By Sugeeswara Senadhira
The task of balancing the sensitivities in the South and North is indeed a tightrope walk. This unenviable mission of President Maithripala Sirisena was aptly described by Venerable Kollupitiye Sangharakkitha Thera of the Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara at the ‘Aaloka Pooja’ to invoke blessings on the soldiers who sacrificed their lives for the motherland. He said that President Sirisena worked for reconciliation with utmost dedication and honesty, and even risked his southern voter base for this policy.
“People and the country cannot progress through divisions and separations,” President Sirisena said. Everybody should get together and work in understanding with each other and find a solution for this question. That is what is required for the country today. Many people who mess up the problems don’t have any ability to solve them. I invite the Venerable Maha Sangha, other religious leaders, scholars and intellectuals to sit around one table and discuss about this matter. It is everyone’s responsibility to ensure that the sound of gunfire is not heard once again. Everybody should take the responsibility to build the economy for all the people in a fair society.”
In these circumstances, another pit was dug by the well-meaning, but outspoken, Cabinet Spokesman Rajitha Senaratne with his comparison of soldiers, JVP militants, and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) terrorists. Although he was correct in stating that all of them are citizens of Sri Lanka, there is a distinct difference between a soldier and a terrorist. His ill-timed statement caused uproar and the extreme nationalist elements in the South were jubilant because they could use it as a weapon to attack the Government, without considering about the long-term harm that it would cause reconciliation efforts. Finally, President Sirisena was compelled to intervene. Without mincing words, the President said some people did not understand the difference between a war hero and a terrorist.
Steps for reconciliation
The Unity Government has taken many steps for reconciliation. Thousands of acres of land in the North and East, temporarily acquired by the Army during the conflict were returned to the original owners and now the armed forces retain only a small extent of land essential for the security and defence of the military bases. Furthermore, singing of the national anthem in Tamil is in practice today, despite the objections from the extremist elements in the South. The Government also deviated from the practice of a grand victory day celebration with pomp and pageantry, as it could hurt Tamil sentiments. The Ranaviru Commemoration Day is now being held as a commemoration of the members of the forces who sacrificed their lives for the motherland, and not as a victory day.
While the Government has taken these bold steps toward reconciliation, it is distressing that similar reciprocal signals are lacking from Tamil leaders. The belligerent move by none other than Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran, to hold a commemoration ceremony to remember the dead on the death anniversary of LTTE Leader Velupillai Prabhakaran is a case in point. Hitherto, the 18 May remembrance was held on a small scale, without the participation of the Chief Minister. This year, not only did the erudite former Supreme Court Judge led the ceremony, but he also allowed youth clad in black to hold a motorcycle parade. It is surprising that a person like Wigneswaran has resorted to such tactics, which could lead to another youth uprising, that Sampanthan, Sumanthiran, and Wigneswaran may not be able to control.
Unfortunately, Wigneswaran and other Tamil leaders have become hostages to Tamil Diaspora politics. The West-based Diaspora leaves no stone unturned when it comes to attacking the Government. Last week, British Member of Parliament, Hywel Williams raised the issue of former Defence Attaché, Brigadier Priyanka Fernando in the British Parliament. Fernando allegedly made a threatening gesture at members of the Tamil Diaspora, who demonstrated in front of the High Commission. Minister of State for Asia and the Pacific, Mark Field said that he had met Foreign Minister Tilak Marapana during the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in April and “the former Defence Attaché’s position was formally ended by the Government of Sri Lanka on 15 April.”
Last week, Cabinet Spokesman Rajitha Senaratne was asked by a section of the media to specify if civilians were killed in the battle against the LTTE. He replied truthfully, that in any war, some civilians were bound to perish. He failed to mention that when the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Sri Lanka met in the British Parliament, Michael Morris, Baron Naseby PC expressed the hope that, as a result of the debate in Parliament, the United Kingdom (UK) will recognize the truth that no one in the Sri Lankan Government ever wanted to kill Tamil civilians.“Furthermore, the UK must now get the United Nations (UN) and the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Geneva to accept a civilian casualty level of 7,000 to 8,000, not 40,000. On top of that, the UK must recognize that this was a war against terrorism, so the rules of engagement are based on international humanitarian law, not the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR),” Baron Naseby said.
Dr. Senaratne could have used Baron Naseby’s statement to clarify the issue and shut the mouths of those prejudiced media personnel.
President Sirisena appointed Foreign Minister Tilak Marapana to lead the Sri Lankan delegation to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) meeting in March 2018 in Geneva, and the Minister reaffirmed the country’s total commitment to the reconciliation process. He briefed the Council about the steps taken, including the setting up of the Office of Missing Persons (OMP), the release of lands acquired by the military and other developments.
While the reconciliation process is progressing in all fronts, it is surprising to see the growth of hostilities in the North, especially when it comes from a once respected Supreme Court Judge turned Chief Minister, Wigneswaran.