The National Peace Council (NPC)

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The role that civil society played in the change of government that occurred in January at the presidential elections, and which was reaffirmed at the general elections of August, was celebrated at two events held last week. One was on World Anti Corruption Day which fell on December 9. This event was actively supported by the newly independent Commission against Bribery and Corruption, and especially by its Director General, which has a giant task before it given the extent to which corrupt practices took place in the past, and whose legacy cannot be immediately terminated. The other was International Human Rights Day which fell on December 10. Both of these events drew large numbers of civic activists from all parts of the country. They also attended by government leaders, including President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

The role of civil society has been a controversial one, and was under serious threat during the period of the former Rajapaksa government. Those who wish to undermine the legitimacy of civil society describe those who act on its behalf as NGOs. The term NGO crow was in common use by government leaders and has become part of the ordinary language of those who do not agree with the political stands and work done by sections of civil society. The term connotes the alleged characteristic of NGOs to live off any problem in society utilizing foreign funds and engaging in anti national activities. This interpretation was particularly strong within the former government which projected itself to be the sole representative of the national interest.



The passage of the second reading of the budget by a 2/3 majority in Parliament is an indication that the National Unity Government led by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe continues to be strong. Although the SLFP component of the government headed by President Sirisena is divided, with a majority of the members not voting in favour of the budget, a sufficient number of them voted in favour of it giving the government a comfortable majority that exceeded 2/3 of those present and voting. The government was also able to obtain the support of the ethnic and religious minority parties to bolster its majority. This will boost the confidence of the government when it comes to the question of constitutional reform which it has flagged as its priority after the passage of the budget.

A second notable feature of the budget debate was the accommodative attitude of the government leadership to the concerns of those who felt that their interests had either been insufficiently considered or been adversely affected by the budget proposals. Both President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe proposed and accepted last minute changes to the budget. The government had sought to raise revenues and to reduce expenditures to bridge the budget deficit. But both of these requirements would have been disadvantageous to some sections of the population. Therefore instead of standing firm as required by the imperatives of economic rationality, the government has sought to buy time for itself by exploring the option of a very large loan from the IMF that would help to bridge the budget deficit.



The last week of November has generally been a difficult time in Sri Lanka for the past two or more decades. During the long period of war, the LTTE used to commemorate its fallen cadre with Martyrs’ Day ceremonies on November 26-27. There was a combination in varying degrees of events meant to mobilize and sustain support for their cause. There were march pasts by LTTE cadre, including the Black Tiger suicide squads. There were also memorial services at the LTTE cemeteries. There were also heightened attacks on enemy targets intended to reaffirm the military prowess of the LTTE and strike fear in the larger society.

After the military defeat of the LTTE in 2009 these public events came to a stop. The former government prevented LTTE supporters or even the general public from holding any sort of commemoration on that day. Attempts by university students to hold memorial events by lighting candles or holding meetings were prevented and any attempt to do so was thwarted by raids by security forces who would arrest those participating in such events. Even memorial services by religious clergy in places of worship were not permitted as these were seen to be supportive of the LTTE. However, the new government has adopted a more flexible approach. This was seen in the commemoration this year of the May 19 anniversary of the end of the war.



It was the post-presidential election period that began in January this year that saw dramatic changes in the polity. The fear of government backed death squads and mob violence was totally eradicated to the relief of political dissidents and ethnic minorities who had been under threat. These positive changes at the ground level were accompanied by the major political reform of the 19th Amendment which divested the presidency of much of its arbitrary power and strengthened the system of checks and balances. However, in the aftermath of the general election in August a sense of stagnancy in government became pronounced. For the past three months in particular there had been a sense of drift in the government. The main slogans centering on good governance that had propelled it to victory at two successive elections held in January and August appeared to be in abeyance.

In addition, in the past few weeks the polity became focused on infighting between members of the government on issues of corruption and conflict of interest. There was no change in the country that could capture the popular imagination except for the government’s co-sponsoring of the resolution of the UN Human Rights Council. On the one hand this eased the tensions that Sri Lanka had with the Western countries and paved the way for its return to their economic fold. But this agreement was a double edged sword as it was also attacked by the political opposition as being a betrayal of those who had fought against the LTTE. The visit of US Ambassador the UN, Samantha Power, to Sri Lanka at this time when the world is focused on what is happening in the Islamic countries and Europe is an indication that Sri Lanka is being given a special status and may even obtain extraordinary US support as a result. Ambassador Power is known as a close confidante of US President Barack Obama.



