It is one year since the Sri Lankan government declared ‘victory over terrorism’. However, efforts in finding a long-term political settlement to the ethnic issue is nowhere in sight. Presently, the top priority of the Rajapaksa regime seems to be ‘development’ and not ethnic reconciliation. The sole aim of the present UPFA government under Mahinda Rajapaksa is to make Sri Lanka the ‘Singapore of South Asia’. What is therefore required in their belief is a stable government under a strong leader and devoid of any ‘external interference’. Using near-two-thirds majority obtained in the recently concluded parliamentary elections, various steps are being taken in this regard.
First, the plan is to amend the Constitution to remove two-term cap on the President so that Rajapaksa can continue beyond 2017; and second, to further entrust him with more powers. Other changes in the pipeline are instituting a Senate (second chamber) at the national level and a change in the electoral system – from proportional representation to first-past-the-post system or a mix of both. The Sri Lankan President has also appointed an eight-member Commission on ‘Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation’ (LLRC) to pre-empt the United Nations’ move to appoint an experts panel on ‘war crimes’ during the last stages of war. LLRC is a good step, but its mandate is very limited. As per the notification, the Commission will be required to inquire and report on the facts and circumstances which led to the failure of the ceasefire agreement of 21 February 2002 and the sequence of events that followed thereafter up to 19 May 2009 when the war ended; whether any person, group or institution directly or indirectly bear responsibility; lessons to learn from those events and their attendant concerns in order to ensure that there will be no recurrence; and methodology, whereby restitution to any person affected by those events or their dependents or their heirs, can be effected.
The underlying assumption is that the previous ceasefire agreement (CFA) was a failure. The CFA, in fact, laid the foundation for the defeat of the LTTE by bringing it out of the jungle and exposing its cadres to the real life. The natural consequence was the vertical split of the LTTE as Karuna broke away in 2004 with about 6000 Tigers. Although, it is claimed that the LLRC is on the model of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa, there is no mechanism for reconciliation in the real sense. Yet another concern is that the report of this new Commission should not be futile as in the case of the All Party Representative Committee (appointed to find a political settlement acceptable to all communities), and the International Group of Eminent Persons (to inquire into killings of humanitarian personnel).
The ‘Four-Ds’ strategy – Demilitarisation, Development, Democratization, and Devolution – in that order of priority has been reiterated by President Rajapaksa. The government is still in the first two phases and says the others “will follow at a later stage.” Colombo has been articulating the need for finding a ‘home grown solution’ to the ethnic issue. However, at the maximum, what is on the cards is the existing 13th Amendment, an offshoot of the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987. Through the 13th Amendment, the island was divided into various provinces and granted some powers under Provincial List. However, the Provincial Councils always lacked sufficient powers – especially land, police and finance – to run their affairs in an efficient manner. In addition, the Centre wields immense powers of overruling any Provincial decisions. Instead of strengthening the Provinces, the present government is planning to dilute the present arrangement further. Unless there is genuine power sharing, the Provincial Council arrangement will be mere eyewash.
The Rajapaksa government also has to go beyond the constitutional tinkering in reaching out to minorities by showing magnanimity. Resettlement of the displaced, reconstruction of the war-ravaged northeast and rehabilitation of the LTTE cadres should be done in a more serious and fair manner. Trust deficit that exists between various communities of the island must be bridged on a priority basis. These confidence building measures will go a long way in convincing even the Tamil diaspora that is presently keeping the hopes of Tamil Eelam alive. It is important for the Sri Lankan government to engage the diaspora to make them contribute positively to the development of the country.
It must be realised that this is the historic opportunity available to Rajapaksa regime not only for resolving the ethnic issue once and for all, but also to take the island state to new heights.