The Sunday Leader

Revisiting Reconciliation

By N. Sathiya Moorthy

President Maithripala Sirisena meeting the Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, Nisha Biswal in Colombo

The ‘National Government’ has done well to get the UNHRC off the nation’s back for a second time since President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe took office in January. US Assistant Secretary of State, Nisha Biswal’s recent Colombo announcement that the US would move a resolution at the UNHRC September session in Geneva, for Sri Lanka to proceed with the ongoing domestic probe into war-time ‘accountability issues’, is based on the international community’s (read: West) faith in the continuing ‘credibility’ of the Sirisena- Wickremesinghe leadership.

Various factors might have influenced the US in declaring that it would move a resolution to the effect in UNHRC’s September session. It would be the second time, after the March session, that the US and the rest of the West would be giving a long rope to Sri Lanka’s new leadership on the much-publicized ‘probe report’ of an international investigation, which was completed months ago. Only weeks after President Maithripala Sirisena’s January election, they found sense in ‘new’ Sri Lanka’s call for time to study the situation and circumstances as they existed at the time.

Definitely there is an element of genuineness in the US approach after the twin-poll results. The US and the rest need to give the new government time at least until they had settled down. The composition of the new government has become more complex and naturally complicated than in January. The stability based on majority-support PM Wickremesinghe cannot be left to chance as on the earlier occasion, as there was a definite commitment to early parliamentary polls. In Third World, South Asian conditions, all of it takes time.

Two, for right reasons and/or wrong, the international community felt vexed by the commitments of the predecessor Rajapaksa government, which they felt had not been kept. They felt that Sri Lanka was shifting the goal-posts, first on ‘political reconciliation’ and later on ‘accountability issues’ – but in that order. There was a hue and cry about overall human rights situation even before the ‘ethnic war’ had ended in May 2009, based on which alone the European Union, for instance, had threatened to withdraw GSP-Plus export facility for Sri Lanka.

The EU also moved a resolution in the UNHRC, which came up for vote just 10 days after the conclusion of the war. The session found that UNHRC did not have the stomach for such sweeping condemnation of Sri Lanka after it had wiped out LTTE terrorism. In context, the unlikely allies in India, Pakistan and China succeeded in promoting a pro-Sri Lanka resolution, which got carried through without much effort.

Of equal and more important was the fact that most non-NATO allies of the US in the UNHRC did not have the stomach to vote for a resolution for ‘independent probe’ even in March 2014, when they did – This one for ‘Uncle Sam’. India stuck to its principled position against ‘interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign State’ and stayed away. Now with the American ‘anchor’ in the ‘Rajapaksa credibility-gap’ gone away almost for good, the Afro-Asian bloc might have found reason and justification not to vote on any resolution flowing from the probe report.


‘Sweet nothings’

As written-down diplomatic initiatives of the kind go, the US draft would be carefully read for what it says, what it does not say and what it hides. ‘Credibility’ could be the operative watch-word and ‘catch-word’ at the same time. It could cut both ways if and when the new government’s honey-moon with the international community got over. The success, some in Colombo might think, was in staying on the honeymoon-mode as long as possible.

If it entailed offering ‘sweet nothings’ to the West there could be trouble of the ‘Rajapaksa variety’, over the medium and longer terms. As PM Ranil indicated in a recent interview to India-based newspaper ‘The Hindu’, Sri Lanka cannot be seen as ‘ditching’ China all-round. In a way, China is a guarantor, hedge and ‘all-weather’ friend that Sri Lanka has always kept in the reserve, more so in the post-Cold War era.

The question is how to infuse greater and continued ‘credibility’ into the ongoing domestic probe, initiated incidentally by the Rajapaksa regime. Stretching the imagination (rather too far), it could also be mischievously read as the new Sri Lankan leadership ‘over-seeing’, though not influencing and interfering with the commission’s work. With the UN probe report already in the UNHRC lockers, if not on the table, the question remains if the domestic probe would be bench-marked against what was already in hand.

