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Wednesday, August 24, 2016
by Ashanthi Warunasuirya- Monday, August 22, 2016
The government passed the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) Bill in parliament recently. Before and during the process, there were heated debates about the issue in parliament and amongst society. The controversy over this the OMP is still at large. While some say that the OMP is an attempt to take certain politicians and army personnel to the gallows, some others say that it is a positive step taken towards the long sought after reconciliation between the Tamils and the Sinhalese in the country. The opponents of the OMP also say that it has been given power to surpass the country’s present law and even power to take autonomous actions in certain circumstances. But the OMP proponents say that it has no such power but just the power enough to investigate alleged crimes and persons and submit relevant reports to the superiors. Amidst this OMP controversy, The Sunday Leader sought the comments of some prominent members of society on the issue.
Brito Fernando – Chairman, Association of the Parents and Family Members of the Disappeared
Accordingly, the government took steps such as signing the UN declaration against disappearance, setting up a task force and obtaining parliament’s approval to set up an Office for Missing Personnel (OMP). These steps can be regarded as positive developments towards keeping its promise. Although the government is not moving fast in this regard, we are optimistic about the future.
Certain extremists in the South including Mahinda Rajapaksa and Vasudeva Nanayakkara are trying to disrupt these proceedings by claiming that there are attempts made to take the army to the gallows. But if Mahinda and Vasu had brought in parliament a bill in 1989 against State sponsored abductions and executions, it would be the same bill as this one. As those who backed it then are against it today, people such as Mangala Samaraweera who backed it then is backing it still. As representatives of the family members of the disappeared, we are glad about the government’s decision. There are certain lapses in this Act. Especially, as to how these findings could be linked to justice and the steps the government should take with regard to compensation. But at this instance, we will stand by the government to defeat the agenda of racists.
It would have been better if the OMP was given some more power. We would propose for a better mechanism that would make use of the information received from the people. The government has promised to set up a separate bureau for this purpose. We urge the government to implement it soon.
It is a good sign that the government had agreed to look into the disappearances that had taken place since 1971 instead of 1989. Even the Geneva report had focused on the years – 2002 – 2009. The office would also look into the disappearances of military and police officers. This is a good step towards reconciliation. I see this as a central institution that could combine all disappearances. But we must keep in mind that this is going against the will of the racist politicians in both North and South. So we must try to make the best of it. By finding out the truth behind disappearances and by punishing those responsible for them, any future atrocity could be discouraged. It is a progressive step the government has taken by criminalizing forced disappearances. It sends a strong message to those who think of protecting these culprits to retain power. Further, the apologies made by Ranil Wickeremesinghe and Chandrika Kumaratunga to portray their honesty must be admired. The promise they have given about preventing such atrocities from taking place again in the country is good news for everyone.
Pubudu Jayagoda – General Secretary, Frontline Socialist Party
Justice must be done to the disappeared. We are firm on the stance that the truth must be revealed. But we cannot be satisfied about the recent Act. The government must justify their decision to bring in new legislation after failing to execute even the existing laws. They must show the inadequacy of existing legal remedies. But instead, they have just brought in a new bill only to show off that they are committed to the task. At present Sri Lanka’s lack of democracy has been criticised by other countries. So, to secure foreign investments, the government has decided to set up this office. We see no genuine intention behind this measure in finding the truth. However, we will make complaints to this new office as well.
We have information about disappearances taken place since 1980’s. We also possess credible information about almost all the cases of disappearances taken place in Colombo and outstation areas during and after the war. After the present government assumed power, we have made hundreds of complaints about these cases. We even made a petition to the President. The government who kept mum in all those instances cannot be trusted in setting up a proper mechanism to find the truth about disappearances. So, we would continue our struggle forward. It is only by pressurizing the government we could win our demands. On the other hand, the Joint Opposition (JO) has said that the military would be betrayed by this measure. This is a joke. If that was the case, then it’s the politicians who commanded the army that has to be caught first. There may be a possibility of punishing those who had obeyed the commands while those who have given the command are set free. That is a political issue. However, we also oppose the opinion of the JO on preventing investigations into disappearances claiming that that they may affect war heroes.
However, we are strictly against the policy of the government in living off by selling the slogan that they are committed towards finding the truth. By doing these meaningless things without taking any progressive step to establish reconciliation, is only going to create more social problems in the long run. So far the government has taken no steps to change the minds of the people. We must now focus on laying down the foundation to future reconciliation. If the government tries to aggravate racism, that is going to be disadvantageous. We need a mechanism that is different from ordinary legislation. We are committed towards creating a social dialogue on the subject. We see no judicial powers vested on this entity. It is just another ‘investigative body’.
Sandya Eknaligoda – Disappeared Journalist Prageeth Eknaligoda’s Wife
But there are several structural weaknesses in this system. Especially there is no space for the victims in this mechanism. We asked the government to consider the problems of these victims under this mechanism. But the entity that has been set up t cannot do anything helpful for the victims such as family members of the disappeared.
This is the beginning of a new institute. The appointments would be carried out by the President and duties for the office as well. The office and its officials would be given adequate authority. But still there is no judicial action or a compensation mechanism included in this Act. The only thing this office can do is to summon the witnesses and carrying out investigations. I have not studied this act thoroughly. But prima facie I see these lapses.
