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Submission- Friday Forum

 

SUBMISSIONS TO THE LESSONS LEARNT & RECONCILIATION COMMISSION

29 September, 2010

Introduction

The Friday Forum is an informal gathering of public spirited persons committed to contributing to the future development of Sri Lanka within a framework of democracy, pluralism and social justice. The Forum brings together a diversity of expertise and viewpoints reflecting its membership consisting of academics, various professionals, retired diplomats and civil servants, educationists, leaders of civil society organizations and leading personalities from the business sector. Furthermore, our membership reflects the diverse ethnic and religious composition of Sri Lankan society. The Forum meets regularly to discuss issues of public concern and to make interventions in the public interest.

The Forum wishes to place on record the following submissions forwarded to the LLRC for its consideration.  The submissions are made in a constructive spirit. It is hoped that the Forum’s observations and views will be given due consideration by the LLRC in its deliberations and in the formulation of final recommendations.

Based on the knowledge and expertise of the Forum, its submissions are confined to the subject of promoting national unity and reconciliation.

1 The Path to National Unity and Reconciliation

1.1  At the outset the Friday Forum wishes to emphasize that the path to national unity and reconciliation lies in a process of sustained policies and sincere efforts for which leadership must be given by the State. Reconciliation cannot be achieved in a short period or through a few steps.

1.2   While the resettlement of the IDPs and economic development of the war-affected areas are essential steps in this process, those steps alone will not result in national unity and reconciliation. We wish to emphatically point out that efforts at reconciliation must be based within an overall framework of governance that helps build confidence among the various communities of the nation. If the overall nature of governance does not instill confidence, then whatever policies and efforts are put in place to achieve national cohesion and unity, they are bound to fail.  Hence, strengthening of democratic governance, the Rule of Law and protection of human rights on the basis of equal rights should be essential goal posts on the path to reconciliation.

1.3   Democratic governance is essential to build confidence among minority communities. Confidence building is the key to reconciliation. Governance that flouts basic principles of democracy instills fear and uncertainty. Forging meaningful reconciliation in such a negative environment is an impossible task.

2.    Learning Lessons from the Past

2.1 The past must be looked at not with a view to apportioning blame for the rise in ethnic tensions and violence, but to learn lessons so that we can build an ethos of saying “never again”.

 2.2    To view the genesis of the ethnic divide from a human rights perspective will help future efforts at reconciliation and in finding solutions. Positions tend to harden when the past is viewed purely from a political perspective.

 2.3    The ethnic conflict/divide was brought about by a multitude of reasons –grievances based on violation of language rights, access to public employment, education and indeed a fair share of political power. Peaceful protests were met by violence, which in turn led to retaliation, thus giving birth to an ever intensifying spiral of violence in which original grievances often got overshadowed. The escalation of the ethnic conflict has given rise to demands by the Muslims and to increased apprehensions by Tamils of recent Indian origin as well.

 2.4     In viewing the past, it is necessary to recognize that perceptions of discrimination have contributed to the ethnic divide just as much as proven discrimination. In a divided society, it is essential to address those negative perceptions as well.

 2.5    While national unity may require the building of a common national identity for all, yet effective reconciliation among the various communities can be achieved only if there is recognition of the importance of different identities and the need to respect and protect those identities. A cohesive national identity could be wrought only through recognition and respect of diversity. 

 2.6    The failure to uphold Article 29.2 – the minorities protection clause – in the Soulbury Constitution and in particular the disenfranchisement of the Up-Country Tamils soon after independence was a major blow to minority rights. The political changes introduced since 1956 and the introduction of the ‘Sinhala Only’ policy polarised the country along linguistic lines. The failure to implement the Bandaranaike – Chelvanayagam Pact of 1958 and the Senanayake – Chelvanayagam Pact of 1965 were additional causes for loss of confidence in political engagement.

2.7     The adoption of the first republican Constitution offered a golden opportunity to construct an inclusive constitutional order. Unfortunately, the 1972 constitution with a Sinhala only policy, a unitary state structure, lack of protection for minorities and the alienation of the minorities exacerbated the division. The centralisation of state power under the executive presidency, entrenchment of the unitary structure and the undermining of possibility of a political solution through devolution brought about by the 1978 constitution further aggravated the situation.

2.8    Riots and violence, including those with state complicity in 1958, 1977 and 1983 and the burning of the Jaffna library in 1981 politically alienated the Tamil community in particular.

