Whither reconciliation?

SRI LANKA

It has been 10 years since the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the end of the protracted ethnic war in Sri Lanka. In any conflict transformation process, it is critical to find a lasting political settlement to resolve the root causes and grievances of the aggrieved communities. However, a decade down the line, attempts to find a long-term settlement for the ethnic issue have been cosmetic, largely under pressure from the international community, rather than out of an inherent political will to resolve the ethnic question.

After the termination of ‘Eelam War IV’, the then Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa outlined a “Four-Ds” strategy — demilitarisation, development, democratisation and devolution — towards post-war transformation of Sri Lanka’s ethnic problem. However, the ‘demilitarisation’ strategy of the government was focused more on ensuring against a resurrection of the LTTE as a guerrilla force.

The ‘development’ dimension promoted the belief that the ethnic issue would “wither away” if there was adequate development. Although Rajapaksa justified the ‘democratisation’ strategy in the post-conflict phase to give “voice to the people”, it was basically to consolidate power for himself at every level: national, provincial and local.

As for ‘devolution’, Rajapaksa initially committed to go “beyond the 13th Amendment” through an All-Party Representative Committee (APRC) which, in its interim report submitted in January 2008, advised the president to fully implement the provisions of the 13thAmendment. The 13th Amendment refers to the amendment made to the Sri Lankan Constitution in 1987 through which Provincial Councils were created in the island nation.

However, after the military victory in May 2009, the triumphant president changed his stance and appointed a Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) to review the 13th Amendment. The PSC, however, remained still-born. In addition, a dominant section of the government, which included Rajapaksa, also supported dilution of the Provincial Council system. It was, thereafter, referred to as the “13th Amendment Minus” framework. In reality, the government was especially against devolving land and police powers to the provinces.

In order to pre-empt the United Nations’ over reconciliation, the government appointed in May 2010 a commission to look back at the conflict and ahead to reconciliation. It was an eight-member commission designated ‘Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission’ (LLRC). In theory, the LLRC was a good step, but it had a limited mandate on ethnic reconciliation, about which the government was not really serious. Although the government claimed that the LLRC was modelled on the lines of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa, there was no mechanism for reconciliation.

In 2015, with the change in government, there appeared to be hope for the Tamils. The new government under Maithripala Sirisena established a number of mechanisms to address the ethnic issue. These initiatives included creation of a Conflict Resolution Commission, an Office of Missing Persons, a National Centre for Women-headed Families in Killinochhi to help war widows, a domestic mechanism with foreign technical expertise to probe into the allegations of war crimes, a Constitutional Council to draw up a new constitution and a Consultation Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanisms.

However, these measures have faced stiff opposition from three quarters: Sinhala hardliners, opposition parties and even from elements within the government. The Sinhala hardline groups like the JVP, NFF and JHU have consistently opposed government initiatives on reconciliation on the grounds that any compromise with the minority Tamils would aid the LTTE to re-group and re-arm themselves.

Former president Rajapaksa, under whose leadership the LTTE was defeated, maintained that the government should not reduce the military camps and the intensity of intelligence operations in the North and East and should go slow on devolution. Also, a section of the government fears that they may lose their electoral clout due to a Sinhala backlash against them.

So much so, disagreements persist within the government over the extent of devolution of powers to the provinces, the system of governance at the Centre and provinces, division of financial powers, control of law and order, and so on. To that extent, the lack of a satisfactory move on long-term political settlement could undercut support from the moderate Tamil minority politicians who have expressed readiness to work with the Sri Lankan state. Any further delay may test the patience of the international community as well.

Two consensus

What then should India do? New Delhi’s consistent position on the island’s ethnic issue favours “a politically negotiated settlement acceptable to all sections of Sri Lankan society within the framework of an undivided Sri Lanka and consistent with democracy, pluralism and respect for human rights.” Ideally, India should advocate a ‘13th Amendment plus-plus formula’ as a final solution and implementation of the 13th Amendment as an interim measure.

Towards this objective, India needs to forge consensus at two levels: ‘Sinhala consensus’ and ‘Tamil consensus’. Using its leverage with the Sri Lankan government, New Delhi could insist on unity at the level of the present coalition government towards a lasting political settlement. ‘Plebiscitary politics’ should not come back to haunt the ethnic question. India could also play a vital role to unify all Tamil groups in Sri Lanka and offer a common front. India is the only actor that has immense leverage over all Sri Lankan Tamil parties and New Delhi should not hesitate to make use of Tamil Nadu for this purpose.

Reconciliation is the need of the hour. Else, political violence may consume Sri Lankan society, as the on-going anti-Muslim violence initiated by Sinhala hardliners shows.

(Manoharan is with the Department of International Studies and History; N. Depak Saravanan is with the Department of English, Christ Deemed to be University, Bengaluru)

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