The inaugural conference on national reconciliation held last week at the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute of International Relations and Strategic Studies was pretty much a feel good affair. Precious little was spoken of political reforms or political engagement with Tamil political parties, and a question about ‘uncovering and acknowledging’ the past was responded to with an assurance that a list of civilian deaths that occurred during the conflict is forthcoming. Perhaps, too little, too late. The conference was expected to showcase the government’s achievements in post conflict transformation. But, it was a reference which was relegated to the latter end of the keynote address of defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa that caught the attention of the media. He said that the government was preparing a list of people who died during the conflict. “The approach the government took in this regard was a very professional one. The Department of Census and Statistics, which is the official government arm for these matters, conducted a complete census of the concerned area,” Rajapaksa said.
Excerpts from his speech: It is important to note that the number of dead and missing in this forthcoming census will include people in the following categories: * Those who died of natural causes. * Those who died of accidents. * Those who left this country through illegal means, particularly by boat to India or to South East Asia, and from there to the West. * Those who died whilst fighting as members of the LTTE. * Those who died as a result of being coerced to fight by the LTTE. * Those who died as a result of resisting the LTTE–for which we have ample evidence through other sources, including aerial footage. There is also new gruesome evidence that has come to light, which will be made known to the public very soon, about how the LTTE killed injured cadres and even young children who were housed in a church during this time. * The final category of deaths are those that occurred due to military action. “It is only for the deaths of people in this last category that the Sri Lankan Military can bear any responsibility. As a result of the census, we already know that the real number of dead and missing is far too small to provide any substance to the absurd allegations of genocide and war crimes that have been made against our military by the rump of the LTTE and their cronies,” he said. Minister of External Affairs G.L. Peiris said it is important that the international community listens to the government, though “we don’t necessarily expect to be agreed with.” Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha, taking stock of the process lamented that positive achievements had not been communicated effectively. Former AG Mohan Pieris spoke on the government’s commitment to transitional justice. Emelda Sukumar, GA Jaffna and Maj. Gen. Mahinda Hathurusinghe, Security Forces commander, Jaffna spoke about the reconciliation initiatives in the North. He said the identity of the soldier had transformed from a ‘fighter image’ to a ‘protector image’ where one can find peace keeping and humanitarian missions at the core of the military identity now. Later, a galaxy of speakers from NGOs took the podium. Dr. Vinya Ariyaratne of Sarvodaya highlighted the role of his organization in reconciliation; Prashan De Visser of the youth initiative, Sri Lanka Unites explained how two groups of youth from two communities acknowledged the past mistakes and embraced each other. Manori Unambuwe of Psychosocial Centre, North East described her first encounter with the war displaced, and how she sought to soothe the pain and distress of war displaced children. Noel Nadesan, the former editor of a community newspaper in Melbourne delivered a scathing attack on the conduct of the Tamil media. (His speech is reproduced elsewhere in these pages) and Arun Thambimuttu, the son of the former parliamentarian Sam Thambimuttu who was assassinated by the LTTE in 1990 spoke about the diaspora participation in the reconciliation process, and called on the diaspora to visit and invest in Sri Lanka. Throughout the sessions, there was an aura of feel good backslapping, and speaker after the speaker strove to drive the point that a lot had been achieved; but what was sorely missing in the entire discussion was a genuine appraisal of what was not accomplished. A multitude of pertinent issues such as a genuine political engagement with the mainstream Tamil political parties, demilitarization, civilian ownership of the reconciliation process, reparations for war victims, political and judicial reforms were sadly missing and they appeared to be too sacrosanct to be debated in the government mandated conference. Reconciliation is meant to be an inclusive process where dissenting voices are heard and acknowledged, but the absence of even a single speaker from the parliamentary opposition — or the Tamil political mainstream — was proof of a lopsided discussion. Away from the confines of the Kadirgamar Institute, many Sri Lankans are disenchanted with the direction of post war transformation of this country.