Healing the wounds of the past with inclusive nationalism – Dr. Jehan Perera

In plural, multiethnic and multi-religious societies such as Sri Lanka, political problems must be settled through constructive dialogue and mutual accommodation. They cannot be resolved by the majority principle, through mere verbal recriminations or by force – although this is the predilection of those who are more powerful due to their control over the levers of state power or enjoying a permanent majority by virtue of belonging to the larger community.

The government has the advantage of being headed by a president and prime minister in whom the majority of people have an implicit trust. This is apparent in how they’ve been able to nip potential problems in the bud.

During the general election campaign, there were calls for the prosecution of Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan (a.k.a. Karuna Amman) who claimed to potential voters that he’d killed more than 1,000 soldiers at Elephant Pass. But Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa was able to pacify the people by explaining Karuna’s role in defeating the LTTE.

This and other examples have demonstrated the ability of government leadership to placate the general population on issues of ethnic nationalism. In these circumstances, the state has a golden opportunity to be inclusive in its decision making and problem solving in a way that the previous regime could not.

Two major problems continue to overshadow the country: an inability to find a mutually acceptable solution to power sharing between the majority and minority communities, and establishment of reconciliation mechanisms to address wrongs committed against individuals in the past.

These wrongs go back a long way, and mainly concern the events of 1988/89 when the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) insurrection occurred with tens of thousands of casualties and the nearly three decades of war with the LTTE that ended in 2009.

In terms of joint problem solving, the first step is to restore trust. With national elections not on the horizon for at least four more years, there’s an opportunity for a moratorium on oppositional politics with regard to major national issues concerning different communities.

Previously, opposition parties invariably opposed problem solving initiatives of the incumbent administration.

Constitutional reform efforts of 2000/01 led by former president Chandrika Kumaratunga and present education minister Prof. G. L. Peiris were scuttled in parliament by the opposition. The All Party Representatives Committee process for constitutional reform led by Prof. Tissa Vitharana was weakened by nonparticipation of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA).

The past must also be dealt with.

In March, the government announced its withdrawal from the resolution to which its predecessor had agreed in Geneva at the UN Human Rights Council that laid out a path to deal with the past. There was a general belief that the UN backed reconciliation process was really about punishing the government and its armed forces.

But the main purpose of the Office on Missing Persons (OMP) and Office for Reparations set up in terms of the UN resolution was to address the problems of victims and their families rather than punish anyone.

The government can also utilise proposals of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) established by former president Rajapaksa in 2010 to identify lessons to be learnt from those events, the institutional, administrative and legislative measures to be taken to prevent any recurrence of such concerns in the future, and promote further national unity and reconciliation among communities.

Recommendations of the LLRC included administrative actions to be taken in the short term to enable victims of human rights violations to enjoy their human rights, and new institutional mechanisms to strengthen the rule of law and good governance. The LLRC famously stated that the rule of law should prevail and not the rule of men.

The OMP and Office for Reparations are placed under the mandate of the Ministry of Justice headed by Ali Sabry for whom the rule of law must come first. Speaking in parliament, the minister said President Gotabaya Rajapaksa “wants to create a country where all citizens will feel safe, secure and dignified.”

In this spirit of inclusive nationalism coupled with the rule of law, the government can obtain the support of the opposition and civil society to address present problems of victim families. This could be one of many steps on the road to joint problem solving of other hitherto intractable issues.