The National Peace Council (NPC)

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TRANSITIONAL JUSTICE PROCESS NEEDS TO BECOME MORE TRANSPARENT--Jehan Perera (2)

The June session of the UN Human Rights Council is expected to be an important test for the government. The resolution that it co-sponsored in October 2015 stated that the UN High Commissioner would submit an oral update to the Human Rights Council at its thirty-second session (June 2016) and a comprehensive report followed by discussion on the implementation of the present resolution at its thirty-fourth session (March 2017). In recent weeks there have been several announcements by the government to highlight the progress that it has made in implementing the UNHRC resolution.

The most important of these governmental actions is the unveiling of the draft legislation on the Office of Missing Persons. This was one of the four transitional justice mechanisms that Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera promised to establish in the run up to the co-sponsored resolution of October 2015. Other actions taken by the government in the past month include the setting up of a witness protection unit under the Ministry of Justice, the decision to re-issue Sri Lankan passports to those who had sought political asylum abroad if they so desired, and the release of the report of the Public Representations Committee on constitutional reforms.

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SAMPUR INCIDENT HIGHLIGHTS NEED FOR BETTER GOVERNANCE IN NORTH AND EAST--Jehan Perera

The immediate cause of the fracas in the east involving the chief minister, governor and naval officer was personal pique. That incident has been sought to be politicized by an opposition that is ever mindful of the power of inter-ethnic mobilization of nationalism. They have warned of the undermining of the security forces of the country by the ethnic and religious minorities. The fact that it was a Muslim chief minister who spoke offensively in public to a naval officer from the predominantly Sinhalese security forces was given full play by the opposition that had once exploited narrow nationalism to win successive elections, and endeavour to continue in the same way. Former president Mahinda Rajapaksa even sought to draw a link between this incident and another recent one, in which TNA leader R Sampanthan entered an army camp with some of his supporters to inspect land that had been taken over from civilians during the war.

In both cases exaggerated ethnic interpretations have been given to make it appear to the wider population as if national security is being put into jeopardy by the aggressive behaviours of the ethnic and religious minorities. In the case of the alleged gate crashing into the army camp, the TNA leader has explained that the army officer on duty had not objected to his entry into the outer precincts of the army camp to inspect land that his party supporters had claimed was their own, but which had been taken over as high security zones that the government has promised to return, and which has yet to be returned. The over-centralisation of power, the undermining of devolution of power and the use of the military to take over civilian spaces are both the cause and consequence of the three decade long war.

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GOVERNMENT REFORM INITIATIVES PICK UP SPEED--Jehan Perera

In October 2015 the government surprised virtually everyone regardless of political spectrum, and friend and foe, when it co-sponsored the resolution on Sri Lanka by the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. From the time that the war ended in 2009 onwards Sri Lanka came under pressure by this international body to investigate charges that massive violations of human rights had taken place in the closing stages of the war, which included war crimes. Together with crimes against humanity and genocide, war crimes constitute the triumvirate of international crimes for which there can be no amnesty according to current international standards. It may be a recognition of this that drives the opposition to insist that its leaders may face the electric chair.

Prior to October 2015, the Sri Lankan government headed by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa had resisted the international calls for accountability for past violations of human rights and international crimes. It strenuously denied the allegations and sought to mobilize international support in its favour. Although the government succeeded in 2009 due to the willingness of the majority of countries at the UNHRC to give the government the benefit of time to work out a solution this victory was shortlived. Thereafter on every occasion that Sri Lanka opposed the resolutions against it in Geneva, it lost and not surprisingly as the US itself led the campaign against the Sri Lankan government.

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THE CHALLENGE OF MAY 19 IS TO COMMEMORATE AND TO MOURN--Jehan Perera

The war ended on the battlefields of the north seven years ago on May 19. The commemoration of this day is a divisive one. During the period of the previous government, which claimed ownership of the war victory, the commemoration took the form of a victory celebration, with military parades and narrow ethnic nationalistic speechmaking that catered to ethnic majority sentiment but injured the sentiments of the ethnic minorities. At the same time the government also took action to ensure that there would be no commemoration of the LTTE or even of civilian loss of life. This led to the prohibition of any form of public coming together in the north of the country where the last battles were fought, even within places of religious worship, for the purpose of remembering the dead.

