Building a new Sri Lanka that calls for political, not juridical, action

The report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on Sri Lanka describes a painful truth that Sri Lanka has to confront, accept and act upon. It is welcome that the new, post-Rajapaksa regime promises to undo the damage and build an inclusive, democratic nation. It must be supported to make good on its word and held to moral and political account.

The report quantifies and classifies the pain the most intense phase of Sri Lanka’s long civil war has inflicted on its people, Tamil, Sinhala and Muslim. Unlawful killings, deprivation of liberty, enforced disappearance, torture, sexual violence, abduction and forced recruitment, use of children in hostilities, denial of humanitarian assistance, continued military presence and violation of human rights in Tamil-dominated areas of the north and the east, six years after the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was decimated -after surveying these, the report suggests measures to move ahead.

Truth and Reconciliation

A controversial recommendation is to create a judicial process involving foreign experts to punish the guilty and bring justice and reparations to the victims. The Tamil Nadu assembly has endorsed the demand. This is unlikely to help the Tamil cause in Sri Lanka, despite the vociferous support for the demand among Tamils in Sri Lanka and outside.

Ultimately , truth and reconciliation are the only guides to peace and stability . Judicial processes to punish the guilty are viable in the case of crimes that are committed by individuals arising from individual motive and choice. When much of Sri Lanka’s state apparatus was party to the violence perpetrated on Tamils and when the depravity and violence of the LTTE helped feed the majoritarian passions behind the entrenched, violent bias of the Sri Lankan state, attempts to fix individual responsibility for all the crimes of the era would be not just futile but serve as active obstacles to reconciliation.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission that the present government of Sri Lanka has proposed is welcome, but will not succeed even to the partial degree to which the South African one proved effective, after Nelson Mandela set it up. There is a huge contextual difference.

The wronged, oppressed party to the civil war in South Africa emerged victorious and decided to reconcile with the past, including by granting amnesty to several hundred past oppressors. The magnanimity of the underdog who overcomes is different from the magnanimity of the majority in Sri Lanka, which crushed a rebellion by the minority.

When the minority seeks truth and justice, it does so from a position of weakness and welcomes any possibility of help from the outside, particularly when it comes from a nonpartisan agency like the UN agency for human rights. This is understandable. Yet, the demand serves more to address the pangs of liberal conscience set off by the horrors the UN agency found in Sri Lanka than to help the political process Sri Lanka needs of building a new, inclusive na tion based on a new constitution that devolves power to minority areas.

Political Task, Not Juridical

Tamils were forced to take up arms by the majoritarian denial of their rights. Their language lost its official status, Tamil festivals ceased to be holidays, Tamils found it difficult to get jobs and faced generalised dis crimination. This was wrong and in ability of moderate Tamil leaders to correct this wrong through demo cratic means led to the Tamil strug gle taking non-institutional forms.

It is not just the Tamils who have suffered. Sri Lanka is, and has been, the country with the most advanced human development indicators in all of South Asia. Instead of leverag ing these to emerge as another South Korea, the country lost decades to civil war. Rebuild itself, Lanka must.

For that, the foundations have to be democracy and justice.

Democracy is not just rule by the majority, but also safeguarding the rights of minorities. That would mean guaranteeing certain funda mental rights to all citizens and de volving power to areas where the minority is numerous. Democracy functions not among stateless citizens but within the framework of a functional, sovereign state.

Importing foreign judges and other experts to carry out sovereign functions of the Lankan state would take away from the integrity and perceived legitimacy of the new government and its self-assigned task of building a new state on a firmly democratic basis in Sri Lanka.

What of justice? Indeed, perpetrators of torture, rape and killings that went beyond the remit of state force needed to combat the LTTE must be brought to book. Sri Lanka’s own state machinery must do this.

The larger justice Lankans Tamils deserve has to come from fundamental political changes in the state structure to give them rights that cannot be breached in the future. The truth of the horrors the community has been subjected to must be not just covered up but serve as a blazing torch that illuminates structural injustice the ethnic minority has suffered and leaves no room to quibble on the need for reform.

But Lanka’s Tamils need more than promises of reform. The new government must scrap the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act, demilitarise the Tamil areas and rebuild their infrastructure, besides producing a timeline for adopting a new constitution. The government must give free access to foreign observers of various kinds, without involving them in sovereign functions.

Politicians in India must support constructive reform in Sri Lanka, not score political points over Lankan Tamils. They will also do well to appreciate the national tragedy majoritarianism wreaks, without fail.