Still there is no clear idea as to what is going to happen after the investigation phase. So it is important to include the victims in this mechanism. In a country where literally nothing was done on this issue for many years, setting up this office is indeed a progressive step. What is important is to sustain this momentum.
Unfortunately, we were able to take part in the discussions only once before it was passed in parliament. Most of our suggestions have not been considered. We have clearly emphasized that the name should be changed to ‘forces disappearances’ as there are no voluntary disappearances in this problem. It is also important to look into cases that had taken place even before the war.
Ruki Fernando – Human Rights Activist
The main objective of this office for the disappeared is to find out the truth about these people. Since over a hundred thousand people have disappeared, finding out the truth and informing their families the truth is essential. Without doing that, we cannot have good hopes about the future.
But unfortunately I’m not yet clear about the structural format of this institute. As parliament has approved, the entity would consist of 7 members. They are to be given equal status of commissioners. Under their supervision, investigations are to be held into various issues such as mass graves and protecting the victims. It is also allowed to seek expert advice on the issue.
Knowing the truth is expected by all family members of these disappeared people. It is equally important to compensate these victims. In many a case, bread winner of the family disappeared. So the government has a responsibility to care for these family members as well.
Keerthi Tennakoon – Executive Director, CaFFE
The basic structure and management concept of this mechanism has to be admired. This is going to execute a task that the people much yearned for many years. We strongly believe that this would be able to cater something positive unlike the previous government’s attempts. What we must not forget is that it is not only the Tamils in the North that have suffered disappearances. It is common to many Sinhala and Muslim families as well. It may be true that the most number of complaints about disappearances have been made by the Tamils. But there have been a lot of complaints made by other ethnic groups especially in Batticaloa and Vavuniya Districts. So justice must be equal to all.
Finding out the truth is an important aspect of any civilised society. People have a right to know the truth. For that, we must have a mechanism to find out the truth. Those who talk about truth, hardly know about it. It is only after knowing the truth, we could decide whether to punish the wrongdoers or not. So, it is clear that the government has taken the first step towards justice, although it was long overdue. But we must be patient to see what happens next.
It is reported that the renowned senior journalist Mandana Ismail Abeywickrema, the current editor of the Sunday Leader newspaper has been appointed yesterday, the 22nd instant as the Chairman of the Peoples Power Media (Pvt Ltd) Company under whose purview the controversial week end newspaper :Sathhanda” is published.
Northern Provincial Council Member representing the Mullaitivu District Thurairaja Raviharan said during the war period Mullaitivu and Kilinochchi Districts were totally cut-off from government administration. But after the war the lands that had permits were converted to lands with deeds and new ownership was created during the Rajapaksa regime. However, the original ownership was ignored.
Following are excerpts:
What exactly is the controversy regarding the Buddhist Temple in Kokkilai? There are allegations that you have threatened the Chief Incumbent of the temple, what is your justification?
A: I don’t have any necessity to cause threat to the Chief Incumbent of the temple. I have evidence that there were no Sinhala settlements in the Mullaitivu District; only after 1981, according to a gazette notification, were some people from the South settled in the area. Thus it is evident there were no Sinhala people in the Mullaitivu District and they have just made settlements in the 1980s. Even the gazette notification states that they were settled in Kokkilai.
Therefore, those who have built the Vihara in Kokkilai cannot argue that there was one before that in the area. I also have the deed of the land where the Buddhist Temple had been built in Kokkilai. The owner of the land is one Somasundaram Thirugnanasampanthar. Now he isn’t living anymore but it belongs to his son
Thirugnanasampanthar Manivannathas. After resettlement in 2010, he was not permitted to enter his own land; instead a Buddhist monk had illegally grabbed his land. This Buddhist monk had obtained the security of the Army at the Kokkilai camp.
There were fences around the land of Manivannathas, but that was removed and the land was illegally grabbed by the Chief Incumbent of the said Buddhist temple.
Therefore, in the initial stages when the construction activities of the Vihara was taking place I went to the area to speak to the Chief Incumbent but each time I was given excuses. I actually went there to explain the situation that the majority living in the Kokkilai area are Tamil families. They are either Hindus or Catholics. They are strictly against the building of the Vihara in this area. Will they allow building a Kovil or a Church in the Southern parts where there aren’t any Hindus or Christians? This is unfair by those who have been traditionally living in Kokkilai. The specific area where the Vihara is situated belongs to four owners and it is four acres in extent. Each acre belongs to each of them. One acre belongs to the Kokkilai Rural Hospital. However, the hospital authorities had been silent since 2011; but the private owners are very much worried and unhappy that their lands have been taken under control by the Vihara authorities. The private owners are living in alternative shelters and huts. They were not allowed to resettle in their lands since the later part of 2010.
There is no development in this issue. Even the State authorities who are aware of the land laws are keeping silent. It is their duty to intervene and help the innocent land owners who have been living in alternative places during the past years. The Vihara area does not have any Buddhist families living in the vicinity. There are some fisherman families who are living near the Kokkilai Lagoon; they have come from the South for livelihood. However, they are Catholics and it is quite puzzling as to why a Vihara should be built in this area?