2.9    The inability of the South to put forward a political solution, and the irresponsible 1976 Vaddukottai resolution of the TULF calling for a separate state led to the further escalation of separatism.

2.10 While the genesis of the ethnic conflict can be traced to violation of group rights, the armed conflict in the north-east (pre and post 1983) gave rise to new types of human rights violations, mainly those pertaining to right to life, liberty and personal security.  With the emergence of a national security state in Sri Lanka (some may argue that this actually happened with the declaration of emergency in 1971) life for many in the Tamil community were defined by the operation of emergency regulations and the PTA. So, for instance, movement, residence, where one worked and schooled, whether families could live together or not, were all determined, directly or indirectly, by the operation of those laws. In that backdrop citizens witnessed large scale human rights violations in the form of arbitrary arrests and detention, torture, involuntary disappearances and extra-judicial killings. Emergency powers and the PTA entrenched a strong culture of impunity.

2.11 The fact that violations also did occur in a most egregious manner in the south during the two JVP insurrections cannot be used as a defence.  Violations of that magnitude are wrong wherever they occur. However, violations in the north-east had an additional sinister connotation—that it was not only the hunting down of “subversives”, but also the punishment of an entire community.  Needless to say, the situation widened the ethnic divide and created an environment of mutual suspicion and the “demonization” of the other.

2.12 While the burning of the Jaffna Library is a cultural atrocity of the worst order, the 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom left the most painful legacy. The personal pain of those survivors is very palpable. While it may appear that those who were affected have moved on, there is no doubt that the pain lingers on. Living through the reality of being persecuted and rejected with the connivance of one’s own state, simply for being who you are, is an experience that no citizen must undergo. Yet, today we do not even remember the anniversary of Black July.

2.13  That anniversary should be commemorated each year to say “never again”; to pledge to recognize the beautifully diverse mosaic that is Sri Lankan society; to co-exist with mutual respect and equal rights.  In that context the commemoration only of “victory day” or “war heroes’ day” worsens the ethnic cleavage. War heroes deserve their special place in history. But we cannot forget that the nearly three decade war is a national tragedy in which almost all who died on either side of the battle lines were citizens of this country (excepting members of the IPKF). To memorialize only the victor denies to the nation an opportunity to unite in memorializing all those who died in this tragedy and to reflect on past mistakes that paved the way for the war. The war heroes gallantly died to unite the country. The best tribute we can pay them is to bring about national unity.

2.14  It may also be prudent that there be an official public apology to those fellow citizens who were victimized in the riots of 1983. It may be a bold measure requiring a great degree of political courage, but it will take the divided communities a long way toward reconciliation. (Minister Patali Champaka Ranawaka is reported to have apologized for the burning down of the Jaffna Library during a recent visit to Jaffna). Such an apology could well bring about national introspection and compel at least some offending parties across ethnic lines to accept past mistakes with humility. Acknowledgements of that nature could go a long way to heal wounds of the past.

2.15 That the LTTE and other armed groups in the north-east were also guilty of serious human rights abuses has to be recognized and articulated. Discrimination against one’s community in no way justifies the manufacture of human bombs and the use of child soldiers; summary executions and torture chambers and the assassination of persons for their beliefs. However, it has to be noted that those groups are no more or have joined the political mainstream.

2.16 What is required now is for the State and all segments of society to learn from that painful past and to develop a future vision for national unity and reconciliation. The obligation is primarily on the State to provide a protective umbrella to all its citizens based on the principles of equality and non-discrimination, while recognizing distinct identities.

1.3.      Developing a Future Vision for Reconciliation

 

The end of the war was welcomed by Sri Lankans with great expectations. It presented the country with a unique opportunity to reflect on the ills of the past and to forge ahead with radical political reforms; further democratize governance; to win the hearts and minds of the minority communities; and to realize meaningful development. We may have lost precious time, but it is not too late to take corrective measures. Not to do so will be to once again perpetuate the curse of lost opportunities and to incur the wrath of generations to come.

With the end of the war, the expectation foremost in the minds of many a citizen was that the first priority of the government and all political parties would be to take constitutional measures to provide a durable solution to the ethnic divide. A war weary nation needed reassurances that it would not slip back to war again.

