Freedom: Take III

Thursday, 5 February 2015 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Heads of armed forces salute President Maithripala Sirisena as he arrives to preside over the 67th anniversary of Sri Lanka’s independence from British colonial rule yesterday at Sri Jayawardenapura Kotte - Pic by Sudath Silva
    Colombo’s streets are dressed up to mark this great day. For the island’s 6.5 million population it’s a public holiday. Behind the underlying festivity are the crowd’s somber faces; expectant but not overly excited. Ceylon is taking independence quietly – BBC, Ceylon Gains Independence, 4 February 1948   A few mornings a week, Independence Square receives a VIP visitor. He arrives in an unmarked, nondescript pickup truck, accompanied by two people. One is a personal trainer. The other, a bodyguard. In a glossy blue t-shirt, track bottoms and neon-laced sports shoes, President Maithripala Sirisena could be just another morning walker at the Square. But within minutes, he is flanked by an entourage. Dozens of people begin to keep step with the President as he tries to complete his morning exercise routine. Ladies stop for selfies. Bridal parties insist on an official portrait featuring the President on the steps of the historic Independence Hall. He obliges often, smiling shyly and cutting a strange figure in his exercise outfit, completely overshadowed by the dazzling attire donned by the wedding party. The desire of citizens to get close to this President, to walk with him, to talk to him, to share their mundane morning routines with him, speaks to the level of citizen engagement his victory in last month’s election is crafting. Politicians and Presidents, with their beefy security detail and their tinted SUVs, have always driven away the citizen, who were either repulsed by the show of strength or feared it to get too close. But this small-made man of simple tastes and quiet speech, lacking in the raw magnetism and popular appeal of his predecessor, is evoking a different response. He will not be addressed as ‘Excellency’. He will not move lock stock and barrel into the Presidential Palace, preferring to reside in his old ministerial quarters at Wijerama Mawatha. He will not purge his office or his security contingent of Rajapaksa loyalists. He has personally tasted the power of the executive presidency, its attraction and appeal. That is why, President Sirisena says at least, it has to go. Shaping a different type of presidency In the first euphoric 30 days, Maithripala Sirisena is already looking to shape an entirely different type of presidency. For nine long years, all Sri Lankans have known is the construction of a gaudy personality cult by its former Head of State. As memory faded of pre-Rajapaksa Sri Lanka under the weight of a propaganda project that spanned nearly a decade, citizens had experienced only the supreme arrogance of the presidency and the arrogation of its powers to a single individual and his kith and kin. President Mahinda Rajapaksa, it appeared, never got enough of looking at himself. Supporters and sycophants deified and attributed royalty to him. He was “maharajaano”. He was “appachchi”. He was the “senehebara thaththa”. He was never Mr. President. He was never the servant of the people. He was the Grand High King. Citizens were his subjects, rewarded only if they were unquestioningly loyal. He basked in the glow of their compliments and shaped his presidency in the image of the ancient monarchies. The first time he took oaths as President in a democratic swearing-in ceremony. The second time was a coronation. On 8 January 2015, Sri Lankans rejected the Emperor. They decreed that it was democrats that must lead the country, not modern day-monarchs. The battle against Rajapaksa authoritarianism and dynastic rule was in every sense a liberation struggle. It was a clash of ideas and a fight to reclaim the republic. The Sri Lankan voter chose that day to be ruled not by kings, but by people much more like themselves. Maithripala Sirisena carries that burden. He must be as different as possible. These are early days, but thus far, he seems intent to ensure his presidency and that of his predecessor, who inspired such ire against the powerful office are as different as possible. Independence Square has assumed an important place in the story of the Sirisena presidency. He chose the historic site to take the presidential oath of office, at dusk on 9 January, linking his victory in the historic election to the memory of that first freedom struggle 67 years ago. It has also inadvertently become a meeting place, between a President and sections of his people.     