The war has ended. What next is the query on the minds of all Sri Lankans, more specifically a major concern to the Tamil community? The issues are clear and many options are available but which ones will the leadership take? An end of a war or conflict leads to many roads. The choice the State and the citizens take should be one that looks forward with hope for the future and not one that looks backward with anger and vengeance, searching for scapegoats to crucify at the altar of recriminations and a cheap play to the gallery. To search for ‘traitors’ and anti national elements will be a futile exercise. It will lead to no constructive fence mending but will result only in exacerbating old wounds and creating misunderstandings and hostility at a time when reconciliation through compromise and tolerance are the operative sentiments.
Thus the choice of the politically astute will be the steadfast march forward towards the shining star of peace and hope. Measured steps to reunite and give the much needed confidence to the people, not with promises or rhetoric but with concrete measures enabling them to secure their inviolable status as stakeholders in the land of their birth with security and dignity. In this there is no singling out of any community, for the people of this country regardless of which ethnic group they belong to, are in need of the assurance of a better future, a future where there is no return to violence but only peace and more peace.
Wars of any description, let alone one waged within the nation, among those living within the country, is certainly an all pervasive terrible, terrible period. People face untold misery. The coffers of the nation remains depleted, the economy suffers, development activity loses its priority status and people live in fear. No one is certain who their enemy is and as a result insecurity pervades the daily life of the people. Sadly the culture of passivity gets replaced with militarization and a militarized society leaves many scars, mental and physical. Over a period of time war dehumanizes decent human beings resulting in many warped minds whose thinking narrows down to view the world through the keyhole of sectarian cultural nationalism plaguing the country in turmoil. The ordinary man, woman and child suffer the most, cramped as they remain among the warring forces. The Sri Lankan experience of the JVP conflict and the ethnic conflict have left an indelible toll on the character of the people, be it the Sinhalese, the Tamils, Muslims, Burghers or the Malays. It is the hope that these experiences will in some insightful way contribute to strengthen the character of the people and enable mature approaches that will facilitate work towards building the nation without divisions and without recriminations.
When a country succeeds as Sri Lanka has in destroying the opponents and assumes control of territory and administration, it is indeed a moment for national pride and joy. Victory celebrations stretch over a period signaling the end of war and the dawn of reality. The intervening period is the time when one stays ‘dormant’ just being relieved that it is all over. It is left to the leadership to recognize the cut off point of when the celebrations end and serious planning for post conflict recovery begins.
Policy framework for reconciliation through reconstruction and development must address the root causes of the conflict. Permanent peace is possible only through such a reckoning. It is also a moment to ingrain into not just one’s attention but also into one’s consciousness, the distinction between the Tigers who were drawn from the Tamil community and the rest of the Tamils who were not a part of the imbroglio. This is also the time, and it is not too late to do so, to know and accept the fact that Tamils are an intrinsic part of this country, of this nation, bound together with the other communities over many centuries, not only by ties of kinship but also as a community who have shared and continue to share the highs and the lows of the nation’s destiny. This is also a time for the Tamils to accept that Sri Lanka is their home and none other and that their future is bound to the Sri Lankan nation state. These thoughts bear repetition as healing is the need of the moment and awareness of such facts will help considerably in assuaging suspicion and distrust and help to create empathy amongst the communities in this plural society.
Today a golden opportunity has arisen to consolidate the task of nation building. This opportunity must be viewed holistically and mechanisms for invigorating existing institutions must be put in place to revamp civil authority- "Nothing has to be reinvented, yet everything has to be re-imagined". Constructive ‘imagination’ must stimulate the thinking process to bring about changes that will move forward and reinforce the basic principles of equity, social justice, peace and reconciliation for the infusion of a sense of normalcy in the lives of the people. This also means that issue specific measures to ensure human rights and human security, law and order, independent judiciary, transparency and accountability in governance at all levels are taken without procrastination. The appropriate strategy in the short term, would be to undertake measures for disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration programs.
