Prospects for Human Rights and Reconciliation in 2014?

By Laksiri Fernando

Both the world and Sri Lanka most probably enter the New Year with melancholy. Of course we greet each other to the contrary, hoping that everything would go well. The formidable challenge before the world in 2014 or for the years to come would be the ‘global warming’ and the consequent or unrelated ‘natural disasters’. We lament about them when they occur and then conveniently forget about them all,engaging in our own day to day preoccupations, mostly conflictual.

Tsunami disaster just few days before the dawn of the New Year of 2005 was the best example. We all communities became instantly united when the Tsunami struck us on 26 December 2004, but then soon went back to our disastrous conflicts, one against the other, not only on ethnic and religious grounds, but also on the pretexts of politics and even personal grounds. We have been excellent in blaming each other without contemplating on our own follies of bigotry and foibles. That is how an Eelam War IV came about.

On the issue of global warming, we are condemned to ‘death by thousand cuts.’ It is slow and suffocating. The Liberal government that came to power few months back in Australia is determined to do away with the ‘carbon tax’ which was previously introduced to discourage the gas emissions to the atmosphere. Removal of the tax is argued to stimulate the economy, and of course it would, but at what cost? This is the logic everywhere. The long term wisdom is sacrificed to short term economic or other gains.

The year 2013 ended painfully for many people, especially for the poor, the destitute and the marginalised. All of them constitute more than half of the world population of now over 7 billion people in this small planet. The civil war continued in Syria without resolution, thousands and thousands of new refugees fleeing the country. South Sudan, the most recent new state, created under the patronage of the UN, just few years back, plunged into fears internal conflict just recently, hundreds of people newly killed, proving perhaps the creation of new states per se might not be the best solution for conflicts.

More dramatic were the events in Moscow. The ugly head of terrorism is raising its head again and even to the glee of the authorities because then they can continue their restrictions on freedoms of the people on the pretext of terrorism threat.

The end of 2013 in Sri Lanka was not without incidents, although it appeared superficially so. Three churches in the South were reported to be attacked on the Christmas eve by the religious bigots, BBS goons or not. A similar incident occurred in Potuvil, a Sufi shrine being attacked by a rival faction of the same Islam. The religious intolerance is not simply ‘black and white,’ only limited to the Buddhist fanatics, although they are the most menacing. There is intolerance within the same cluster of faith as well. When some churches are attacked, the other churches appear to keep quiet.

Most of the attacks are on the ‘Assembly of God.’ One may consider that some of the pastors are themselves being ‘bigots.’ However, the other religious groups have no right to attack them or their places of worship. Freedom of conscience, worship and propagate one’s own religion peacefully are constitutional rights. As the things have been continuing for a very long period now, the impunity with which they operate is a disgrace for the government and the law enforcement authorities. Perhaps their culpability is the reason for the silence.

Whatever the misgivings that we have about the Ancient past of Sri Lanka, religious tolerance and freedom of conscience were protected even under some despotic kings. The blend of Buddhism and Hinduism at the level of people’s worship was one result of that situation. This was the case in many Asian countries, even when the West was engulfed in religious wars and bigotry.

The year 2013 was not at all a smooth year for Sri Lanka. It started with a bad taste by impeaching the Chief Justice arbitrarily. The independence of the judiciary has been the main casualty since then, apart from the continuous personal harassment of Dr Shirani Bandaranayake. When the judiciary was suffocated, the prospects for human rights became bleak and bleak, the grievances accumulating without legal redress whether it was freedom of expression or the freedom of the journalists. The harassment of journalists continued unassailed particularly in the North. The torture in police custody increased as figures shown by the Human Rights Commission.

The major human rights event in the year in the South undoubtedly was the Weliweriya incidents and the shooting in August. It was an incident related to the environmental protection that we have highlighted at the beginning in this article and in this case the ground water pollution, whatever is the actual reason. It was admirable that the people protested without being submissive like in most of the other cases of rights violations. The event also revealed the heavy weight of the armed forces, and the defence establishment, in the present state apparatus, without allowing the civilian issues to be handled by the police.

Weliweriya could have been an eye opener for those who cannot understand the adverse consequences of the heavy presence of the armed forces in the North. There is a parallel. But unfortunately it was not apparently the case because of the ethnic prejudices of the majority of the people. It also should be an eye opener for the armed forces itself. As a professional army, it should refrain from interfering in administrative or civilian matters in the North and point out that to the higher political authorities. I remember some army officers very clearly expressing the view during the failed peace process, and even before, that their task was only defence and it is up to the politicians to resolve the ethnic conflict.

The year 2013 also marked some positive developments. The holding of the Northern Provincial Council election in September was one. The holding of the CHOGM in November and the interaction with the other Commonwealth leaders was another, although some on the other side missed the golden opportunity and some wagged their fingers unnecessarily. All in all it was good. It was during this time that the President promised to investigate the ‘war crime’ allegations. Now it is up to him to ‘walk the talk’ pending the Human Rights Council sessions in March.

Following the holding of the NPC elections, it is of paramount importance that the government allows that Provincial Council to function properly without interference through the Governor or the military. There is no question that the government has improved considerable infrastructure and initiated some development projects particularly through the Ministry of Economic Development. That is the main message of the President for this New Year, unfortunately without any mention of reconciliation. There is no doubt that development, if properly done, is fulfilment of human rights. But that to happen, especially in the case of the Northern and the Eastern provinces, the people’s participation should be there. That could only come through the Provincial Councils and their elected representatives and not from selected individuals on a political basis.

In the New Year, the government should prove that it is serious about its declared policy of reconciliation. There is one symbolic gesture that it can do even before the March human rights sessions. That is to resolve the prevailing ambiguity on the language issue of the national anthem. Sri Lanka undoubtedly has been one of the few countries that allowed the bilingual singing of the national anthem in both Sinhalese and Tamil since 1951. There are many countries now following perhaps Sri Lanka’s example. Even after Sinhala became the only official language in 1956, the practice continued without interference. But the present government, whatever the reason, put this policy into jeopardy in December 2010 while both Sinhala and Tamil are official languages since 1987.

The inconsistency and vacillation of the government on reconciliation are amply demonstrated by this ambiguous policy, irrespective of the LLRC recommendation on the subject. After the formation of the NPC, the Chief Minister has reinstated the custom, by rightfully singing the national anthem in Tamil in the Northern Province. They also hoist the national flag without any qualm. These were not the practices during the LTTE times. The government should now reciprocate without procrastinating. Otherwise, the prophecy of Colvin R. de Silva might prove even in this case. When what he said is rephrased it might read as follows.

National anthem in one language, two nations; national anthem in two languages, one nation.

My suggestion for the national anthem this New Year would be little more than having it in two languages or two lyrics. It might be akin to what Minister A. L. M. Athaullah has apparently suggested during the Cabinet discussions in December 2010. That is to have in one text but in both languages; one verse in Sinhala, then the next in Tamil. In this way both communities should be able to sing the national anthem also in the other’s language.

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