By Jeevan Thiagarajah
The Sri Lankan conflict is a tragic story of exclusivist identity politics, deep-rooted party rivalries, grave imbalances in the sharing of political power and repeated failures of efforts at resolution and mediation.
In the newly-emerging democracy, Sri Lanka’s post-independence English -speaking elites sought to respond and contain the electoral pressures with political ideologies which were ethno-centric, promoting the interests of their own ethnic constituency. They left little space for a multi-ethnic inclusive national identity.
The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission
During the visit of the UN Secretary General in May 2009, President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the Secretary-General agreed that addressing the aspirations and grievances of all communities and working towards a lasting political solution was fundamental to ensuring long-term socio-economic development.
The Secretary-General welcomed the assurance of the President of Sri Lanka contained in his Statement in Parliament on 19 May 2009 that a national solution acceptable to all sections of people will be evolved. President Mahinda Rajapaksa appointed by Proclamation dated 15 May 2010, the Commission on Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation (LLRC) to support the drive towards national unity and reconciliation.
To inquire and report on the following matters that may have taken place during the period between 21 February 2002 and 19 May 2009, namely;
- The facts and circumstances which led to the failure of the ceasefire agreement operationalised on 21 February 2002 and the sequence of events that followed thereafter up to 19 May 2009.
- Whether any person, group or institution directly or indirectly bear responsibility in this regard;
- The lessons we would learn from those events and their attendant concern, in order to ensure that there will be no recurrence;
- The methodology whereby restitution to any person affected by those events or their dependents or their heirs, can be affected;
- The institutional administrative and legislative measured which need to be taken in order or prevent any recurrence of such concerns in the future, and to promote further national unity and the reconciliation among all communities, and to make any such other recommendations with reference to any of the matters that have been inquired into under the terms of the Warrant.
Select thematic areas focused by the commission
International Humanitarian aw issues
In the representations made before the Commission, there were four main areas involving the discharge of humanitarian obligations of the State which were scrutinised by the Commission. Viz.
(i) Obligation to educate the members of the armed forces in the relevant aspects of Human Rights (HR) and International Humanitarian Law
(ii) Measures to safeguard civilians/avoid civilian casualties during military operations;
(iii) Supply of humanitarian relief, including food and medicine to civilians in conflict areas; and
(iv) Conduct of the security forces during the movement of civilians and combatants to cleared areas.
Human rights issues arising from the conflict were categorised as follows:
- Allegations concerning missing persons, disappearances and abductions
- Treatment of detainees
- Illegal armed groups
- Conscription of children
- Vulnerable groups – women, children and the elderly
- Disabled persons
- Internally Displaced Persons
- Muslim community in the north and east
- Freedom of expression and the right to information
- Freedom of religion, association and movement
- Follow up action on past Commissions of Inquiry
Return and resettlement
Land restitution: Policy, methodology and assistance was analysed under the following areas and recommendations made in accordance:
- Tamil families compelled to leave homes to escape fighting between LTTE and security forces
- Tamil families coerced to serve as human shields and forced labour
- Tamil families coerced to leave Jaffna to Wanni
- Tamil and Muslim families who lost land due to HSZs
- Families affected by land expropriation in Eastern Province
- Muslims in Eastern Province without agricultural land due to expropriation
- Sinhalese in Eastern Province without agricultural land due to expropriation and eviction
- Sinhalese families evicted from Jaffna and the Northern Province
- Muslim families evicted from Jaffna and the Northern Province
- Families in (former) threatened villages
LLRC points out that the main instruments of reconciliation will be the initiatives and measures taken to address the issues that have been listed. If these initiatives and measures are to be effective as instruments of reconciliation, the values, goals and attitudes that guide the implementation will be crucial.
The National Plan of Action (NPoA)
In order to take forward the Recommendations made in the LLRC Report, the Cabinet of Ministers, in May 2012, assigned the Secretary to the President to monitor implementation of the recommendations made in the Report of the Commission. Accordingly, a National Plan of Action (NPoA) was prepared to monitor the implementation of the Recommendations of the Commission following several rounds of consultation with key implementing agencies. This National Plan of Action was approved by the Cabinet of Ministers in July 2012.
The LLRC Report identified 135 recommendations categorised under five broad themes as follows:
- International Humanitarian Law issues: 6 recommendations
- Human rights: 48 recommendations
- Land return and resettlement: 23 recommendations
- Restitution/compensatory relief: 8 recommendations
- Reconciliation: 50 recommendations
(This writer himself was an invitee to a panel which defined the National Action Plan for the LLRC at the behest of the then President. He lasted one meeting and was never invited again on account of personal rancour on the part of the head of the group! We do not know at the time of writing this piece the nature and shape of proposals our delegation will table at the ongoing sessions in Geneva. Suffice to say we are neither short of knowledge nor institutional memory notwithstanding the language that maybe used by the Government in office.)
School-based Second National Language Policy – A comprehensive school based Second National Language Policy being devised.
- School curriculum on Second National Languages has been developed. (Tamil language for Sinhala students and Sinhala language for Tamil students as a primary tool to ensure attitudinal changes.) Teacher training program on Second Language are in place. Island-wide Second National Language competitions have been introduced. (Tamil language for Sinhala students and Sinhala language for Tamil students.)
- A comprehensive education sector based roadmap for the Trilingual Programme has been developed for implementation in line with the 10-year National Plan of Action for a Trilingual Sri Lanka (see www.llrcaction.gov.lk for plan).Effort to make Sri Lanka Trilingual Nation by 2020.
9.257 – Ensure public universities have ethnically mixed students. Populations with a choice of courses offered in all three languages.
- Experts Committee has made recommendations to Ministry of Higher Education to promote ethnically mixed student populations in public universities. Among recommendations which are being operationalised are:
i.Implementation of student and staff exchange programmes among universities.
ii.Conduct trilingual degree courses in all universities to cater to needs of development, national harmony and peace based activities with special reference to the trilingual teaching need in school system.
iii.Include the subject of national harmony as a credit course in all degrees in universities.
iv.Make acquiring proficiency in Tamil a prerequisite for confirmation in the post for Sinhala employees and vice versa (discussions being held to issue a circular to all universities in this regard).
- Recommendations for which Cabinet approval will be sought are:
v.Make proficiency in Tamil a prerequisite to qualify for a degree by Sinhala students and vice versa with the new enrolments.
Grant credit to students with proficiency in Sinhala/Tamil when it is not their mother tongue when admitting student to universities under the special intake.
The reason for highlighting work undertaken by the Government in 2014 is to emphasise we had an active reconciliation policy at work. The two highlighted examples show serious intent. Recommendation 9.257 is sterling to say the least.
Whilst the present Government may have its own views on commitments made by the previous Government at the UN human Rights Council it could do well to show what they had set place before they left Government in 2015. Unfortunately key policymakers are unlikely to be fully briefed by those in our bureaucracy of the enormous work undertaken in Government.