The National Peace Council (NPC)

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The A9 highway that bisects the Northern Province and leads to its capital of Jaffna would be the best advertisement for the government in its election campaign to win the provincial council elections scheduled to be held in September. The dramatic improvement in the highway and the network of roads that connect to it have enhanced the quality of life to all who make use of them, be they the businessman or landless labourer, northerner or southerner.  But the A9 highway, which was once called the highway of death on account of the thousands of lives it consumed during the war, also shows why the government cannot win those forthcoming elections unless there is a change of course. 
The huge military checkpoint at Omanthai, which was once the border between government and LTTE-controlled territories in the north, still stands like an ageing dinosaur. All vehicles traversing the road at this point have to stop to be checked.  At the best it means getting out of one’s vehicle and giving one’s identity card and vehicle number to be written down in a register.  But sometimes it can mean having one’s bags poked and opened for inspection.  Passengers in private vehicles are usually spared the hassle of getting down to be checked, but those travelling by bus have to disembark and line up to be checked. This war-time practice serves as a reminder of the war and the division of the country.



After the terror attacks on the United States that shook the world in 2001 and brought down the twin towers of the World Trade Centre, the US government has been frequently at the receiving end of criticism for violating the human rights of those suspected to be terrorists or supporters of organizations deemed to be a threat to US interests.  There have been charges of human rights violations in relation to the capture, questioning and incarceration of suspected terrorists.  The war against terrorism led by the US and its allies has claimed tens of thousands of lives, and the unmanned drone attacks that frequently lead to civilian casualties have become symbolic of the unacceptable collateral costs of this war.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa was among the first of world leaders to condemn the bombing of the Boston Marathon and condole with the victims.  The government has utilized the occasion of the bombing to express its solidarity with the United States in the global war against terrorism.  The terrorist bombing and the carnage it caused to innocent civilians serves as a reminder of the vulnerability of free societies to such outrages.  The fact that the bombers were originally from Chechnya is certain to strengthen public opinion in the United States against those who promote or engage in violence for ethnic separatism.



The Sri Lankan government continues to be unyielding in its approach to governance and reconciliation issues. Having fought against the United States for two successive years in the diplomatic arena at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva and failed to win against it, the government now appears to have changed its strategy.   It has hired not one but two US companies that it believes are adept at public relations campaigning and are paying them to get the government’s message across. This action gives an indication of the government’s approach.  PR firms are known to give a positive spin to their client’s activities.  The hiring of PR firms for lobbying in the United States suggests that the Sri Lankan government is not thinking of changing its own policies.  Instead it is thinking it can change the US government by projecting a positive image of developments in the country.  



The passage of the second US-sponsored resolution at the March session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva appears to have served as a wake-up call to the government.  One aspect of the government’s response has been to hire a new public relations company in the United States.  This PR effort seeks a favourable revision of US policy through a more professional approach than the previous PR effort.  The mandate of the new public relations initiative is to positively project the government’s achievements in post-war rebuilding to those that matter in the US policy making circles.  It is also to obtain more space and time to achieve reconciliation on the ground.



Even as the government prepares to celebrate the fourth year anniversary of the end of the war next month in May, a new threat looms on the horizon.  This is the prospect of violence arising from politically-motivated communalism which passes for patriotism within a society that has grown increasingly polarized on ethnic and religious lines.  The sudden rise of extremist Buddhist groups is occurring in a context in which the fears of the Sinhalese majority are being fanned by increased international involvement in the affairs of the country.  Patriotism is also the favourite refuge of governmental leaders in facing the challenges arising from the international community on account of their conduct of the last phase of the war.  The danger is that the activism of religious zealots will become escalated from violent rhetoric to violent action.



The bitterness of the pill that the government was forced to swallow once again at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva was assuaged somewhat by the support that Sri Lanka received from significant parts of the world.  Despite eloquent speeches by the Sri Lankan representatives and supportive countries such as Pakistan, Sri Lanka lost the vote by an increased margin of 25 to 13 compared to the previous year.   But Japan broke ranks with its fraternal Western allies to abstain from the vote.  The government has also been able to take consolation from the 13 countries that voted along with it in opposition to the resolution titled “Promoting Reconciliation and Accountability” sponsored by the United States.  The government has much to be grateful to the Muslim countries that voted along with it.  



