CONTRARY to expectations the government is treading a cautious path with regard to past commitments on controversial matters made by the previous government. This may be disappointing to its more nationalist supporters. They might have expected an immediate change of approach and rescinding of agreements they see as unfair or not in the national interest. In the run up to the presidential election campaign, the present government’s front line campaigners claimed that the MCC grant of $450 million by the US government that had just received cabinet approval would endanger the country’s national security. Members of the government and their nationalist supporters were emphatic in saying that the former government had betrayed the country. This effectively sank any prospect of election victory that the former government’s presidential candidate may have had.
However, after the election these negative voices have subsided. Indeed, it now appears that the government is seriously considering going ahead with the MCC grant. As significant as government backtracking on its earlier criticism of the MCC grant is the government’s decision to follow its predecessor government in its approach to the thorny problem of dealing with the excesses of the war through a process of transitional justice, which includes truth seeking, accountability and reparations. Right from the outset, when the former government agreed to be a co-signatory to UNHRC resolution 30/1 of 2015, the agreement was denounced by the leaders of the present government who were then in opposition. They described it as a betrayal of the country’s security forces. The most controversial part of the UN resolution was its acceptance of foreign judges, prosecutors and investigators into a Sri Lankan judicial mechanism to ensure accountability.
It now appears that the government will be following a strategy of continuity with change in the case of the UNHRC resolution. The government spokesperson has said that they will follow the policy laid down by former foreign minister Tilak Marapana who stated that the government will uphold its commitments but only within the framework of the country’s constitution. Speaking in Geneva last year he reiterated Sri Lanka’s commitment to Geneva process but pointed out the inability to implement certain provisions, such as bringing in foreign judges, as they were contrary to the constitution. Such an approach would not put the government into headlong confrontation with the UNHRC as would have been the case if the government had decided to withdraw its assent to the resolution as had been anticipated by its nationalist supporters.
THE government’s restrained approach in relation to dealing with the international community is also reflected in its approach to issues on the ground in relation to inter-ethnic relations. During the past week, together with other civil society activists, I visited Vavuniya, Mannar and Jaffna to meet with civil society groups there. On the whole the impression I got was that the situation of normalcy that existed in the previous years continues. However, the military checkpoints that have come up since the change of government appear to be an unnecessary irritation and there for symbolic purposes rather than for any real security searches. We were only stopped at one of them although we counted eight from Mannar to Jaffna. Some of those we spoke to in the north felt that the purpose of the checkpoints was to assert symbolic dominance in the north which they saw as a symptom of a deeper problem of a government that does not stand for the principles of governance appropriate for a plural and multi-ethnic society.
Among the major issues that came up our meetings the most concerning to us was the issue of increased surveillance of civil society. So far this has only taken the form of asking questions, but there is anxiety that controls may grow more stringent in the future. The use of intimidation has been strongest with those organisations that are focused on human rights violations, and particularly those dealing with missing persons. As in the south, there is a concern that the present may be only an interlude and the real approach of the government will be manifested after the forthcoming general elections in April. Despite these concerns, open discussion was possible to a certain extent as the religious clergy felt that they could speak more openly without getting into trouble. An issue that was brought up was the controversy caused by the president’s statement that the missing persons are no longer alive. The government has been responsive, at least in words, to this issue which will also be one of the central themes for discussion at the forthcoming UNHRC sessions in Geneva.
Following protests by affected families and the international community, the presidential secretariat has said that the media reports quoting the president as claiming that the 20,000 who were listed as missing were dead was taken out of context as he had stated that necessary investigations would be conducted before issuing a death certificate. It further said that the president had informed the UN that necessary investigations would be conducted to find out the fate of those who had disappeared during the civil conflict as most of the families had attested that those disappeared had been recruited or forcibly conscripted by the LTTE. However, this was not acceptable to those from the north, who pointed out that the disappearances had continued even after the end of the war when the LTTE was no more.
THE other issue that is causing heartburn among Tamil-speaking citizens in general, and not only in the north, is the step motherly treatment meted out to the Tamil language. This feeling of grievance has been accentuated by the recent action of a government minister who went to the predominantly Tamil-speaking north, got himself impassioned and ordered the name board of an institution under his ministry to be redone so that the Sinhala wording comes on top and the Tamil wording below it. There is a need for the government to take the language issue seriously as it affects the sense of dignity, equality and belonging of those who are Tamil-speakers. This issue needs also to be viewed in the context of the possibility that the national anthem will not be sung in Tamil at the forthcoming National Independence Day celebrations on February 4.
Some of the other key issues that the civil society groups in the north brought up are not necessarily ones that are being prioritised by the government for resolution. These include the continuing problem of India fishing trawlers coming in thrice a week in one thousand strong fleets to take away all the fish by bottom trawling methods. This was an issue that was highlighted by the media in the past but is now barely given attention. Another issue that is depriving them of livelihood opportunities is the naval prohibitions on fishing in some parts of the north and fishermen from other parts of the country having privileged access. The contest for ownership of land in which there is a religious or ethnic aspect which further increases the possibility for conflict was also highlighted. These are important issues to the people in the north and they are frustrated that no one seems to be interested in solving them.
Another problem that was highlighted was the problem of drug addiction and the smuggling in of narcotics from India. A Christian priest, Fr Patrick, appealed for resources to start a drug rehabilitation centre in Jaffna to cater to the affected population. The drug problem is not unique to the north and exists in other parts of the country as well, so much so that former president Maithripala Sirisena was driven to make it his number one priority towards the end of his presidency.
Fr Patrick’s insight was that combatting the drug menace has to be locally driven with prevention being in the hands of families and local authorities who need to be better funded and empowered. On the other hand, the problem of Indian fishing in Sri Lankan seas shows the need for a centralised approach with negotiations between governments being the way forward. Some problems require a centralised approach while others require a decentralised approach if they are to be solved. A responsive and problem solving government approach cannot only be top down.
Jehan Perera is executive director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka.
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