National Day celebrations Less than a month after his election, President Sirisena would preside over the 67th anniversary of Sri Lanka’s independence from British colonial rule. For years, National Day celebrations have focused on the military. With Kfir jets thundering overhead and warships lining up on the shimmering seas, heads of state and dignitaries would oversee the military show of strength to reassert Sri Lanka’s capability to protect its sovereignty and independence. Under President Rajapaksa, it became a day to for flexing the muscles of a military state. Every 4 February would be followed by 18 May, another display of military strength to mark the defeat of the LTTE in 2009. Yesterday’s ceremony was markedly different. There were no air shows or water bodies upon which to float vessels of war. Battalion after battalion did not walk past the President, allowing him to inspect the raw power that was his to command. Instead the event was held at Parliament Grounds, with a small contingent of the armed forces and their chiefs performing the honour guard and gun salute to mark Sri Lanka’s 67th Independence Day. President Sirisena neither used electronic prompters nor read from a written speech when he addressed the nation yesterday. But for the first time since the end of the war, the Sri Lankan President spoke on National Day about connecting hearts and minds across the north and south, six years after the guns had fallen silent. From the outset, the new Government maintained its approach to this national day would be different. President Sirisena’s address to the nation was preceded by a special peace pledge delivered in all three languages. On behalf of the Government of Sri Lanka, the statement expressed sympathy and regret about all the victims of the 30-year civil war and all violence since Independence and pledged to never to allow the country to “be soaked by the blood of its citizens” again. The gesture was not a big one. But over the last six years even small gestures of peace and reconciliation have been hard to come by. Yesterday’s baby steps appear to be a monumental shift in the approach to national reconciliation by the new administration. The pledge of peace was a key recommendation of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, which strongly felt that politicians on both sides of the Sinhala and Tamil divide needed to apologise to all Sri Lankans for their failures that had resulted in decades of blood-letting and ethnic strife. The LLRC also recommends singing the National Anthem in both Sinhala and Tamil at national events. Yesterday’s event did not feature the implementation of this recommendation, but there is clear ground-setting for such gestures in the future, once public appetite and perceptions are altered towards the delicate business of reuniting and reconnecting dividing communities. Perhaps it was recognition of genuine efforts by the new administration to narrow the divide in the reconciliation discourse that brought Tamil National Alliance Leader R. Sampanthan to the Parliament Grounds yesterday. His presence marks a major epoch in relations between Tamil politics and the Sri Lankan state, when he became the first of the ITAK leadership to attend an Independence Day celebration since 1972. Also on the dais was TNA National List Legislator M.A. Sumanthiran.     Real changes unfolding on the ground The fact that the sober Independence celebration came on the back of a series of measures adopted by the Sirisena administration since its first day in office, towards advancing the reconciliation process, makes it all the more significant. The gestures are not empty, because they buttress real changes unfolding on the ground. The appointment of H.M.G.S. Palihakkara and Austin Fernando as Governors, or Presidential representatives to the Provinces of the North and the East respectively, mark one such major shift. Both respected civil servants, they replaced ex-military men who have held the positions since the end of the war. On assuming duties as Eastern Governor last Friday, Fernando dismissed the bulk of his armed guard back to barracks, retaining only two soldiers for personal security. The new Governors will act less like commanders and more like executive liaisons, taking the concerns of the provincial administrations run by the TNA and the SLMC back to the centre, and trying to build understanding and consensus between the Central Government and the Provincial Councils. The ban on foreign nationals travelling to the Northern Province was also lifted, days after President Sirisena took office. Realising that the Chief Secretary of the Northern Province was a major bureaucratic impediment to the Northern Provincial Council run by the TNA, President Sirisena transferred the contentious official out of the Province and replaced her with one of the country’s best civil servants. The Government is also pledging to return lands seized by the military in the north to its rightful owners and has promised to review the list of detainees being held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. The TNA believes this process to be too lethargic still, but Government Ministers insist the delays are procedural rather than indicative of a lack of will. The UN probe and foreign policy Naturally, none of these efforts are accidental. The single most formidable challenge facing the new Government, even before Parliamentary election, is the country’s plight before the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. With the Rajapaksa administration in power, a probe into allegations of major human rights abuses during the last seven years of the war had been launched by the UN in August last year. The report from those investigators are due to be released on 25 March, in Geneva. Key to warding off a major diplomatic challenge at the UN a month down the road are major concessions domestically to advance the reconciliation process. This was the delicate balance the Rajapaksa Government had never managed to understand. International will for action against Sri Lanka on the war crimes issue had always been lukewarm. The Rajapaksa administration’s bluster and wanton flouting of international