That’s also how the Sri Lankan State and the domestic probe lost part of the ‘credibility’ that the international community had conferred on it, also for want of a choice ahead of the 2012-13 UNHRC resolutions. They bench-marked everything that the Sri Lankan government said and did – or, did not say and did not do – against the ‘Darusman report’, intended to be an ‘internal input’ for the UN Chief.

Questions were raised even then how the UN bureaucracy could commission an ‘independent report’ of the kind when the job was generally left to the UN officials on the scene – and/or by a home office team, when the earlier one was found wanting in details, etc. A credibility-gap was found in the UN report from the scene, but did that make the ‘secrecy’ shrouding the Darusman report any better.

The ultimate ‘insult and/or injury’ to Sri Lanka and Sri Lankan processes might have come from what looked a deliberate leak of the Darusman Report, and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon forwarding the same to UNHRC as ‘source material’ for all that followed. Going by media reports since, Ban’s own South Korea was said to have had problems voting with the US on the 2014 resolution for an ‘independent probe.


Cutting both ways

The Sirisena- Wickremesinghe duo could thank the UNHRC for having finished the ‘independent, international probe’ before they had come to power. The blame thus for allowing/not-allowing the probe team to visit Sri Lanka and hold ‘independent’, in-camera sessions with the Tamil victims on the ‘accountability’ had thus fallen on the Rajapaksa leadership. That the probe is said to have relied on the submissions of some of the victims, ‘smuggled out’ overseas, is a different matter.

Given the mood and methods of the Tamils at the time – or, possibly even now – any government in the country would have found it an extremely difficult to let an ‘international probe’ team to meet with those that would have blamed it all squarely on the nation’s armed forces and the war-time leadership(s). Yet, in seeking to infuse credibility in the international community, the  new leadership should consider if it should take up isolated cases of ‘individual disappearances’ and link them to individual soldiers and their officers. It could not stop there. It could cut both ways.

It is unclear how the US and the rest of the international community hopes to convince the ‘victimised Tamils’ back home on the proposed resolution – and its after-shocks on the community, nearer home and afar. The TNA would find it difficult, too, to tell the Tamils that they had won and that the Sirisena presidency in particular, and backed by PM Wickremesinghe otherwise, would keep the expectations and anticipation of the Tamils.

That the duo had not made any specific commitments on the ‘accountability issues’ in particular goes without saying. Needless to point out that the forgotten – but not forgettable – 18 rounds of talks between the TNA and the Rajapaksa government faltered on the altar of the party’s expediency. Though the government leadership handled the talks exit crudely, it was also said to have been based on the TNA’s claims that the 2012 US resolution at UNHRC owed to their insistence and persistence.

The government possibly found it untenable to allow the TNA lay claims to such positions on the one hand and to work on a negotiated settlement, on the other. Neither was linked to the other, and any successful conclusion of the power-devolution negotiations need not have led to any ‘closure’ on the UNHRC front. It remains to be seen if the US too continues to hold a similar position, though at one stage separation of the kind seemed to have been the American preference over those of its European allies.



The Tamils have done themselves and the TNA proud by rejecting hard-line positions, including that was purportedly read into the pre-poll statements of Northern Province Chief Minister, Justice C. V. Wigneswaran. It has increased the burden on the TNA, too, but there again there is no clarity on what was expected of the party – just has been the case with the ‘Sinhala duo’, both in the immediate community context and the larger Sri Lankan context(s).

The problem with more recent elections of the kind in South Asia in particular pertains to the non-definition of roles that the voters have given their new leaderships. India’s is also a point just now. The successful social media perception, and voter-condemnation of the party and leader in power has also had the power to turn what essentially was a traditional anti-incumbency vote into one specifically favouring the Opposition party and/or leader(s) at the time.