The ISIS attacks in Paris and the French government’s declaration of a state of emergency are a grim reminder of the politically motivated violence that once held sway in Sri Lanka. In contrast to many other countries in the world today Sri Lanka is an oasis of peace and political stability. The military suppression of the LTTE made this peace possible. It was the excesses that took place in the final stages of the war, and in its immediate aftermath that put Sri Lanka in the international limelight, though for negative reasons. Thereafter the country was subjected to three resolutions of the UN Human Rights Council against the wishes of its government, until the new government decided to cooperate with UN.

The French government has said that it will be ruthless in its response to the terrorism that has struck it. International humanitarian law prohibits war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. But it does not prevent ruthless responses against those who are aggressors. Sri Lanka is an example where the military response was successful. It may have to be armies on the ground that have to root out the ISIS as was done to the LTTE in Sri Lanka. When a militant organization is unwilling to negotiate and seek an end to violence, the military response will dominate. The more protracted the war against the ISIS is, the more turmoil and terrorism is likely to be the outcome. However, a military solution cannot be the final answer. The roots of conflict need to be addressed through dialogue and political solutions that include the other.



Buddhist monks have been central figures in Sri Lanka’s history. It is they who recorded the early history of the country and its people in the ancient chronicle of the Mahavamsa. They were the guides of the Sinhalese kings and the protectors of the Buddhist religion. When foreign powers invaded the country they even accompanied the armies that went to confront the invaders. They were, and remain, the guardians of the Sinhalese Buddhist civilization of Sri Lanka. Venerable Maduluwave Sobitha belonged to this tradition. He emerged as a national figure on this account. He became a subject of international controversy when his photograph appeared on the cover of a book titled “Buddhism Betrayed” by Professor Stanley Tambiah of Harvard University who was of Sri Lankan Tamil origin.



The 25th anniversary of the Muslim expulsion from the north was observed last week through a number of events, including in the north. The most high profile commemorative event took place in Colombo with a panel discussion held under the aegis of the SLMC and its leader Minister Rauff Hakeem. The key speakers were political leaders from all communities and included Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera, Resettlement Minister D M Swaminathan and TNA parliamentarian M A Sumanthiran. There were also prominent civil society representatives who spoke on the occasion including law lecturer N Selvakkumaran of Colombo University, independent researcher Mirak Raheem and Shreen Saroor who represented the voice of the displaced northern Muslim community.

The strong sense of goodwill that permeated the discussion was manifested by TNA parliamentarian Sumanthiran’s pledge that he would speak up louder on the issue even though he has spoken loudly about it in the past. The government representatives in their speeches made it clear that they wanted to heal the wounds of war and repair the damage to the victims to the extent possible. Minister Samaraweera addressed the “post-independence failure to build a peaceful and prosperous Sri Lanka that is united and undivided both on the map and in its citizens’ hearts and minds.” He referred to the notion of majoritarianism that made a majority community unwilling to accept a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society in which the majority will not discriminate or oppress the minority.



This week marks 25 years since the Muslim people inhabiting the north were evicted by the LTTE in a matter of hours that ranged from two hours to two days. Their treatment in Jaffna, the seat of Tamil civilization, was particularly harsh as there they were given only two hours to leave. Those who tried to take their valuable possessions with them, such as deeds to their land, jewellery and money, were stripped of them at the LTTE checkpoints. In many places their Tamil neighbours intervened on their behalf but to no avail. The LTTE was not a democratic organization that heeded the voice of the people when it differed from their purposes. Five years later, in 1995, the Tamil people living in the Jaffna peninsula suffered a similar fate at the hands of the LTTE when they were ordered by them to evacuate rather than come under the Sri Lankan military who recaptured the peninsula.

