By S. Binodkumar Singh*
On June 13, 2018, the Sri Lankan Cabinet ratified the Office for Reparations Bill to be enacted by Parliament for the payment of reparations to war-affected and missing persons. However, there was resistance within the Cabinet against the proposed reparation formula, which includes benefits to families of former Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) combatants. The formula had been worked out by the Rehabilitation, Resettlement and Hindu Religious Affairs Minister D.M. Swaminathan. Minister of Megapolis and Western Development Patali Champika Ranawaka opposed benefits being provided to families of ex-LTTE cadres.
A fresh Cabinet memorandum seeking grant of compensation to war-affected people including ex-LTTE combatants was submitted on June 19, 2018. However, the Cabinet withheld its approval for the compensation formula till the establishment of the reparation office after enacting necessary legislation, as Ranawaka again raised objections. Similarly, opposing the move to pay compensation to ex-LTTE combatants, Joint Opposition member Wimal Weerawansa on June 20, 2018, demanded, “Why is the Government trying to compensate terrorists who tried to destroy our country? If the Government is attempting to compensate the terrorists who struggled for Tamil Eelam, we are forced to consider the President and the Prime Minister as separatists.”
Meanwhile, responding to Weerawansa, United National Party (UNP) Colombo District Member of Parliament (MP) Mujibur Rahuman on June 21, 2018, argued that the much debated Cabinet Paper submitted by Resettlement and Rehabilitation Minister D.M. Swaminathan seeking to grant compensation to war affected persons including ex-LTTE combatants consisted of some of the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) Report submitted on November 15, 2011, to the former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Rahuman further said that ex-LTTE combatants were also citizens of this country and had a right to lead normal lives without any restriction or monitoring after completing the rehabilitation process.
The Office for Reparations is one of the four transitional justice mechanisms to address ‘truth, reconciliation, accountability and non-recurrence’ prescribed by the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) Resolution, co-sponsored by Sri Lanka on October 1, 2015. Of the four mechanisms, Sri Lanka operationalized the Office for Missing Persons (OMP) on March 13, 2018, a special office set up for determining the status of all persons who went ‘missing’ during the brutal civil war. The Office for Reparations is the second mechanism now expected to be set up. These will be followed by a ‘truth-seeking commission’ and a special court with independent counsel.
Earlier, reconfirming Sri Lanka’s commitment to implementing the UNHRC Resolution, Mano Tittawella, Secretary of the Secretariat for Coordinating Reconciliation Mechanisms (SCRM), while addressing the International Conference on Reparation, “Moving from a Divided Past to a Shared Future”, organized by the SCRM and International Organization for Migration (IOM), the UN Migration Agency, stated on February 22, 2018, “The conference follows the UNHRC Resolution on Sri Lanka and a Government decision to actively promote reconciliation, including a system of victim reparations, that will contribute to a lasting peace.” This was the first such conference to be held in Sri Lanka since the conclusion of the Eelam War on May 17, 2009.
The OMP was operationalized on March 13, 2018. In its first outreach meeting held at the Mannar District Secretariat, which was attended by about 250 people, on May 12, 2018, OMP Chairman Saliya Peiris elaborated,
This is the first of many OMP meetings to be held to reach out to the family members of the disappeared. What was noteworthy at the meeting was that there were so many stories to be shared, their versions of the stories and how their loved ones disappeared. What was admirable is the tenacity which they have pursued (sic). We clarified their concerns and asked them to report to us if they feel threatened by participating in the meetings, as some people raised concerns to that effect.
In the second OMP public meeting held at the Matara District Secretariat, attended by about 150 persons on May 19, 2018, Peiris disclosed that OMP would set up 12 regional offices in Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Mannar, Batticaloa, Trincomalee, Ampara, Mullaitivu, Vavuniya, Matara, Kurunegala, Moneragala and Kandy, in order to expand its services and to receive information and complaints about the missing persons.
In the third session of consultations with families of the disappeared at the Mullaitivu Divisional Secretariat on June 2, 2018, OMP Commissioners held consultations in two sessions the first for families from Puthukuduyirripu and Maritime Pattu, and the second for families from Thunukkai, Manthai East, Weli Oya and Oddusudan. OMP met with civil society organizations as well. Several families raised concerns about the list of surrendered militants at the end of the war, which the Government had earlier promised to obtain from the security establishment.
