Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Role of civil society - II

Post-war Sri Lanka:



Wickremesinghe exchanging Memorandum of Understanding with Ven Maduluwawe Sobitha thera in 2015 for cooperation between the UNP and the NMSJ (National Movement for Social Justice)

By Shamindra Ferdinando

The Consultation Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanisms (CTFRM), headed by attorney-at-law Manori Muttetuwegama, in January 2017 recommended that the proposed Judicial Mechanism (JM) to try cases of war crimes have at least one foreign judge in every bench. But, the CTFRM made it a point to stress that the majority of the judges will be Sri Lankan.

The CTFRM released the report on the eve of the third anniversary of President Maithripala Sirisena’s victory over his predecessor Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The CTFRM consisted of Manouri Muttetuwegama, Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, Gamini Viyangoda, Prof. Sitralega Maunaguru, Dr Farzana Haniffa, Mirak Raheem, Prof. Gameela Samarasinghe, Visaka Dharmadasa, Shantha Abhimanasingham, PC, K.W. Janaranjana and Prof. Daya Somasundaram. Among the CTFRM members are some prominent civil society activists, including literally translator Gamini Viyangoda and attorney-at-law Janaranjana, key speakers at events organized by Purawesi Balaya, the leading civil society grouping.

The writer last week dealt with the role of the civil society and the one-time LTTE mouthpiece, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), in shaping the political landscape with the focus on the latter’s deplorable relationship with the LTTE.

The CTFRM essentially comprised civil society activists. Inclusion of civil society activists in the CTFRM, established in accordance with Geneva based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) strategy, underscored the pivotal importance of their role.

The called for full participation of foreign judges, and other personnel, including defence lawyers, prosecutors and investigators, in transitional justice mechanism to address accountability issues.

The 11-member CTFRM stressed that foreign participation was required as those who had suffered during the conflict had no faith in local judiciary, which lacked expertise to undertake such a task. They endorsed Human Rights Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein declaration in Colombo, in February, 2016, that the judiciary here was incapable of undertaking the process. The Jordanian questioned the integrity of the local judiciary.

The writer, on numerous occasions, including on the live TV programme, Face the Nation, hosted by Shameer Rasooldeen, strongly defended the CTFRM proposals. Among those on the Face the Nation panel on that day were Dr. Pakiasothy Saravanamuttu and Dr. Jehan Perera, who had accompanied the government delegation to Geneva in 2017. The writer is of the opinion that full participation of foreign judges and other experts will help Sri Lanka to reveal the truth and establish the accountability of those now shedding crocodile tears.

NGO funding for media

In the wake of Janaranjana’s resignation as the editor of Ravaya, in late January this year, the attorney-at-law has revealed NGO funding received by Ravaya during his tenure as the editor. In a piece published in Feb 11, 2018, the edition of Ravaya, Janaranjana explained the circumstances leading him to quit, unceremoniously. Janaranjana was responding to founder editor of Ravaya, Victor Ivan, essay that justified the senior colleague’s departure. Janaranjana’s battle with Ivan is certainly not relevant to the examination of the civil society’s involvement in the current political crisis.

The inordinate delay in holding scheduled local government polls finally transformed countrywide the Feb 10 polls to a referendum on the performance of the UNP and the SLFP. Having suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Joint Opposition/Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna, President Maithripala Sirisena’s SLFP caused chaos by making an abortive bid to oust UNP leader and PM Ranil Wickremesinghe. An embarrassed Sirisena has been forced to accept Wickremesinghe as PM and explore ways and means, jointly, to solve the crisis triggered by the SLFP’s ill-fated strategy.

Sirisena and those now remaining after 16 out of 41 UPFA parliamentary group loyal to him had deserted him in the wake of the April 4 vote on the No-Confidence Motion (NCM) are desperately trying to stabilize the SLFP. In a desperate bid to find time and space to address the deteriorating situation, Sirisena last Friday prorogued parliament.

Director General of Government Information attorney-at-law Sudarshana Gunawardana issued the following statement to the media: "By Gazette notification (Gazette Extraordinary 2066/43 of April 12, 2018), with effect from Thursday 12th April 2018, the Parliament was prorogued. The next Parliament session will commence on 8th May 2018. The prorogation is the period between the end of a Parliament session and the opening of the next Parliament session. Under Article 70(4) of the Constitution of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka "All matters which, having being brought before Parliament, have not been disposed of at the prorogation of Parliament, may be proceeded with during the next session" Therefore, the prorogation of Parliament has no negative impact on the functioning and operation of the Government."