It has been suggested that the average war affected citizen has no interest in constitutional reform. We disagree. Needs can be articulated in different ways. A simple demand for better security or basic needs is in effect also a demand for a political order that can deliver the goods. Sentiments expressed by the average citizen must not be interpreted so as to postpone the search for a political solution. It is not surprising that citizens who are traumatized by the war wish to have their immediate needs met; however, that does not mean that they do not crave a permanent solution to the larger political issues that have placed them in such a vulnerable situation in the first place.

Given the consensus reached within the APRC on the recognition of minorities, power-sharing at the centre, devolution of power to the regions, and the empowerment of all the communities, the priority need is for the President, the government and all political parties to immediately move on a political solution building on that consensus.  Such proposals will give great confidence to the minorities and be a major step towards political reconciliation.

 Urgent political engagement to adopt a constitutional solution will help remove the distrust and suspicion entertained by the minorities, particularly the Tamil community, brought about by past failures. The failure of successive governments to make the 13th Amendment and devolution of power work even in the South has left serious doubts as to whether devolution of power will ever be effective in the north-east.  The opportunism of the UNP and the failure with the Draft Constitution of 2000 to seal a consensus towards a political solution further aggravated this sense of distrust and political betrayal.

Given the urgent need to work on a political solution, it is extremely unfortunate that the government swiftly moved instead to adopt as an Emergency Bill the 18th Amendment to the Constitution to further bolster powers of an Executive President by, among other things, removing term limits and the significant checks inherent in the 17th Amendment. The Friday Forum publicly voiced its serious objections to the content of the 18th Amendment and the manner in which it was adopted without providing adequate opportunity for public debate.  Such moves, among other things, can only deepen suspicions entertained by the minorities and alienate them further from structures of governance.

Meaningful constitutional reform should necessarily put in place a strong legal régime of human rights protection. The evolution of human rights violations before and during the war points to the need to recognize that healing, reconciliation and looking for a better future require a holistic view of human rights. One is reminded of the truism expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948)—“…that if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law…”

Meaningful steps taken to protect human rights must recognize the principle of indivisibility of rights—that is to say that all rights, be they political, economic, social, cultural or civil, must be given constitutional recognition. Similarly, both individual and group rights must be recognized. All rights must be recognized within a strong framework of equal protection and non-discrimination. Provision must be made for effective remedies for violations of human rights. Other than courts, institutions such as the Human Rights Commission and Police Commission play a key role in this regard, but only if they can function independently.

Sri Lanka has a proud record of being a party to a number of international human rights treaties. International obligations under those treaties must be discharged in good faith. The government must constructively engage with international human rights mechanisms with the sincere objective of improving human rights protection at home. That is a win-win formula that benefits both the people and the government. To engage with international mechanisms with suspicion and disdain through politics of confrontation is a losing formula that can only result in loss of faith in the administration both among the international community and the peace loving people of Sri Lanka.

Today, human rights discourse in Sri Lanka appears to be mainly focused on the rights of IDPs. This is understandable. However, it is imperative that both the government and civil society actors have a long term view of rights protection. Even when the last IDP is well resettled, could we as Sri Lankans honestly say that we are on the right path? This compartmentalized way viewing rights protection, or for that matter any human endeavour, is short-sighted and counterproductive.

It must also be recognized that even within one group/community there are different voices. For example, women within an ethnic community will have distinct demands based on their life experiences. Meaningful human rights protection requires that future policies and reforms take those distinct demands into consideration. The Friday Forum urges the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission to make a special effort to give opportunities to women, youth and other such groups from various communities to express their views.

Where constitutional protection of human rights is concerned, it has to be noted that the deficiencies in the 1978 Constitution have been studied and discussed extensively. In fact, so far there have been three draft bills of rights (1997, 2000 and 2009) formulated under respective governments to rectify the shortcomings. The latest, which was drafted under the auspices of the previous Ministry of Constitutional Affairs and National Integration, was submitted to the government in 2009. This draft is a very progressive document that incorporates cutting-edge thinking on rights protection (both international and comparative). Friday Forum wishes to urge its incorporation, after public deliberation, into a future Constitution.

Constitutional reform will be fruitful only when a Constitution’s entire scheme is cohesive, and where that scheme is democratic and inclusive. Even a comprehensive bill of rights will be ineffective when placed within an undemocratic constitutional scheme. We, therefore, urge that piecemeal tinkering with the existing Constitution be avoided at any cost.

Friday Forum wishes to emphasise that constitutional reform alone is by itself insufficient to bring about lasting peace and stability. The political culture and the nature of political leadership must necessarily change, upholding democratic rights, equality, rule of law, and justice.                                     

