Reconciliation through trust and participation

Somapala Gunadheera, in The Island, 22/24 December 2012

Pare ca na vijananti
mayamettha yamamase
ye ca tattha vijananti
tato sammanti medhaga.  …… (Antagonists do not realize that they must all die someday. The wise realize it and so end their quarrels.)

National reconciliation has attracted the attention of its stakeholders ever since Independence, though much headway has not been made in that direction up to now. Interest in the subject reached an unprecedented level with the physical unification of the country after the conquest of the LTTE. Much has been promised in the meantime but the ground situation does not appear to have improved that much. There is a vociferous debate on the level of reconciliation attained and the methods employed therefor. I do not wish to enter that fray. Naming and blaming begets emotion that can never be productive. What is proposed here is to look at the realities of the situation objectively and explore what could be done within current restraints, to bring the North and the South closer together, preventing the re -escalation of friction to unmanageable proportions. I look at the problem from first principles with no coloured spectacles on, in the background of my personal experience of working among Tamilians.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMutual suspicion: The first obstacle to reconciliation as I see it is mutual suspicion. The government wants to sustain the peace that was won after tremendous sacrifice. It is indeed its unalienable right and duty to do so. No one can grudge its attempt to achieve that end or deny that there is cause for alarm. Internationally there is a move to discredit the government in power by highlighting its failures and downplaying its achievements. The architects of that campaign are bent on bifurcating the country with a view to realizing their goal of Tamil Eelam.

Much as we oppose that move from the angle of the interests of the majority and of the country at large, we have to open our eyes to the forces that motivate it and our own culpability for igniting that fissiparous tendency. My own belief is that motive is a product of disappointment that adequate steps have not been made so far to rectify the causes that led to confrontation.

Even on the home front there is evidence of efforts to dislodge the stability achieved. That is but natural in a context in which an armed effort to regain regional independence had been crushed and thousands who participated in it willingly or otherwise, have survived the disappointment. It is certainly not in the common interests of the country to sleep over such plausible threats. Evidently the government’s moves to sustain security in the North/East are prompted by such concerns. Several questions arise here. Are the suspicions on sabotage based on ‘anthill phobia’ or on objectively ascertained facts? Are they the outcome of biased gossip or propaganda spread by discredited politicians trying to fish in troubled waters? The government has the duty to satisfy itself on these points with credible evidence and it has the machinery required for the purpose at its disposal.

Over-reaction? The next question is whether the measures adopted to contain the threats were commensurate with what has been ascertained. In other words is the government overacting in its response? Is it acting with discretion and tact? Is it rubbing its security initiatives into the people? I have not had the chance of observing the ground situation personally but the impression I have gathered from my friends who had visited the areas under discussion, is that the ordinary people concerned appear to be obsessed by a feeling of living under humiliating surveillance and that they were being governed from without.

The reconciliation initiative ought to be addressed to the task of disabusing the minds of the native population, in case theirs is a mistaken impression. This does not imply the withdrawal of all armed forces. The leader of the TNA himself does not appear to entertain such a dream. He has no objection to the stationing of armed forces in the North in their normal camps in line with their distribution in the rest of the country. What irks him, apparently, is the conspicuous presence of the Army in the peninsula and their interference with affairs that are the legitimate province of local civil management.

The challenge before government is to maintain security at maximum, with minimum intrusion on the normal life of the community and its dignity and self-respect. This is certainly an area that should receive the prompt attention of those responsible for the security situation in the North. Reportedly security checks and armed guards have been considerably reduced over the last year. Can this trend be further developed without harm to security concerns to a level where public life in Jaffna is no different from any other region in the country? Of course this calls for sensitivity and strategic planning. The end result should be to remove all possible evidence of an occupied territory. That implies stabilization of civil administration avoiding military intervention wherever possible.

After Riviresa: This throws my mind back to 1997 where I happened to be the only civilian authority in the peninsula until the reverse exodus began from the Vanni. The Commander of the Army called a meeting of the returning public servants along with me to discuss resettlement. At the meeting, the Commander invited me to take the seat next to him. I declined the request politely.

“You are the civilian lord here, said the Commander, trying to persuade me to come up. I was seated side by side with the GA in the hall.

“Not after the local executives have returned, I replied, “The GA is the administrative head of the district. Let him sit next to you.” I made the GA move to that seat against his pleas for me to take it.

Soon after the meeting, the GA came to me with pen and paper and said to me, “Sir, tell me what to do. I will take them down and implement them to the letter.”

“What nonsense!” I exclaimed, “You know much more about the place than I. It is for you to run your district. I will only stand by and give you a helping hand where you need it.”

Thus began the resettlement process with the normal machinery in place. The University had to be started. The sprawling Jaffna Hospital had been reduced to two wards managed by a couple of retired AMOs. The schools were deserted. There was no onion cultivation. Eggs were selling at Rs. 25 each. But the situation was brought to near normalcy within a few months.