Of course, Gunawardana, whom the writer associated with for some time, was performing his duties. No one can find fault with Gunawardana for doing his job. However, the writer felt in wake of Gunawardana’s new responsibilities, Janaranjana’s revealing comment on his (Gunawardana’s) NGO ‘Rights Now’ should be examined. Thanks to Janaranjana, those interested in studying NGO/civil society ‘operations’ can examine the arrangement between Rights Now and Ravaya. The writer does not consider for a moment that the arrangement is inappropriate or illegal. The right of an NGO/civil society to acquire space in print media shouldn’t be a matter for concern. All print media, including Upali publications, accept advertisements from NGOs/civil society, hence there cannot be any issue as regards Rights Now having a long term arrangement with Ravaya.

‘Rights Now’ project

Denying Victor Ivan’s claim that he hadn’t been aware of Janaranjana’s involvement with Rights Now, the former Ravaya editor claimed that Ivan was informed in 2008 of him being the Chief Executive and Director of the NGO. According to Janaranjana, Victor Ivan was told of his relationship with Rights Now when he accepted the post of Acting editor, Ravaya in 2008, after having served the weekly as a page lay-out artist and cartoonist.

Janaranjana revealed that at the inception of Rights Now, on his recommendation, the NGO bought one full page of Ravaya to promote its ideals. Substantial foreign NGO funds were made available to Ravaya via Rights Now and the arrangement is continuing, Janaranjana said, disclosing another project that received foreign NGO funding.

Janaranjana admitted that him being involved in these projects either as a senior member of Rights Now or as editor of Ravaya. In the run up to the last presidential polls, the writer participated in a live TV debate, on Derana, hosted by Chatura Alwis, featuring Sudarshana Gunawardana and Ven. Dambara Amila.

Responding to Victor Ivan’s criticism that his political activity had caused debilitating damage to Ravaya, Janaranjana explained the formation of Purawesi Balaya in late 2014 against the authoritarian Rajapaksa administration. Purawesi Balaya project was meant to mobilize the public against the then administration. According to Janaranjana, Victor Ivan had been one of those aware of the planned formation of the civil society group and spoke to the then Colombo Mayor UNPer A.J.M. Muzammil to secure Hyde Park for its inaugural meeting on Dec 2, 2014. Their primary objective was to bring all political elements opposed to the Rajapaksas onto a common platform. Except for JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake, all other invitees, including twice president Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga had joined the Dec 2 rally.

Janaranjana revealed discussions he along with other Purawesi Balaya representatives had with President Sirisena and PM Wickremesinghe from time to time to stress the implementation of the 2015 mandates, received in January and August.

Like his colleagues, Viyangoda and Saman Ratnapriya, Janaranjana strongly believes the responsibility on the part of Purawesi Balaya to constantly remind President Sirisena and PM Wickremesinghe of their obligations towards the electorate.

Although, Purawesi Balaya has sought to depict itself apolitical, no less a person than Janaranjana, who had been instrumental in forming the grouping is on record as having said that their effort was meant to thwart Rajapaksa’s bid to secure a third term.

Janaranjana, in his bid to defend his position vis a vis accusations directed at him, referred to an attempt made by Milinda Moragoda, one-time UNP Minister, who subsequently switched his allegiance to President Rajapaksa, to acquire Ravaya for a sum of Rs 20 mn. The agreement between Ravaya and Moragoda had been negotiated at a time the publication was experiencing dire financial crisis though Ravaya managed to overcome the difficulties with the help of a group of people represented in the Ravaya board of directors. Viyangoda has been one of the two directors with the other been Udan Fernando. Sale of Ravaya to Moragoda could be thwarted due to those who loved the paper making available funds to the tune of Rs 20 mn. Had the Ravaya-Moragoda agreement went through, it could have surely dealt a blow to the grouping that took on the Rajapaksas.

