Text of a talk by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha
at the International Centre for Ethnic Studies, June 18th 2012

One of the saddest aspects of the last three years has been the corrosive distrust between all political players. This is almost relentlessly exacerbated by several factors. The first, and perhaps the most worrying, is what I term a failure of rationalism, the practice of judging situations not in terms of evidence but rather through emotions. This contributes to a tendency to interpret ambiguities in line with fears rather than hopes.

Then there are what might be termed political factors. Perhaps the most obvious of these is the tendency of extremists on all sides to act and speak in a manner that worries those on the other side or sides. The second factor here is the failure of moderates on all sides, who I believe constitute the majority, to rein back their extremists. Combined with this is the tendency of a few of these last to adopt the rhetoric of the extremists so as to keep on the good side of what they believe might become the support base of the latter.

Associated with these are psychological factors. Thus there is a tendency to expect the other sides to control their extremists, whilst expecting them conversely to understand the compulsions that lead one to excuse and even perhaps condone one’s own extremists. And linked to these are supposed strategic factors, most obviously in terms of the belief that others are not sincere in their negotiating positions, and therefore one must demand much more than one really needs, in order to end up with an acceptable via media.

I should add to this last something I feel contributes to disaster in many negotiations, and not only in this country, namely the assumption that one negotiates to get what one wants. On the contrary, I believe that negotiations should be based on trying to ensure that the fears of others are overcome, ie that they get what it takes to reassure them with regard to what has upset them in the past. While it may not be possible to illustrate the various points I have made above with discussion of the behavior of individuals, since what might seem criticism will contribute, given past practice, to a hardening of positions, I can from a positive perspective note that the one period of progress during talks between the government and the TNA occurred when fears to be assuaged were considered rather than advantages to be gained. I believe we were on the verge of a generally acceptable solution to the question of land when other factors brought the talks to a grinding halt.

But this brings me to a final destructive factor, which may seem insignificant but which I think plays a large role in Sri Lankan politics. This is the need to win favour, which it seems is achieved more swiftly by criticizing others rather than by productive work. In the case of our negotiations with the TNA, I found that it was regularly being suggested that I was the TNA representative on the government side. What began as a jest, as I thought, was repeated so often that I fear it began to gain credence in some quarters. This may have contributed to my not being invited to some meetings, so that I felt I served no useful purpose by continuing on the team.

The talks, it will be noted, broke down just when the Report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission was issued. That was immediately tabled in Parliament with a very positive speech from the Leader of the House. In general the Report was well received by most stakeholders, including what is termed the international community. However there were three comparatively adverse blasts, which seemed to bring together the stranger elements of the coalition that had supported the supposed common opposition candidate Fonseka during the Presidential Election of 2010. This included the TNA, which may have had good reason for its performances in both these particulars, but they were not calculated to win confidence. Indeed I recall at the time, when we were trying to proceed with negotiations, the Leader of the House telling me that he hoped the President had not seen the TNA statement on the LLRC  Report.

But of course there would have been enough and more people who would have brought that statement to the President’s attention. More significantly, it led to those within government who did not like the LLRC Report, but who had kept silent previously, coming out with harsh critiques from the other side. This led to people believing that the government position on the LLRC was ambiguous, whereas it should have been obvious, with a little bit of rational thought, that the Leader of the House would not have tabled the Report so promptly with a very positive statement had he not been instructed to do so by the President.

I recall just before that an ambassador telling me that the government’s position was not clear, and I suggested that what should be considered was, not the pronouncements of individuals, but the speeches of those mandated to speak to the international community. The answer was that the people I mentioned had lost credibility completely, a position mentioned also to someone else by a much more tactful ambassador, which brought home to me, not the mala fides of those who had been named, but rather the impossible position in which they found themselves in the context of so many players making so many noises for so many reasons. Your heart may be in the right place, but it is easy to wilt like a wallflower when confronted by the aggression of the determined, whether international interventionists or national negators.

Despite the clear statement then of the Leader of the House, not one of those I hasten to add who had roused the distrust I mentioned, for his mandate is profoundly national, the next month saw see-sawing, with both sides it seemed trying to demand much more or much less than the LLRC, instead of working without deviance towards ensuring that it was taken forward. In this instance, though I think they were wrong, I can understand the perspective of those in government who attacked the LLRC Report, because they may well have thought that the Coalition of the Devious wanted the LLRC Report recommendations carried out, and then much, much more – so by standing firm against it, they might reach equilibrium.

