The Mountain and the Molehill

By Somapala Gunadheera ( Courtesy: The Island )

The on-going demands for implementation of the recommendations of the LLRC remind me of an article of mine, In search of a Peace Package, published on 12 August 2008, in the Groundviews (Ethnic Confrontation and National Integration in Sri Lanka: Some Marginal Comments, Stamford Lake, P. 36). I made the following comments in the said article.

1. “Now that the government appears to be fighting the war to a finish, it behoves concerned members of our civil society to put their heads together to evolve an optimum Peace Package that could win over as many contenders as possible in our ethnic dispute.

2. But it would appear on hindsight that we have only been going round and round the mulberry bush with the problem, for two main reasons. We never had a clear policy on the modalities of resolution. The second reason which is essentially the cause of the first, is that our leaders never had the wisdom, the sensitivity and the courage to handle the problem with statesmanship. In the alternative, they were exploiting the dispute for their own survival in power.

3. The intelligentsia has a duty to engage themselves in the search for a consensus to the vexed problem of our ethnic conflict, if the Tamils are not to be left at a dead-end at the end of the fight.

4. At the going rate of state procrastination, the international community is very likely to become the final arbiters of the dispute, as has already happened in other theatres of ethnic conflict, sometimes to the detriment of the intended ‘beneficiary’. No self-respecting nation could be happy about such an intervention. The best way to prevent such humiliation is for opinion leaders on both sides to engage themselves in a brave and open debate on the maximum mutually acceptable Peace Package”.

External Intervention

The international community did intervene with the appointment of a Panel of Experts (POE), on accountability, by the UNSG. The POE made very serious allegations against Sri Lanka, perhaps the worst of which was contained in the following extract of their report.

“137. In the limited surveys that have been carried out in the aftermath of the conflict, the percentage of people reporting dead relatives is high. A number of credible sources have estimated that there could have been as many as 40,000 civilian deaths. Two years after the end of the war, there is still no reliable figure for civilian deaths, but multiple sources of information indicate that a range of up to 40,000 civilian deaths cannot be ruled out at this stage. Only a proper investigation can lead to the identification of all of the victims and to the formulation of an accurate figure for the total number of civilian deaths”.

In my Opinion on “A positive approach to ‘Darusman’, published in The Island on August 18, 2011, (P. 181 of Marginal Comments above), I made the following observation:

“The oncoming Census presents an ideal opportunity to investigate another allegation contained in Darusman. That is the assumption that around 40,000 might have been killed in the final confrontation. Now that the displaced have been settled in their original habitats, the Census documentation for the war affected areas can ascertain bereavements and injury suffered by the relevant families including the causes there for. In cases entire families have been wiped out, the Gramasevaka Officer may be asked to collate the best information available in consultation with the neighbours.

Although hundred present accuracy would be impossible under attendant exceptional circumstances, the Census appears be the best possible source to obtain the closest realistic estimate of the statistics that could be compared with the Darusman guess. It is understood that a survey is being attempted on a similar format privately, with the assistance of volunteer teachers. These surveys would be a dependable sounding board to test the accuracy of Darusman estimates. They would also be a positive response to the demand for investigation and a dependable measure in granting compensation to the war damaged. If the final count happens to fall far short of the Darusman estimate, there would be a mellowing effect on the shock created by the POE. The count will also satisfy the US demand to ascertain ‘the fate of people unaccounted for at the end of the civil war.”

Accountability

Happily the Census has been used to take a house to house count of the war casualties and the Defence Secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa (GR), has confirmed at his recent interview with Charles Haviland of BBC News that a recent government census, given little publicity, suggested some 7,400 northern Sri Lankans were killed during the last months as a result of the fighting. GR had said the census-takers had visited ‘family after family’ and taken the names of all those who died and that the enumerators were 100% Tamil. This figure is an 81.5 reduction of the Darusman estimate claimed to have been based on a ‘number of credible … multiple sources of information’. The final count exposes the bias of the sources of information and the selectivity and the gullibility of some world class investigators. This on-the-spot survey should be far more reliable than long-distance statistical projections by sentimental experts.

GR has added that ‘this 7,000-odd number includes the combatants as well’. He has admitted that there might have been “certain” civilian casualties but ‘not in the numbers’ quoted. It is also likely that the ascertained figure included collateral deaths in the battlefield, exempted by international humanitarian law, if they had not been intentionally or recklessly caused. That number would further reduce the Darusman guesstimate. If there were proven violations of the laws of war GR has said, “… then we can punish, no problem, but you have to prove that”.

