Dr. Jehan Perera highlights important considerations for reconciliation

When he was elected president, there was anticipation that Gotabaya Rajapaksa would govern with a firm hand. Those at the extreme nationalist end of the political spectrum even called on him to act like a Hitler to achieve their vision for the country. There was much trepidation in those who felt they might be on the wrong side of Rajapaksa’s policies, which seemed to be oriented in the direction of nationalism and militarisation of society.

However, his conduct of state affairs as an elected leader has been more democratic and less authoritarian than anticipated. In his inaugural speech, Rajapaksa said he would be the president of all Sri Lankans although large sections of the ethnic and religious minorities had not voted for him.

The government’s readiness to restart the reconciliation process and engage with civil society organisations has been subject to appreciation and scepticism.

Those among the latter have felt positively about recent meetings with government leaders including Rajapaksa – they felt they could get their points of view across and the administration listened.

Meanwhile, the president’s unexpected tweet that he would work with the UN to achieve lasting peace and reconciliation by implementing necessary institutional reforms came as a surprise as this was out of sync with the government’s previously articulated stances.

On the other hand, its commitment to reconciliation is undermined by ongoing human rights violations on the ground.

The arrests of those who dissented and protested against the attempted passage of the General Sir John Kotelawala National Defence University Bill – which would bring the military into higher education for civilians – is an example. The manner in which student activists were arrested by police officers in civilian attire who boarded public buses they were travelling in was inappropriate and illegitimate.

It’s the ability to tolerate and accept dissent, and safeguard the space for it, that marks a democratic society and leadership that can aspire to reconciliation. It is through differences and dissent that all aspects of the truth may emerge for a better solution to be found.

In the aftermath of the EU threat to deprive Sri Lanka of GSP+ privileges, the government agreed to bring the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) into conformity with international standards to reduce human rights violations.

The PTA was designed as a temporary wartime measure in 1979 but continues to be used 12 years following the end of the war in 2009. Although the president has appointed an expert committee to revise and align the act with international standards, it continues to be used in its draconian form.

Moreover, those who have been arrested without the possibility of bail due to its provisions continue to languish for years without access to the legal process and fair trials.

The problem with the government’s approach to restarting reconciliation is that it seems to lack a well thought out plan. Instead, there appears to be a series of ad hoc responses to the pressures exerted on it; international pressure has become an effective motivator of change.

Any serious attempt to restart the national reconciliation process would require major stakeholders’ involvement. As it is largely the Tamil community in the north and east of the country that’s affected, the participation of the main political parties representing these people is important.

The largest Tamil party – The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) – expressed its desire to meet in direct talks with the president. A meeting planned in June fell through at the last moment with the promise of another. But no date has been set so far, which adds to the sense of frustration for those preparing psychologically for the process to restart.

The TNA’s request has been accompanied by the call for a political solution. The full implementation of the 13th Amendment and holding provincial council elections could form the main agenda of these talks.

Party leader R. Sampanthan has spelt out the parameters of a political solution in a lengthy letter to the president, which details the many attempts that the Tamil polity made in the past to negotiate with successive governments, to no avail.

Meanwhile, TNA spokesperson M. A. Sumanthiran has called for US mediation if there is a renewed attempt to negotiate a political solution. This unexpected call could serve as a guarantee to those who are sceptical within and without the country that the government is serious about restarting the reconciliation process this time.