I’m not talking racism, this is a burning issue. We must solve this issue for the people of the area who had been traditionally living there as they are unhappy that the Vihara is built in private lands. How could it be racism if I happen to speak of the actual situation?
You have continuously stressed on illegal colonization in the Mullaitivu District at the NPC debates. What exactly is the current situation?
A: A new area ‘Weli Oya’ had been created with a new Divisional Secretariat in the Mullaitivu District. The existing divisions in the Mullaitivu District are Maritimepattu, Puthukudiyiruppu, Oddusuddan, Thunukkai and Manthai East. If we examine the information provided at the Mullaitivu District Secretariat regarding the new area that was created, we will not see any demarcated boundaries. Weli Oya is simply not demarcated into boundaries; however it is a newly created settlement.
Accordingly, the Weli Oya Division was created without any official announcement. Certain areas from Vavuniya North (mostly the Southern part of Vavuniya North Division) had been attached to the Weli Oya area. However, earlier these areas were part of the Anuradhapura District. In 1981 many land acquisition activities took place under the 1,000 acres project, Kent Farm project and Dollar Farm project. These acquisitioned lands were taken to create the Weli Oya Division. People from the South were brought to this area for settlement. Some 2,524 acres of paddy lands from Kokkilai, Kokkuthoduvai and Karunattankerni of 601 beneficiaries were given to the people settled in the newly created division of Weli Oya during former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s regime in the post war period. Land deeds have been distributed to the people who were settled in Weli Oya with the signature of former President Rajapaksa. Not only Weli Oya, but there are, other areas too, in which some illegal settlements are taking place, but Weli Oya is the highlighted area.
?: You and your colleagues at the NPC have continuously made allegations against the southern fishermen who enter the Kokkilai Langoon area for livelihood. However, there are reports that these fishermen have been traditionally fishing in the area. What is justification for your allegation?
A: About 20 acres of land near the lagoon area belong to the Tamil families in the division. They are the owners of these private lands. The ‘Paadus'( huts) in the lagoon area to store fish, belongs to 11 Tamil fishermen in the area, according to the gazette published in 1965. Only one Paadu belonged to a fisherman from the South. He had been a businessman who had come to the area and he is quite influential. However, currently the southern fishermen are obtaining direct permission from the line Ministry to enter the lagoon. If so what is the use in having a Fisheries Department at district level and the Provincial Fisheries Ministry? Currently all Paadus are taken over by the fishermen from the South, and the Tamil fishermen families who have traditionally lived in the area are unable to carry on their livelihood activities.
The World Bank has announced that Mullaitivu is the poorest district in Sri Lanka. The reasons are that Mullaitivu is mainly based on fisheries, therefore there are many obstacles to the livelihood of Tamil fishermen; similarly there are illegal colonizations taking place and the resources are not utilized properly.
In the initial stages after the war these fishermen from the South were just involved in seasonal fishing but gradually they permanently settled in the area which has adversely affected the Tamil fishermen. Where will they go for livelihood?
They were initially working under the 11 owners who control the Paadus. In the current context around 200 fishermen families in Kokkilai have requested for lands and houses which had been illegally grabbed. Therefore, I would like to question if, the gazette issued in 1981 is just another piece of paper?
Why do you think Mullaitivu has the highest number of land issues?
A: During the past 30 years land issues have not been addressed properly. Most of the lands in the district only have permits. Proper documentation has been ignored and therefore those who want to grab lands are just making use of it and the security forces are providing security to the illegal land grabbers.
During the war period Mullaitivu and Kilinochchi Districts were totally cut-off from government administration. But after the war the lands that had permits were converted to land deeds and new ownership was created during the Rajapaksa regime under his signature. The original ownership was ignored. I vehemently condemn this action.
As I said earlier they have created the Weli Oya division in which the lands of Tamil farmers were grabbed. These farmers were carrying on agriculture as their livelihood. The creation of Weli Oya has created a lot of trouble for these farmers. Their lands have been grabbed for the new settlement during the previous regime.
Even the Mahaweli Development Scheme is another plan to make the Tamil people of Mullaitivu District a minority. The majority community will become the majority even in Mullativu.
The families in Weli Oya could have remained under the Anuradhapura District. Grabbing the lands of Mullaitivu paddy cultivators and settling the people of the South is illegal and why haven’t any of the current authorities understood the situation? Why haven’t they understood the grievances of the Mullaitivu people?
These colonization activities will not end here and it will even continue to occur for another five to ten years. We are aware that similar activities are now being carried out in the Nayaru area.
Tell us about the five-member medical committee appointed by the Northern Chief Minister to examine the chemical injection issue of former LTTE cadres?
A: It is a known fact that the LTTE cadres emphasized at the sittings of the Consultation Task Force on Reconciliation that they were injected chemicals during the rehabilitation process and about the complex health situations faced by them since recently and some have died due to mysterious diseases, which are still unknown. Some suspect it is cancer and others are clueless.
However, the NPC has appointed a five-member committee to conduct a medical survey with experts from the Northern Health Ministry, Jaffna Teaching Hospital and the Medical Faculty of the Jaffna University. I hope this committee will be able to solve the confusions faced by families of former LTTE cadres.