International post conflict policies provide examples of strategies to be adopted for effective and timely measures to resettle refugees and internally displaced persons, including combatants who have surrendered paying special attention to child soldiers, women cadres, those vulnerable in displaced areas and other traumatized persons. This national crisis must sensitize the people to the need to evolve a national bond that will contribute to the emergence of a collective goal over and above self interest. The need is now, at this moment and not any other time. Lessons must be learned from past experiences and calculated steps taken for inclusivity of all the people in the task of nation building. Political leadership has to take the responsibility to build economic, social and cultural partnerships. Reconciliation has to be the motivating force to gather the people together in a national bind. This time round nothing must go wrong.
Interactions a couple of weeks ago, with a few members of the Diaspora has given some pointers for future action. The immediate concerns raised by them were not language or homelands but the welfare of the IDP’s. This is not to say that other issues did not seem to matter any longer. The raising of this as priority issue was the recognition that the immediate issue is to resettle the displaced people in their own home environment from which they have been so cruelly uprooted by the LTTE. This would be a first step to help them to regain a sense of normalcy. Circulation of information regarding registration of persons in the camps, plans for resettlement and some indication of the measures intended to be taken for the welfare of the IDPs will be sufficient indicators to give assurance to the country and the Diaspora that the State, aware of its responsibility means to extend assistance without undue delay or discrimination. No more divisive politics must be permitted to emerge as a result of acts of negligence. It is then and only then that confidence in the State as an integral part in the lives of all the people will become a credible feature.
This is the appropriate time to reach out to the Diaspora who in their anger following 1983 pogrom provided the militants the finances, the arms and the intellectual input to challenge the Sri Lankan State and also carry on effective anti government propaganda machinery internationally. They made certain that time did not dilute and dim the memory of the ’83 pogrom. Consequently the Diaspora failed to see the path the LTTE was taking. The fact that the Tigers eliminated the Tamil leadership both political and intellectual; took on the mantle of a sole representative power for the Tamils; wielded authority in the most predatory manner subjecting the already ‘injured’ community to an authoritarian rule; worse subjected them to kangaroo trials denying the conventional norms of judicial procedures were details that did not figure in the prognosis of the Diaspora.
Domiciled as they were away from the country they were unable to conjure the horror of forced conscription of boys and girls and very young children for combat; the dehumanization of the people in a manner calculated to establish a dictatorship, with the usual malaise of all politicians, of indulging in nepotism and settling for dynastic rule – the son to succeed the father. The ‘looking back’ in this instance is to see how amends can be made and the Diaspora can be persuaded now to give their time, money, intellectual capacity and energy to rebuild the ravaged lands in this country and give the people a sense of belonging and ownership. Such a positive contribution could be their atonement for their questionable decisions in the past.
There is much that can be done to give a better quality of life to the people who for the last three decades have only known destabilization, acts of impunity sourced from the various combatants in war, a total lack of human security and above all the denial of dignity and fundamental rights to which every individual is entitled to. Exigencies of war are the explanation that is offered by the State for the lapses in maintaining the democratic ideals. The Tigers on the other hand have never felt compelled to offer excuses for the excesses they subjected the people of this country.
The atmosphere is right. The political capital available to the government is immense and the government is assured of electoral support. The people in the south from all walks of life have spoken when they demonstrated their great sense of empathy for the IDP’s and shared what they could with them when they moved out of captivity from the LTTE. The Diaspora’s involvement in the reconstruction work will lighten the load of the people in the war ravaged regions. Projects for reconstruction and rehabilitation planned in coordination with the government will contribute to laying the foundation for social justice and sustainable peace and to build bridges to ‘manage pluralism’.
Building national identity is essentially a political process and the direction therefore has to come from the leaders across the political party spectrum. The urgency of the moment is such that the country cannot afford the luxury of holding on to narrow party positions. The outlook must be national and the imperative has to be to seize the moment in history and shape it to bring about not only peace but inclusivity to all people on the principles of equity, human security and human dignity in the reality of a plural society. Trust can be built if this road is taken, not if the leadership looks for mileage for their political parties.