However, a shift could be discerned last year, after the new government had come to power. Although once again the commemoration took the form of a military parade with associated speechmaking, it was conducted on a smaller scale and with less nationalism. The decision of the new government headed by President Maithripala Sirisena to redefine May 19 as a Day of Remembrance marked a significant break with the past. However, it was still not a complete break. It was accompanied by a military parade, as in the past, attended by the President. The sacrifice of the Sri Lankan security forces who ensured the territorial unity of the country, and the final military triumph over the LTTE and its separatist campaign, were the main themes of this event.

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THE CHALLENGE OF MAY 19 IS TO COMMEMORATE AND TO MOURN--Jehan Perera (2)

The war ended on the battlefields of the north seven years ago on May 19. The commemoration of this day is a divisive one. During the period of the previous government, which claimed ownership of the war victory, the commemoration took the form of a victory celebration, with military parades and narrow ethnic nationalistic speechmaking that catered to ethnic majority sentiment but injured the sentiments of the ethnic minorities. At the same time the government also took action to ensure that there would be no commemoration of the LTTE or even of civilian loss of life. This led to the prohibition of any form of public coming together in the north of the country where the last battles were fought, even within places of religious worship, for the purpose of remembering the dead.

However, a shift could be discerned last year, after the new government had come to power. Although once again the commemoration took the form of a military parade with associated speechmaking, it was conducted on a smaller scale and with less nationalism. The decision of the new government headed by President Maithripala Sirisena to redefine May 19 as a Day of Remembrance marked a significant break with the past. However, it was still not a complete break. It was accompanied by a military parade, as in the past, attended by the President. The sacrifice of the Sri Lankan security forces who ensured the territorial unity of the country, and the final military triumph over the LTTE and its separatist campaign, were the main themes of this event.

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GOOD GOVERNANCE NECESSARY TO ACHIEVE GOVERNMENT’S ECONOMIC VISION--Jehan Perera

The re-opening of the EU fisheries market to Sri Lankan exporters came as a welcome success to the government at a time when it needs to show some tangible progress on the economic front to the people. The main criticism of the government amongst the general population is the absence of economic development and poverty alleviation in their lives. While a relatively small fraction of the population travels in luxury private cars, the general public continues to hang on to the footboards of overcrowded trains for their daily commutes to their workplaces and back with some of the train engines and carriages well past their fortieth year in service. Even those sections of the population who voted for the government at the last two national elections that saw the defeat of the old one are bemoaning the lack of economic progress in the present.

The government leaders spell out a vision of Sri Lanka as an economic hub of the region, but there is a disconnect as the general population’s experience of hubs related to the economy are the village and town markets which is what they are familiar with. The rising cost of living and absence of visible development, and job creation, are the chief observations they have to make about the economy. In this context the lifting of the fisheries ban by the EU which was imposed on the country over a year ago, will indeed imrprove the livelihoods of several thousands of fisher families and those who are at the bottom of the economic pyramid and help to improve the economy in general. The ban was imposed due to the failure of the previous government to comply with international standards and adequate control systems to tackle the problem of illegal fishing.

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BRINGING FOCUS BACK TO NATIONAL SECURITY--Jehan Perera

With bombs exploding in European capitals and other parts of the world, Sri Lanka finds itself in unique position in the world. It is a country that has not experienced a single act of terrorism in nearly seven years. The last of the terrorism ended in May 2009 when the three decade long internal war came to an end, albeit in a most violent way which has given rise to the international denunciation of war crimes. However, when comparing Sri Lanka to other parts of the world it is remarkable that following the end of the war there has been no act of terrorism. A part of the reason would be the years of experience gained in identifying and tracking down terrorist threats.

The only occasion in which the counter terrorism operations of the Sri Lankan security forces was put to active use in the post-war period was two years ago when a group of three alleged LTTE cadre were cornered in a patch of jungle by the security forces and shot dead. One of those killed was accused of having shot a policeman in the leg in an earlier getaway bid. But there was considerable suspicion at that time that the pre-emptive strike by the security forces to eliminate the three men was prompted by the government of the day for its own political purposes.

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NEED FOR A BETTER COMMUNICATIONS STRATEGY--Jehan Perera

The government has begun to respond to the mounting criticism of its handling of the economy by explaining the background to the current economic crisis. The difficulty of the government to deliver economic benefits to the general population for more than a year since it assumed office is the biggest drawback it is facing at the popular level. Last week, development strategies and international trade minister Malik Samarawickrama gave a clear explanation of the government’s position on the economy in parliament. He pointed out that there were both external and internal constraints on Sri Lanka’s economic situation that were beyond the control of the present government. The external constraints included the economic downturn in China, the ongoing crisis in the middle east, the impact of the Syrian crisis on European economies and interest rate increase in the United States.

