Ethnic Reconciliation Facing Jeopardy

recociliation-peace-and-warBy R.Hariharan:                                                                      

No one shall be liable to be tried or punished again for an offence for which he has already been finally convicted or acquitted in accordance with the law and penal procedure of each country.~ International Covenant on civil and political rights, Article 14(7)

To say many Sri Lankans who voted President Maithripala Sirisena-Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe combine to power are disappointed with its performance to provide good governance would be repeating a cliché. But that would be ignoring the magnitude of the twin tasks of promoting ethnic reconciliation and restructuring governance. It requires dismantling empire of sleaze and corruption that had come into existence during President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s rule for over nine years which thrived upon structural weaknesses and ethnic animosities.

The Australian journalist Greg Bearup has quoted JC Weliamuna, chairman of the Presidential Taskforce on the Recovery of Stolen Assets describing the task as “incredibly complex” that would take time and international cooperation.

And the jerry-built grand coalition of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and its arch political rival the United National Party (UNP) in power may not be the ideal instrument to dismantle the institutionalised corruption in Sri Lanka’s body politics to prevent the rise of another leader who could use it to his advantage. But that is what people of Sri Lanka have voted for as both President Sirisena and PM Wickremesinghe had shown rare unity of purpose in defeating Mahinda with the promise to deliver upon two seamlessly connected reforms: structural reforms to promote clean governance and enduring ethnic reconciliation.

The 26-year long episodic wars Sri Lanka fought the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), till President Rajapaksa eliminated it in May 2009, is a testimony for the failure of the State and the nation to promote both structural reforms and ethnic reconciliation.

However, ethnic reconciliation between Sinhalas, Tamils and Muslims is perhaps more important as the nation cannot afford to sacrifice two generations of progress and over 150,000 lives lost in the civil war all over again. Without a viable and equitable constitutional structure, ethnic reconciliation is not possible.

In spite of many built-in political handicaps and ponderous process of parliamentary democracy, the work on producing a new constitution has made some progress. The Steering Committee has received the six-sub committees constituted for making recommendations to the constituent assembly in the areas of fundamental rights, judiciary, finance, law and order, public service and the all important centre-periphery relations.

Each one of these areas, particularly the centre-periphery relations, has the potential to divide and delay the process due to the entrenched prejudices encouraging divisive politics among Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim constituencies, faithfully reflected in national politics. It is imperative for the parliament, conscious of its historic responsibility, to accommodate most of the aspirations of all sections of the people. Failure to do so would put the clock back and snuff out even the few positive steps taken so far on national ethnic reconciliation.

To achieve unity of purpose, the leadership has to evolve strategies to handle social and political fallout of its actions, stoked by Rajapaksa loyalists which are already showing up. Most disturbing is the revival of the activities of the notorious anti-Muslim outfit – the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), an extreme right wing Sinhala Buddhist organization. Its leaders spewing venom are again finding space in national stage.

Recently the BBS leader Galagoda Atte Gnasara threatened launch attacks on Muslims “to settle the issue with stones, poles and blood” if the police did not arrest and deport Abdul Razik, secretary of the radical Muslim outfit Thowheed Jama’at (SLTJ), as “Sinhalese were getting attacked in Colombo.” He was reacting to the arrest of Dan Priyasad who calls himself the ‘Saviour of the Sinhalese’ after he made several statements threatening to bomb Muslims in the country, including the members of the SLTJ. It is significant that the Muslim community itself has condemned the activities of SLTJ.

Apart from allegations of fraud in 2005 presidential election and human rights aberrations during the Rajapaksa regime, investigations into some of the major cases involving the Rajapaksa clan have reached an advanced stage. Yoshitha, a naval officer and former president Rajapaksa’s son, was arrested in January 2016 over allegations of siphoning off millions of dollars of government money to a sports business owned by the family.

His name has also come up in the reinvestigation of the case of Wasim Thajudeen, national rugby icon, found dead in his burnout car in May 2012 which was apparently hushed up by the police intervention at the highest level suppressing evidence pointing to murder. The involvement of military intelligence has also been revealed in the investigations.

Yositha’s elder brother Namal is being investigated in a number of cases of alleged money laundering. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the all powerful defence secretary and brother of president Rajapaksa, is facing a $130 million dollar corruption case in an armoury business run by the Sri Lanka navy during his term in office. He is also suspected to be involved in the murder of Lasantha Wickrematunge, editor of the Sunday Leader, who was to appear in a defamation case to substantiate Gotabaya’s alleged corrupt deals in arms procurement.

Investigations in this case also has revealed the involvement of military intelligence officers at the highest level. Basil, former president’s brother and minister for economic development during Rajapaksa days, has also been arrested a number of times on charges of corruption, financial irregularity and misuse of office.

Former president’s cousin Jaliya Wickramasuriya has been arrested for accepting a commission of $245, 000 while serving as the country’s ambassador in the US. Another cousin of Mahinda, Udayanga Weeratunga, who served as Sri Lankan ambassador to the Russian Federation for nine years, has been absconding for long after the Ukraine government accused him of selling arms to the rebels.

It is important to bring to book those found guilty in these cases for the government to regain the trust deficit of the people, particularly minorities, democratic processes which has now been completely eroded.

To sum up, time is running out for the ruling coalition to speed up the processes for finalising a new constitutional framework and promoting national ethnic reconciliation. As these are mutually reinforcing imperatives to live up to the peoples’ expectations, the ruling coalition leadership should bury their internal differences to prevent other political priorities from stalling the processes, using entrenched ethnic prejudices in the communities. Otherwise the nation would be dissipating the gains of ushering in peace after making huge sacrifices to bring the Eelam wars to a successful close. (Colombo Telegraph)

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