Foreign assistance to Sri Lanka has been falling partly on account of Sri Lanka’s post-war accession to the ranks of middle income countries, albeit of those at the lower end.  It is from this perspective that an old friend of Sri Lanka, former Japanese peace envoy to Sri Lanka, Yasushi Akashi, has been quoted by the Presidential Spokesman’s Office as having said that he was “amazed by the ability of government officials, starting from the leadership, to mobilize the extra efforts in a very effective manner” according to a news story in the national media.  He was also quoted as saying he was “sure that the government and people of Sri Lanka will wish to move much more rapidly, but with Sri Lanka’s limited resources what it has done by itself is amazing.”
Despite this internationally commended post-war success, there is a sense of inevitability that the country is going to be subjected to yet another negative resolution against the Sri Lankan government at the ongoing session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.  Invitations have been given to skeptics to peruse the web and see how transparent the Sri Lankan government is when it cites its achievements.  But hard hitting statements made by Sri Lankan government representatives appear designed for domestic rather than international consumption, as they have been counter-productive in serving to antagonize the UN system and its supporters even more.  
What is necessary is more concrete evidence from the ground that the lives of those worst affected by the long years of war are in the process of being restored.  This would be the measure of post-war success in reconciliation.  In this context it is not enough to observe the improvements being made to national infrastructure, which includes roads, governmental buildings and airports.  It is also important that the dwellings of people are upgraded to some level of normalcy, and they know the fate of those missing in the war.  A fatal weakness in post-war Sri Lanka is the absence of any attention given by the government to facilitating the search for missing and disappeared persons, every one of whom would have been an irreplaceable member of some family.
The government seeks to claim credit where resettlement of the war-affected people is concerned.  The returnee community of Sannar in the Mannar district in the North would be an example.  There are about 180 families that have been resettled there.  Most are Tamils who lived in that part of Mannar but who had to flee due to the war.  They have continued to live in temporary housing consisting of tin roofed shacks although nearly four years have passed since the end of the war.  Those who have seen the reality of war and natural disaster induced displacements in other parts of the world may find that four years is not a long period of time.  But in Sri Lanka, with its small size and availability of resources which are being spent in the billions on a new airport near the President’s birth place, four years is a lot of time for people to languish in tin shacks that they have to call their homes.
It has only been in the last few months that Habitat for Humanities, an NGO, has commenced a programme of activities in Sannar to provide the people with toilets and tube wells.  So far the people have lacked even these basic amenities.  The next step will be to provide them with better quality housing.  If not for the intervention by this NGO the resettled people of Sannar would have been left to fend for themselves.  As one of them said, it is has been difficult for them to think of building their houses by themselves as they lack both the money to purchase the necessary housing material, and they also do not have the time, as they have to go out into the market place to sell their labour to bring back food for the day to their families.  
Just across the road is a military camp, one of the large number that continue to dot the North and East of the country, despite the decimation of the LTTE in the last battle and the passage of four years of peaceful conditions.   When I went into the village, I saw two military personnel keeping some sort of watch inside the village.  They looked like two boys, but they had guns, and their presence served as a reminder of the war and that normalcy has still not been restored to the North.  The constant complaint of those who live in the North and East is that military intelligence personnel are ubiquitous in their lives, and their presence on street corners, in market places and even at private functions that people organize, serves to dampen their sense of being normal and free to speak as they wish.  It also serves as a reminder that even four years after the war, normalcy has still not been restored.  
The resettlement taking place in Sannar is important for another reason too.  It shows that antagonistic relationships that exist between ethnic communities can be eased if not healed through creative solutions.   This is particularly important in view of the recent rise in Buddhist-Muslim tensions following the rise of an extreme Buddhist group, the Bodhu Bala Sena which is questioning some of the practices of the Muslim community.  A few months ago there were reports of localized Tamil-Muslim tensions in Mannar over conflicting claims of the two communities to land and fishing resources.  Some of these issues are now before the courts of law and others await more consensual solutions.  These tensions had spreads to Sannar as well, due to concerns that Tamils who had settled in Sannar would be forcibly moved out to accommodate Muslims there.  
However, these tensions have now eased due to the clearing of several hundred acres of forest land to provide for the returning Muslim community.  This shows that solutions to inter-ethnic tensions are possible if adequate resources are available and distributed in a manner that is equitable.   The Tamils are the majority community in Mannar, and their representatives control the local level government bodies.  They also have the stronger civil society representation, especially through the Catholic Church and affiliated NGOs.  On the other hand, the Muslims have a powerful minister in the central government who has been effective in providing them with governmental resources. But it is not healthy for inter-ethnic relations if actions of the government and of NGOs are perceived as helping one community at the expense of the other.    The people of Sannar have grievances on this score.  
The observations of former Japanese peace envoy Yasushi Akashi are particularly relevant at this juncture.  He is quoted as having said, “I think everyone tends to judge a situation from his or her own background. That is why I feel that it is rather unfair for some developed countries, which have much more resources than Sri Lanka, to express impatience with Sri Lanka and its development; but this is not fair and this is not objective.”  Despite the large proportion of displaced persons who have been resettled, the quality of their resettlement, and human rights problems, do not yet qualify the Sri Lankan experience to be cited as a model for international emulation. The international can contribute constructively to greater reconciliation in Sri Lanka, not only by putting pressure on it for a political solution and human rights accountability, but also by ensuring that there are more resources to be distributed to all who are in post-war recovery.