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SINGLE MINDED LEADERSHIP IS NECESSARY FOR NATIONAL RECONCILIATION--Jehan Perera

One of the positive features of the present time is the unity of the top leadership of the mainstream political parties. This was demonstrated in the eastern district of Ampara last week when the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) held its annual convention under the leadership of Minister Rauf Hakeem. The event was attended by President Maithripala Sirisena, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, Opposition and Tamil National Alliance leader R Sampanthan, and Minister Mano Ganesan of the Democratic People’s Front representing the Indian-origin Tamils. Each of these leaders represents the mainstream of each of the ethnic communities that together constitute the Sri Lankan nation. There was a visible manifestation of goodwill and partnership between the respective party leaders on this occasion which was evidenced by the speeches they made.

The situation today is far removed from that described soul searchingly by Neville Jayaweera in his memoirs titled “Exorcising The Past And Holding The Vision” published in 2014. In that book the former civil servant recounts how government leaders in the 1960s considered those of the Tamil ethnicity to be potential enemies of the state. When he was sent as a young man to head the administrative service in Jaffna as the Government Agent, he was instructed to be tough on any requests or demands made to him the Tamil political parties and their leaders. The orders he received from his superiors were that, he “should be unrelenting towards Tamil demands, and wherever possible, force confrontations with them and establish the government’s undisputed ascendancy.” In his memoirs he also refers to the petty manner in which the government leaders of those years turned down opportunities to visit the north.

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THE CONTINUING NEED FOR INTERNATIONAL PRESENCE--Jehan Perera

The issue of international participation in Sri Lanka’s transition process continues to remain a matter of speculation with different pronouncements being made by different members of the government. However, support for an international role in ascertaining the truth of what happened in the last phase of the war has received a boost due to the maiden speech in parliament made by former army commander Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka. His credentials as a champion of Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and unity as a state cannot be denied even by his political opponents. It was he who turned round the military debacles of an earlier period and achieved military success by leading from the front. Speaking in Parliament the former army commander said that Sri Lanka should permit foreign observers to participate in any inquiry on whether war crimes had been committed in the last phase of the country’s war.

During the period of the last government, the former army commander was victimised by its leaders who saw him as a potential threat to their monopoly of power. After the election of President Maithripala Sirisena the former army commander was compensated for the political victimisation he suffered and was also promoted from the rank of General of the army to that of Field Marshal. After the general election that saw the formation of a government of national unity, he was also appointed to parliament on the national list and thereafter made a cabinet minister. He disclosed that government decision makers during the final period of the war had asked him to get out from operational duties and assigned the political authorities to handle the military operations. In his maiden speech in Parliament that “If there are any who violated the laws then inquiries should be held and punitive actions taken against them.”

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INTERNATIONAL PARTICIPATION TO DEAL WITH THE PAST--Jehan Perera

The visit by Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera to the United States last month, and his assurance that the Sri Lankan government is contemplating international participation in the post-war acccountability process is an indicator of the pressure that the government is being subjected to on this issue. Neither the improvement in relations between Sri Lanka and the Western-led international community, nor the improvement in the human rights situation on the ground, is getting the international community to relent on the issue of international participation. However, there appears to be a willingness to give the government more time. The UN Human Rights Council resolution, which was co-sponsored by the Sri Lankan government last October, had highlighted “the importance of participation in a Sri Lankan judicial mechanism, including the Special Counsel’s office, of Commonwealth and other foreign judges, defense lawyers and authorised prosecutors and investigators.”

On the one hand, there are technical and credibility-centred reasons for having international participation in an accountability process that concerns the war. The first is that crimes associated with war are not part of Sri Lanka’s present legal framework. War crimes are a well developed part of international law but not of Sri Lankan law. Therefore the Sri Lankan legal community has little or no experience of dealing with the laws relevant to war, such as principle of proportionality and command responsibility in military action. This gives rise to a need for international legal expertise to be brought in, at least for an initial period of time. On the other hand, the credibility centred reason for international participation stems from the lack of confidence of the Tamil polity in the Sri Lankan judiciary at the present time.

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