norms and human rights – even post-war – bolstered efforts by powerful Western nations at the UN to hold the regime to account for its actions during the final phase of the war. The international community embarked upon this course of action in the full knowledge that the process would lead practically nowhere. Appetite to fund a full-scale war crimes tribunal on Sri Lanka or mobilise UN member states to impose international sanctions on the country remained low. The international community’s best hope therefore was to sustain pressure at the UNHRC in order to bring at least bilateral sanctions against Sri Lanka and push the previous regime into prosecuting several cases in the domestic sphere. The new Government, with its expert advisors and considerable skill with engaging the diplomatic community and foreign governments has grasped the contours of the battle very quickly. What has followed is an effective two-pronged strategy. On the one hand, the Sirisena administration is making concessions to the north and east to build trust with the Tamil people and ensure tangible changes on the ground. As a second part of the strategy, it is determined to lobby Western nations that have sponsored resolutions against Sri Lanka over the past three years, and the UN to lift the pressure on human rights and defer the report on the investigation by several months or even a year. It is safe to say that the regime change that followed the 8 January election took the world community by complete surprise. Major international players were settling into the long game, against the Rajapaksa administration which looked like they were set to remain in power for at least a decade. The ballot box revolution last month has international diplomats scrambling for responses. While the defeat of the Rajapaksa administration has been met with a euphoric response from India and much of the West, President Sirisena’s victory has also raised major questions about the UN process to ensure accountability in Sri Lanka. Compounding the problem, sources with knowledge into the UN probe claim, is the fact that the report scheduled for release in March needs much more work before it can be set out as a credible evidential documentation of war crimes during the war. A six-month deferral of the report, perhaps till the UNHRC session in September 2015, would give UN investigators a chance to fine-tune the report, activist groups said. The frantic shuttle diplomacy, which has seen top US and British officials visit Colombo in the past week, en route to Geneva for consultations there, and Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera’s journeys to India, Brussels and Washington in the first 40 days of the Sirisena presidency, are strongly indicative of a major lobbying effort being undertaken by the new Government. Undoubtedly, the Ranil-Mangala-Dhanapala-Palihakkara combine offers great hope for Sri Lanka to fix its foreign policy and effectively overcome its international challenges. The Prime Minister has already proved adept at engagement with the international community, prompting the LTTE to ensure his defeat by calling for the Tamil boycott of the 2005 presidential election. From a foreign policy perspective, Sri Lanka is in safe and capable hands, almost certain now of preventing international intervention on accountability grounds. For a six-month deferral of the UN report, the Sri Lankan State is likely to offer the UNHRC something in exchange. In all likelihood this will include expediting investigations and prosecutions into what UN Rights Chief Navi Pillay famously called certain “emblematic cases” of human rights violations domestically. With Chief Justice Sripavan at the helm of the Judiciary, and the equilibrium restored in Sri Lanka’s Upper Judiciary, the case for the sufficiency of domestic jurisdiction grows stronger and more credible.     Justice and truth-seeking The intrinsic flaw in the plan however, is the potential to see Sri Lanka’s problems at the UNHRC as purely a failure of foreign policy and engagement with international allies. The Rajapaksa administration certainly exacerbated its international problems by failure to engage effectively with traditional allies who had supported its war effort against the LTTE for years. But at its heart, Sri Lanka’s issues at the UN are also about justice and truth-seeking. This is not a problem unique to the war against the LTTE or its brutal final chapter in 2009. The lack of accountability for major crimes by parties that have included the State have plagued Sri Lanka since the 1971 youth insurrection, in which according to conservative estimates, some 30,000 lost their lives. In the second insurrection, between 1987 and 1989, double the number of lives were lost. The Sri Lankan people have always allowed the perpetrators of violence to get away with it. Nobody was made to account for those deaths and the immunity has resulted in repeated cycles of brutality and violence in this small island for the better part of 40 years. The UN process, while internationally contoured, is rooted in domestic failures, to achieve justice and closure for victims of violence outside and beyond the separatist war.     