To promote the Government’s reconciliation programme, a ‘Reconciliation Channel,’ a new Tamil language TV channel under the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation (SLRC) was launched on February 20, 2018, presided over by President Maithripala Sirisena. The Channel has programmes catering to Tamil speaking people and showcase items that reflect their religious, national and cultural identities. Separately, to improve the quality of education in Jaffna, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe announced on March 28, 2018, that a 10-year-plan will be implemented in Jaffna. The Prime Minister instructed Education Minister Akila Viraj Kariyawasam to take necessary measures to implement the 10-year-plan with the assistance of Northern Province Education to improve the quality of education in Jaffna District.
Meanwhile, to extend civil-military cooperation, in a meeting between Northern Province Chief Minister Canagasabapathy Viswalingam Wigneswaran and the Commander of the Sri Lanka Army, Lieutenant General Mahesh Senanayake at the Chief Minister’s Office in Nallur, Jaffna District, on March 29, 2018, the Army offered its assistance to the Northern Province to resolve vital issues pertaining to development and the livelihood of the community. During the meeting, the Army Commander pointed out to the Chief Minister that the Army was capable of providing leadership for school cadetting programs if the provincial department of education sought such assistance. The Army Chief also offered his assistance to resolve issues relating to the fishing community. The Commander also emphasized that the Army’s potential was available at all times for civil-military cooperation.
Further, to discuss the implementation of projects in the Northern Province, Minister of Finance and Mass Media Mangala Samaraweera, accompanied by Central Bank Governor Indrajit Coomaraswamy and Finance Secretary Dr. R.H.S. Samaratunga on March 30, 2018, met with the Chief Minister of the Northern Province, Canagasabapathy Viswalingam Wigneswaran. During discussions, the officials considered possible projects to best use the SLR one billion allocated for the five Districts in the Northern Province. The District Secretaries of the five Districts also participated in the discussion.
Significantly, to inspect the progress of development projects launched in the Northern Province, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe made a tour in the Northern Province on May 28, 2018. Participating in the progress review meeting at the Kilinochchi District Secretariat, the Premier emphasized that measures should be taken to increase economic production, aiming at improving the quality of life of the people. On June 14, 2018, the President’s Media Division announced that a Presidential Task Force had been appointed to operate development programs in the North and East. Headed by President Maithripala Sirisena, the task force will be responsible for coordination and follow up of all development programs in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. The Prime Minister, Provincial Governors, Chief Secretaries of the two Provincial Councils, top military and Police officials and representatives of all relevant factions are included in the task force.
Expressing satisfaction on the progress of Sri Lanka’s reconciliation process and the measures taken by the Government, UN Under-Secretary General for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman, concluding a three-day visit to Sri Lanka on March 11, 2018, commended the Parliament’s adoption of the Bill for the Protection Against Enforced Disappearances as an important element of the Sri Lankan Government’s commitment to its citizens. Feltman underscored the importance of accelerating the momentum on other initiatives, including those relating to the constitution, truth and reconciliation, reparations, and counter-terrorism, in line with the Government’s promise to strengthen the country’s democratic principles and practices. Meanwhile, making reference to Sri Lanka’s peace building efforts, United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) President Miroslav Lajcák on May 2, 2018, cited Sri Lanka as a successful example of how civil society could collaborate with the Government on peace building. He also cited an example of how Sri Lanka’s civil society made a contribution to the Government of Sri Lanka’s efforts on drafting a reconciliation and peace building programme for the country. In the meantime, on May 25, 2018, Peter Maurer, President of International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), commended the efforts taken by Sri Lanka in post-war peace-building and reconciliation. Referring to various measures taken by the Government of Sri Lanka to address humanitarian aspects involved in peace building and reconciliation, Maurer noted the recent progress achieved in establishing and operationalizing the OMP.
The current National Unity Government, formed on August 20, 2015, has made remarkable efforts to press forward with the reconciliation process by reaching out to the Tamils and initiating constitutional and legal reforms. It has operatinalized the OMP to help find the missing persons of the war era. Challenges remain, of course, as some Ministers and Joint Opposition members contest the formula to pay compensation to ex-LTTE combatants through the Office for Reparations, but these are relatively marginal issues of conflict within an enveloping process of successful consensus building and rehabilitative response.
*S. Binodkumar Singh
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management