Today about 80 percent of those Muslim families who were evicted from the north continue to live outside it. Many have successfully rebuilt their lives. Despite the ruthless nature of their displacement only a few of them lost their lives so that the family units, the greatest long term strength of any community, remained intact. But in every other aspect they lost heavily, their moveable properties, their jewellery and their traditional homes and villages. There are complications attached to their return although six years have passed since the end of the LTTE. As a result the majority of the Muslim people who were displaced remain in a state of frustration and distress over their fate, which spills over into the larger Muslim community of being unjustly treated. The problems faced by this section of the Sri Lankan population and finding a just solution have not been given either the governmental attention or priority that it deserves.



In October the final consultation of the World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) took place in Geneva and brought together nearly one thousand humanitarian workers from all parts of the globe. The holding of the consultation came with the severe crisis that the world faces due to humanitarian catastrophes taking place today which has seen millions of people displaced and on the move. The most violent manifestations of this crisis have come primarily from the Middle East, where a group that uses terror and operates outside of international law, the ISIS is causing havoc and taking over large chunks of territory of formerly sovereign countries and is establishing state-like structures in them.

The consequences of these conflicts in the Middle East have led to a massive wave of migration last seen over seven decades ago during the Second World War with people from formerly prosperous countries such as Iraq, Libya and Syria fleeing their countries by the millions. The media images of people who never thought that their ordered lives would be turned upside down on the run to safety are haunting ones, and have prompted many countries, especially in Europe which had restrictive immigration policies to open up their borders to cope with the humanitarian crisis.



The co-sponsoring of the Geneva resolution by the government and the support given to it by the TNA is a positive indication of the evolution of a spirit of partnership and joint problem-solving at the highest levels of national and international decision making that is necessary for promoting Reconciliation, Accountability and Human Rights in Sri Lanka. However, this goodwill needs to be seen in practical terms at the ground level too in which people become the direct and immediate beneficiaries. Most people appear prepared to give the new government a chance at this time. It is important that the people’s confidence in the process of transition is sustained. However, observations from the ground are that the majority of people are not aware of the significance of the resolution or the content of its recommendations. In the North there is frustration at the slow pace of change.

There are groups both in the North and South of the country that are trying to generate opposition to the UN resolution. A group of 71 Sinhalese university academics have issued a public statement expressing their opposition to the involvement of foreigners in the accountability process. In the North, on the other hand, there are Tamil groups that are angry that the resolution does not provide for the setting up of a fully international judicial mechanism. In Paris, Tamil Diaspora activists even went to the extent of violently attacking a meeting at which parliamentarians from the TNA were speaking. They accused the parliamentarians of betraying the Tamil people by agreeing to less than an international accountability mechanism. The TNA which won the overwhelming majority of parliamentary seats at the general elections has been taking a moderate approach in its relationship with the government.



By co-sponsoring the resolution on Promoting Reconciliation, Accountability and Human Rights in Sri Lanka the government has taken the initiative with regard to the implementation of its recommendations. Some of the recommendations are controversial. The main controversial recommendation is to set up a judicial accountability mechanism with international participation. But the gain for the government is that it is in charge of the implementation. In addition, for the first time since 2009 when Sri Lanka was taken before the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, the government succeeded in obtaining the unanimity of the members of the international community represented there regarding Sri Lanka’s future.

The time table for reporting back to the UN Human Rights Council gives the government a degree of flexibility in getting its implementation mechanisms in order. The government is expected to give its written report on implementation in March 2017, which is 18 months away. At that time the government will have to defend and justify its progress or lack thereof in the implementation of the recommendations to be found in the resolution. Prior to that there will be a continuous assessment made of the implementation of the recommendations by the UN High Commissioner who will also be giving an oral update to the UN Human Rights Council in nine months.

As can be expected the opposition parties took the view that the government gave in to the Western led international community by agreeing to co-sponsor the resolution on Sri Lanka. They have argued that by co-sponsoring the resolution, the government is left with no option but to implement the recommendations which have been imposed on Sri Lanka. The previous government which was led by those who are now in the opposition argued that the successive resolutions of the UN Human Rights Council were damaging to Sri Lanka’s interests. But they could not prevent the resolutions being passed despite their opposition, and each time the resolution was stronger in terms of what was being imposed on the country.



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