The TNA It is this failure that gives the TNA pause, on the promise to the international community that the Government will establish a credible domestic mechanism to address accountability. The Sri Lanka State, TNA Leader Sampanthan says, has always only been an impediment to the truth-seeking process. “All Sri Lankans must know the truth about what happened at the end of the war,” the octogenarian Tamil politician explains. “This is crucial to promoting national reconciliation.” Neither Samaraweera nor Wickremesinghe are Sinhala nationalists or hawkish politicians who want to see ethnic divides perpetuated. As they undertake the diplomatic effort to push back against an international mechanism to address accountability therefore, it is crucial to carry the TNA – at least its more moderate sections – with them. The need to accommodate the concerns of the TNA led by Sampanthan becomes doubly important because they were major stakeholders in the effort to propel Maithripala Sirisena to victory in January this year. On 8 January, the Tamil people disregarded the calls of the more hawkish sections of the TNA and UPFA Ministers like Douglas Devananda who told an election rally for Mahinda Rajapaksa in Jaffna that the presidential election was not the Tamil people’s fight. “Vote in provincial council elections or parliamentary elections, when you have to elect Tamil leaders,” Devananda said in a covert boycott call. On election day, the people of the north turned out in large numbers to vote overwhelmingly for change. The Tamil people’s interest in the poll would vindicate Sampanthan and other moderate sections of the TNA who were confident the Tamil people would vote. These were sections of the party who were asserting their belief in democracy and rule of law as founding stones upon which justice and equality for Tamil people could be built. The hearts of Tamils in the north and east therefore, lies not with Ananthi Sasitharan and Sivajilingam of the TNA, but still with Sampanthan, Sumanthiran and Wigneswaran. These are the last Tamil moderates, men who survived the LTTE’s brutal form of nationalism and lived to represent their people in the post-LTTE phase of their history. They are neither terrorists nor proponents of violence, but moderates who believe in not two Sri Lankas, but one. None of them view their role in Sri Lankan politics to lie purely within the ethnic framework, a fact reinforced by Sumanthiran being among senior members of the legal fraternity leading Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake back to Supreme Court on 29 January, to end a national crisis that transcended the ethnic struggle.     A moment like no other The 67th anniversary of Sri Lanka’s independence is a moment, therefore, like no other. A moment when Maithripala Sirisena, Ranil Wickremesinghe, Chandrika Kumaratunga, Anura Kumara Dissanayake and perhaps even a reformed Champika Ranawaka can sit across a table to start a real discussion on political settlement of Sri Lanka’s national question. Across them will sit not Prabhakaran or Anton Balasingham, but C.V Wigneswaran, a Supreme Court Justice whose children have married Sinhalese, M.A. Sumanthiran, a human rights lawyer and Royalist, one of Sri Lanka’s last Tamil moderate statesmen of a certain generation. A solution within Sampanthan’s lifetime is Sri Lanka’s last best hope for a resolution to an ethnic conflict that has blighted life after independence. It is naive to believe that decades of animosity can be reversed overnight. But the foundations can be laid by the current, progressive Sinhala-Tamil leadership to take the discussion forward. It will be the first time in history that Sri Lanka begins a true discussion about reconciliation and power sharing, without a gun being held to its head – as it was in 1991, 1994 or 2001. With the election of Maithripala Sirisena with the overwhelming support of the minorities, Sinhalese and Tamil leaders come to the table on equal terms, as equal stakeholders to preserve the future of Sri Lankan democracy. Sixty-seven may not be a significant number. It’s not a diamond jubilee or a ruby anniversary. But between 1 and 67, there has perhaps never been a moment such as this one. The liberty struggle in 1948 was uncannily like the struggle fought and won on 8 January 2015. It was the moment when Tamils and Muslims joined the Sinhalese to stop authoritarianism in its tracks. In 1948, leaders without the wisdom of experience about the futility and brutality of war, ethnic division and animosity would squander hard won liberty from colonial rule. 2009, Sri Lanka’s next best opportunity to achieve true freedom for all communities, was lost in the victory and triumphalism of a few. That was when one community dictated to another, how to be grateful. How to mourn their dead. This time, in 2015, another opportunity lies before us to achieve freedom and unity. It could come not as victor’s gift, or the compromise of the defeated, but through consensus of equal citizens with equal stake in the collective destiny of their nation. President Maithripala Sirisena, the son of a peasant who hails from deep Sinhala country, perhaps stands now at the cusp of history. Six years after the war ended, he has a moment to build a legacy that only Mahinda Rajapaksa could have rivalled, had he grasped his potential to unite instead of divide at the end of the war. Sixty-seven. It’s not a significant number. But it could perhaps be transformed into a monumentally-significant moment.  
President Maithripala Sirisena exercises with a trainer at Independence Square – Pic courtesy AFP

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