Problems can be denied as non-existent, they can be blamed on others, or they can be faced up to and addressed so that they are resolved.  There is a story from Columbia, which has been wracked for many decades by civil war with tens of thousands of extra judicial killings and disappearances.   In early 2002 there was a systematic rise in violence.  It started with killings and disappearances of young men.  A woman came back to her home after working in the family coffee plantation and found her husband had disappeared.   She checked with the local military commander about her husband who denied any knowledge and then threatened her for asking and sent her home.  Months passed into years but without any news.  



The immediate crisis over the issue of Halal certification by the All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama has been defused with the government’s appointment of a high level ministerial committee to make recommendations on how to address it.  The appointment of a parallel committee by the UNP is also noteworthy, not only because it is the main opposition party, but also because of the totally different composition of the two committees.  The ten member government committee includes nationalist Sinhalese politicians, some of whom have expressed strong views against the ethnic minorities.  On the other hand, the six member UNP committee goes to the other extreme and comprises only Muslims.  



The Budu Bala Sena, which is an organization that seeks to protect the rights of the Buddhist majority, has issued a  ten point manifesto directed against Muslim religious practices that they claim are impinging on the rights of non-Muslims.  Chief amongst these is the issuance of Halal certification of consumer products for a fee.  A recent public rally in the suburban Buddhist stronghold of Maharagama attracted over 2000 Buddhist monks and several thousand other supporters.  The recent upsurge of anti-Muslim sentiment, and its open manifestation amongst sections of the ethnic majority population, has come as a shock and hurt to Muslims.  They are very much concerned that their community and its practices are being unfairly maligned. But they have not resorted to public protests, preferring instead to sort things out through quiet diplomacy.  



Sri Lanka is facing diplomatic difficulties on many fronts.  The latest is that Saudi Arabia has recalled its ambassador from Sri Lanka for consultations.  This follows Sri Lanka’s own recalling of its ambassador to Saudi Arabia after the beheading of a young Sri Lankan housemaid.  While the severity of Saudi justice has come into question, weakening of diplomatic ties between the two countries can work to the detriment of Sri Lanka.  Saudi Arabia is the spiritual home of Muslims worldwide, including Sri Lanka.  It also provides jobs to a large number of Sri Lankan migrant workers whose remittances now form the backbone of the country’s economy.



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