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#5250, 21 March 2017

Dateline Colombo

Re-building Sri Lanka: An Island at a Crossroads
Asanga Abeyagoonasekera
Director General, Institute of National Security Studies (INSS), Sri Lanka & Columnist, IPCS

In 1908, MK Gandhi said, the “English have not taken India, we have given it to them.” This expression is applicable to Sri Lanka as well when one observes how some elites handed the island nation over to Britain in the optimism of a better rule. Before the Indian subcontinent won back its independence, Britain ruled the region with the support of fewer than 100,000 troops and managed to control 400 million people via draconian policies and supporting local allies who worked to secure the British interests. Irrespective of the upper hand they enjoyed due to advanced military technology, this was possible largely due to their capacity to divide the targeted populations and co-opt locals into becoming British allies. This “divide and rule strategy” was employed in Sri Lanka too; and the communal discrimination and differences between different ethnic groups fuelled by the colonial British rulers at that time continues to overshadow the Sri Lankan nation even today. 

Sri Lankan President Mathripala Sirisena's dissolution of the gazette notification issued by the British rulers - that had declared 82 rebels as traitors during the 1818 rebellion - is remarkable. Sri Lankans who had fought in the rebellion had been assassinated in cruel ways and some were exiled and imprisoned outside the country. Several decades on, a Sri Lankan president was bold enough to remember the country's national heroes who had sacrificed their lives for an independent Sri Lanka. Many countries still remember the gross human rights violations and plunder of national wealth during the British colonial period, and till date, resultant scars run deep in the post-colonial societies.

In another positive development, President Sirisena’s Asia-centric balanced foreign policy has delivered results, such as winning support and trust from several world leaders. The levels of external pressure witnessed during the past are not visible and have drastically reduced owing to issues of concern being addressed with commitments to rectify the situation. At the UNHRC, the Sri Lankan foreign minister assured that “the Constitution drafting process is for us both central and essential not only for democratisation, but also for ensuring non-recurrence of conflict...The Parliamentary process and referendum are for us, imperative.” The UN had criticised the Sri Lankan mechanism as “worryingly slow,” accusing the latter's leadership of neglecting the widespread torture and abuse that are still a reality in the country.

In Sri Lanka, different members of the government have voiced different opinions on the constitutional process. Sending mixed signals has been a practice that has not helped much. Therefore, a consensus has to be reached on the constitutional process and if the government proposes to go for a referendum. 

Neville Ladduwahetty, in his recent article, 'The referendum trap', clearly explains that it is also vital to consider how "unintended consequences would be exploited by the Tamil leadership both nationally and internationally to make claims for the right of self-determination followed by other claims that go far beyond what was intended through Constitutional Reforms," and argues that this "is the end game the Tamil leadership is striving for by pushing for a referendum.” What if the referendum has dual outcomes such as a huge loss in the South and a victory in the North? It will clearly send a message of further division in the polity. Who would take the advantage of this situation?

President Sirisena's stance regarding the fresh UNHRC appeal for a hybrid court has been clear in that he will not allow foreign judges into the process and has explained that the local judicial process is dependable and capable. At a recent event, President Sirisena reiterated his position and said “I am not going to allow non-governmental organizations to dictate how to run my government. I will not listen to their calls to prosecute my troops.” Having foreign judges in Sri Lanka will definitely aggravate political tensions.

There are three essential elements that can be easily introduced to bring credibility and results to the local reconciliation process. First, the government could consider international engagement such as of Interpeace, a reputed body that could be used to provide technical assistance for the reconciliation process with terms of reference from the government. In January 2016, the Director General of Sri Lanka's Reconciliation taskforce met the Director General of Interpeace. However, unfortunately, there has been no forward movement since then. Second, certain recommendations of the eight national reconciliation conferences conducted during 2011-2015 could be implemented. Civil society leaders had contributed significant recommendations vis-a-vis these reports. Third, top priority must be given to Tamil Nadu-Sri Lanka relations and Sri Lankan diaspora re-engagement strategies. 

There is much to be done to heal the hearts and minds in the deeply divided Sri Lankan community. It is hoped that one of the options succeeds in becoming a lasting policy. As a wise Wazir (minister) in 9th century Baghdad had said, “The basis of government is jugglery. If it works, and lasts, it becomes policy.”

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