Tuesday, 23 August 2016
It is nearly 70 years since independence. Sri Lanka has been governed by many green, blue, blue intertwined with red governments, and now by a green and blue Government. The constitutions have changed to a Republican framework dropping all links with the former colonial rulers and the British crown. The economic policies enforced over this period have reflected links to capitalism, market, socialism, mixed, middle path and now social market.
Have any of these governance regimes and policy frameworks addressed the needs and aspirations of those at the bottom of the pyramid? Despite statistics, Central Bank and Census data, glossy publications, international presentations, policy statements, budget speeches, media communications and leadership pronouncements in Parliament; and publicly before and after elections, have the bottom segment of society been effectively touched?
Despite published GDP per capita numbers, enhancing household incomes, acceptable gini-coefficients, better regional distribution of incomes, improving numbers on poverty statistics, reducing unemployment, and high level achievements in meeting Millennium Development Goals, the answer appears to be a definite “No”.
The above conclusion is drawn by following the findings supported by recorded evidence in TV pictures, derived under the Capital Maharajah News 1st ‘Gammadda – Geying Geta 2016’ report, prepared in collaboration with the University of Peradeniya. This report has been prepared by visiting 738 villages in the country covering all districts and identifying the pivotal issues, hidden below the surface, confronted by the communities in the respective areas.
The common thread that appears to run through these segments of society, equally across the island, appears to be that their needs and aspirations have not been recognised and prioritised by the State, due to the villagers being powerless and voiceless; and being unfocussed by all levels of persons in governance (village, pradeshiya, local government and district level). The only focused attention appears to emerge closer to elections, where promises and commitments are freely given; but never honoured post elections
Three main issuesThe three main issues identified related to;
- below acceptable level infrastructure, with the lack of connectivity and access via bridges and village roads to towns where education, health, other services and market opportunities are available
- Water problems dominated the next major hidden issue, with the lack of clean drinking water and water for irrigation and household consumption being major demands in all provinces
- Lack of opportunities for generation livelihoods supportive incomes sufficient for basic sustenance was the next major issue. The lack of markets for produce, lack of financial capacity for even home garden cultivation activities and in some cases the total lack of opportunities for young and old and especially female householders, to engage in economic activities were key constraints
The common thread that appears to run through these segments of society, equally across the island, appears to be that their needs and aspirations have not been recognised and prioritised by the State, due to the villagers being powerless and voiceless; and being unfocussed by all levels of persons in governance (village, pradeshiya, local government and district level). The only focused attention appears to emerge closer to elections, where promises and commitments are freely given; but never honoured post elections.
It appears from news reports that the Gammadda Report and its findings have been duly communicated to the authorities in governance at the Centre, but their response actions have not been forthcoming. From news reports it appears that only the President has reacted positively to the findings and come out openly in support of programmes delivering the needs and aspirations of these segments at the bottom of the pyramid. This has led to the News First Group organising a collective business and civil society initiatives to address some of the pressing issues as a social responsibility initiative.
The unique finding which appears to have emerged from ‘Gammedda Project’ is that the provision of most of these basic needs required financial allocations of Rs. 5 million or less per village. If the average per village requirement to meet the basic needs and aspiration of these villagers is estimated at Rs 2.5 million per village, the total outlay for the 768 villages will be Rs. 1,920 million. In comparison the Daily FT of 9 June noted that “Moving a supplementary estimate in Parliament on Tuesday Government sought approval for Rs. 1,175.5 million to purchase 32 cars for 30 Ministers, State Ministers, and Deputy Ministers.” – See more at: http://www.ft.lk/article/546987/Govt--denies-Rs--1-17-b-vehicle-budget-excessive#sthash.N5cbv2uZ.dpuf
Hostile and critical viewRegrettably some of the leading powers in governance appear to have even taken a hostile and critical view of the News 1st initiative, calling it “political”, and “playing politics”. They appear to feel that the media’s role is limited only to exposing the plight of those at the bottom of the pyramid; and the media institutions should not extend its mandate to taking publicly, the role reserved to governments in dealing with the findings, as thought best by the Government.
These persons in governance and their coterie of advisors appear to be firmly of the view that socioeconomic rights should not also be made a justiciable fundamental rights embodied within the Constitution. Their fears are based on the likely beyond capacity consequential costs, the likely judicial intervention in a purely political and governance arena decision making and above all the likely unmanageable public expectation set at a highly raised bar.
It must be recognised that there are cogent arguments supporting both for and against the embodiment of socioeconomic rights as a justiciable right within a constitution – A well-balanced reference is found in the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA) publication titled ‘Social and Economic Rights,’ which begin with a quote by Julie McDowall, Scottish author and social activist reading, “But it’s hard to stand on your own two feet when your bones are softened with rickets and you’re wheezing with asthma from the black blots of dampness on the spongy bedroom wall.” http://www.constitutionnet.org/files/social_and_economic_rights_0.pdf
"The unique finding which appears to have emerged from ‘Gammedda Project’ is that the provision of most of these basic needs required financial allocations of Rs. 5 million or less per village. If the average per village requirement to meet the basic needs and aspiration of these villagers is estimated at Rs 2.5 million per village, the total outlay for the 768 villages will be Rs. 1,920 million. In comparison the Daily FT of 9 June noted that moving a supplementary estimate in Parliament, Government sought approval for Rs. 1,175.5 million to purchase 32 cars for 30 Ministers, State Ministers, and Deputy Ministers "
No other choiceHowever, in a third world democracy with a powerless, voiceless and socio-economically neglected segments at the bottom of the pyramid, there may be no other choice but make sociocultural rights a justiciable fundamental right, in order at least to flag in the open, their basic needs and aspirations in a prioritisation of resource allocations of the nation.
