportionate influence at different stages. In the most recent phase, which took up most attention, we were dealing with a terrorist group that repeatedly withdrew from negotiations, even with interlocutors prepared to grant them more than others had ever requested.

Fortunately submissions in this regard did not play a large part in the interim report of the LLRC, which addressed many concerns in a positive fashion. They referred to five areas in which they suggested prompt action.

The first of these was the question of detention. This is perhaps the most obvious instance in which concerns about the past could affect future reconciliation. Testimony has been given suggesting uncertainty about whether loved ones are living or dead, and this uncertainty needs to be addressed as best possible.

It should be noted however that such uncertainty did not extend to those under the Commissioner General of Rehabilitation. From the beginning they could be visited, and their families were aware of where they were. A picture taken on my last visit to Vavuniya shows five young ladies with the mother of one of them. She came from Kilinochchi, which is reasonably near, but the other four girls, including one from far away Tirukkovil in the Amparai District, had also had regular visitors.

However there was uncertainty about those in detention in Boossa and other places that had been used under Emergency Regulations. Government could have done better to make lists available in this regard. And, though those lists are now available, including with the National Human Rights Commission, communication regarding this should be more precise.

The problem however is that many parents, as has happened in similar situations all over the world, are unwilling to accept that their children may be no more. This is apparent from the fact that many representations to the LLRC relate to those who went missing in the nineties and even earlier. While the grief of such needs to be assuaged, it is unfortunate that statistics are used to suggest that there are large numbers missing because of events in the last three years. That that is not the case is apparent from the fact that there have been only 2585 applications in the last two years to the Family Tracing and Reunification Centre set up by the Government Agent in Vavuniya with support from UNICEF.

The issuing of necessary certificates however is a must to ensure closure. This, it should be noted, is also necessary with the large numbers still deemed disappeared in the context of the JVP insurrection of the late eighties. Unfortunately the figures still outstanding from that period are conflated with the far fewer figures relating to the last decade.

A second area which the LLRC addresses is that of land issues. In fact this was raised with the Law Commission some years back, given the law of prescription that obtains in Sri Lanka. Since several people were displaced for well over a decade, including the Muslims expelled from the North by the LTTE, problems could arise when their land was occupied by others for longer than the prescribed period. Thus when people were resettled rapidly in the East in 2007, after the defeat of the LTTE in that province, objections were raised that some of them were those the LTTE had settled in the previous decades in land taken from Muslims who had been displaced earlier.

We had noted some years back the need for clear policies as to what guidelines should be followed. Whilst to my mind the original owners should have priority, those who have been in occupation for some time cannot be ignored. Fortunately in much of the North there is sufficient land to ensure that all are provided for, but any mechanism will need to be carefully worked out.

The third area of concern was law and order, with worries that armed groups still operated, and that extortion was taking place. This was a serious concern at one point, and needs to be guarded against carefully, but with disarming of all groups a priority, the situation has eased. The culture of violence of the last few decades has however been corrosive, so continuing vigilance is a must.

The LLRC also spoke about administration and language issues, which relates to the major problem that led to political agitation. I will not dwell on that here because that relates to a long standing problem that has to be addressed effectively through structural reforms as well as the institutionalization of bilingualism. It should be noted that, while Tamil was made an official language in 1987, nothing was done to make this meaningful, until in 2006 government introduced regulations to make it compulsory for public servants to have knowledge of the second official language for promotion. In schools too both languages have to be learnt, a measure introduced in the nineties, while in 2000 English medium was permitted as an option.

However in all these areas there are still shortcomings, most notably with regard to sufficient teachers. Government needs swiftly to develop alternative systems of teacher training and deployment if the requirement is to be implemented. It should be noted that in all parts of the country there is increasing demand for English, and this will help with regard to the communication gap that still exists between Sinhalese and Tamils who were straitjacketed in monolingualism because of absurd educational policies.

Finally, the LLRC deals with socio-economic and livelihood issues, which again are of longstanding concern. The unequal development from which Sri Lanka suffered led to three youth insurrections in the last forty years, two of them in Sinhala majority areas. Even though the other had an ethnic complexion, the sense of deprivation felt by young Tamils was a crucial factor in increasing support for terrorist movements, and it is vital to provide better economic opportunities in Tamil areas if reconciliation is to be a reality.

In this regard the development programme in the North has been remarkable, following on what was done in the East after the conclusion of hostilities there in 2007. This has led to increasing prosperity in the East, as well as greater satisfaction, which can be seen in electoral results. In the North however the situation is different, given the much longer period of deprivation and the need also to match input with expectations. I have long argued that we need to be doing better with Human Resource Development, to provide better training for youngsters in the area so that they can take full advantage of the opportunities that are being provided.

