Saturday, 11 July 2015

Post-war national reconciliation: Diaspora factor



By Shamindra Ferdinando

The UK headquartered Global Tamil Forum (GTF) had been ‘in the thick of things’ when the US moved a resolution, against Sri Lanka, at the 19th session of the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), in March, 2012.

The successful US resolution was the first of three moved since the conclusion of the war, in May, 2009. The US stepped-in after a Canadian attempt to garner support for an anti-Sri Lanka resolution in Geneva, in the previous year, flopped.

GTF’s Suren Surendiran had been among those Diaspora activists, especially sent to Geneva, during that period. The writer, accompanying the government delegation, first met Surendiran at a side-event, at the UNHRC, where the two sides traded accusations over accountability issues et al. Slain EPRLF MP Sam Thambimuttu’s son, Arun, SLFP organiser for Batticaloa, spearheaded the government ‘offensive’ at the event, presided over by the then Human Rights Minister, Mahinda Samarasinghe (Arun humiliates Diaspora during Geneva confrontation-The Island, March 6, 2012).

In spite of sharp differences, over accountability issues and related matters, The Island established contact with the GTF, paving the way for The Sunday Island to carry a hard-hitting statement, issued by Surendiran (GTF proposes two pronged strategy for reconciliation - The Sunday Island, March 4, 2012). Since the GTF has received uninterrupted coverage though The Island on numerous occasions, countered the GTF. The GTF was launched on Feb 24, 2010, in the UK House of Commons, with the participation of the British Foreign Secretary, David Milliband, Conservative Shadow Foreign Secretary, William Hague, and Liberal Democrats Shadow Foreign Secretary, Ed Davey, as well as delegates from 14 countries. The writer had an opportunity to meet GTF leader, Rev Father S. J. Emmanuel and the GTF’s Director for Strategic Initiatives & Spokesperson, Surendiran during a recent visit to London, where the GTF duo explained their stand on post-war national reconciliation process, consequent to them having met a high level government delegation, including President Maithripala Sirisena, and Foreign Minister, Mangala Samaraweera.

Deputy Foreign Minister, Ajith P. Perera, recently acknowledged the government delegation in London, on the invitation of the UK government, meeting with the GTF in early March. The following are the excerpts of an interview with Surendiran last week:

(Q) General elections will be held on 17/8. As a concerned non-resident Sri Lankan, what are the issues do you believe should be the concern of a voting Sri Lankan?

(A) As Sri Lankans collectively: The economy, the budget deficit, controlling public expenditure, fiscal policies, creating a conducive investment friendly environment to encourage foreign investment.

Policies that will help social, economic and technological advancement for all people of all regions. Policies that will aid great health care and education which is fundamental to all people.

Foreign policy that will see Sri Lanka, in the best light, by countries from the west to east and from north to south, by developed and developing countries. Policies that will enable Sri Lanka to practice and demonstrate that Sri Lanka abides by international laws, covenants and conventions. Policies that will encourage people to visit Sri Lanka without second thought.

Policies that will create equal opportunities for women and less abled people.

Judicial system that is independent, just and impartial.

As Tamils from North and East, who are sometimes identified as ‘Eelam Tamils’: In addition to all of the above, policies that will enable resolutions to specific needs and demands of our people. For example:

= Arriving at a negotiated political settlement that will resolve the long overdue Tamil National question

= Investigating and serving justice to our people upon whom a barrage of human rights abuses, including breaches of international human rights and humanitarian laws, that amounted to war crimes and crimes against humanity

= Large swathes of private land that are still illegally occupied by the military

= Disproportionate number of military personnel that still remain in the North and East

= Intimidation and arbitrary arrests still continue

= Military remains engaged in day to day life of Tamils in North and East

= Sexual violence continue against the tens of thousands of war widows and others

= Tamil men and women still live in fear even more so in the Northern and Eastern provinces

= Several hundreds of political prisoners still remain in custody without being charged

= The Prevention of Terrorism Act is still not repealed

With some or all of the above, people from religious minorities including the Hindus, Muslims and Christians:

= Be able to practice their religious faith without fear and without being intimidated or discriminated

= Be part of a secular state as equals

(Q) Mahinda Rajapaksa wants to be the Prime Minister of this country. Your opinion?