Civil society objectives

Civil society grouping’s primary objectives remain the enactment of a new Constitution in accordance with the Geneva understanding and maximum possible punitive action against those who had been responsible for corruption, war crimes and alleged killings. In the run-up to the Feb. 10 local government polls and after, civil society groups reiterated their call for speedier implementation of the much-touted promises. In addition to Purawesi Balaya and the late Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha thera’s National Movement for Just Society (NMSJ), several other groups propagate similar views. Platform for Freedom aka Nidahase Wedikawa, strongly campaigns for new Constitution, accountability process and justice for families of those allegedly killed by the government.

Civil society owed an explanation to the country as to why Sri Lanka should follow Geneva Resolution 30/1 as the very basis of the document co-sponsored by Sri Lanka in 2015 Oct has been challenged in the UK House of Lords. In accordance with the Geneva Resolution, in addition to the Office of Missing Persons (OMP), Sri Lanka has agreed to establish a truth seeking commission, an office for reparations, and a hybrid judicial mechanism with a special counsel. Civil society and the NGO cannot under any circumstances ignore evidence that had been placed before the House of Lords because the CTFRM included key members. Purawesi Balaya alone had two key members on the CTFRM panel.

Senior representative of Families of the Disappeared Britto Fernando recently faulted President Maithripala Sirisena for the inordinate delay in the implementation of the Geneva pledges. Addressing the media at the Center for Society and Religion, Maradana, Fernando pointed out that the failure to establish OMP for so long after the passage of the relevant law couldn’t be justified under any circumstances. The government should be ashamed of its failure, Fernando said, blaming the President for easily giving in to those Buddhist monks and the likes of Joint Opposition parliamentary group leader Dinesh Gunawardena opposed to the Geneva initiative.

Fernando flayed President Sirisena for twice putting off the debate and vote on the Enforced Disappearances Bill scheduled to be taken up on July 5 and Sept. 9 last year due to political pressure.

Alleging that President Sirisena lacked strength to overcome the JO challenge, Fernando warned of dire consequences unless the government addressed accountability issues in accordance with the Geneva Resolution. Fernando recalled how former President Mahinda Rajapaksa had to pay a heavy price for not heeding the international community.

Fernando strongly condemned Minister John Seneviratne (SLFP) and UNP MP Kavinda Jayawardana for being recently critical of the OMP. Alleging that National Freedom Front (NFF) leader Wimal Weerawansa had exploited the situation to his political advantage, Fernando said that the likes of Seneviratne and Jayawardana playing politics with such a sensitive issue couldn’t be justified under any circumstances.

Interestingly, key civil society/NGO activists have been accommodated in the OMP.

Yahapalana dilemma

Having benefited from civil society and NGO efforts, President Sirisena and PM Wickremesinghe cannot ignore their concerns. Whether the SLFP and the UNP accept tolerable interference, civil society and NGOs are determined to pursue their post-war strategies. During the conflict NGOs and civil society groups played a different role. It must be stressed that during the war and the immediate aftermath of it, Purawesi Balaya and NMSJ weren’t in existence. Those who executive a particular strategy here or in any other part of the world cannot be expected to be wholly independent. They have no option but to pursue the dictates of their sponsors who like any other investor expected the beneficiary to its bidding regardless of consequences.

Obviously, current course of action adopted by the UNP is certainly not to the liking of Purawesi Balaya and others with similar objectives. Purawesi Balaya asserted that in case Wickremesinghe emerged victorious at the vote on NCM, he should immediately end association with Sirisena. Ven. Amila, at a hastily arranged media briefing called by Purawesi Balaya declared Wickremesinghe should abandoned Sirisena and proceed flat out to meet the 2015 mandate. But, Wikremesinghe, much to the disappointment to his allies is in the process of working out a common agenda that can be implemented in spite of the SLFP being further weakened due to 16 members breaking ranks at a crucial point as the three major political parties, namely the UNP, the SLFP and the JO/SLPP battle for control. Both the UNP and the SLFP are heavily influenced by civil society/NGOs with both parties constantly reminded of their obligations to the 2015 mandate.

Yahapalana leaders as well as civil society activists have conveniently failed to recognize that the 2015 mandates would never have been a reality if the Rajapaksas and their ‘A’ team comprising Gen. Fonseka, Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda, Air Marshal Roshan Gunatilleke, STF Commandant DIG Nimal Lewke and the intelligence services chiefs did not lose their nerve. Sorry, the writer is unable to mention those officers and men who had made victory possible over the separatist LTTE.