BY SULOCHANA RAMIAH MOHAN
Assistant Secretary US Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labour, Tom Malinowski who visited Sri Lanka from 2 to 4 April briefed the media on the progress under the new Maithri Government. He also visited Jaffna and Aluthgama to see and hear the voice of the people. He met a couple of journalists before his departure on Saturday.
“He said, after following events in this country over the course of my career, I was privileged to make my first visit to this week. During my three-day trip I visited Colombo, Jaffna, Mullaitivu, and Aluthgama, where I had the opportunity to meet with government officials and members of civil society for productive discussions on a range of critical human rights and democracy issues.
“While in Colombo, I met with Presidential Advisor Jayantha Dhanapala, Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera, State Minister of Defence Ruwan Wijewardene, Minister of Urban Development Rauff Hakeem and Northern Provincial Council Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran. We discussed the government’s efforts to renew democratic institutions and reforms that, if successfully implemented, can advance reconciliation and accountability.
“I met with some brave and accomplished civil society representatives, including religious leaders and human rights activists. Those with whom I met welcomed the positive steps taken by the government, but we agreed that more important work remains to be done, and the United States looks forward to partnering with this government and people to support that work.
“I also delivered remarks at a seminar on women and post-war reconciliation, and praised the work some women are doing to bring people together across ethnic and religious lines. I was honoured to visit Mullaitivu, and in particular, to walk along the beach, where thousands of humans lost their lives in the final weeks of the civil war. There, on behalf of the United States and its people, our delegation paid our respects to the suffering and losses on both sides, and prayed for lasting peace and reconciliation.
“As I noted in Colombo, the people and their new government have taken a great leap already to reclaim their traditions of democracy and tolerance. The country is at a pivotal moment in its history where there is a genuine opportunity to achieve reconciliation, justice, and true peace. That will require, in part, looking backward to acknowledge the suffering of the innocent and account for the wrongdoing of the guilty on every side. It will require turning promises into actions that rebuild trust, for example returning land to civilians, as the Army has begun to do, and answering the anguished questions of families whose loved ones went missing or had disappeared after the war.
“Often these issues are portrayed as being of interest only to one group or community in, rather than all. But it is increasingly clear that all sections want to resolve and move past the unanswered questions remaining from the war, that all feel they would benefit from having a government that is more accountable and transparent, with less impunity and corruption, and more opportunity and inclusion.
“This is a process that the people are counting on, to resolve the problems they have identified. But if it keeps moving forward, there will be the added benefit of a closer partnership with the United States and a stronger place on the world stage. We will continue to support the government’s impressive efforts and urge further progress until the work begun this year is done and the promise of a peaceful, democratic, conclusion is fulfilled.
During a roundtable question session the journalist posed questions. Following are some of the excerpts:
: There is more emphasis by the US and others about how many changes have occurred simply because the election took place in January this year and a government changed thereafter. What beyond the change in government do you see that encourages for you to believe that there is a real change, for instance domestic mechanism and the path taken towards it.
A: It’s not just the election or just the change of government but it’s about the change in commitment and the change in direction. A year ago, had I been here, I could not have had the conversations I had with the government without virtually every problem being denied. Now the problems are acknowledged, and the country is reaching out for partnerships in an effort to help address them.
There are many actions that still needed to be taken and I think everybody here with whom I have spoken including the government today will acknowledge that we have seen some initial actions. For example, returning of the land to people in the North, release of some prisoners and relaxation of control on the media. I also think there is a lessening in the sense of fear of self censorships that was prevalent here in the past.
I want to stress that we certainly don’t see this as a finished process, virtually everything is ‘unfinished’, but it has only been about three months since the new government came to power. So sometimes it is better to walk steadily, rather than walk quickly and stumble. As long as the country is moving forward, in this direction which it has felt to do so, not from what was imposed from outside forces, but the direction that the people have chosen, it will have the support of the international community.
: One of the urgent needs the northerners were looking for from the new government was that to give them more preferences to issues related to the North and one major request was to know about the political prisoners and the list of the people who went missing, had disappeared and held by the government whereas the new government went about reinstating a civil servant as the Northern Governor, reinstating the four star general and reinstating the office of the CJ before she retired.
So the legal problems the civilians in the North face has not been concentrated nor given any promises as to what they would do related to the political prisoners whether they are alive or dead.
Also on the land release, Ceylon Today on its visit to these areas also saw the land in some part in the Jaffna District being released, however, there are new areas that have been taken by the Forces, after having put up new fences around them. Will the US show keen interests on such new developments as the government has not made any promises so far and people think the government is hoodwinking them.