How else in a local context after 70 years of independence can those at the bottom of the pyramid bring out their basic needs to stand alongside the other demands for allocations made by undemocratically governed party hierarchy thinking and decision making driven political processes, which end up placing their own priorities before a legislature supposed to represent the sovereign people of the country?
For instance, as examples, how can those at the bottom of the pyramid seek budgetary allocations in meeting their basic needs, including;
- Adequate allocations for education to correct the present inequities ( there is significant variation in learning outcomes among provinces) as recently highlighted by Dr. Deshal De Mel in his presentation ‘We Don’t Need No Education’ (including the need to improve educational outcomes in rural and estate sectors and among students from the types of schools attended by low income households);
- In war torn areas households without homes and female headed households without livelihood supportive employment or home garden cultivation options;
- Villages, households and schools without safe drinking water, adequate competent teachers and teaching aides;
- Villages without irrigation for cultivation and water for household consumption;
- Fisher families with their livelihood options negatively impacted by development and external threats (e.g. Colombo Port City construction linked sand mining, wind turbines constructed in Puttalam, Indian bottom trawling incursions to Sri Lankan territorial waters and due to restrictions in high security zones in the north/east)
- Western Region Megapolis
- Colombo Port Financial City connected infrastructure support
- Colombo Metro Rail Project
- Kandy and other city development plans
- Establishment of tourism zones
- Establishment of ICT parks
In terms of the global initiative of Sustainable Development by 2030, Sri Lanka is required to have in place an agenda of action for people, planet and prosperity with goals and targets which stimulate action over the years in areas of critical importance for humanity and the planet:
•To end poverty and hunger, in all their forms and dimensions, and to ensure that all human beings can fulfil their potential in dignity and equality and in a healthy environment.
•To protect the planet from degradation, including through sustainable consumption and production, sustainably managing its natural resources and taking urgent action on climate change, so that it can support the needs of the present and future generations.
•To ensure that all human beings can enjoy prosperous and fulfilling lives and that economic, social and technological progress occurs in harmony with nature.
•To foster peaceful, just and inclusive societies which are free from fear and violence.
•To mobilise the means required to implement this agenda through a revitalised Global Partnership for Sustainable Development, based on a spirit of strengthened global solidarity, focused in particular on the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable and with the participation of all countries, all stakeholders and all people.
It is therefore essential that the proposed Constitutional Reforms, devolve basic decision making power to the village communities and such devolvement are supported by compulsory resource allocation commitments, with decision making on the priority and projects for such resource spends being vested in the relevant communities.
‘Gram Raj’ conceptIn the above context, it is recommended that the proposed Constitutional Reforms include articles to convey that the ‘Gram Raj’ concept has been firmly embedded within the new Constitution, and that these provisions will ‘empower and enthrone common citizens of society’ and will effectively bring them within the decision making governance framework of each Grama Sevaka Division.
In furtherance of this empowerment, the Constitution must compel the Finance Commission to ensure that 5% of the Capital Expenditure voted in any budget year or an allocation for each Grama Sevaka division of not less than Rs. 5 million, whichever is higher is allotted by the annual budget, as reserved spend for village development. The investment priority and relevant projects covering this spend must be determined by the Grama Sevaka Division communities, by majority consensus.
These funds will be allocated to the relevant Provincial Councils and the Chief Minister and the Chief Secretary of the Province should be jointly held accountable for effective deployment of funds at Gramasevaka Division level. The Chief Secretary, as the Chief Accounting Officer, should be required to submit annually a report to the Parliament of the effective deployment of funds, the description of projects, how implemented and setting out what positive outcomes accrued to the village communities.
If there are 15,000 Grama Sewaka divisions in the country, the funds outlay required for this provision will be a minimum of Rs. 75 billion annually. The total capital expenditure voted in 2016 was Rs. 1,274 billion. This allocation then converts to 5.9% of the voted capital expenditure.
(The writer is a good governance activist and a former Chairman of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce.)
By Jehan Perera-August 22, 2016
The visit to Sri Lanka of Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg to Sri Lanka was significant as it confirmed that the long and positive relationship that Norway has had with Sri Lanka is back on track. The two visits earlier this year of Foreign Minister Børge Brende and Foreign Secretary Tore Hattrem (who had been Norwegian ambassador to Sri Lanka during the last phase of the war) signaled the change. Relations between the two countries got strained after the Norwegian facilitated ceasefire agreement broke down. Sinhalese nationalists with the tacit backing of the government in power at that time accused Norway of being partial to the LTTE and acting in ways that were detrimental to Sri Lanka’s sovereignty. Visitors from Norway at that time felt it was pragmatic to say they were from Europe. However, the warm welcomes afforded to the high level Norwegian visitors this year showed how much has changed since the new government took office.