Mahinda Rajapaksa is an overwhelmingly rejected leader, as recently as on 8 January, this year, not even six months ago. While the majority of the minority communities in Sri Lanka, be it Tamil, Muslim or Christian overwhelmingly rejected him and in some electoral districts by over 80%, the majority Sinhala Buddhist community also rejected him as he only mustered 47% of the overall vote in a historical turnout of 81.5%. This abysmal performance was even after illegally deploying the entire state apparatus including the state media in support of his own campaign. Although alleged before the election, since his defeat in January, a lot more information on the widespread corruption and the magnitude of it has started appearing. Allegedly, his family and he have literally robbed the state. That is depriving Sinhala, Buddhist, Christian, Muslim and Tamil future generations of this country.

Mahinda Rajapaksa may have won the war but lost the people. He may have united the land but divided the people.

Sri Lanka, under Mahinda, was one of the most dangerous places for journalists, one of the highest in corruption index, we made history by appointing a female Chief Justice and removing her in record time by a politically motivated decision, several resolutions passed against Sri Lanka at an international institution like the UNHRC for the mistakes of a few, the country was internationally isolated, incompetent unqualified persons represented us at our embassies and international institutions, carrying a Sri Lankan passport felt embarrassing, lost the GSP plus preferential export facility from the European Union, Nearly ran out of foreign currency reserves, the highest budget deficit on record, at the worst position since independence for interest bearing loans, lack of governance and financial control that enabled in failed state ventures like Mattala Airport, Mihin Air, Hambantota Harbour which resulted in multimillion dollar losses for the state to bear, above all created a dysfunctional society with religious hatred and communal tension between communities that has never existed to the level that it did, during his tenor.

With this devastating track record, the only people who may campaign and vote for Mahinda Rajapaksa’s return are the ones who have a lot to lose, personally, in the absence of such a failed state.

(Q) What is your assessment of President Maithripala Sirisena and the UNP lead minority government since 8 January?

(A) Passage of the 19th amendment, along with other steps taken to democratise the state and its institutions have significantly altered the unfortunate political culture and practices adopted in Sri Lanka, in the recent past. These newly adopted progressive changes annul the trend set by the previous regime, and effectively place the country back in the right course to work towards more meaningful and democratic constitutional changes in the future. The spirit of change and the new political atmosphere involving consultations and compromises are breathtakingly fresh in the context of Sri Lanka and give hope that such conditions, if further developed, will be conducive to resolve other pressing issues faced by the people.

We also recognise the positive steps the government has taken to address certain immediate concerns of the Tamil people. These include removing of military Governors and appointing civilians as Governors for the Northern and Eastern Provinces, transferring of small sections of land back to the rightful owners, releasing of a few Tamil political detainees and the review of the proscription of Tamil diaspora individuals and entities. Though limited in scope they are still significant.

However, large swathes of private land are still illegally occupied by the military, disproportionate number of military personnel still remain in the North and East, intimidation and arbitrary arrests still continue, military remains engaged in day to day life of Tamils in North and East, sexual violence continue against the tens of thousands of war widows and others, Tamil men and women still live in fear even more so in the Northern and Eastern provinces, several hundreds of political prisoners still remain in custody without being charged, the Prevention of Terrorism Act still not repealed, above all the Tamil National Question remains unresolved.

Momentum developed by passing of the 19th amendment and other positive initiatives taken to provide limited relief for the Tamil people, should be developed further to be stepping stones, to resolve the long standing Tamil national problem in Sri Lanka. In this context, it is important that the government accelerates implementing these initiatives and also takes meaningful steps to comprehensively address the issues related to alleged war crimes, serving of justice, political resolution and reconciliation.

(Q) TNA has won many elections in the North and East. In your opinion will that success story continue?

(A) Undoubtedly! Our people have made history in the recent past by turning out in larger numbers than ever before to practice and effect their democratic right. In Jaffna electoral district, there was a percentage increase in the turnout at the recent Presidential election compared to the Northern Provincial Council election, in 2013. Although ranging between 66% in Jaffna and 77% in Trincomalee electoral districts, at the recent election, it has still been lower than the national average of 81.5%.

I am sure the people in North and East will come in vast numbers breaking records at this forthcoming general election to elect representatives who will serve our people without discriminating, on the basis of religion, caste or social status, but as responsible leaders.

TNA should, and will, I am sure, place a precise, unambiguous and practical set of principles and policies as their manifesto commitments that our people can trust and depend upon. TNA has a great selection of experienced members who have effectively served at the Parliament conscientiously under the tremendous leadership of Mr R Sampanthan. Mr Sampanthan has navigated the Tamil cause with reasonableness which in turn has been acknowledged by leaders of the south and in the international community.

I am sure our people will acknowledge and recognise this and vote in vast numbers to strengthen the hands of the TNA at the negotiating table in the future.