  1. 4.      Post-War ECONOMIC PROGRESS

That the war retarded economic activity in the country is no secret. The post-war period offers great hope of achieving economic progress. Having said that however, the Friday Forum wishes to emphasise that economic progress must not be viewed in isolation from other national priorities of democratizing  governance, finding a durable political solution to the ethnic question and achieving national unity and reconciliation.

Historically agriculture has been the mainstay of our economy with manufacture and IT related services still at a fairly early stage of development with the possible exception of the apparel trade.  Exports are extremely important to our economy with the major areas being apparel, tea, rubber and coconut products.  Apart from exports, we have over the past 10 years attracted approximately USD 3.7 billion per annum attributable to overseas remittances originating from Sri Lankans working overseas with particular concentration in the Middle East. Our export connections have been developed over several decades and this applies particularly to tea, rubber and coconut products.  The apparel sector is a more recent development although performance has been extremely encouraging with the United States of America and the European Union being our major markets.

Against this background, it is important to bear in mind that we are connected intimately with most countries around the globe particularly as trading partners.  Needless to say good relations with these countries will ensure that our trading relationships are not only maintained but enhanced in the future.  It is extremely important to accept and acknowledge that future economic progress has to be built against the background of a strong platform of democracy and decency.  Good governance is becoming increasingly important in the current context of connectivity particularly with some of our more important trading partners including the USA, EU and Japan as the recent GSP + episode proved.  These three economic giants, in particular, are vitally important in maintaining our current standing as an exporter not only of commodities but also of apparel and some manufactured goods such as ceramics.

In the area of tea exports, Russia and several countries in the Middle East, not forgetting former parts of the USSR play an important role.  However, demand merely from particular segments would not be sufficiently widespread to ensure a positive overall outlook for our commodities.

In addition, a major part of our tourist arrivals still originate from the UK and numerous other European destinations. It is a sine-qua-non that very many tourists in general seek to visit destinations which offer political stability, protection through the Rule of Law, freedom of choice and ethical standards of conduct all of which are underpinned by strong principles of democracy.

In summary, it is important to maintain a regime of good international relations with the rest of the world. To do so requires the elimination of any negative perceptions with regard to our democratic institutions and principles.  Further more, it is our view that the commitment to good governance in a country provides a significant level of comfort to end users/buyers of our different commodities.

There is no doubt that the Sri Lankan diaspora too will invest in the country in a sustained manner only if there is progress in the good governance front with a sincere commitment on the part of the government to national reconciliation through a durable political solution to the ethnic issue. 

1.5.      SPECIFIC RECOMMENDATIONS

The Friday Forum believes that the following activities should commence immediately in order to create an effective overall framework for national unity and reconciliation in the spirit of principles identified above:

5.1.1        Commence discussions between the government and all willing political parties to take forward the APRC consensus in order to negotiate a durable political solution to the ethnic question.

5.1.2        Find ways and means of doing away with, or at least gradually phasing out, the state of emergency, the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and High Security Zones. Such steps should be effectively explained to the public. It will go along way in lifting the “siege mentality” of a war-affected society.

5.1.3        Similarly, a rational policy must be developed regarding LTTE suspects; there is a great degree of confusion regarding the currently employed categorization and disparate treatment of suspects.

5.1.4        A policy for reunification of war-affected families must be put in place urgently. We understand that a large number of persons have testified before the LLRC to that effect.

5.1.5        Find ways and means of implementing the official languages policy in an effective manner, particularly at service delivery points such as police stations, post offices, government offices, banks.

5.1.6        Utilize the current education reform process to urgently review school curricula in order to revise lessons that perpetuate ethnic divisions through, e.g., portrayal of certain ethnic communities as “invaders”, “outsiders”, “enemies” “subordinate” and the “other”. All relevant curricula should infuse a strong sense of equal national entitlement and belonging of the various communities of Sri Lanka.  “Celebrating the beauty of our diversity” should be a golden thread that runs throughout our education system.

v  If Sri Lanka is to make lasting attempts towards reconciliation the    concepts and philosophy of reconciliation needs to find its place in the countries education system. 

v  Including in-depth lessons on the richness of Sri Lankan diversity and how it refines us as a nation is a very strong approach. It will also create a stronger resistance against prejudices and attempts to instill animosity in their minds. Without a resistance to the prevalent prejudices these students are bound to succumb to the hatred and repeat the cycle of distrust and division.