Meanwhile the President had asked for a Road-map for fulfillment of the Recommendations but this was not prepared expeditiously. It is possible that those entrusted with the job thought they should delay, given the controversy that had arisen, as they believed, within government ranks, with the more vociferous critical of the LLRC. But it is also possible that it was simply lethargy that prevented the work. The President certainly thought the work was being done, and even suggested that the Road-map be taken to Geneva, but was persuaded that it should be kept confidential. One of those entrusted with the Road-map told me that it was indeed being prepared, but I should ask the Minister if I wanted to see it, and the Minister simply said, ‘What Road-map?’

I realized then that the same thing was happening as had occurred with the Interim Recommendations, which the President absolutely believed were being implemented as he had instructed. He referred me to the Inter-Ministerial Committee appointed for the purpose, and was astonished when I told him that Committee had not met after it was set up. He wanted me put on the Committee and asked that I be given the documentation, but it turned out there were no minutes. I was not put on the Committee on the grounds that I was a Parliamentarian, though I suspect that it was because I can be a bloody nuisance, as I was described when appointed to convene the Task Force on implementation of the Human Rights Action Plan, ie someone who demands meetings and action, even if I do not always succeed in ensuring rapid progress.

The President did appoint me to monitor the work of the Committee, and it took much badgering before I was finally told that the Committee did not meet. However I had been given reports on progress, and it should be noted that this was substantial in many areas. But the failure to ensure meetings of relevant stakeholders and systematic records meant that progress was not well enough known, and also that there was insufficient attention to areas in which progress was limited. With regard to the Human Rights Action Plan, I have realized that many problems are caused, even when there are positive attitudes, by the proliferation of agencies involved, and one must ensure coordination through regular consultation to ensure progress.

The reason for systemic failure with regard to the Interim Recommendations was I think political, or rather the perception that political agendas had to be kept in mind, whereas to my mind what was needed was simply administrative efficiency, since the objectives had been agreed. The LLRC had made recommendations, and the President had wanted these implemented. If it turned out that some recommendations could not be implemented readily, then the reasons for this could be recorded and alternatives devised to meet the desired objectives. But unless there is regular consultation, with a team dedicated to implementation, the desired goals can be lost sight of.

So I am immeasurably heartened by the recent report, in the most outspoken of our papers last Sunday, that a team of bureaucrats has been put together by the President’s Secretary who has been entrusted with implementation of the Recommendations. While one cannot altogether avoid politics playing a part, the two bureaucrats who have been the mainstay of the Human Rights Action Plan Task Force, the current Secretary to the Ministry of Justice and her most distinguished predecessor, are emphatically technocrats with no obligations except to the task before them. The latter also had a stint as Secretary to the Ministry of Policy and Plan Implementation, and devised an excellent monitoring mechanism for projects which Ministries were just getting used to reporting on systematically when the Ministry was abolished. Sadly the excellent paper she had prepared to suggest even more accountability was not taken into account, when it was decided to abolish that Ministry, along with the Human Rights Ministry.

The reporting matrix she prepared for the Human Rights Action Plan has been replicated, according to an interview by one of our best journalists with another member of the team, which appeared in another Sunday paper, with even greater attention to detail. Though not specified, it would seem that responsible agencies for each recommendation will be identified, and required to ‘agree on a time frame for its implementation and invite all stakeholders to comment on the proposals.’  The third bureaucrat on the team, I should note, was one of the most impressive of my colleagues when I worked at the Ministry of Education some years back, during its most innovative period. It is heartening that his talents are now being used in a field where precision and energy are essential to make a difference.

The interview breaks down the recommendations roughly in the manner that the excellent paper prepared by the Marga Institute did when the LLRC Report was first published. These are parallel to the areas for action identified in the Draft National Policy on Reconciliation prepared in my office which involved a small but extremely thoughtful group representing a range of interests. All such analyses stress the importance of what we termed restoration work, but have added on what we identified many years ago at the Peace Secretariat as psycho-social needs, which have not been addressed adequately in the last few years, when physical needs were met with remarkable efficiency. We also stressed the need for practical solutions with regard to restitution, and something again raised by the Peace Secretariat nearly five years ago, the need for clarification with regard to land issues, is now I gather finally being resolved, with activation of the proposals the Law Commission sensibly prepared some time back.

In these areas I do not anticipate many difficulties, though we do need greater attention to detail and more systematic records. At the Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation Committees that are now functioning in the Wanni, we have suggested regular meetings for Livelihood and Protection, with careful collation of all interventions and their outcomes, so as to identify those who still need support. Though much has been done, some people have fallen through the net, and checking on this with mechanisms to institute transparent principles for further assistance will help not only with livelihood, but also with the attitudinal changes that are so important for Reconciliation. Recognition of the role of the community in repairing the damage of the past is essential.