In the process, the vocal and vociferous Opposition was seen as the anti-thesis and antidote to all that the voter presumed that the leadership of the day represented – corruption, nepotism, high-handedness and non-governance or mal-governance and more. Without promising specific actions against the wrong-doing of the incumbent, or initiatives of the most different kind all-round, they have since come to power. It stops there.

The burden on the new government in Sri Lanka, as elsewhere, thus owe to the aspirations and expectations of the voter(s), which is at times subjective and all the time individualistic after a point. Where the voter’s aspiration ends and where the new government’s promises begin is unclear as yet. The tentativeness of the entire process and consequent approach have consequences for the ruler, the ruled and the nation that they share and represent.

In the case of the TNA, they need to refit the post-poll tentativeness of the new government – which is firm on expectations and unclear as yet on the approach – to their own people’s aspirations. The leadership-divide just now too does not help until they all find new roles for them all in the changed circumstances. While the party did not say much on ‘accountability issues’, its poll manifesto demand(s) for an on ‘federalism’ could be the benchmark against which they would be measured and tested.

The Sirisena- Wickremesinghe duo did well to rope in the experience of and expectations from another former President Chandrika Bandaranaike-Kumaratunga, as the head of the Reconciliation Task Force, which they had set up between the two elections. By far, CBK was believed to have offered the Tamils the maximum, by far she had also obtained the maximum, recorded Tamil support for a Sinhala leader in elections to the Executive Presidency.

The trio cannot afford to be complacent. If the CBK package fell through, it owed to the hard-liner position that the LTTE represented. The latter convinced the Tamil community that CBK was as ‘evil’ as the rest of ‘em all – and sadly so, for the Tamils and the nation as a whole.  Its vexatious ways to push the CBK leadership into a political corner – with unintended support from the then UNP Opposition – meant that the government could have only hit back, militarily. It did so, and had to take more than a fair share of the consequent/consequential Tamil blame.

It does not stop there, though. Side-lined in the process of ‘national government’ formation is the Rajapaksa camp, after their leader had won anything between 43 and 38 per cent of the popular vote for them all in two elections within eight months. If not handled judiciously and a lot of circumspection, the political vacuum that a Rajapaksa exit – voluntary or forced – could create could have consequences for the nation.

It was in times like this that the then Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa found a leadership role for himself, as heading the ‘Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist’ constituency, against his own UNP President, J. R. Jayewardene. The latter had seen and done all of it in his time, but did not have the tools to handle the ‘Premadasa rebellion’ at the time. The problem even with and for a ‘massive mandate’ of the JRJ kind is that the challenge and the challenger would have to come from within. Not just Premadasa but even the ‘Karuna rebellion’ within the LTTE was also an expression of the ‘political vacuum’ theory proving itself one more time.

Despite hoping to form a government of its own five years hence, the JVP has not built the kind of ‘credibility’ that is required to win ‘Sinhala hearts and minds’ all over again. The more the government duo/trio try to win over the ‘hearts and minds of the Tamil people’, more consolidated could the converse opinion within the ‘Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist constituency’ become. Critics want to believe that Rajapaksa continues to represent this hard-liner constituency. They would then also have to acknowledge that this constituency is near-half of the nation’s electorate/population.

It is unclear as yet if the government or the US had taken the TNA into confidence on the proposed, ‘off-the-hook’ UNHRC resolution. It is also unclear if the Sirisena- Wickremesinghe duo thinks the same way on ethnic specifics and if the TNA also thinks similarly – granting that the hard-liners on either side do not have the stomach, heart and psyche to hit back. The temptation for both sides to go back to their old positions, defend them and criticise the other, is a human fallacy that they should all desist from.

It’s hard to achieve, but that also marked the greatness of nations like India, post-Independence and South Africa, post-apartheid. It’s the core value of the ‘South African model’ that the international community wants Sri Lanka to imbibe, post-war. The ‘closure’ of the ‘South African model’ flows from such a national psyche and conditioning, not merely by the likes of Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The former was the driving force, the latter a process, a process that need not succeed with a nation and a people with a different psyche, different approach and different priorities. If nothing else, the shoe in the Sri Lankan case is on the foot of the numerically strong majority community. The reverse was the case in South Africa, and the goals of the majority of the population was also better defined and implemented through and through. Sri Lanka does not have a Nelson Mandela, either in the Sinhala or Tamil communities. There is no point in shedding tears over it, either.