v  The teaching of comparative religion and ethics in school is advocated over the teaching only of one’s own religion. Such an education should focus on values that are common to all faiths and the potential of those values to enrich life in a diverse society.  The exam-oriented education system fails to refine the student as a person; such an objective needs to be a central focus in reforming the education system. The effectiveness of a school in producing students with civic consciousness should be measured within holistic education that includes sports, extracurricular activity, trilingual ability and exposure to broader Sri Lankan culture.

v  Having the nation’s best student leaders to interact with each other and create networks to develop their leadership and ability to make a difference around the country is a unique opportunity. The thousands of Sri Lankans born to the war generations have not met a person of a different ethnicity or have not called one “friend”. This is a crisis but also an opportunity to ensure that prejudices die and new relationships that define a common Sri Lankan identity blossom. Bring students with similar interest and abilities to emulate the same sort of model would also prove to be effective, e.g. sportsmen, orators, actors, musicians. Their similarities will bring them together but it is their differences that will keep them together and will sharpen each other

5.1.7        It follows then that the above process should commence a serious dialogue on how to end ethnic/religious segregation of schools. The separation of children belonging to various ethnic and/or religious communities throughout their school life is a strong dividing factor in Sri Lankan society. Often segregation is justified on the basis of language. We strongly suggest that resources should be developed to provide trilingual education at least up to secondary education. Whatever the cost of such an endeavour may be, we believe that it is truly a worthwhile national investment.

5.1.8        Policies that segregate university students along regional lines (hence often ethnic lines) must end. Steps must be taken to ensure all public universities have integrated student populations with a choice of courses offered in the three language media. Currently, it does appear that most Tamil speaking undergraduate are confined to the North and East and the Sinhala speaking undergraduates are sent to universities in the South. These psychological delimitations must now decisively end.

5.1.9        A policy must be formulated for all national events, publicity programs (e.g. promotion of tourism) etc. to be designed and implemented in a manner that portrays and promotes the identities of all communities on an equal footing. In other words the appeal is to eschew tokenism at these events and promotions. A very negative aspect of the minority experience anywhere is to be treated with condescension/tokenism.  Reconciliation requires the creation of an environment that promotes “equal national belonging” of all groups in society.

The Friday Forum has over many months focused attention on the development programs launched by the government in the North and East. Following are some of the observations and recommendations in that regard:

5.2.2        Development, especially in a post-war context, should pay a great degree of attention to promoting healing, human well-being and restoring confidence. In any event, we recognize development as a process that is focused on developing human dignity and potential. While large infrastructure projects undoubtedly have their direct and indirect value, emphatic attention must be paid to alleviating human suffering brought about by the war. Such suffering is at the same time economic, physical and psychological. Community development, therefore, must be a priority of those programs.

5.2.3        Civil society actors of all ethnic communities must be able to work together in assisting in the reconciliation and development processes. The government must encourage such activities. We doubt that a top heavy approach to reconstruction and development will help forge national unity in the long run. The active participation of civil society is an attribute of a true pursuit of reconciliation. Emotional scars that have been created during three decades of war need to be addressed. Doing so will ensure that true reconciliation is experienced by broader society.

5.2.4        Relevant communities must be made aware of government plans, with ample opportunities given for community consultation. To impose state policies on communities which they may not necessarily agree with will only lead to resentment and further division. Civil forums where people from Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim backgrounds can freely share grievances caused to each other will prove to be a very effective concept. Such forums were highly effective in post -conflict Northern Ireland, Rwanda and South Africa. A similar format to the civilian forums for reconciliation should also be emulated by the State. This forum can be an ideal setting to put the record straight on inaccuracies in perception on the State’s objectives and positions on a range of issues. Such forums would also be an ideal opportunity to congratulate the State on areas that have been successfully dealt with and critique the State in areas that have been overlooked. The ability to create an atmosphere of free speech and expression will be invaluable in many ways, not only creating trust in the hearts and minds of the people you serve, but also disarming any kind of growing hatred and mistrust.

5.2.5        To the maximum extent possible civil administration must be restored in the North and East. Whilst the military can play a creative role in reconstruction and rehabilitation, it is imperative that the civilians see and feel that their everyday lives are administered by civilian authorities. Such steps will assist in removing a “war psychosis” and help in the process of healing and reconciliation. 

 

 

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