I should add that, for expeditious and efficacious action, we need to think outside the box, which I have no doubt the public servants I have mentioned will do superbly. In education, for instance, we have very swiftly restored infrastructure but we must do more to promote socialization and better opportunities in areas that were neglected in the past. At the Reconciliation Committees, we have suggested also Committees for Social and Cultural activities at Grama Niladhari level, to promote extra-curricular activities and a more rounded education for students that will also develop soft skills to help with employment. Alternate systems of teacher training, to facilitate local personnel getting employment, and therefore being more likely to stay on in remote areas, should also be developed.

And much more sophisticated systems of vocational training are needed, with better provision of soft skills, so that these youngsters do not simply feed the labour market, but have the opportunity to become entrepreneurs. I was impressed when, at a recent meeting, while recognizing the abundance of the harvests following resettlement, a representative of a Women’s Rural Development Society asked for training in Marketing. We cannot permit the area to be once more a source of profits for outsiders, but should instead ensure that the processing and value addition that we must concentrate on at this stage of our development is, as much as possible, the preserve of locals.

All this will not be difficult if proper planning and monitoring is put in place. What will require more subtle skills is the political settlement that needs to be put in place to overcome fears arising from the majoritarian measures of the past. If however we bear two principles in mind, firstly that it is worries that must be assuaged, not ambitions that must be fulfilled, and secondly that the purpose of political reform should be to ensure governance that empowers and is responsive to the people, we should be able to move swiftly. Given that separatism is still feared, and sadly still sought by those who funded the LTTE, we need to ensure that security in all aspects remains the responsibility of the Centre, albeit with institutionalized mechanisms to ensure the involvement of the periphery in decision making. Since all parties are agreed on the need for a Senate, with equal weight for each Province, we should proceed swiftly with setting this up, with powers to prevent hasty legislation without proper assessment and consultation.

Conversely, the empowerment of local communities in areas where the Centre has failed signally to deliver can proceed apace, given the general agreement that responsible and accountable local government systems must be established. The principle of subsidiarity, allowing decisions to be made at the smallest possible level that is relevant, should be the basis for political reform, bearing in mind the need for policy formulation that prevents discriminatory measures in any context.

The second area which may cause problems, but should not, is that of what is termed accountability. Wild accusations are made about the conduct of the Sri Lankan forces, and these should be rebutted systematically, using the material on record, in particular documentation by the responsible sections of the UN and the ICRC. These have been ignored, by those who react with general opposition to what they see as international interference, as well as by those who think such interference should be treated as sacrosanct. I have pointed out previously for instance how we in effect ignored the first US intervention in this regard, the State Department report of 2009 which was balanced and provided material to rebut the wilder allegations – and therefore left ourselves open to the more perverse performance illustrated by the Wikileaks account of how recourse was had to shady operators such as Guy Rhodes, to pile up evidence against us.

I can understand the anger of those who believe the United States is being outrageously hypocritical as it merrily executes extra-judicially anyone it suspects of terrorism, along with all their cousins and their aunts, but that is no reason not to put our own house in order. We should in 2009 have laid out what really happened, not least because it was indeed a model performance, and we had every right to expect others to study the campaign and learn from it.

At the same time, we should have investigated and dealt with the one area of the five held against us in the Darusman Report in which, as the LLRC report makes clear, there seemed to be a prima facie case of abuse. The ham fisted way in which we dealt with the Sarath Fonseka accusation, accusing him of being a traitor, instead of proving that he was lying by reference to his earlier account of the event, was symptomatic of thinking of short term gains rather than the larger picture.

Related to this of course is the need to make sure that Human Rights are better protected. While exceptional measures, as authorized under Emergency Regulations, were understandable when we were in grave danger, we should have abandoned recourse to them as well as the Regulations soon afterwards. Even though I can understand security concerns, given the determination of some elements in the diaspora and those they fund to go back at some point to terrorism, we should register the fact that the danger is less and work towards eliminating support for terrorism within Sri Lanka, without reacting nervously when the Tigers, and their jackals as Richard de Zoysa might have put it, roar and howl in the wider world.

We did a great job in Rehabilitation of former cadres (though as I have noted, there should have been more systematic programmes for reintegration, either through the Bureau or through a clearly mandated Rehabilitation Authority), which was based on the determination to trust our own people who had been forced into terrorism by threats as well as deprivation. Such trust should have informed our whole approach to possible terrorist threats. The excessive demonization we see elsewhere, with the assumption that all males could be terrorists, is not a pattern to follow. We are dealing with fellow Sri Lankans, and the rhetoric of wars against terror in other places should not govern our approach. We have overcome the Tigers here, and we must think of everyone in this country now as full partners. In the social, economic and political empowerment we all deserve after our long ordeal.

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