A: On the issue of missing people and the disappeared ones, this is something that I know to be of intense interest to families in many parts of not only the North. We did visit there and met some of those families. So we have heard from them. But what I think is this:
The issues of accountability and reconciliation that are being faced are very complicated. They will take time to resolve and we don’t expect those difficult questions to be resolved in a matter of months.
But the families who lost their loved ones, and those families who lost those who have disappeared, deserve to know their fate: whether they are alive or dead. If they are alive, where are they? That is something that should not have to wait. That is something which is relatively straight forward and it should happen very soon. We understand it to be extremely important to those families, perhaps the most important thing the government can do in the short term to restore trust even as it addresses the much more complicated question of how to achieve accountability that in a way satisfies all the people of this country.
On the general question, I like to repeat that nothing is settled but something has begun and it is very heartening that something has begun. Also it did not begin because of the international community but because of the will of the people. The role of the international community is to continuously encourage this progress and process. We do not assume success or predict success but to promote success and we will do in partnership with people.
: what further role wills US take in the HR Council and what would happen after September this year.
A: What we know is that in September the H R commissioner will release the report on its findings. The US supported the decision to delay the report to September too, but we still strongly support the decision to release the report in September. We hope to continue to work between now and September and build up a domestic process that will be acceptable to the people so that report can feed into the domestic process eventually. What happens after September is yet to be determined. what I can say is that it would continue to be of intense interest in the international community whether reflected by actions of the human rights council with bilateral engagement with the government in seeing this process continuing until the people of this country have a closure.
: Is the US concerned about the time frame for the local mechanism.
A: I want them to speak, and I don’t want to speak on behalf of the government. My sense is that there is a strong desire to demonstrate some progress. First and foremost in response to what the people are asking for besides, recognizing that the report will be released in September is in the country’s interest to show the international community that is making a credible effort.
: Although it has been a broader issue of the North we see more emphasis US has on more than one community now. Why was that not pushed harder before and making it more apparent now.
A: It has always been that case, perhaps people who have to do what I have been doing for several years now, I think it is easy to understand when there is a war that is claiming lives on both sides, the focus was on that war perhaps the exclusion of some of the broader complicated problems that affected everybody in the society that it deserved news coverage. But the situation now, it is evident that people have a broad range of concerns and that is not only the people of the North who were concerned about impunity but also the people of the East who are concerned about democracy, corruption and peace. When officials get used to behaving with impunity towards one community actually they could behave with impunity with all communities.
That’s a terrible thing but perhaps the silver lining is that it is unifying and everybody recognizes that there is an interest in a government that is accountable and open to different voices and resolve problems through political debate and not violence. People here have clearly spoken in that respect that is very impressive to all in the country and in the world.
One of the messages we had been delivering in the meeting is that many countries around the world are undergoing terrible happenings some of them similar to events in the history but was on the defensive stage in the last few years and now it has an opportunity to be a leader to demonstrate a positive model to rest of the world how a complicated multi religious multi ethnic society can resolve its problem through a democratic process. And we look forward to see that.
: What did you witness during your visit to Aluthgama.
A: We wanted to learn about what people had gone through and to see if there were any chances of progress from the previous years. We showed our interest and concern and the efforts to promote peace and reconciliation between the Sinhala and Muslim communities. It feels like there has been a progress. Good relationships have been built now with their neighbours, but the violence was caused by irresponsible people exploiting religions and religious differences.
I think they all expressed a ‘cautious optimism’ I would stress ‘cautious optimism’. In this new situation things can go back to a harmonious setting but we will be watching carefully because there’s nothing more dangerous than politicians playing with religions dividing people and encouraging conflicts using religion, which is sensitive and personal, partly which is also a persons’ identity.
: The domestic mechanism South Africa used as a model is what the government seems to be keen on. Is the US keen and interested in learning how that can be adapted by us? Will that work.
A: We are keen to learn too… Well, this is up to the people who have to decide how to take it forward.
We are keen not just to learn only but the US is willing to provide any support needed. That support can take many forms like in the form of forensic investigation, helping with exhumation of graves, it can take the form of technical assistance to prosecute overall bodies, or helping in sharing experiences of other countries.
This is again up to Sri Lankans to determine how to go forward but we will continue to encourage a process that brings a closure and justice because experience gathered from many countries teaches us, that, that is the best way to ensure lasting stability and peace.