This is particularly important in the Jaffna peninsula, which had a high level of human development in the past. The contrast in expectations is apparent from the very different results of elections in Jaffna and in the Vanni, which had been grossly underdeveloped previously, and where the infrastructural support provided by government in the last two years won greater appreciation. In two of the three areas in the Vanni that polled a couple of months ago, government won over forty per cent of the vote, which is a record for a national party in the North in the last half century. However the figure of less than half that in much of Jaffna, though again better than what national parties had achieved recently, makes it clear that much more needs to be done.

Let me take this opportunity to show you a little of what is going on in this regard. Resettlement began within a few months of the conclusion of the conflict, so quickly in fact that those who had earlier accused us of using the need to demine as an excuse to delay resettlement began to accuse us of not being careful enough about demining. However the excellent work done by the army, which took the lead in demining, has meant that there has only been one injury in the Vanni to the resettled. I should add that this contrasts with a number of injuries to people in the North in areas that had been demined some time back by international agencies, but where in the last year there have been a few unfortunate incidents.

We were also able to provide basic facilities that in some areas were better than what the people had had previously. Particular care was taken about schools and hospitals, and it should be noted that children can now go safely to school, with no danger of being forcibly taken away as conscripts. In recent visits I have been shocked at the impunity with which the Tigers had their will, with drills conducted within school premises which the so-called international community never complained about, with children taken away from primary schools, as the poor youngster from Hartley College told me when I expressed surprise at his lack of knowledge despite the reputation of the institution he had side he attended.

Almost all the near 300,000 who were displaced are now resettled. The last 7,000 still in Manik Farm will move out by the end of the year, though I should note that I believe we should have resisted pressures to close the place so soon, before the heavily mined areas from which they came have been fully cleared. Housing in the Eastern part of the Wanni needs improvement, as compared with the concerted efforts made in the West in 2009 and 2010 with support in construction from the military, but the various schemes in operation have ensured that people have shelter and can recommence economic activity.

I will being with some pictures of schools all over the North, indicating the rapidity with which government has brought educational normalcy to previously war torn areas. However I should note that, while buildings and uniforms and books are provided without stint, there are shortages of teachers, in particular in English and Science and Maths. This is a problem shared with schools in the South but, unless government takes swift measures to remedy this, youngsters will continue to feel deprived.

Secondly, we should have a look at some of the housing schemes being               implemented now, with I think the best examples being those gifted by army and also by the Indian government.

We should also look at the rehabilitation programme that has been one of the best in the world. This may however have to do with the fact that most of the 11,000 youngsters who confessed to involvement with the LTTE were recent conscripts, not the battle hardened monsters now in rehabilitation programmes in other theatres of war. About 9,000 have now been released, with those left being under court orders, though in many cases this was only for six months or a year of rehabilitation, which means they too will be at home by the end of the year. Again, contrary to early expectations that about 1,000 might be charged, it now seems that far fewer are under suspicion of grave acts of terrorism.

I should make special mention of the wedding that was conducted for over 50 couples, with the Indian film star Vivek Oberoi being one of the witnesses. Typical of the responses of those who like to stir up trouble was that of a local NGO activist who claimed that the youngsters had been forced into marriage. When I asked her for specific instances, she simply said that she had been told that boys and girls had held hands while surrendering and claimed to be couples so as to ensure safety. Now, she claimed, they were being forced to marry when they had no desire to do so.

I checked on this strange story and was told by the Commissioner General that in fact over 100 couples had asked to be married, but they had checked with both sets of parents, and gone ahead with the ceremony only for those who had full agreement from families too. Doubtless we shall now be accused of being old fashioned and keeping youngsters who had been old enough to fight in thrall to parental pressures – including I suspect the caste considerations that continue to prevail in some areas in the North – but I believe the Commissioner General was right to be cautious given the morbid nature of the criticism activists desperate for a cause will propound.

In addition to basic vocational training, we provided academic support also for those who wanted to take public examinations. I was happy to provide a student now at Yale for English classes for those taking the Advanced Level last August, and more recently I had an English intern with them for a few days. These two, being similar in age to many of the former combatants, had got on very well, and were remembered with great appreciation when I visited last week.

Even more productively I hope, we had courses in counseling since we believe continuing psycho-social support is a must, and the involvement of some of those who suffered most might be particularly helpful. I was also able to initiate a couple of workshops in high level entrepreneurship that were conducted through my decentralized budget. Last year we had thirty youngsters who worked very well, and produced excellent business plans with regard to construction and agri-business products. This year, with some young ladies too in the group, they concentrated more on consumer goods. Their enthusiasm was heartening, and we now owe it to them to ensure credit facilities that will enable them to apply these techniques and their talents productively.