Neil de Votta of the Michigan University gives a penetrating analysis of Sri Lanka’s political decay resulting from a misguided sense of one upmanship to out perform one another: "Beginning in the mid 50’s Sri Lanka’s politicians began outbidding each other on who would provide the best deal for their community. The ethnic outbidding was initially influenced by linguistic nationalism, though it was soon also used to undermine agreements designed to accommodate the minority Tamils. The Sinhalese tolerated ethnocentrism and illiberal governance because this relatively deprived the Tamils even as it benefited their majority community. What they did not realize is that illiberalism cannot be compartmentalized and that eventually it affects the entire polity. This is indeed what happened over time. Consequently, the inter ethnic violence has influenced intra-ethnic violence and the project that permitted dominating the minority Tamils along ethnic lines has now influenced Sinhalese politicians to dominate their fellows along political lines. This has led to a milieu where violence is now institutionalized as a way to settle political disputes even as ethnic outbidding continues and the civil war remains unresolved. The recent parliamentary elections accompanied by massive violence and manifold irregularities, especially signify the illiberalism and political decay that have befallen Sri Lanka". (The italics are mine)
Fortunately we have succeeded in weeding the forces of terror but the crucial test will be if we can avoid the pitfalls of the past. There are no Marshall Plan or international institutions set up to assist us on our road to recovery. We do not have too many friends in the international arena willing to assist us. We have to rely on ourselves and do it efficiently utilizing the meager resources at hand. The goodwill of the people and their support during the lean times ahead of us will be invaluable.
The national mood in general is for peace and reconciliation. Some shrill sound bytes are emerging from chauvinist elements who fail to make the distinction between those who took arms against the state and the rest of the Tamils who remained bystanders in the same manner as the country witnessed when the JVP held the country captive to their terror tactics. The Tamils are equally guilty of failure to earmark the extremists from the liberals among the majority community. Poor judgment in this regard created in the past many problems and these will recur again if such differentiations are not made and borne in mind.
History is there to learn lessons and the lessons of our history must be learnt. The constitution is here to stay, the 13th Amendment et all. The provisions of this Amendment have been implemented and it is time to rectify some of the shortcomings as pointed out by constitutional experts and the provincial councilors themselves. Constitutions are sacrosanct and they constitute well studied ideas, concepts and accepted fundamental principles. Processes for revision of constitutions are part of any constitutional provision. It is imperative to understand that every mood change or the availability of parliamentary majority should not be made an occasion for constitutional change or for the introduction of amendments. Chauvinism and chauvinist calls have been made from the immediate post independent period but none of the leaders of these groups ever contributed to sustained political life in this country. While respecting their right to free expression, it is necessary for the country to travel the path of forward movement and not stagnation.
Good governance is possible when a constitution is in place, more specifically when the spirit of constitutionalism is dominant. When the latter prevails there can be no place for what is termed as ‘distressed governance" where " abusive police forces dominating local oligarchies, incompetent and indifferent state bureaucracies, corrupt and inaccessible judiciaries, and venal, ruling elites contemptuous of the rule of law and accountable to no one but themselves" conduct the affairs of the country. The corrective to such situations would be to encourage professionalism and meritocracy that will help uproot political patronage and backdoor entry to unsuitable recruits. Good governance practices will be the stabilizer at this moment of reconciliation and reconstruction. A just and inclusive administrative machinery will create interest among the people to interact with the nation state for a participatory political process and in time will encourage reverse brain drain to the country.
Ensuring that actions that short circuit good governance have no chance of taking root should be the first task of a responsible government, particularly in the post conflict scenario. Shortfall in good governance can put those at the receiving end into a mode of disillusionment and hopelessness. Transparency and accountability have to be the barometers for the measurement of integrity in service and a deterrent to corruption. People must be heard at all times. There can be no alternative to listening to people’s ‘voices’, to voices that cheer and to dissonant voices that raise protests, all of which are within the purview of democratic freedoms.