Tuesday, 21 August 2018

A controversial post-war national reconciliation project



By Shamindra Ferdinando

Ven. Dr. Omalpe Sobitha thera recently flayed the Office of National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR) over the launch of a radio drama series meant to promote post-war national reconciliation. Alleging the radio drama series ridiculed and undermined Buddhist values, Ven. Sobitha blamed twice President (1994-2005) and Chairperson of ONUR Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga for the controversial initiative. The former leader of the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) and former JHU lawmaker referred to some of those controversial ONUR-sponsored radio programmes in the new drama series. Alleging such campaigns hurt the feelings of the Buddhists, the Ven thera asserted that national reconciliation could not be achieved by such vilifying projects.

The Ven thera attacked ONUR at a public event at Embilipitiya. Subsequently, ‘Derana’ which exclusively reported Ven thera’s original statement last Saturday (Aug. 18) on Sunday claimed the suspension of Kumaratunga’s initiative. ‘Derana’ reported Ven thera taking up the ONUR issue with Cultural Affairs Minister Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakse, PC.

Before further discussing post-war national reconciliation efforts and other developments, let me reproduce a statement, headlined ‘New Radio Drama Series launched by ONUR’ posted on the ONUR website on Aug 14, 2018. Ven. Sobitha responded to the following ONUR statement: "The Office of National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR) has launched a radio drama series to help develop people reflect on issues related to national unity, empower them to be creative, and to encourage critical thinking of day-to-day issues faced in communities.

"The radio drama series, titled "Kanata Paharak", produced by ONUR, is directed by Award-Winning Script Writer and Director Malaka Dewapriya. Apart from the Saturday Night broadcasting of the radio dramas, through ITN radio, ONUR expects to broaden the coverage and promotion of the radio dramas by sharing the episodes with the listeners through CDs, Downloadable YouTube content and through Podcasts.

"At a time where it seems that with the advent of television and film, the trend of radio plays is lost, ONUR hopes that this initiative will contribute towards a positive dialogue in the society. People have come to believe that television and film is superior, that the power of visual language is superior and more powerful, but it is also a known fact that when it comes to developing imagination, creativity, critical thinking and aesthetic knowledge, radio plays have been identified as an influential medium.

The collection in ‘Kanata Parak’ includes twelve episodes including 10 Sinhala language and 2 Tamil language plays. The titles of the radio dramas are captioned in very engaging themes such as "Tharuwan Saranai (Blessed by Star)", ‘Nihon Sepalebewa’ (May you attend comfort worldly life in Nihon)", "Alayaka Damanaya (Love Tamed)", Nirabhishekana (Felicitation)", "Nirwasthran Paraman Sukhan (being Naked is the best policy)", "Funsalak", Roma Ruupana (Perform in Rome)", "Suwadena Agni (Soothing Fire)", "Rangadena Kapuwo (Trickster Matchmakers)", Ekathana Kerakuma (Stagnation)", "Nawanalu Dahama (Tele Actor)", and "Bashmaanthara (interaction)".

The high profile ONUR project coincided with the launch of the countrywide ‘Ahanna’ programme, launched by the Ministry of Finance and Mass Media and the Secretariat for Coordinating Reconciliation Mechanisms (SCRM). The ‘Ahanna’ project is meant to address tensions among communities. The project got underway with programmes at Dehiwela and Panadura on Aug 8 and 9 respectively and now available at the Finance and Mass Media Ministry’s Youtube channel.

There cannot be any dispute over special projects to promote national reconciliation and also address communal issues. Recent communal violence, at Digana and adjoining villages, in early March 2018, close on the heels of unprovoked attacks on Muslims, in Ampara, underscored the importance of special projects to promote harmony among communities. However, the recently launched government initiatives ‘Kanata Paharak’ and ‘Ahanna’ should be examined against the backdrop of yahapalana administration’s failure to take meaningful measures to convince the Tamil community that the previous government never deliberately targeted the Vanni population.

TNA’s ‘support’ to Mahinda R

Sri Lanka brought the war to a successful conclusion in May 2009. Unfortunately, the war-winning government couldn’t secure the support of the Illankai Thamil Arusu Kadchi (ITAK) to address grievances of those directly affected by the war. Under R. Sampanthan’s leadership, the TNA played a significant role in Mahinda Rajapaksa’s victory at the Nov 2005 presidential election. In fact, both the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and its proxy, TNA, ensured Rajapaksa’s victory at the expense of UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. Had the northern electorate exercised its franchise freely, Wickremesinghe could have comfortably won the presidency. Whatever the hidden agenda, the monstrous LTTE-TNA combine pursued at that time; the grouping never envisaged a peaceful resolution of the conflict. Probably, the LTTE-TNA combine believed Rajapaksa lacked political skill and expertise required to face a massive military onslaught. Those who had claimed there had been a secret agreement between Rajapaksa and the LTTE to facilitate the then Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s victory at the 2005 presidential poll, should explain why Velupillai Prabhakaran resumed devastating claymore mine attacks in early Dec 2005. In January, 2006, the LTTE blew up a Fast Attack Craft (FAC) off Trincomalee. The LTTE gradually stepped up pressure on the military, leading to a suicide attempt on the then Army Chief Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka within the Army Headquarters, in April 2006. In June, 2006, the LTTE blocked Mavil aru in the eastern Trincomalee district. An all-out war seemed inevitable. But, the TNA convinced of the LTTE’s military prowess and Western powers too remained silent, thereby allowing the situation to develop. The Rajapaksas’ however, remained convinced they could somehow reach a consensus with the LTTE to avoid war.

