Dialogue Between Government, TNA And Civil Society Is Necessary For Trust

By Dr Jehan Perera

The Indian government’s invitation to the TNA to meet with its top leaders including Prime Minister Narendra Modi and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj has given it renewed importance. Although the TNA won an impressive victory at the Northern Provincial Council election last year,it has been unable to convert this into tangible benefits to the people who elected it or show any progress in terms of an overall political settlement that would address the roots of the war.However, this failure of the TNA is not unique to it.The other opposition parties have not been able to put adequate pressure on the government to meet their demands either.The government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa has proven to be obdurate in pursuing its own priorities without considering the priorities of others.

The visit of the TNA parliamentarians to India, and the encouragement they have received from the Indian government to pursue a political solution based on the principle of devolution of power as found in the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, has boosted their stock within Sri Lanka.The TNA has received a great deal of media attention after their visit.

They are now seen as a force to reckon with, as they enjoy India’s backing.

This turn of events was not anticipated by the government, which was lulled into believing that the nationalism of the new Indian Prime Minister and ruling party would resonate well with the nationalism of the Sri Lankan leadership. There was a hope that was given credence by visiting Indian government advisors who showed no empathy for ethnic minority aspirations.

gotha-22However, the Indian government has made it known that its policy on Sri Lanka is not variable and changeable, and is in conformity with the policy of earlier governments. The Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987, the lives of Indian soldiers lost in the vain effort to disarm the LTTE and the implementation of the devolution of power to the provinces continue to be the drivers of Indian policy towards Sri Lanka. On the other hand, India has also made it clear to the TNA that the responsibility for arriving at a settlement with the Sri Lankan government cannot be shifted to either India or the international community.The message to the TNA has been that it will have to find a solution by engaging with the Sri Lankan government, and not be disengaging with it.

 

External reliance

The many failures of Tamil parties over the past six decades since Independence to obtain a political solution in negotiations with the Sri Lankan government have induced them to place their reliance on external powers.

Even today the hope of the Tamil political leadership appears to be to find the solution to their problems through international pressure. But it is evident that such external pressures will be resisted by the Sri Lankan government which has long demonstrated its skill at mobilising the fears and apprehensions of the Sinhalese majority about the harm to the national interest. Ironically, it seems that the greater the international pressure, the greater is the resistance to it from within Sri Lanka. Therefore if a solution that is mutually acceptable is to be achieved it will require direct negotiations between the government and TNA.

A meeting on Thursday between Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa and representative of ten non-governmental organizations revealed a possible opening for a dialogue to commence. These NGOs represented a wide range of interests including development, environmental protection, small business development, human rights, peace and humanitarian relief.

The Defence Secretary is the key person where national security is concerned and the devolution of power would fall into that domain. The discussion between the Defence Secretary, his close associates and the NGO representatives was cordial and covered the areas of interest of the NGOs who were present.

There was a discussion on the government’s handling of missing persons, the surveillance of NGO activities and the unwillingness of some NGOs to dialogue with the government. The Defence Secretary explained his position on each of the problems that the NGO representatives brought up. He urged the NGOs present to discuss their problems with the government rather than internationalisaing them.

The apparent thaw in the government’s approach to NGOs and the readiness of the Defence Secretary to dialogue with them is a positive development.

It comes close on the issuance of a directive by the NGO Secretariat which is under the Ministry of Defence that NGOs should keep within their mandate and not issue media releases or engage with the media in training activities.

The more benign policy that might be coming into being now may be due to international pressure that is mounting, even as the date of the next UN Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva draws near. The Defence Secretary offered to meet regularly with civil society representatives. This is an invitation that needs to be taken up and built upon.

There is today an urgent need for dialogue between the government and NGOs as there is a need for a dialogue between the government and TNA. Without face to face interaction there cannot be the development of trust which is the glue that keeps the fissures that exist in any society, or relationship, from breaking apart.

The end of the war has provided the opportunity for people from the different ethnic communities to come together and to discuss issues.

People at the community level are prepared and willing to engage in joint activities, whether it is discussing together or doing something concrete together, that will heal the wounds of the war.

Their political representatives and civil society leaders can do no less, and need to find ways to dialogue and work together.