Sri Lanka: Reconciliation: Of whom, by whom, for whom?


N Sathiya Moorthy  23 August 2018

At last Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has spoken – and spoken the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Going by what he had to say recently about ethnic reconciliation, Time, and not the nation’s political leadership(s), is the best healer. Rather, left to themselves, and without political interference and international inferences, people themselves would do it for the Government and their community leaderships, too.

“Many Sinhalese from the South are increasingly visiting the North, especially the Nagadeepa Vihara and Naga Vihara, while many from the North are visiting the South particularly to see what Colombo looks like,” media reports quoted PM Wickremesinghe at the inauguration of India-funded Gandhipuram settlement for Upcountry Tamil people, in Nuwara Eliya recently. “These visits are gradually becoming a mode of reconciliation. Northern and Southern people are more reconciled today than in the past.”

Therein also is the problem, limited as it may be to such ‘exchanges’. Underlying these inter-ethnic visits to each other’s domain is the fact that they are going there on their business, not to connect with those people there, or with an idea that such visits could help overcome mutual suspicions and fears from the past, and help build mutual acquaintance, friendship, trust and respect, if only in stages. Reconciliation comes after all these stages. Rather, even attempts at reconciliation could be dreamt of only then.

Definitely, we have reached the first stage, but do not seem to have crossed over into the next one. Such a course cannot be forced upon the people, either by Governments or their respective political leaderships, which are personality-driven rather than programme-centric. To put it wryly, if PM Wickremesinghe and his political brethren from across ethnicities could keep talking for some more years on a new Constitution, maybe their people may pass on to the next stage towards reconciliation.

Separatist hobby-horse

Ask a Sinhala hard-liner, he would still want to argue that his people could not visit these pilgrim centres in the Tamil North for decades because of ‘LTTE terrorism’. Ask the hard-line Tamil ideologue, he would want to argue that PM Wickremesinghe has only spoken the ‘Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist’ way.

To him, Wickremesinghe has been so habituated to thinking and talking about Tamils as if they were ‘foreigners’ that he ‘seems to have forgotten that Colombo is the capital for all ethnicities and communities in the nation. With that our Tamil hard-liner can also be expected to climb on to his ‘Tamil separatist’ hobbyhorse all over again.

The fact is that both sides, if called up and cornered, would need to acknowledge that all of it has become possible only with the exit of the LTTE. They however would not want to accept that ethnic reconciliation that was promised at the conclusion of the war has not moved as much as was anticipated / expected, leave alone promised. On the other hand, what successive Governments had promised to the international community and the TNA leadership, from time to time.

Nor has reconciliation of the political kind moved an inch beyond what the TNA leadership too had promised the Tamil people, while asking them to vote in particular ways in particular elections. Worse still, they are in a situation that the TNA needs external referees in the form of the nation’s Supreme Court to tell them who can be a Minister in the Alliance-ruled Northern Provincial Council.

Not until very long ago, even moderate Tamil leaders would not hesitate to cast aspersions on Supreme Court Justices and Benches based on the ethnicity of the former, or a majority of those sitting on a Bench. Less said about Colombo-appointed Governors of the Northern Province the better.

Ministerial dilemma

This does not mean that Northern Province Governor Reginald Cooray’s suggestion that Chief Minister C. V. Wigneswaran’s resignation could end the ministerial impasse involving ‘sacked’ Minister B. Deniswaran could help end the ongoing ‘ministerial dilemma’ in the NPC administration.

Under the Constitution and the Provincial Council Act, the Board of Ministers can have only five members, including the Chief Minister. C.V. Wigneswaran sacked and replaced Deniswaran months ago, but then the Supreme Court had restored the latter, taking the total number of NPC Ministers to ‘five’, at least in technical terms.

The question before Governor Cooray is if he could permit six ministers, including the Chief Minister, to function, which is ultra vires of the Constitution. The question for C.V. Wigneswaran is if he could hold a meeting of the Board of Ministers and take official decisions, keeping Deniswaran out, as it would be contempt of the nation’s Supreme Court.

As a veteran Justice of the Supreme Court, C.V. Wigneswaran should and would know better. In layman’s terms, the available course would be for him to make his ‘replacement nominee’ to quit office voluntarily and get on with the business of governance, with Deniswaran on board. After all, decisions of the Board of Ministers are taken by a majority, though purportedly through consensus, and Wigneswaran seems to be enjoying the numbers.

Ego issues

In a way, it is not about the ‘ministerial dilemma’ in the North, but about what Tamil politicians in the North are more concerned just now. Talking reconciliation with the Sinhalese, both polity and society, will have to wait. The Tamil polity and people of the North need to reconcile themselves, not to the reality of the LTTE’s exit, but to their own problems within the community, within their leadership.

There again, it is not a problem of perception, but one of personalities. The average Sri Lankan politician has conditioned himself to believe that all his ego-linked issues are always policy issues, when they are not even electoral issue of any kind.

It is in this context that media reports about the Northern Provincial Council passing a record 415 resolutions during its five-year tenure, with two more months to spare, makes for news – or, is it a ‘joke’ on their people? In numerical terms, it is a record, but the TNA leadership of the Council should tell the Tamils and the rest of the country, what they were all about and what all even half the number of those resolutions had achieved for the people, whom alone the ministers and members were sworn in, to serve.

Leave aside the ‘unitary’ nature of the nation’s Constitution. Just now, the statute does not empower Provincial Council to pass resolutions that are not binding on the State structure, starting with the President, the Prime Minister-led Cabinet, and Governor Cooray (and his predecessors, earlier).

Constitutional breach

At the end of the NPC’s term, the question arises about the Supreme Court’s action/reaction if it had been approached for a verdict on the Council’s conduct in passing resolutions on ‘Subjects’ that the Constitution specifically did not assign to it. Rather, the Constitution had specifically prohibited Provincial Councils and PC administrations from handling them.

Maybe, there is no power for the Government at the Centre to interfere with the functioning of PCs and elected PC administrations. However, it might be different if the Supreme Court were to find fault with a particular PC, for violating the Constitution. It could be the behaviour of their own administration in the North.

Coupled with the fact that it is being headed by none other than a veteran Justice of the Supreme Court, the TNA leadership seems to have understood the need for empowering the Sri Lankan State, President and the Centre to intervene in such matters – under the new Constitution draft, now on the anvil.

Such behaviour, then, was/is not exclusive to the ‘war-psyched’ Tamil leaders, alone – though that is not an excuse for their collective behaviour in a constitutional forum, through which they could have also done at least half as much for their people as they want the Centre to do. ‘War-psyche’, if that is the phrase in their case, should also explain why long after the ‘Second JVP insurgency’, the party leadership used to keep talking about the Tamils as if they were aliens carrying a dreadful virus in their brains, especially.

In a welcome departure – not necessarily the first one since the war’s end – JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake is reported to have condemned the ‘unnecessary fear psychosis’ which prevailed in the South. What more, speaking as if for the Tamils, he said that the “people in the North would never leave any room for a return to violence”.

That is something that the Tamil political leadership should pause, and listen – taking time off from their internal squabbles and look outwards as much as they have been accustomed to looking only inwards. Then and then alone, can they hope to make the nation believe that they are here with their varying demands for ethnic reconciliation – only for their people, and not for themselves.

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