Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena, in his address to the UN General Assembly in New York on Tuesday, asked the international community to support Sri Lanka’s “slow but steady progress’ towards post-war ethnic reconciliation as well as economic progress and decried ‘haste’ in the matter.
It was in 2009 that Sri Lanka defeated the LTTE after over thirty years of a bloody civil war that put the country in the death throes, affecting both the people and the economy.
Mahinda Rajapaksa, the then President of the country, did not think of implementing in reality his grand words uttered at the ceremony to declare the war victory, in which he maintained that ‘there are no minorities’ any more in the country.
By the time Rajapaksa was ousted in the 2015 Presidential elections, the roads, railways, bridges, airports and ports built by him mainly as signature projects, had not transcended the point where they brought significant meaning and wellbeing to the people most impacted by the ethnic conflict – the Tamil minority.
Roads and railways had connected the North with the South of the country but had brought little genuine reconciliation between the two communities which continue to be divided owing to the ultra nationalistic political rhetoric on both sides of the divide.
However Sirisena, elected in 2015 primarily on the vote of the ethnic minorities of the country, namely, the Tamils and Muslims, is pre-occupied in a constant tug-a-war to be the savior of Sinhala Buddhism – his challenger being former President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Or perhaps it could be said that Sirisena is warding off being seen as the ‘traitor’ to the Sinhalse or the national cause. This has cost him precious time which he could have used to take bold steps without bothering about pleasing sections of the populace that obviously had not been his main voter base.
“Haste will not yield good results and the slow and steady path is the most suitable one to restore religious and communal harmony so that people of all communities could live in peace and harmony as equal citizens,” Sirisena told the UN General Assembly just over two days after he instructed that the parliamentary debate on the Bill to ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances (CPAPED) should not held as scheduled on September 21.
The International Convention came into force on the 23rd December 2010 but only 57 out of the 193 member states of the United Nations have become State Parties by incorporating the convention into their domestic law.Ten member states of the European Union have signed the convention.
With Sri Lanka signing the convention in December 2015 there were fears that ratifying such a law would jeopardize the members of the armed forces as well as national sovereignty.
Critics of this international convention include former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who pointed out that the UK and the US have not become State Parties to it. Mahinda Rajapaksa’s style (especially in his days as President) was to out rightly challenge western powers and therefore often seen as straightforward in his hawkish approach .But the current President is seen as unfathomable by some.
The strategy adopted by Sirisena is seen as warding off home criticism by nationalists with one set of words and decisions while taking parallel decisions or announcing them for the benefit of the international gallery and casually quitting these commitments once the immediate need for it is seen as waning in the international sphere.
Sirisena’s call on Tuesday for more time to implement his government’s promises connected with post war reconciliation and accountability related steps comes in the background of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Prince Zeid Ra’ad bin Hussein lambasting Sri Lanka at the Human Rights Council earlier this month for slow progress on reconciliation issues.
Insisting on the implementation of what he called ‘concrete steps’, Zeid declared that the Lankan government should not be merely “ticking boxes” to please the international community.
Among the demands by the Tamil minorities is clarity on the issue of those who have ‘disappeared’ during the war, a full release of civilian lands held by the military, and the release of LTTE suspects held without charge.
The total number of suspects held without being charged is around 100. Meanwhile, since 2009, up to 2016 end 30,000 acres of private lands held by the military had been handed back while 4,000 acres of private lands are still with the armed forces.
The Tamil National Alliance in its call for returning of land generally includes government lands on which the military have constructed camps and other enterprises such as farms.
The acceleration of the return of private lands commenced under the present regime alongside some attempts at incorporating reconciliation and economic relief measures into government policy and it is in this backdrop that President Sirisena called upon the international community to ‘seriously consider the tremendous progress’ made by his government towards reconciliation, restoration of democratic freedoms, human rights and the rule of law.
One of the major visible contrasts between the tenure of Rajapaksa and that of Sirisena is the current freedom of speech and lack of fear that that surrounded the minorities.
However with the Western powers insisting on the pursuit of war crimes and the setting up of hybrid courts with Sri Lankan and foreign judges, the political dividends that the former President reaps from the Sinhala majority nationalists are vast.
Consistently, from the time of his defeat in 2015, Rajapaksa has used every avenue created by the United Nations to cry out from roof tops that the country is being betrayed by Sirisena and taken over by the West and thereby create a route to power for his family.
Although some see the backtracking by Sirisena on some of the steps promised by him and give international publicity such as the debate for the ratification of the International Convention on Disappearances, as a politically shrewd move where he comes on top as managing the West in a strategy different to Rajapaksa, it could be also interpreted as weakness and giving into pressure by Sinhala ultra-nationalists.
Either way it is Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brothers that come on top of the political see-saw they have not got off from since 2015.