By S. Binodkumar Singh*
On August 28, 2016, Foreign Affairs Minister Mangala Samaraweera, while addressing a gathering in Point Pedro in the Northern Province, observed,
We hope to be able to present the Constitution in Parliament before the next budget. We have been busy creating or placing a foundation for a new Sri Lanka based on the three pillars of democratization, reconciliation and development. It is time to come to terms with the fact that Sri Lanka is a multi-racial, multi-religious, multi-lingual country.
The 2017 Government budget is expected to be presented in Parliament mid-November 2016. With the aim to replace the existing 1978 Constitution, the Maithripala Sirisena Government initiated the process of drafting a new Constitution in January 2016.
Earlier, giving an assurance that the Government was planning to finalize judicial mechanisms to probe war abuses by 2017, the Foreign Affairs Minister stated, on July 6, 2016, that the reconciliation process based on four pillars – truth seeking, accountability, reparation and non-recurrence – is moving forward and the Government is in the process of setting up the needed mechanisms. Significantly, on August 4, 2016, the Cabinet approved SLR 971 million to resettle the remaining families of Internally Displaced Persons (IDP). According to the Government Information Department, there are 31 welfare centers in Jaffna District with 936 families and one welfare center in Vavuniya District with 97 families. The three decades of civil war between the Government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) ended in May 2009, generating massive displacement of an estimated 300,000 IDPs in the North.
On August 11, 2016, Parliament passed the Office on Missing Persons (OMP) Bill to help several thousands of families of missing persons across Sri Lanka to discover the fate of their loved ones and the circumstances under which they went missing. According to the Government, the OMP will be composed of commissioners and officers of the highest moral integrity, constituted at the highest level by the President, on recommendation of the Constitutional Council. Separately, the Presidential Commission Investigating Cases of Missing Persons (PCICMP) established on August 15, 2013, handed over its final report to the Presidential Secretariat on August 14, 2016. The Commission had received 16,213 complaints from civilians and another 5,000 complaints from relatives of missing Security Force (SF) personnel. Further, on August 26, 2016, the Parliamentary Oversight Committee of the Rehabilitation and Resettlement Ministry decided to grant bank loans at concessionary rates to ex-LTTE cadres for self-employment purposes. About 12,000 LTTE combatants surrendered to the military during the final stages of the war and underwent rehabilitation, which included the provision of vocational training skills.
Further, pledging to resolve all land issues in the Northern Province within three months, President Maithripala Sirisena on September 2, 2016, stated, “We, as a government should understand the grievances of the people. They don’t need lands owned by the military. They ask for their own lands. We have achieved remarkable progress on resettlement. But, there are some problems that need to be resolved. At this point, we have informed all IDPs in writing about the status of their lands. We have to admit that there is a delay on the part of the Survey Department as they do not have sufficient human capital to fast track the process.”
However, the Northern Province has been stressing federalism as a solution to devolve power in the Island nation. On April 23, 2016, the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) passed a Bill with a majority vote to establish the Northern and Eastern Provinces into one federal ruling system.
Separately, on June 21, 2016, Northern Province Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran responding to reporters in Jaffna District, asserting that the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), a political alliance representing the Tamil minority, strongly opposes domestic mechanisms to probe war crime allegations. The Chief Minister insisted that a domestic mechanism can be considered only if international judges are present. According to the Chief Minister, there was, at present, no atmosphere in the country for justice to be done, not just in courts but everywhere else as well.
Further, in an attempt to present a picture of unity by the NPC on Constitutional reforms, on July 10, 2016, Wigneswaran, fielded its Leader of Opposition S. Thavarajah to place his case on the importance of adopting federal system before the Steering Committee of the Constitutional Assembly (CA) , which was approved by the Parliament unanimously, without a vote, on March 9, 2016, to draft a new Constitution for the island. Once again, urging re-merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces, Wigneswaran argued, on August 7, 2016, “The Government should take action to re-merge the North and East, the only cultural homelands of the Tamil people. If re-merged, the North and East will not only be culturally secure and power could be devolved in a manner suitable to the provinces through a federal system of administration. This fact should be accepted by the government and the Muslim leaders and the re-merger should be carried out sooner than later (sic).”
Meanwhile, on August 17, 2016, demanding an OMP in the Northern Province, residents of Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu Districts staged a protest, saying that setting up the OMP in Colombo will not provide any benefit to the people of the North, and that the Government should set up the OMP in Kilinochchi or Mullaitivu. The protesters pointed out that most of the missing people were from the North, and indeed, a majority was from these two Districts. They further noted that the families of the missing would have to bear huge expenses to come to Colombo to present their grievances or lodge complaints if the OMP was set up in Colombo.
Urging Sri Lanka to rein in the military and prosecute war crimes, the United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, in the annual report, stated on June 28, 2016, “The early momentum established in investigating emblematic cases must be sustained, as early successful prosecutions would mark a turning point from the impunity of the past. Continuing allegations of arbitrary arrest, torture and sexual violence, as well as more general military surveillance and harassment, must be swiftly addressed, and the structures and institutional culture that promoted those practices be dismantled.” At least 250 security detainees were still being held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), the UN report noted.
Similarly, asking Sri Lanka to follow its agreements with the international community to ensure accountability for the human rights abuses during the decades-long armed conflict, Stéphane Dujarric, Spokesman for the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon observed, on July 12, 2016, “There are issues between the international community and Sri Lanka and agreements to ensure accountability. And we hope those are followed.” Further, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in a report released on July 26, 2016, after conducting a 14-month island-wide assessment between October 2014 and November 2015, noted, “The years that have passed since the armed conflict in Sri Lanka ended in 2009, did not bring solace to the families of over 16,000 persons who, according to the ICRC’s records, remain missing.” Meanwhile, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) member and country rapporteur for Sri Lanka, Jose Francisco Cali Tzay, on August 26, 2016, stated that the Tamil population in Sri Lanka continued to suffer discrimination, including through lack of access to public services in their own language, as the Police agents in the North do not speak Tamil and people continue to live in fear due to the military presence.
However, commending the Government for taking steps to pursue the truth-seeking and accountability mechanisms and to deal with the grievances of people in the North and the East, Ban Ki-moon, who toured the conflict affected North on September 2, 2016, welcomed the establishment of an OMP and the process to reform the Constitution to achieve a political settlement, recalling, “This is my first visit to Sri Lanka since 2009, when I saw great suffering and hardship. Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced and in need of humanitarian aid after the terrible conflict that tore the country apart.”
The Sri Lankan Government’s efforts at rehabilitation in the wake of the war against the LTTE have been exemplary, and the willingness to undertake a comprehensive Constitutional reform demonstrates an eagerness to create an environment of enduring peace. There are, however, deep vested interests in the international community and among remnants of Tamil separatist formations who seek to keep confrontation alive, seeking racial segregation, rather than integration, or the “democratization, reconciliation and development” that the new Constitution seeks. Disruptive elements on both sides of the Tamil – Sinhala divide, backed by international mischief, continue to undermine sustained efforts by the Sri Lanka Government, and by the dominant elements in the political leadership, to consolidate a hard won peace.
* S. Binodkumar Singh
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management