A bilateral approach to reconciliation

Somapala Gunadheera, in The Island, 19 October 2011

I had despaired of writing on national reconciliation due to lethargy, prevarication and lack of vision on the part of protagonists of the ethnic conflict. But I could not help reverting to the subject after reading the following articles published in the Island over the last few days, two of them on the same day.

1.   If 13th Amendment is implemented: Subliminal proclivities of communal exclusivity bound to find undisguised expression, Demos, October 11,

2.   Land reforms in the North and East of Sri Lanka, Sebastian Rasalingam of Toronto, Canada (October 14)

3.   Could the TNA learn from the Catholics? Arjuna Hulugalle, (Oct. 1).Release of ex-combatants in batches– Pic from pro-govt newspaper

Reading between the lines of “Land reforms in the North and East of Sri Lanka”, I was touched by the sense of alienation and consequent socio-political disintegration caused by the die hard caste system of the north. Basically Sebastian Rasalingam (SR) proposes to cure the canker of ‘casticism’ among Sri Lankan Tamils through a scheme of land redistribution.

Although un-tabooed access to land could go a long way to assuage the frustrations of the deprived castes, I am not sure whether the argument offered by SR for taking over land for redistribution is tenable. He says, “Once a war has been fought, the land claimed by the terrorist becomes crown land.” It is true that in conventional warfare, the property of the vanquished was vested in the victor. But the fight against the LTTE was not a war. It was an internal dispute and in any case, the lands did not belong to the LTTE. There were rightful owners to them although some owners might have been dislodged by their self-appointed saviours. Such forcible dislocation does not break the title of the owner.

Unification of Sri Lankan Tamils: There is a point in SR’s argument tracing the inequities of the northern caste system to the orthodox system of land ownership in the region. But I am not sure whether the inequity could be rectified by a wave of the gubernatorial wand. Besides, linking land reform to the conquest of the LTTE is likely to give a communal twist to the move and help the landlords to add another string to their bow. It would be wise to make the change through a normal process of land reform as in the south. The first priority is to settle the displaced in their own lands.

This priority is reported to be disregarded according to a comment in the Asia Report N°209 (18 July 2011) of the International Crisis Group titled, “Reconciliation inSri Lanka: harder than ever”, that reads as follows:

“The government regularly points to the “rapid resettlement” of the vast majority of the nearly 300,000 IDPs originally detained after the war, claiming that “95 per cent have been resettled” as of 30 May 2011. But that is misleading because over 60,000 of those displaced in the last year of the war are still in temporary settings – living with host communities or in transit situations…. Those areas are closely guarded by the military and reportedly not open to returns because of uncleared landmines. In addition to the IDP population detained in 2009, hundreds of thousands of civilians were displaced before that have seen much slower returns. Around 100,000 such individuals are still in camps, with host families or in transit situations. Resettlement and freedom of movement for all remaining IDPs are urgent needs”.

SR’s letter brings into focus a social problem, wider than land reform. That is the need to unify a people dispersed by parochial divisive proclivities. One of the most potent causes that obstruct the amelioration of the lot of the Tamils is their lack of cohesiveness. That basic flaw has to be put right if their struggles are to succeed at least in the future. That is the objective that the Jaffna Youth Congress tried to achieve in the thirties. Unfortunately that initiative was shot down by the narrower ambitions of self-serving politicians. The following argument of Dr. Rajan Hoole in his foreword to my “Ethnic Confrontation and National Integration in Sri Lanka” published recently by Stamford Lake, calls for serious reflection in this connection,

“It was chiefly among alumni of Jaffna College that the Jaffna Youth Congress (JYC), a political movement, was born in the 1920s.

Modelled after the Indian Congress and inspired by Gandhi, JYC in 1931 pioneered the demand of an independent Lanka. Although the JYC waned as a mass political movement, its members remained active in furthering education, the cooperative movement and in fighting against caste. They fully supported the Kannangara reforms of the early 1940s. Several of them became distinguished school principals and their activism made them well poised to take advantage of the reforms and advance mass education inJaffna.

This has relevance to the dilemma facing Tamils today. The JYC was a deeply secular political movement dedicated to advancing education, caste liberation and social emancipation. Their achievements were enormous. Their principles prevented their flirting with forces like the LTTE, even when the pressure was great.”

The cosmopolitan values of the JYC are basic to a bilateral approach to reconciliation. What we have had so far on either side is an adversarial stance and a confrontational attitude to resolving the ethnic crisis. Politicians on both sides have taken us on a long voyage of unproductive vituperation leaving us high and dry on the road to reconciliation. We have seen endless discussions, committees, hartals, fasts and bloodshed over the issue but we have not made any headway at all in our venture. That failure stemmed from the sectarian exclusiveness of politicians on both sides. Eschewing that culture calls for consensus. No consensus would be possible until people on either side realize the realities of the situation and commit themselves to a mindset of give and take.

