Dr Kumar David
Indian External Affairs Minister Krishna’s visit to Colombo came to nought, as I had said earlier (paper No. 4865 dated 16 January 2012 “Sri Lanka: Can Krishna succeed where Brahma has failed?” (http://www.southasiaanalysis.org/papers49/paper4865.html). Eventually, Minister Krishna and President Rajapakse ended up completely contradicting each other. Or was it prearranged; there are conspiracy theories in town. The outcome is that realising Delhi’s ineffective opinion here is moving on its own, though there is still some expectation Washington may force action on some LLRC recommendations.
A statement signed by 40 professionals and intellectuals who represent the conscience of the nation will interest SAAG readers. Unsurprisingly, many liberal intellectuals were unable to support the statement, declaring it “too strongly worded”. An abridged version follows; names of signatories are omitted, the point is the message, not the messenger.
Practical steps to meaningful reconciliation
(A statement by 40 Sri Lankans)
Several valuable recommendations are contained in the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission’s (LLRC) Report and they are all the more compelling because they have issued from a Presidential Commission. We call upon the government of Sri Lanka, in consultation with the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the leadership of the Muslims, to take steps to implement the recommendations. The government is morally bound to implement the proposals of its own commission or otherwise stand indicted of a lack of sincerity.
A lasting solution to the ethnic imbroglio in Sri Lanka can only be reached if power including police powers, land use and allocation, and fiscal and budgetary authority is devolved to the Provincial Councils. The governance of the Northern Province should be handed over to elected representatives. Without restoration and empowerment of the civil administration, demilitarisation, resettlement of Tamil and Muslim displaced persons, disbanding paramilitary forces, releasing illegally detained persons and rejuvenating the local economy, all talk of reconciliation is deception.
The ubiquitous presence of and pressure exerted by the armed forces in the Northern and Eastern Province engenders grave and direct fear among the people and inhibits social life. Militarization and armed paramilitary groups are the root cause of harassment and are associated with abduction and other unlawful acts. The spread of military tentacles into reconstruction projects is alarming and military sponsored expansion into small and medium business undertakings are taking precedence and steamrolling the local community out of the neighbourhood economy. Commitment to the concept of the primacy of civilian democracy over military power makes it imperative that the LLRC recommendations quoted below be implemented forthwith and in full. This needs the approval of no Parliamentary Select Committee or endorsement by the TNA. There is no justification for procrastination.
“The Commission, as a policy, strongly advocates and recommends to the Government that the Security Forces should disengage itself from all civil administration related activities as rapidly as possible” – (9.134).
“It is important that the Northern Province reverts to civilian administration in matters relating to the day-to-day life of the people, and in particular with regard to matters pertaining to economic activities such as agriculture, fisheries land etc. The military presence must progressively recede to the background to enable the people to return to normal civilian life and enjoy the benefits of peace” – (9.227)
The importance of demilitarisation extends beyond the North-East. There is alarm in the Sinhalese and Muslim communities in other parts of the country about mounting military involvement in civilian life such as state corporations and businesses, construction and urban development, provincial governorships and the diplomatic service. Demilitarisation of civilian and economic life is the common demand of people of all communities.
High Security Zones and paramilitaries
The LLRC Report deals with High Security Zones (HSZs) and recommends a review for the purpose of releasing more land to the public. We call for the immediate dismantling of all HS zones which serve no rightful purpose. All occupied land must be returned to rightful owners. The Report refers to illegal armed groups and to the alleged crimes of the EPDP, but only calls for further investigation in both matters. We fail to see why paramilitaries and armed goons are allowed free reign in the Tamil areas at all. It is the duty of the state to disband these unlawful groups forthwith; the state needs no LLRC recommendation to carry out its bounden obligations. We support the recommendation that past activities of these gangs be investigated with a view to prosecution where warranted.
The following passages are of particular note.
“However, the Commission expresses concern over some detainees who have been incarcerated over a long period of time without charges being preferred. The Commission stresses again that conclusive action should be taken to dispose of these cases by bringing charges or releasing them where there is no evidence of any criminal offence having being committed” – (9.70).
All places of detention should be those, which are formally designated as authorized places of detention and no person should be detained in any place other than such authorized places of detention. Strict legal provisions should be followed by the law enforcement authorities in taking persons into custody, such as issuing of a formal receipt of arrest and providing details of the place of detention – (9.67).
The commission has put its finger on a pervasive and persistent problem in the breakdown of law enforcement and justice in the country; illegal detention without adequate cause, failure to prosecute or release, and detention at unauthorised locations at which victims are alleged to be tortured or eliminated. Does a responsible government need the recommendations of a presidential commission to eliminate such practices forthwith? The government is dragging its feet while detainees linger in jails and camps.
The next of kin of detainees have the fundamental right to know of the whereabouts of their family members and they have the right of access to detainees. The LLRC notes numerous representations were made about this matter.
“A large number of representations were made with regard to those whose whereabouts are unknown, sometimes for years, as a result of abductions, unlawful arrests, arbitrary detention, and involuntary disappearances” – (9.43)
Land; Return of IDPs; Return of Muslims
Recommendations in respect of land issues overlap the larger of question of devolution of land powers to Provincial Councils. Other matters such as expediting the return of Muslims evicted by the LTTE to the North and steps to prevent the legitimisation of properties forcibly occupied during the war are worthy of support. These issues will be more complex in implementation than the matters adverted to previously as they require legislation and will certainly need the establishment of administrative support mechanisms. The government must demonstrate its good intentions by declaring its intention to implement these recommendations and state the time frame within which they will be completed.
Right thinking people of all communities are dismayed by the whitewash of atrocities committed against the civilian population by the Sri Lankan military in the final stages of the war. The LLRC has ignored allegations against the military’s targeting of safe zones, hospitals, and locations where tens of thousands were packed together. The large scale and permanent displacement of the people of the Vanni and the destruction of homes and built infrastructure could portend efforts to change the ethnic population profile of the region. The LLRC has documented LTTE atrocities and concluded that it is guilty of human-rights violations. There is prima face evidence of human-rights violations by the government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE; we demand an independent investigation.
The purpose of this statement is to express our dismay that the government is taking little follow up action to get down to simple actions that are not particularly controversial if there is a genuine commitment to democracy, human rights and reconciliation. Since in this statement we wish to emphasise matters that can be implemented expeditiously, we have not engaged in extended discussion of two fundamental concerns; that accountability for human rights violations must be followed up, and that a political solution based on devolution is the only feasible permanent solution. Nor is this document comprehensive since we have not dealt with women’s issues, education, compensation, restrictions on travel and the hard to understand delay in rebuilding the railway to the north – a one time artery of commerce and people movement.