Norway has been a longstanding development partner of Sri Lanka and been providing it with economic assistance since the 1960s. Norwegian assistance came in the early years in the form of technical support for fisheries in addition to integrated rural development. Support to economic development was directed at supporting the improvement of the living conditions in the least developed parts of the country. In fact it was the contacts made by Norwegian development specialists in those early years that paved the way for Norwegian facilitation of the peace process that commenced during the period of President Chandrika Kumaratunga. Norwegian development workers such as Jon Westborg, who served with the Red Cross in both the north and south of the country, became involved in the peace process. Jon Westborg was the Norwegian ambassador to Sri Lanka during the signing of the ceasefire agreement.
One of the highlights of Prime Minister Solberg’s stay in Sri Lanka was the speech she delivered in Colombo under the aegis of Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera. She chose the theme of achieving Sustainable Development Goals by working for the common good. She is presently the co-chair of the UN Secretary General’s Advocacy Group. In the course of her speech Prime Minister Solberg acknowledged Sri Lanka’s welfare policies which attracted international attention especially in the decades of the 1960s and 70s and influenced policy making in other countries. These are achievements that the country has continued to sustain half a century later. Sri Lanka remains in the top half of the world’s countries in terms of social and physical quality of life indicators and is now regarded as a middle income country and able to handle developmental issues with its own resources.
In this context Prime Minister Solberg’s reference to Norway’s present priorities in regard to bilateral development cooperation with Sri Lanka is significant. She identified key sustainable development goals as being climate change, conservation of the ocean, peace and justice, gender equality and affordable and clean energy. These are areas that require societies to put the interests of all, or the common good, into the forefront, and not selfish interests that put one’s own country, gender or ethnicity to the fore. The Norwegian prime minister pointed out that Norway was a strong supporter of multilateral initiatives such as UNICEF and UNESCO, whose head Irina Bokova visited Sri Lanka shortly thereafter. She also pointed out the importance of civil society in the education process and to build accountability and engagement at the community level.
At the present time the Sri Lankan government’s priority in terms of the key sustainable development goals identified by the Norwegian prime minister is achieving sustainable peace and justice through a two pronged process in which accounting for the past and constitutional reforms are the main components. The government is developing new mechanisms, laws and constitutional proposals in consultation with civil society as recommended by international best practices. These consultations have been with those in civil society who are knowledgeable about the areas that require reform and who are sympathetic to it. The Public Representations Committee on constitutional reforms headed by Lal Wijeynayake has already completed its process of consultations and finalized its report which has been handed over to the Constitutional Council. The consultations with regard to the reconciliation mechanisms by the Consultation Task Force headed by Manouri Muttetuwegama are still in the process of being finalized.
Initial reports from the Zonal Task Forces which are meeting directly with civil society indicate a positive response to the government’s proposed reconciliation mechanisms, comprising of an Office of Missing Persons, Truth Commission, Special Court on accountability issues and an Office of Reparations. Even the politically controversial issues, such as the role of foreign judges in the accountability process, have been viewed in a positive light by those in civil society whose views have been obtained. The government has been under considerable pressure from both the Tamil polity and the international community with regard to international participation in the accountability process.
The passage of the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) bill through Parliament shows that the government is determined to meet its commitments by the Tamil polity that fully supported it at the last elections and the international community to whom it made commitments by co-signing the UN Human Rights Council resolution in Geneva. The OMP legislation has won support from the international community led by the United States. The government was able to successfully overcome political opposition to the OMP and pass the bill in Parliament despite protests by the nationalists in and outside Parliament. It is likely that the other three mechanisms that the government has pledged to set up, the Truth Commission, the Special Court and the Office of Reparations will be of similar quality.
Through its process of consultations with civil society and the passage of legislation in Parliament the government is putting the superstructure of sustainable peace into place. However, Norwegian Prime Minister Solberg’s words with regard to the role of public education in achieving sustainable development need to be heeded. She said that "It is important to build accountability and engagement at the community level and local NGOs have a key role to play involving parents and local communities. The downward trend in education over the past years must be reversed." Despite the changes in thinking and attitudes that are visible today in Sri Lanka at the level of the government leadership and much of the polity with regard to the reconciliation process this message needs to be taken in a cohesive and systematic manner to the people at the community level also.
Last week the Justice and Peace Commission of the Conference of Major Religious Superiors of the Catholic Church organized a three-day leadership training for school children from Catholic schools of the north and south. There were Tamil children from Jaffna, Mannar, Kilinochchi, Pudukuduirrippu and Mullaitivu who mixed with Sinhalese children from Kandy, Negombo, Ratnapura, Kalutara and Colombo. They got on well with each other in the sports and social activities. But when they were given the opportunity to ask each other questions about the ethnic conflict and the post war situation, sharp differences in their thinking manifested itself. The Sinhalese children wanted to know whether the Tamil children appreciated that Sinhalese soldiers had liberated them from the LTTE and from war. The Tamil children asked how those who fought against injustice could be called terrorists. Although the children shared a common religion and had been exposed to each other in a friendly environment, their inner thoughts remained at odds with their outer behaviors.
