Recent incidents in Jaffna are a matter for concern. Two such incidents have widely publicized and have attracted much commentary. Both of them involve the civilian population and the security forces. One case has involved Tamil women recruits into the army and the other university students who were commemorating the war dead. As a result of these incidents the political debate about inter-ethnic relations in relation to the government has taken a turn for the worse. The good work that the government is doing in terms of post-war economic development and recovery is being negated in increased acrimony. The cycle of political grievance, protest, repression and violence that culminated in internal war needs to be guarded against. The experience of the past would suggest that the better way is through political reform that is mutually acceptable.
In its most significant observation, the final report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission appointed shortly after the end of the war by President Mahinda Rajapaksa stated that the political situation at has become basically similar to the situation that existed when the country obtained its independence in 1948. The problem at that time was how to share political power equitably between the ethnic majority and minorities. This problem remains unresolved to this day. In its voluminous report the LLRC has provided country with the vision and tools to make a break with its divided past. There are more than 160 well thought out recommendations in the report of which about one half have been taken on board by the government in its LLRC Action Plan. But even the half that has passed muster with the government has yet to be implemented in any substantial manner.
The LLRC report can be counted as among the major achievements by the government. The LLRC was originally established by the government as a defensive measure. It was to forestall an anticipated hostile UN investigation into the last phase of the war and human rights violations that allegedly took place at that time. Due to its comprehensive quality the LLRC report has gone far beyond the original scope of what was intended or hoped for, as noted by its nationalist detractors. Indeed, it has taken the centre stage of the international dialogue with the Sri Lankan government regarding post-war reconciliation. The government is bound by the UN Human Right Council’s resolution of March 2012 to implement the LLRC report. In March 2013 the government will have to report back to the UN about how well it has implemented the LLRC recommendations.
Some of the LLRC’s recommendations are in the process of being implemented. The government has allocated over Rs 1 billion to implementing the LLRC recommendations, although it appears that the bulk of it is for physical infrastructure development in the North and East which bore the brunt of the war. Explaining the background to the recruitment of over one hundred Tamil women into the army, the military spokesperson has been quoted as saying that the army was among the first state agencies which had taken cognizance of the LLRC report. He had also explained that in order to implement the LLRC recommendations it was decided to recruit both Tamil men and women from the North into the army. The affirmation by the Ministry of Defence that it is considering the LLRC report and implementing it is a welcome indication of governmental receptivity to taking the reconciliation process forward.
However, the debacle that ensued as a result of trying to implement the LLRC recommendations in an ad hoc manner has also become evident. The LLRC recommendations are comprehensive and inter-connected. It is unfortunate that the government has not given adequate thought to the enabling environment, within which individual recommendation can best be implemented. Even the government’s action plan takes on board only about one half of the LLRC’s recommendations. The other half is ignored. These include such important recommendations as dealing with the problem of missing persons without which there can be no closure and healing to thousands of families who are missing their loved ones. In the case of the army recruitment, several of the new Tamil recruits had to be sent to hospital after they had become seemingly possessed by evil spirits.
It appears that the problem here was one of miscommunication. Media reports indicate that the women believed they were being offered administrative jobs in the military. When they found out that they had been taken in to do regular military training, they wished to leave. When they were not given immediate permission to leave, the mental trauma apparently led to group hysteria. The problem is that the government had not acted on another LLRC recommendation that would have addressed the problem of miscommunication. The LLRC has also recommended the full implementation of language policy to include action plans broken down to the community level and covering divisional and local bodies with targets that can be monitored with citizens participation (LLRC recommendation 9.241)
Among other important LLRC recommendations that have not been implemented are those pertaining to the withdrawal of the military from civil administration as soon as possible (LLRC recommendation 9.134). Another is the relocation of the police department from out of the Ministry of Defence and the establishment of an independent Police Commission that would ensure that all police personnel act independently and maintain a high degree of professional conduct (LLRC recommendation 9.215). it is unfortunate that these recommendations do not have a place in the government’s LLRC action plan. The incident that involved the security forces from entering into Jaffna University and assaulting students there might have been averted if these two recommendations had been followed.
The assault on the students occurred when a group of students lit lamps on the day formerly commemorated by the LTTE as their Heroes Day. This year LTTE Heroes Day coincided with a Hindu religious day in which the dead are remembered by the lighting of lamps. Usually these remembrance services are held in temples and the homes of people. But this year the students decided to conduct a remembrance service in the university premises where they were resident. The coincidence of LTTE Heroes Day and the religious remembrance gave rise to suspicion on the part of the government that the real purpose was to keep the memory of the LTTE alive.
As the university is a state institution, and the war ended little more than three years ago, the university staff ought to have been mindful of the concerns of the security forces and that they might believe it was within their scope of protecting national security to disrupt the remembrance service. There was also evidence of opposition political backing for the remembrance service. There was a lack of responsibility in their failure to guide the students in relation to the possible consequences. Several students were arrested and some have been sent to rehabilitation camps where former LTTE cadres have had to spend time. This is a severe punishment to them. In addition, the breakup of the lamp lighting service within the university was done in a reportedly brutal manner. This has caused bitterness within the Tamil community. Even if the government felt that the memorial service within the university premises could not be tolerated, the use of the police rather than the army to deal with the problem would have been the better option.
The wisdom of the LLRC report is that it offers the way to address Tamil nationalism politically rather than militarily, and thereby strengthen the process of national reconciliation. Another one of the LLRC recommendations that did not make it into the government’s LLRC action plan was to set aside a separate event on National Day to express solidarity and empathy with all victims of the tragic conflict and pledge collective commitment to ensuring that there should never be such bloodletting in the country again (LLRC Recommendation 9.285). Along with the rest of the LLRC recommendations that did not find their place in the government’s LLRC action plan, detaching the police department from the Ministry of Defence and setting up an independent Police Commission to guide it are matters that need to be taken up by the government if it is serious about ending the spiral of ethnic polarization and paving the way for national reconciliation.