In the second week of Aug 2006, the LTTE launched the anticipated ground offensive, targeting the Jaffna frontline at Muhamalai. Having evicted the army from sections of the front line, the LTTE sustained a large scale offensive, expecting a rapid advance north of Muhamalai into the Jaffna heartland. Combined government offensive that was launched in early September 2006, having brought the Eastern Province under military control in mid-2007, continued till May 2009.

None of those pursuing expensive foreign-funded post-war national reconciliation projects today bothered to publicly urge the LTTE to give up its futile bid to halt the advancing Army. Instead of requesting the LTTE to cease fighting, they wanted the government to call off the offensive. Western powers demanded that President Rajapaksa stop the offensive. Quite rightly, President Rajapaksa rejected the call. The rest is history. Those who cannot stomach Sri Lanka’s triumph over terrorism, nearly a decade ago, are pursuing foreign-funded Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) among communities.

A disgraceful Govt. policy

The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government deliberately allowed unsubstantiated war crimes allegations, directed at Sri Lanka, to gain credence by depriving the country/armed forces a proper defence. The government refrained from exploiting credible evidence to convince the Tamil community that the previous government never deliberately targeted the Tamil community and the much-touted accusations regarding the massacre of 40,000 civilians in 2009 (January – May) were disputed in October 2017 in the House of Lords on the basis of wartime British High Commission dispatches. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe duo owed an explanation why such valuable evidence was not presented to the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC).

The 39 sessions of the UNHRC are scheduled for next month and will be held from September 10 to 28, 2018, at the Palais des Nations, in Geneva, Switzerland.

The Human Rights Council holds three regular sessions a year, for a total of at least 10 weeks. They take place in March (four weeks), June (three weeks) and September (three weeks).

In spite of Foreign Minister Tilak Marapana PC and former Attorney General assuring parliament in Nov 2017 that the UK dispatches would be used at the appropriate time, the Foreign Ministry is yet to do so while the Geneva deadline to fulfill obligations, in accordance with Oct 2015 Resolution, is just six months away.

A treacherous government is engaged in costly public relations projects instead of swiftly and decisively using all available information to convince the Tamil people that Sri Lanka never deliberately targeted them. ONUR, Finance and Media Ministry and the Secretariat for Coordinating Reconciliation Mechanisms totally ignored the recent images from the one-time LTTE bastion Vishvamadu where ex-LTTE cadres, their families and the ordinary Tamils expressed unprecedented love and affection to outgoingmilitary officer Lt. Colonel Ratnapriya Bandu. There had never been a previous instance of such affection showed by the Tamils to a military officer in the war zone. Had those who received massive amounts of foreign funding are genuine in their much publicized efforts, the ‘Vishvamadu story’ should have been used. The former Special Forces officer should have been invited for live television and radio shows along with ex-LTTE cadres from Vishvamadu to discuss their experience. They could have had the Lt Colonel with Minister Mano Ganesan, the only minister to appreciate the officer’s role in Vishvamadu (2012-2018). The ‘Vishvamadu story’ could have been used to promote and strengthen reconciliation. The government ensured that the ‘Vishmamadu story’ never received proper coverage. The images from the former battlefield could have achieved what our foreign service could not have over the past decade. Obviously, the government, the civil society and Non-Governmental Organizations realized the danger the Vishvamadu images posed to their despicable project. They couldn’t have allowed such rapprochement to undermine their lucrative projects. The EU and the US had pledged Rs. 5.3 bn for national reconciliation projects implemented since 2017, in addition to large scale funding made available by various other sources, including Norway.

NPC response to RTI query

Recently, The Island, in accordance with the Right to Information (RTI) Law, raised the funding received by the National Peace Council (NPC) for reconciliation projects since 2009. One of the major recipients of Norwegian funding, NPC played a significant role in the abortive 2002 bid to negotiate a peace agreement between the Wickremesinghe government and the LTTE. Perhaps, Dr. Kumar Rupesinghe the then darling of the Norwegian government received a staggering USD 6 mn over a five-year period (2004-2008) to promote the Oslo initiative. Dr. Rupesinghe got into trouble years later after he switched his allegiance to President Rajapaksa at the onset of the war. The Norwegians deprived him of funding and in 2011, two years after the conclusion of the war, revealed the amount of funding specifically made available to Dr. Rupesinghe. The other funding recipients however though named, were saved from the embarrassment of being exposed as to the exact amounts that were given.

