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FROM POST-WAR TO POST-CONFLICT Reconciliation is pivotal

2013 Jun 18

By Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu

At the outset, I want to make what I consider is an important distinction in terms of the situation we are in.  The distinction is between a post–war situation and a post-conflict one.  Whilst we are in a post-war situation- the guns having fallen silent following the military defeat of the LTTE – I do not think we are in a post-conflict one, defined in terms of one in which the roots of conflict are not being sustained and certainly not being reproduced.  My concern is that the trajectory of developments, since May 2009, has largely been in the direction of the sustenance and reproduction of the roots of conflict.

Clarification with regard to the idea of reconciliation is also in order.  Here my views are largely influenced by the work of Lederach on Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societies.  Reconciliation from this perspective entails a pre-existing relationship in need of repair. Those in the relationship must therefore want to repair it.This entails encounters at a number of levels of interaction and most importantly the need to acknowledge the truth of what has happened – knowing is not enough; acknowledgement is necessary.  Finally, reconciliation must be grounded in a shared vision of the future.   Interdependence is crucial.

It is clear that not everyone in the polity will subscribe to the above – the need to repair the relationship between the people, who inhabit the country, the need for acknowledgement of what has happened and of a shared vision of the future.  Indeed there are those who for ethnic and/or ideological reasons argue that all that has happened proves that reconciliation is not possible and those who believe that reconciliation entails reconciling to the military victory on the ground – no more –no less.

The action of the current regime indicate to me that its notion of reconciliation is basically acceptance of the military victory, forgetting the past to proceed with centralised economic development which in turn is not grounded in a perspective of rights.   A populist authoritarian dynastic project founded on a majoritarian ideology and underpinned by militarisation and centralised economic development is the order of the day.  Rights are at best irrelevant and at worst subversive; economics is to trump politics.

I want to suggest to you that there was and I hope still is, a vision of Sri Lanka, shared though not in fullest measure, since independence, of a multi-ethnic and multi-religious formal, albeit flawed, democracy founded on notions of constitutionalism, the rule of law and on checks and balances on the exercise of executive authority and power.  Never realised in full, it was in a state of becoming - some would argue that even that part of it that was realised was always under challenge and that as much as the realisation of that vision was in a state of becoming it was also in a state of unravelling.   

This vision in now under grave and serious threat as never before, in my opinion.  The threat arises from institutionalised militarisation, near total state capture and the collapse of the rule of law and increasing religious intolerance.  They combine to ensure that we are not a civilised or decent society in the definition laid out by the Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit – where institutions do not humiliate citizens and citizens do not humiliate each other.

I do not propose to enumerate these threats in detail but to highlight a few.   I am sure that most of you must be aware that as we speak over three thousand of our fellow citizens from the North have filed cases in the Court of Appeal against the acquisition of their land by the military – over six thousand acres are being acquired affecting some nine thousand land owners.  This is happening in Jaffna but it has happened and is happening elsewhere in the North and East in what surely is the biggest land “grab” in the country and responded to by the largest number of citizens as petitioners before the Court of Appeal.  

I happened to be in Jaffna when this was taking place and was part of a group including the President of the Bar Association of Jaffna, lawyers and a young man, who had the deeds to his land.  He had been born in the early 1990s and wanted to see the house where he had been born in.   

" There are a number of cases where the Attorney General has failed to indict and where indictments have been withdrawn.  From petty crimes to egregious human rights violations and the allegations of war crimes to corruption, impunity for regime insider, stalwart and apparatchik holds sway.  Ordinary citizens, however are subjected to the full force of punitive sanction and often brutally so as the cases of custodial torture demonstrate. "

Under the law, section 2 notices informing of the acquisition of the land and for a “public purpose” have to be posted so that appeals if any can be made.  I saw these on posts and on the trunks of trees.  The group I was with and the young man in particular were not allowed entry by the military.  We were told that they would only be taken along the perimeter of the area that was being acquired!  From subsequent inquiry I have learnt that the building has commenced on this land for military cantonments and for hotels and even a golf course!  

Land grabbing aside, the military is involved in the economy- from growing vegetables to running boutiques and hotels and restaurants and in effect taking land as well as jobs from civilians.  They tell school children the language in which they should sing the national anthem and most recently one of their ranks pronounced on what constitutes “acceptable” mourning!  

Militarisation is most acutely felt in the North and East- ex military personnel are governors and government agents in these provinces -but it is not exclusive to these two provinces. The military induct school principals as brevet colonels in the cadet corps – higher ranks are to follow- they take care of the security at universities and host leadership training courses for university entrants.  Militarisation is also a mindset – one that is most powerfully subscribed to by civilians along the classic fascist lines of appreciation for ensuring “the trains run on time”.  

 The sham of the impeachment in effect completed state capture.   Once an executive friendly judiciary pronounced unfavourably on regime policy it incurred the wrath of the regime and in flagrant violation of the basic norms of natural justice, not to mention the simple fact that the apex courts of the country have declared the impeachment illegal and unconstitutional.  Due process was unceremoniously flung out of the window – even the motion in parliament finally voted on was that for constituting the select committee!

Impeachment of the Chief Justice aside, the collapse of the rule of law has been marked by the all pervasive culture of impunity – those associated with the regime are effectively exempt from indictment and prosecution as the cases involving politicians and political patronage attest, irrespective of whether the offence involves the use of firearms or sexual assault.  There are a number of cases where the Attorney General has failed to indict and where indictments have been withdrawn.  From petty crimes to egregious human rights violations and the allegations of war crimes to corruption, impunity for regime insider, stalwart and apparatchik holds sway.  Ordinary citizens, however are subjected to the full force of punitive sanction and often brutally so as the cases of custodial torture demonstrate.  

Where is the categorical denunciation of this politics of hurt and harm and hate from the government of the day and from the principal political parties? Who will provide the necessary alternative to the damaging majoritarianism of the day?  It would seem that the principal opposition party, the UNP, hyper–sensitive to charges of being insufficiently patriotic and of the need to win majority community votes in greater numbers, has shied away from this task and allowed itself to be seen to be close to the Mahinda Chinthanaya, in this respect.  In the Tamil polity, whilst differences of approach and opinion persist, it is the case that no major political formation publicly espouses secession.  

What is fundamental though in the community in the context of reconciliation, and I have encountered this time and time again, is the pivotal importance of the acknowledgement of what happened to them – of their going to hell and back.  Political representation of the Muslim community seems unfortunately to be relatively silent.

 The point I want to flag is the regime’s positing of economic development as the panacea for reconciliation and unity.  Forget the past and move forward into the future on the economic bandwagon seems to be the message with all its attendant delusions of substituting politics with economics – development designed and implemented by the centre with the people it affects most directly as hapless bystanders.  There are those though who subscribe to this and who believe that we as a polity cannot afford the boisterous indiscipline of liberal democracy over the homogenising control and discipline of majoritarian, populist authoritarianism under the dynastic project.

What is the alternative to the current orthodoxy? One that will secure the ethical future of the title of this conference?  
I submit to you that the liberal democratic vision of this country with all its shortcomings, still remains that alternative – a multi-ethnic, multi-religious Sri Lanka with a political and constitutional architecture that accommodates the rich diversity of all of its peoples and a complementary political culture that animates it.
In this sense, the ethical future, I envision, is indeed a return to the future.

(The article is an excerpt from a talk given by Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, Executive Director Centre for Policy Alternatives at the ICES conference on
Ethical Futures recently.)

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