My own belief is that the onus of proof here rests with the Government. Even if the law was otherwise, it would be wise for the Government to undertake that responsibility. Much effort and expense may have gone into the house to house survey but if the Government wants to clinch the issue it should go the extra mile into the causes of the established deaths. That would involve a police investigation, no doubt a tough assignment, but if the cases of deaths are ascertained and action initiated against the guilty on both sides before the next year’s meeting of the UNHRC, the most serious item against Sri Lanka in its agenda would be reduced to a dead letter. It is important that police investigations are made in association with the enumerators who discovered the deaths and the relevant gramasevaka officers and that proper records are maintained.

Administrative Reforms

That done, the Government is left with two more issues to face at the UNHRC next year. The first of them covers what the JVP claims to be ready for execution without further ado. It includes resettlement, rehabilitation and equal rights for the minorities. There is no objection from any side to these steps and they can be implemented straightaway. Their implementation would result in immediate relief to those distressed by the war while the grant of such relief must facilitate the path of the long term reforms. The Government has so far failed to convince the concerned public that meaningful positive steps are being taken to solve the problems discovered by the LLRC. Although it is claimed that much is being done to implement the LLRC recommendations the public are in the dark about what exactly is being done. There is a communication gap.

A conspicuous Supervisory Committee (SC), appointed to oversee implementation as recommended by the LLRC itself, should remove a lot of doubts and disbelief and present the effort in a new light to the public. That body has to be appointed by the President himself, if it is to be taken seriously, and it should include persons of the highest distinction and integrity. As evidenced by those appointed to the LLRC, the President has a knack of choosing the right people for the right job. He would be wise to reactivate that knack in appointing the SC as well.

It has been reported that the President had already appointed a SC of officials headed by his Secretary, Lalith Weeratunga (LW). There is public confidence in the ability and the integrity of LW but the fact that he is the Secretary of the President casts a shadow over him in a scenario in which the President is blamed for soft peddling the issue, presumably with his disenchantment with the proposal to reactivate the Seventeenth Amendment (17A).

Besides people have no faith in bureaucratic committees held in camera. Their disbelief was reconfirmed by the failure of such a committee appointed to handle the interim recommendations of the LLRC. What is called for is a replica of the LLRC as the SC. Such a plausible body should have a magic effect on turning the tables on the President’s critics. The responsibility of the SC would be to phase out implementation pragmatically and work on a time schedule, with continuing disclosure. If the SC completes its assignment within a year, we would have much less to explain to the UNHRC next year.

Political Reforms

The third issue falls squarely on the Presidents lap. That pertains to the necessary constitutional reforms. There is a proposal to convene a Parliamentary Select Committee to address this aspect. This venture appears to have run into a storm after Sampanthan’s Batticaloa Oration. His oratory seems to have got the better of his discretion, his double-entendre springing leaks in the process. In the Groundviews article referred to above I made the following observations about a political solution, which appear to be valid even today:

“It is possible that some parties would boycott the Committee for ulterior motives. Abstaining has always been a favourite weapon of sabotage among our political parties. But the Government should have the courage to ignore any party that does not have the guts to fight their case before a properly constituted forum.

Armed with a Peace Package filtered through (Parliament), the President should feel confident to act on it decisively. The international community which appears to be closing in on our ethnic conflict, is unlikely to turn a Nelsonian eye on a Hamlet-like approach to the Package.

In the ultimate analysis, it is the determination and statesmanship with which the ethnic issue is handled that would decide whether Mahinda Rajapaksa or his challenger, Veluppillai Pirapaharan would live longer in history”.

The Dilemma

It is necessary to understand the dilemma the Government has got into after the publication of the LLRC Report. The Report appears to have become a vicar’s egg for the Government, the bad part being the recommendations on revival of 17A and consequent measures. The very thought of reverting to 17A would be anathema to a Government that sought to entrench its power through the Eighteenth Amendment under the glow of victory. The disturbing delay in going ahead with the other reforms appears to stem from this precondition.

It is Utopian to expect a reversion to 17A at this point of time though the latent impact of its abrogation on the voting public is likely to overbalance its gains at the next Presidential Election. Besides reviving 17A is a substantive constitutional issue that cannot be tagged on collaterally to the implementation of a report. Tying up that deadweight with the demand for implementation of the other recommendations of the LLRC can only result in a stalemate that would nullify all that the Commission has achieved. Half a loaf is always better than no loaf. The other half may have to depend on external pressure, the next election or a revival of ethnic hostilities that appear to be raising its ugly head already.

1 Comment

Filed under analysis

One response to “The Mountain and the Molehill

  1. Thanks for the great post on your blog, it really gives me an insight on this
    topic.

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