In line with the RTI Law, recipients of foreign funding are liable to answer questions. The writer submitted the following questions to the NPC: Recently, the US and EU revealed that substantial funds were made available to civil society organizations to facilitate post-war reconciliation process. In line with the RTI law enacted by the yahapalana government, The Island would like to know (1) The total amount of US funding received by you after the conclusion of the war in May 2009 (2) The amount received after the change of government in 2015 (3) Total amount of funds received from the EU after the conclusion of the war in May 2009 (4) Total amount of funds received after the change of government in 2015 (5) Funds granted by Norway since May 2009 (6) Grants received from international NGOs/civil society organizations since the end of the conflict in May 2009 (7) Did you engage in any other projects in addition to post-war reconciliation initiatives and finally (8) If so, can you please name those projects and your local partners?

The writer received the following response from the NPC: "We acknowledge your request for information about our funding sources and partners. We are happy to provide you with our annual reports from 2009 to 2016, which are on the NPC website and are public information.

"This is our web-link: http://www.peace-srilanka.org/about/auunalreports

"These contain the information you seek about funds received from individual donors, activities and the total amount received. The annual report for 2017 has not yet been finalized and we will make it available as soon as possible.

"We would require the permission of our partners to give information about them. The work that we do is reported in our website and NPC takes full responsibility for the work that it does with the public.

"Kindly note that NPC’s work is devoted to peace-building and national reconciliation and it does not conduct any non-reconciliation projects."

Those interested in knowing more about the work undertaken by the NPC can access the NPC web-link. It would be pertinent to mention that in spite of peace- building and various reconciliation projects undertaken by the civil society organizations, the LTTE (sole representative of the Sri Lankan Tamil speaking people as recognized by Sampanthan’s TNA) remained committed to battlefield victory. The LTTE firmly believed its tactics were far superior to that of the Sri Lankan military therefore the military could be overwhelmed. The LTTE had faith in its suicide squads and assassinations to give it the advantage over the military. The LTTE pursued its strategies with a single objective - a separate state in the northern and eastern province which at the onset of the eelam war IV was legally constituted as one administrative unit comprising eight districts.

The Norwegian project was meant to convince the country that a military victory was never realistic over the LTTE hence a negotiated solution even at the expense of our sovereignty and territorial integrity. The funds made available by Oslo at the onset of its initiative would give the reader an understanding of the enormity of the operation.

In Sept 2011, Norway revealed the releasing of USD 28 mn (2001 to 2004) period to its Sri Lankan partners engaged in peace building, rehabilitation and reconciliation. Norway identified NPC as one of the recipients. Nowegians obviously lacked a sense of responsibility, hence the controversial decision to provide funds to the Tamil Rehabilitation Organization (TRO) affiliated to the LTTE.

Dr. Rupesinghe’s Foundation for Co-Existence received NOR 35 mn (about 6 mn USD) during 2004-2008 period as a gradual low intensity conflict gradually developed to a massive war by 2008 with the military poised to strike at Kilinochchi.

Foreign governments operating through civil society and NGOs ‘targeted’ lawmakers as well as the media. An overwhelming majority believed the LTTE could not be defeated under any circumstances therefore the government had no option but to talk peace and reach consensus at any cost. The LTTE, brazenly influenced outcome of the presidential elections while the civil society promoted foreign funded agendas. On May 01, 1993, the LTTE assassinated Ranasinghe Premadasa to pave the way for the 1994 presidential poll. Then, the LTTE assassinated UNP candidate Gamini Dissanayake to ensure Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s victory. In Dec 1999, the LTTE made an abortive bid on the life of Kumaratunga. The operation was meant to facilitate UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe’s victory. The LTTE strategy failed. In Nov 2005, the LTTE/TNA helped the then PM Mahinda Rajapaksa to win the presidency by depriving UNP candidate Ranil Wickremesinghe of the northern Tamil vote. In January, 2010, the TNA surprised the world by backing war-winning Army Commander General Sarath Fonseka and at the last presidential poll the powerful Tamil grouping threw its weight behind Maithripala Sirisena, the longtime General Secretary of the SLFP.

At the 2010 and 2015 presidential polls, the TNA represented UNP led coalition that received the blessings of the US, other Western powers and an influential section of civil society and NGOs.

The post–war role of the NGOs and civil society as well as their ‘operations’ during the conflict needed to be examined closely. But, their right to operate in Sri Lanka should be accepted whatever the differences between administration and civil society, NGOs. There cannot be any dispute over their existence.