I designed the operation but remained in the wings watching the GA and his staff at work. There were meetings, discussions, and inspections without end but I saw to it that the local operatives led them with me sitting by as advisor. I must say the team worked tirelessly late into the night, giving of their best to the operation, regardless of the suffering and embarrassment they had gone through under the “Riviresa Operation’’. When we began, the local officials worked with grim faces but as we worked together they relaxed and treated me with the utmost respect.

Participation: I travelled throughout the peninsula on inspection. Late Brigadier Hamangoda who was in charge of security had received information about my movements and was worried about my safety.

“With whom do you travel, Sir? the Brigadier asked me anxiously, after a meeting.

“Always with the GA”, I replied.

“Then there is no problem.” remarked the officer with a sigh of relief, “they will not harm you as long as you are with their man.”

I referred to these events at some length to stress an important point. Rehabilitating a fallen people has to be undertaken with their participation and leadership. It is a mistake to try to impose it on them with external leadership. As it is, both the North and the East are predominantly governed by men symbolizing the military. The Commanders and the Governors of both provinces are from the Army and Sinhala by race at that. There is no doubt that the holders of these posts are excellent men performing an arduous task admirably. But their inputs are overshadowed by their professional and genetic beginnings that automatically create a sense of alienation among those whom they govern.

There is no doubt that from the security angle, both the North and the East have to remain under the watchful eye of senior military men until all possibilities of a backlash are wiped out. But should not the Governor of the North be a civilian representative of the majority of the province? Even if anthill phobia stands in the way of appointing a Tamilian to the post, there is no reason why the Governor should not be a civilian. If a Tamilian could not be placed in the post for reasons best known to the Government, a suitable civilian from the other communities may be moved up there after placing a Tamilian Governor at the head of a southern province, thereby forestalling natural suspicion of racial discrimination. In any case, my personal conviction is that reconciliation has to begin with civilian Governors at the top of the North and the East.

The service men at the head of the two provinces have addressed the security situation erring with distinction. They do not appear to need lateral support. Only they must go out of their way to have a continuing dialogue with civil administration, creating unstinted rapport between the two sides. During my time in the North/East, I stayed with the Army until I could find private accommodation and was regularly invited by local chiefs of the forces to dine with them. These cordial meetings helped me not only to appreciate the security concerns but also to acclimatize my civilian colleagues to the developing trends.

I must hasten to add that the situation I faced was much less complicated than what prevails today. The civil administration and the people I dealt with did not identify themselves altogether with the LTTE. They were acting under compulsion but were not won over completely. Annihilation of the LTTE created a different mind-set. With all his limitations, Prabhakaran was their kin and he was claiming to fight a war of liberation on their behalf. The sudden disappearance of that symbol must necessarily have a shock effect on ethnicity. Besides many a family had lost one or more of their members to the war. Whether they were killed fighting or collaterally, whether they were fighting voluntarily or under conscription are beside the point. Bereavement by itself is a stunner and winning over the bereaved calls for extreme tact and compassion.

I left the North leaving behind a motivated bureaucracy. Thereafter there were no regular visits from the centre to guide them or to lend a helping hand. But all the GAs performed at optimum levels with commitment. By the way, for all the good work they did, two of them were locked up under the Terrorism Act subsequently. I was convinced of their innocence but my intervention on their behalf fell on deaf ears. Opinionated arrogance framed charges against them from air-conditioned security establishments but both officers were finally discharged after months of degrading confinement.

What surprised me was that both officers involved resumed work after their release as if nothing had happened. They had the influence and the resources to join the Diaspora and avenge their humiliation but they continue to live among us un-attracted by the lure of life in a foreign clime. Attachment to one’s land of birth regardless of ethnicity appears to be a powerful weapon in the armoury of reconciliation. It is for the government to exploit it sensitively to achieve greater cohesion among its subjects.

Be that as it may, installing a leadership of affinity in civil administration as proposed above has to be followed up with linkages down the ladder with a view to creating the climate of participatory management that existed in my time and continued up to the dislocation brought about by the initiatives introduced to contain the aftereffects of dislodging the LTTE. That calls for the progressive withdrawal of external elements brought in for emergency operations.

Distributing work: During my time there was little or no foreign aid coming in. Pullets and seed onion came in crates within the limited capacity of air freight and paid for fully by the exchequer. Today aid comes in huge containers and is distributed by dignitaries local and foreign, highlighting the donation over its effects on the recipients and ignoring the operatives that make them meaningful. From all reports, massive steps have been taken at infrastructure development. But has that activity resulted in job opportunities to local youth who have been starved of employment through the troubled years. The President himself has stressed the importance of utilizing local labour in the North. Recent homicides of two workers from the South have highlighted the reaction to influx of labour into an over supplied local market. The resultant jealousy is likely to be at the bottom of these crimes.