If peace in Sri Lanka is to be sustainable there is a need for public education on the ethnic conflict, even after the reconciliation mechanisms are in place. Sri Lanka has an unfortunate history of missing opportunities. What governments have tried to do to resolve the conflict in the past, those in opposition have effectively undone by arousing primeval fears and mobilizing mass opposition. This time around the existence of a national unity government mitigates this risk, but it is still necessary to ensure that the people understand and accept the changes to ensure sustainability.
- Sunday, August 21, 2016
A revealing comment was made to me by an infuriated social justice activist last week in relation to disturbing trends that have surfaced in public debate. As he said caustically; ‘when we raise criticism of government policy in discussion, the immediate response within some civil society groups is that of unmitigated fury.’ We are asked immediately; ‘do you want the Rajapaksas to come back?’
Rejecting unacceptable choices
The question that he posed thereafter was as follows; ‘choosing between keeping quiet in face of what may be disastrously wrong and wanting the former regime to come back should surely not be the stark alternatives before us?’ And as my conversationalist remonstrated; ‘why should compromised groups which clearly have an agenda in riding along on the ‘yahapalanaya’ bandwagon as it were, be allowed to drive these debates?’
Here, the discussion concerned the earlier maligned Port City, now renamed in the optimistic eyes of its proponents as the ‘Colombo International Financial City.’ Despite the official trumpeting that all concerns have been dealt with, the quality and content of the environmental protection process commissioned thereto remains contested.
That said, such broad concerns are not confined to the Port City issue alone. Indeed, it would be somewhat amusing if it was not so reminiscent of the past that even more than government parliamentarians, ‘yahapalanaya’ cheerleaders lead the hysterically angry charge when legitimate queries are raised in regard to aspects of the Government’s economic policy, constitutional reforms or the transitional justice ‘package’ now being unveiled.
Recalling familiar trends
There is a trace of unsettling familiarity in this. Not long ago, propagandists acting under the long arm of the Rajapaksa regime gleefully affixed labels of ‘traitors’ to critics, including this columnist among others. But what must be understood is that intolerance to opposing points of view can be manifested not only through such obvious sledgehammer tactics. So for the benefit of those wet behind the ears at the time, let us look back even a little earlier in time for illustrative lessons in that regard.
During the United National Front (UNF) government for example one and a half decades ago, proponents of the short-lived ‘ceasefire’ between the Government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) looked aghast at even the slightest criticism of the LTTE. This was despite the LTTE’s crushing of dissent within the Tamil polity ranging from targeting the intellectual crème de la crème to brutal local crimes exercised in reprisal against ‘defiant’ Tamil civilians.
Percipient civil society voices in Colombo outraged by these happenings were marginalized by their one time colleagues, some later losing their lives to the LTTE in the process. Not surprisingly as a result, those who critiqued both the Sinhala State and the LTTE with the same even-handedness were miserably few.
Need for internal and external critique
And there is a larger point here. The abject failure to encourage substantial critiques and to respond to the same by the government in power was a primary reason why the UNF regime collapsed at the time. As we may recall unhappily, its flag bearers retreated in disorder while the Rajapaksa Presidency took over control of the reins of State, leading to a most degenerate period in this country’s recent history.
These same warnings apply even more forcibly now. The ends certainly do not justify the means. Thus, the complicity of the Bar Association in the dangerous precedent of declaring of a Chief Justice as if he had ‘never been’ by executive fiat was disgraceful. Commendations for having stood up against Rajapaksa ravages may be in due order only if the Bar acquits itself of the allegation of merely encouraging political ‘regime change’ without any genuine desire to actually see governance structures improved in Sri Lanka. We may remember this salutary warning even in midst of effusive self-congratulations that have become the norm.
And it is unfortunate that missteps are evident even in regard to sensitive aspects of the transitional justice package. For example, why is the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) Bill being identified by government ministers as ‘something promised to Geneva’? The issue of the missing is of crucial import to all Sri Lankans, across all ethnicities. The Bill should therefore have been substantively taken to the South on that basis rather than by framing it as an external demand.
A redundant ‘public consultation’
Proper public consultations should have first been carried out before the draft legislation was brought before the national legislative assembly. But what we saw was an interim report on the OMP Bill by a task force on reconciliation being rendered redundant in a context where the Bill has already been enacted.
Further, the exclusion of the Right to Information Act, No 12 of 2016 to information received by the OMP ‘in confidence’ remains problematic. This question was discussed in these column spaces last week. In the minimum, the terms ‘in confidence’ and/or ‘confidentiality’ should have been specifically explained and interpreted in the Bill. Its absence thereof leads to potential legal issues that do not bode well for the health of the legislation.
Indeed, if it was thought that the existing protection relating to personal information which would cause ‘unwarranted invasion of the privacy of the individual’ contained in Section 5(1)(a) of the RTI Act did not sufficiently cater to cases coming before the OMP, radically imaginative legislative options may have been considered, drawing best lessons on comparative similar laws around the laws.
Eschewing counter-productive exclusivity
As of now, we have hesitantly stepped back from the abyss which once yawned perilously before us. But as clearly illustrated in opinion polls which indicate public dissatisfaction with the status quo while acknowledging certain positive aspects, the transition is at its most fragile. Ironically, the best ally of the Government is the chaotic chauvinism of the Rajapaksa led Joint Opposition from which many pull away in disgust.