The government can begin by re-visiting the past negotiations with the Tamils, moderates, including the post-war TNA and the extremists, to see where they had gone and where the other side had changed only the word and not the content. The TNA too needs to re-visit the past positions, differentiate it from posturing. Both sides have the golden opportunity to begin afresh, drawing their strengths from the two mandates in eight months, and the nation cannot afford to let go off the same, now or forever.

(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email:


5 Comments for “Revisiting Reconciliation”

  1. raj

    Even after the second war ended long time ago, war criminals are still being catched and prosecuted. Without punishing those who committed war crimes against Tamils in Sri Lanka should be punished if the government is really concerned REAL RECONCILIATION. A real reconciliation will bring lasting peace in the Island of Sri Lanka.

    I am not into politics but as an ordinary citizen of the world, I have witnessed and talked to people who faced Sri Lankan’s army’s crimes . I met someone from Sri Lanka. He said said he was escaped from army’s mass execution when the army stopped Tamil passengers travelling to Colombo from Jaffna were stopped at Iraperiakulam, and asked everyone to walk toward forest area. When everyone reached the forest area, army open fired. The person I met was among them who was lying with other bodies. Army did not know he survived. After the army left he walked alone from there. It happened in 1985 under UNP government.

  2. raj

    If Sri Lanka is approved for local investigation, then it will start propoganda message aainst war crimes to make sure it loose its purpose. Sri Lankan army has committed crimes more than 20 years. Have any army been punished to those crimes? Have any army been punished burning the library of jaffna? Have anyone punished for 1983 riots against Tamils? Have anyone investiated for shelling on civilian targets during the war? Outside Sri Lanka I have seen those shelling in the video. Have anyone been punished for kidnapped and murder? It has never happen and it will never happen. Local investigation can help Sri Lankan government to cover up the war crimes by making a report that suits its needs. We need an international investigation. If there is nothing to hide, then there is no need for the government of Sri Lanka to reject international war crimes inquiry.

  3. Just Society

    “In Third World, South Asian conditions, all of it takes time.” Not necessarily bad; see what a mess that is happening in the Middle East.

    Also, one ought to know that there are no First world and the Second world. There was Capitalist world and Communist world groups when Jawaharlal Nehru, Tito and other then newly independent world leaders formed a Third Option (presumably combining the best from both) known as non-aligned nations. Legal name for Sri Lanka include phrase ‘ socialist’. Hardly relevant at any time.

    Rather regrettably, these non-aligned nations later on had been derisively and deceptively referred to as Third (rate) World — thus synonymously with developing nations or newly industrialised nations, and again regrettably very liberally used by the media and academia.

    Sri Lanka is a post-colonial nation aspiring to be stable republic with its component parts at dynamic equilibrium. Nehru designed foundation for such equilibrium in India way back in the 1950s with linguistic re-structuring which Federal Party in Ceylon was suggesting even before. Anyone can compare and contrast the effect of same.

    There are no first and 2nd nowadays and hence there shouldn’t this 3rd also. There is a significant difference between a ‘Grade 3 student’ and a third grade student.

    Politically there are only two types of nations: Stable and Unstable; and economically none.

  4. internal investigation is not valued it the communation was appointment was by the srilanka president mr Rajapaska and family. it none and voided srilanka army killed the civilian 40000 thousand civilians it must be international investigation was importment india interfere the civilian died. . ,

  5. singing fish

    Unless the perpetrators are punished in an international court,reconciliation is not at all possible.Tamils will never listen to America or India.Nobody can bias the tamil community.If there is no justice,the enmity between the communities will exist throughout.

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