Toleration and Compromise: It is in this respect that the article, “Could the TNA learn from the Catholics?” by Arjuna Hulugalle assumes significance. Hulugalle argues. “Catholics, he (Leo Nanayakkara, the Bishop of Kandy) maintained had to be patriotic Ceylonese and stand equal shoulder to shoulder with the Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims. Reason prevailed and the Church turned to that advice. Today, no one talks of a “Catholic problem” and Catholics are as prominent and successful as they were then. The Church is now recognized as an indigenous body well integrated into the local psyche. Rather than running toIndia and to western countries, the Tamil leadership has to mature and give serious thought to evolve a plan to work with the majority community and the other communities.”

In his, “If 13th Amendment is implemented: Subliminal proclivities of communal exclusivity bound to find undisguised expression”, Demos raises the question of advisability of applying the Thirteenth Amendment on a provincial basis arguing that the proposed decentralization was unfair by those living in the south and prophesying that the Amendment was bound to lead to disintegration – a concept that is likely to come under intensive debate. Be that as it may, the positive advice that Demos offers to Tamils is worthy of serious attention:

“The Tamil community should further, take special cognisance of the crucially important fact that reconciliatory approaches are a two way process which should be pursued with sincerity of purpose by all. There should be spontaneous reciprocity if such initiatives are to be mutually reinforced and facilitated to progressively gather and sustain the required momentum. The Tamil community as a whole, should in particular, consciously eschew narrow racial exclusivity and think in terms of an inclusive national ethos under the unifying concept of a Sri Lankan identity. This is vital for communal harmony and national integration.”

That advice applies equally to the Sinhalese. It would be useful to bear in mind that it takes two to tango. One cannot expect such an accommodating response from the Tamils unless and until their genuine grievances are eliminated. Forget about constitutional reforms to improve the balance of power. What has the Government done so far at least to implement minority rights already written into the Statute Book?

Equal Rights:  Demos himself underscores some of the long neglected administrative steps that would grant the Tamils a place under the sun. “It is however, unreservedly conceded that the Tamil community as well as other minority communities, must certainly be given their due rights and privileges based on justice and equity, on a par with those available to the majority community. This can be best accomplished by having the District as the unit of administration and by incorporating within this administrative framework, Constitutional provisions that would assuage the political and social sensitivities of the Tamil community by ensuring governance based on the principles of equity and justice.

For this purpose a Human Rights Bill could be enacted and incorporated in the Constitution to re-assure the minorities of the guarantees of these fundamental rights and basic freedoms.A Special Courtcomprising three Supreme Court judges could be constituted to rule on matters pertaining to alleged breaches of fundamental rights entrenched in the Bill of Rights expeditiously.

Further, and equally importantly, there should be power sharing arrangements made with the Tamil community at the Centre, by allocating knowledgeable and competent members of the community, key Ministerial posts. In Districts, where they are numerically a preponderant community, key public service posts should be filled by their members while the other posts should be filled, wherever possible, again by their members. These are some readily identifiable ways of gaining their trust and confidence by showing them that they would always be treated as free and equal citizens of the country.”

A monitoring mechanism: The reforms suggested by Demos are sine qua non in generating a collective national culture that would automatically initiate a process of reconciliation on a bilateral basis. The failure of the Government to take meaningful steps to integrate the Tamils two years after the cessation of hostilities, is thus spotlighted by the above report of the Crisis Group:

“The government’s post-war policies have prevented Sri Lankans from dealing with the past. Except for a few issues on which concerted international pressure has helped improve outcomes most of the government’s policies have increased ethnic polarization between and within groups and closed space for reform. The government tells a very different story, claiming that it already has made “significant progress” on various issues in the north and east. It also points to the LLRC and talks with Tamil political parties to demonstrate its commitment to “truth, justice and reparation” and “constitutional, legal and democratic reform”. This narrative does not reflect reality. What the regime deems “progress” on many issues is in fact undermining communities and reducing the chances of a sustainable peace.”

 The bane of the reconciliation process is the absence of a monitoring mechanism to supervise and confirm the grievances of Tamils and the claims of the Government. That encourages false propaganda leading to disenchantment. For obvious reasons, an official body like the ongoing Supervisory Committee of leading public servants cannot perform this task with acceptance due to clash of interests. Their rulings on the claims against Government would not be taken seriously, even if they are genuine. The assignment calls for independence and integrity at the highest level. Repeated calls for a Presidential Commission to undertake this assignment have fallen on deaf ears.

Even if the protracted talks of the TNA with the Government finally end up at a dead-end, the former will be making a lasting contribution to dispute resolution if they succeed in persuading the latter to appoint a credible Presidential Commission to oversee the reconciliation process at least within the available constitutional provisions. If the members appointed are outstanding and acceptable to both sides, the process of reconciliation planned by the Commission and their word on the progress of implementation will be mutually accepted at home and undisputed abroad. Such a credible organization will form the bedrock of trust that could sustain a bilateral programme of reconciliation. That trust will lead to nation building some day when solid mutual rights replace lip service.

My own belief is that while politicians keep emptying their bag of tricks, the enlightened on both sides would progressively realize the inevitability of mutual cooperation and work together towards a unitedSri Lanka. I see the proposal of the breakaway group of the JVP to align themselves with the progressives of the north, as a significant symptom in that trend of unification.

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