But in this tug and pull of opposing forces, where almost every legal step taken by the coalition Government from the VAT Bill to a range of other proposed laws is challenged, robust public questioning compelling a more accountable process is precisely what is needed.
And those simply too naïve to realize this fundamental truth may perhaps be advised to look at the lessons that Sri Lanka’s turbulent history teaches us on how counter-productive a blinkered and exclusivist approach could be to nation-building.
Senior Journalist D. B. S. Jeyaraj had written an article to a weekend English newspaper. The article was based on the disappearance of Father Thiruchelvam Nihal Jim Brown from a Catholic church in the North. At a moment when laws have been prepared to establish an office to inquire into disappeared persons, it was stated in this article that it was the responsibility of the Maithri-Ranil government to look into the disappearance of this clergyman as well. On the very same day Jeyaraj had written this article, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith had given an interview to a Sunday Sinhala newspaper.
The Cardinal had criticized the Bill on the opening of an office to inquire into disappeared persons, during this interview. He had criticized the manner in which this Bill had been passed. It is a puzzle as to why the Cardinal is opposed to a mechanism being established to inquire into the disappearances of Catholic civilians as well as clergy who belonged to the Catholic Church of which he is the leader. While D. B. S. Jeyaraj, the journalist, was trying to get justice done for the Catholic Father who had disappeared, it is a joke that the Cardinal defines, establishing of an office to inquire into disappearances of individuals as bending down to foreign countries.
Prior to this, the Cardinal had declared at a function held at a temple, that the new Constitution which the Maithri–Ranil Government was going to prepare would deprive Buddhism of its position in this country and that, it cannot be allowed. Generally followers of other religions in this country believe that, leaders of the Catholic Church in Sri Lanka speak about a certain problem with good knowledge. They always say that Buddhist monks do not understand the question and give impulsive opinions, and that leaders of the Catholic Church express their views with discipline and knowledge and with extreme care. The Maithri–Ranil Government has not made a statement that they will deprive the position Buddhism deserves in this country. The Constitution to be drafted that will allegedly deprive Buddhism of its position has not been planned yet and neither has even a discussion been initiated regarding this Constitution, as yet. If that is so, why is the Cardinal who is the leader of a different religion stating and crying out in a loud voice that the place Buddhism deserves is going to be lost in this country?
Leader of the Buddha Sasana in this country, the Chief Prelate of the Malwatte Chapter had stated that President Maithripala Sirisena had assured him that the position that Buddhism deserves will not be harmed in any way. Therefore, in a public statement the Mahanayake of the Malwatte Chapter had said that there was no reason to fear about it at all. He issued a public statement thus, probably because the Rajapaksas subsequent to their defeat in 2015 lost their power and privileges and were struggling to cover up the accusations of corruption against them and because the Mahanayake was aware of the fact that the Rajapaksa's were looking for slogans to inspire opposition against the government, while capturing temples accused of having kept stolen elephants.
What is regrettable is the fact that the Cardinal has become similar to their 'cat's paw'. He is dancing to the tune of the Rajapaksa alliance which is protecting thieves. If the most important leader of the Buddha Sasana, the Chief Prelate of the Malwatte Chapter says that there is no danger of Buddhism losing the place the religion deserves in this country, as to why the leader of the Catholic Church is worrying so much about Buddhism remains a mystery.
Generally those who attempt to protect thefts under cover of Buddhism and patriotism are persons who have engaged in thefts and been deprived of their privileges. The temples which stand up on behalf of Rajapaksa are the temples which have been accused of theft of elephants. We do not know whether, the Cardinal too joined them because the news item published sometime ago in the Colombo Telegraph website site was correct. The privileges that the Cardinal has now been deprived of are the privileges he received during the Rajapaksa regime and we do not know whether due to that anger the Cardinal is looking for ways and means to bring back the Rajapaksas to power. If not, we do not know whether the Cardinal wants to contest an election in the future through Wimal Weerawansa's party or not.
The news item which appeared in the website is given below:
Archbishop Malcolm Ranjith bought over by DPL post to Niece
Serious doubts have been cast on Archbishop of Colombo, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith and his political agendas to support Mahinda Rajapaksa at the upcoming elections with the revelation that his niece has been given a political appointment to the Sri Lanka Embassy in Paris.
Ruwani Cooray, niece of Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith has not passed the Foreign Service examination nor been recruited to the Foreign Service through any accepted procedure. However, she has been appointed as the second secretary to the Sri Lanka Embassy in France.
Ruwani does not have any relevant qualifications for this appointment other than her relationship to the Cardinal. Earlier Ruwani Cooray was posted to the Sri Lanka Mission in Manila, Philippines on the request of the Cardinal. With the significant role played by Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith to ensure the visit of his Holiness the Pope to Sri Lanka, his niece has now been given a more opulent posting in Paris.
"The visit of the Pope has been a key political gimmick of the Rajapaksa candidacy which hopes to swing many Catholic votes it had lost during the years due to the anti-minority, extremist elements within its ranks. Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith who is a close confidant of Gotabaya Rajapaksa has assured the government that he will deliver on the promise of the Pope's visit despite the Pope's very clear policy that he will not visit a country within two months of an election being declared," a member of Cardinal Ranjith's inner circles told Colombo Telegraph.