In this regard I should also show some examples of the spirit of entrepreneurial commerce that was displayed from the start. The boutiques that were set up almost as soon as resettlement began are matched now by thriving commerce in Mullaitivu, which took much longer to demine.

All this suggests a determination to move forward, and I believe government owes it to these people to provide opportunities to learn and to prosper as quickly as possible. However elsewhere in the world there seems a desire to slow down the reconciliation process by engaging in recrimination. At its most aggressively political this extends to efforts to have current Sri Lankan leaders charged with war crimes. A less invidious way of playing the same game is the statement that reconciliation is not possible without accountability.

Despite claims that accountability is required from both sides, it is clear that the aim is to target the Sri Lankan government, since those amongst the Tigers who bore responsibility for atrocities are beyond justice. Entertainingly, were it not so destructive, the calls for accountability come from those very people who claimed that it was incumbent on the Sri Lankan government to forgive and forget what the Tigers had done in the interests of peace.

It is also interesting that the different models of so-called accountability put before us are of situations in which a patently appalling regime was changed, and instead of engaging in revenge, the victors as it were put in place mechanisms to take the sting as it were out of the atrocities that had been committed. It was the defeated proponents of apartheid in South Africa and the monstrous Khmer Rouge in Cambodia that had to bear the brunt of accountability systems. Conversely in Sri Lanka it is those who defeated a terrorist movement, and who rescued nearly 300,000 persons who had been subjected to forced conscription and being held as hostages, who are now to be put on trial.

In order to justify these absurdities, cases have been conjured out of thin air. The process began with intense lobbying, and received a forceful impetus when demonstrations in Britain seemed to contribute to the cancellation of a public appearance by the President. The process snowballed then with the publication of a report that was supposed to advise and then sat in judgment.

I have written at length about the falsehoods and slipshod approach of the Darusman panelists. Some of the charges are quite ridiculous, and fly in the face of evidence available in letters sent by the UN and the ICRC, as when the government was congratulated on averting the humanitarian catastrophe that had been predicted. But so intense is the animosity that the senior officials who worked together with us are now under scrutiny themselves, as though to make it clear to professionals who try to function independently that they must henceforth follow a political agenda.

The Darusman report was both preceded and followed by effusions from Channel 4, which claims now that its allegations have been substantiated by the Darusman report. However the fact remains that the discrepancies we pointed out in the original pictures it showed have still not been explained, though now it is granted that what was taken on a mobile phone, that somehow had optical zoom, was in fact edited, and edited backward at that.

The Channel 4 allegations are based largely on the testimony of three individuals all of whom have shady records. Their claims with regard to particulars are false, as with regard to allegations of firing on civilians or on hospitals. The ICRC documentation makes it clear that very few shells fell on hospitals, while the UN told us, on the first day that there were allegations of large numbers of civilian casualties (hundreds, not thousands as is claimed by the more melodramatic of British politicians), they believed that most of the firing came from the LTTE.

But the witch hunt continues, and will continue as long as unscrupulous people can gain political advantage. We have had David Miliband confessing that it was electoral considerations that prompted his concern for Sri Lanka, we have had funders of the Conservative party basically blackmailing politicians who have been supportive of Sri Lanka.

One can only feel sorry for those with such a low moral threshold that they can play with terrorism to stay in power. But what is sad is that they are delaying the reconciliation process in Sri Lanka, by trying to prevent Tamil politicians rooted in the country from achieving consensus, by trying to increase resentments on which they can capitalize.

The challenge before us then is largely one that is created by forces abroad, the rump of the terrorist Tigers who continue anxious to collect funds and spread hatred, the politicians who believe they can get political advantage by dancing to this tune. Within Sri Lanka the people have shown in exercising their votes that they continue to have confidence in the government. My fear though is that, if those forces implacably opposed to the elected Sri Lankan government continue to polarize, they will succeed in increasing the influence of those who believe any effort at reconciliation is vain, confusing the intransigent abroad with those who have suffered in Sri Lanka.

The end of 2009, what might be termed the hypocrisy of the enemies of the Sri Lankan state became apparent when they coalesced around the unlikely figure of Sarath Fonseka, who had distinguished himself during the war by a hardline majoritarian stance, and who had sought immediately after the war to increase the size of the army while holding back on resettlement of the displaced – as he made clear in his letter of resignation when he referred to differences of opinion with the President on these matters.

Ironically, it was those who talk most sanctimoniously about accountability who were most vociferous in supporting Sarath Fonseka, and who perhaps thought that officers prepared to betray their country could be granted immunity. But people believe what they want to believe, and one should not assume that those with a blinkered view of the world are necessarily hypocritical. One can only hope however that more intelligent decision makers are not swept away by thoughts of short term gain, and that they will contribute to reconciliation through positive measures for those who suffered for so long, rather than negative approaches based on revenge and recrimination.

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