At the recent discussion held at the Marga Institute on accountability and reconciliation, I was confronted with an accusation I found interesting, and not entirely groundless. One of the brighter individuals earlier involved in advocacy NGO work suggested that my explanations for some responses of government were similar to what was claimed in mitigation by those who refused to criticize the LTTE when it was intransigent in discussion and continued to engage in terrorist activity.

I think there are differences, not least because I have drawn attention to governmental lapses in various areas, while also arguing that, while one should understand why government hesitates to move forward on issues that would contribute to reconciliation, one should nevertheless point out the need to move. As a distinguished Indian diplomat put it when talking about his government’s support for terrorist groups in the eighties, one can understand why this was forthcoming, but that does not justify it. That is why I will continue to point out the need for government to develop better mechanisms of consultation of the people in the North, as well as sensitivity to their concerns.

But it is true that I can understand why government feels so diffident, and that is why I believe it is necessary for those who are contributing to the insecurity government feels to also mend their ways. The apologists for the LTTE would point out how Tamils had suffered in the past not only because of majoritarian political decisions but also because of waves of violence that government had unleashed, or at least not actively discouraged. Their argument was that one had to indulge the LTTE because of the distrust they felt.

But such distrust could not be a continuing excuse in the nineties when successive governments were bending over backwards to negotiate with the LTTE, and all those excesses were firmly in the past. Admittedly the violence in Dambulla and the recent attack on Fashion Bug make one wonder whether there might not be a danger of some problems of the eighties recurring, but from the time when J R Jayewardene broke with Cyril Mathew, it was clear that government would not permit such violence against Tamils.

The situation is quite different now with regard to the threats government feels it is confronted with. But since this might not be clear, it would make sense to put down systematically how what I believe was the original positive approach of government – something the LTTE never evinced in all its discussions – was diverted by what it saw as relentless persecution by some elements in the international community. The fact that these were influenced as much by the demands of electorally powerful elements in the diaspora as by other considerations made their approach the more worrying.

In the first place, it was a grave mistake on the part of several countries to fail to register the fact that Sri Lanka had suffered badly from terrorism over several decades and that the achievement of the Rajapaksa government of 2005-2010 in eradicating terrorism was timely. President Rajapaksa and his officials deserve credit for this, and the country will continue to give this, regardless of cavils elsewhere.

Accepting this fact would have given greater credibility to advocacy for  moving more quickly on Reconciliation and the development both of livelihoods for those who had suffered in the war, and of better consultation mechanisms to ensure their fuller participation in the political, social and economic life of the country.

Those who are concerned about these factors must study how the initial efforts of President Rajapaksa and his team to restore normality in the North and resettle displaced civilians swiftly were resisted by former army commander Sarath Fonseka, as mentioned in his letter of resignation. Thus the subsequent support given to the Sarath Fonseka candidacy for the Presidency suggested a mindset implacably opposed to the  government amongst those who claimed their main purpose was Reconciliation based on better conditions for the Tamil people.

It is conceivable that some of those who supported the Fonseka candidacy may have had positive motives, namely to apply pressure on the President to move towards consensual nation building. But this was a severe miscalculation since it led to the President relying on the support of those who might otherwise be thought to have been the natural constituency of a hardliner candidate.

The support they gave the President seemed a crucial factor then in ensuring the thorough defeat of the common opposition candidate. But while the gratitude of the President to those who stood by him at a difficult time must be understood, it was a pity that this contributed to his original plans, as exemplified in the swift resettlement of the displaced and the swift rehabilitation of former cadres, being superseded by less regard for minority concerns and greater stress on security considerations.

While minority concerns require greater attention, those concerned primarily with these should recognize the contribution to the current concern with security of the Sri Lankan government of those in the international community who continued to give importance to former terrorist supporters resident in the West – unlike India which always stood firm against such organizations .

Thus obvious double standards with regard to alleged war crimes, and selective targeting of Sri Lanka, militate against both Reconciliation and acceptable criticism of human rights shortcomings that should be addressed without unsubstantiated generalizations.

So too, whilst there was a generally positive response to the Report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, including in countries that had previously been  very critical, the predominantly negative reaction of both the main Tamil Opposition party and the State Department of the United States precipitated negative reactions also within government. This has complicated what should have been clear progress because it leaves open the possibility that more will always be demanded. If Reconciliation is to be achieved however, what seem continuing threats must be abandoned, with stress rather on future progress.

Daily News 2 July 2013  –