(Q) Among all Diaspora organisations, GTF has gained recognition within Sri Lanka and internationally, in a relatively short time since the end of the war. How did that come about?

(A) If that status you have described is an accurate reflection, then it didn’t come easily. Sheer hard and committed work by many brought it to this status. As an organisation, we also followed certain basic code of conduct to discipline ourselves. For example, we committed ourselves not to comment or contradict in public of statements, actions or activities of another fellow Tamil organisation - be it from Sri Lanka or in the Diaspora. As an organisation, from our formal inauguration, at the UK Parliament, in February, 2010, we also committed that we will not issue statements for the sake of it, or to play it to the gallery. As a responsible organisation largely working in international diplomacy and lobbying, we pride ourselves for maintaining discretion, which is fundamental. Some of these behaviours and actions earned respect amongst various media and rights organisations as well as within governments of adopted countries. GTF has always acted honourably and reasonably when articulating grievances of our people, in Sri Lanka at international forums. This earned respect from organisations and like-minded people of all ethnicities and religions of Sri Lanka. We have a clear and transparent strategy in how we want to deal with issues and grievances of our people in the island, which we generally refer to as the ‘Four Pillar Programme’. They are:

= Agreeing between Tamil representatives, based in Sri Lanka, and in the Diaspora, a Common Framework Agreement (CFA).

= Engaging the civil society, political and non-political representatives of the South, without discriminating on language, religion, social status or party affiliation to communicate and engage to explain our grievances and understand from them their own grievances and why resolving the political issues including the Tamil National Question is seen or felt as a threat to them. Explain the possible mutual benefits that will be gained by all communities as peace dividends if a durable political solution could be negotiated to the Tamil National Question.

These types of cross community engagements, at different levels of the society, can also be a way to bridge the trust deficiency that exists between communities that have been promoted over the past nine years of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s reign.

= Actively lobby and create awareness, within the international community, international institutions and governments regarding the injustices and alleged breaches of international laws, including international human rights and humanitarian laws that amounted to war crimes and crimes against humanity. Lobby for international independent investigation of both sides to establish the truth and obtain justice to enable the people who lost their loved ones to be able to move on, which may allow sustainable reconciliation between communities in the future.

= To work to resolve the socio economic needs of the people in the war affected areas with international help.

We intend to do all of the above with the help of the people in Sri Lanka, in the diaspora and the international community, including India.

Obviously, everyone can see that none of these are against the State of Sri Lanka, or its sovereignty, or any group or particular community of Sri Lanka or promotes violence or terrorism. This enabled GTF to work with like-minded people, groups, organisations, media and political and non-political parties within Sri Lanka.

GTF prides itself as one of the most effective and efficient groups that partners with the elected representatives of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka.

(Q) As a spokesperson, you seem to have been on most recognised international media be - it television, radio or print media. How do you assess the Sri Lankan media?

(A) As mentioned above, the GTF’s position and its strategy helped earn friends, not just within the international media, but also within Sri Lanka, in all three languages. At first, it was impossible to break into the Sri Lankan media with the iron fist of Gotabaya Rajapaksa who had created a culture of fear. Initially, we were very grateful for the coverages that were given to us by some of the web - based exiled journalists, particularly the likes of Lanka News Web, Colombo Telegraph, etc.

The Island newspaper was the first Sri Lanka - based daily newspaper to give space and coverage under extremely difficult circumstances, I am sure. We salute some of the brave journalists of Sri Lanka, of all languages of many who have perished in the line of duty.

As representing a diaspora organisation, we believe our effectiveness will be at best only when our activities, actions and statements have a profound impact in the discourse and political and democratic processes in Sri Lanka and within the international community, which in turn should create positive impact for our people in Sri Lanka.

If, as you described, GTF is a successful organisation, that success so far was not possible without the bravery of the journalists who have covered some of our activities and statements at different junctures over the past five years, under extreme circumstances, that sometimes even threatened their own lives. We will always remain very grateful.

(Q) Now that MR has been assured nominations, from the UPFA, to contest the general election, would you like to comment on the ground situation?

(A) As I’ve mentioned earlier, for all the crimes that Rajapaksa, and his friends, and family have committed, against the State, and the all communities, including the Buddhist Sinhala community, he shouldn’t be given nomination. He and his family should all be tried in a court of law and put behind bars.

(Q) What is GTF’s post-election strategy?

(A) GTF’s core strategy will remain the same as explained above, within the ‘Four Pillars’. However, we intend being proactive in engaging with all communities as a priority, next step.