This is a situation where ‘thy need is greater than mine’ and I need to stand back until thy need is satisfied. What appears to happen in practice is that Northern enterprises are not in a position to compete with their long established Southern rivals. Having won a contract the latter naturally import the labour they are used to blocking out local job seekers. This is a dichotomy that has to be tackled at the awarding stage. Distributive justice demands that appropriate concessions be given to offers from the disadvantaged areas until normalcy is achieved. If the demand cannot be met with local supply it will be prudent to offer the excess to the local army units so that they could serve two purposes at the same time.

Even in the normal public service there appear to be many positions that are best filled with personnel with a knowledge of local language and culture. For obvious reasons cadres had been brought in from the South to satisfy the needs of troubled times. If the claim that we were back to normal was true, no time ought to be lost in substituting the stand-in cadres and filling vacancies with suitable native hands. I understand that efforts made by departments to recruit Tamilian staff have met with limited success.

If the reason therefore is non-availability of applicants with requisite qualifications, standards may be lowered temporarily, as in the case of award of contracts until the ground situation returns to normal. If it is feared that this concession could affect prevalent quality standards, applicants with qualifications closest to the required may be appointed on a contract basis, giving them time to come up.

Similarly available opportunities may be used to the optimum to enhance the participation of local citizens in the activities of governance. Civil Defence Committees recently established by the Police offer an ideal chance to involve local leadership in security management from a ringside seat. However the most suitable community leaders are said to be shying away from these responsibilities thus making way for less suitable persons to fill the vacancies to the detriment of peace administration.

Turn the other cheek: This apathy is said to be manifest even in other spheres where the authorities are trying to involve the populace in the recovery effort. Officials visiting schools to motivate students to join the reconciliation effort are said to be met with stiff faces and stark silence reminding me of my own experience as I began my work after Riviresa. I received the returning crowds at Wembady and fed them with the assistance of some people I hired locally. My guests never looked me in the face. I understood their plight and feelings. They were tired by the long walk up and down and were no doubt upset by their dislocation. I moved them to their homes in army trucks and continued my task of resettling them regardless of their intransigence.

Installing the NPC: One of the biggest obstacles that lies in the way of reconciliation is the failure to hold elections to the Northern Provincial Council. This brings to my mind the following observation I made in my article on, “NPC election: The positive side”, published in The Island on February 12, 2012: “PC elections have been held in all provinces except in the North and the elected Councils are in operation despite their alleged shortcomings. That disparity naturally catches the eye and creates credible room for the allegation that the North had been discriminated against. Such negative criticism boosts the already overloaded charges of partiality against the Government.”

I have no quarrel with those who oppose the Provincial Council system. They may have their own reasons for their objections. But they have so far failed to present their alternative. There is not even a sign of an attempt to evolve one except for nebulous concepts. In the meantime the North has to be waiting for Godot. The objection to establishing a PC in the North appears to arise from its potential to encourage separatism. Granted the allegation is true, surely it cannot happen in a hurry. Even if the opposed institution happens to create obstacles to national legislation, the government has the power to take steps, as in India, to get over them and a Ministry of Defence that was able to handle Prabhakaran alive can easily be trusted to contain the situation until more appropriate and sustainable modalities are worked out with political maturity and mutual trust.

As I have guessed in the above article, another reason that pushes the government to keep on postponing the NPC election and rationalizing the delay with red herrings might be the fear of losing at the poll. But for obvious reasons, no man in his senses will expect the government to win an election in the North in the near future. Once an election is held with the ruling party holding itself back, the government then joins hands with the winners, whoever they may be, to help them to run the best regional administration possible. There is no dishonesty in such a move as the coming together is not aimed at getting political advantage, for the government had not staked its politics at the exclusive election of the region. Besides the new leadership uncovered by the election may look at old problems with new eyes.

Remove the blinkers: The North also has a duty to engage itself more actively and positively in the reconciliation initiative. It takes two to tango. The Indian Ocean has predetermined that all communities inhabiting this small island must willy-nilly live together. The sensible thing to do in such a situation is to try and make that living together as harmonious as possible. Of course, some enterprising siblings have moved to more salubrious climes. While they keep imperceptibly losing their own identity in the madding crowds of their new habitats, paradoxically they keep fighting tooth and nail to preserve its shadow back at home. Most Northerners, like the two GAs I mentioned above, are content to spend the rest of their lives in the land of their birth. It is the bounden duty of the majority to ensure that they live with equity and dignity.

Our generation and its immediate predecessors have been confined to the narrow limits of ethnicity due to the compartmentalizing policies of our rulers. Hence our difficulty to remove our blinkers to see that death shall remove all our differences. Nevertheless I am optimistic that progressive policies of education, advances in technology and expansion of the global village would merge our progeny together in a united Sri Lanka.


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