Saturday, 4 August 2018

Vishvamadu success yet to be utilized

Reconciliation process:



May 2009, on the Vanni east front: Maj. Gen. Shavendra Silva, General Officer Commanding (GOC) of celebrated 58 Division (seated) talks to surrendered LTTE cadres. Sri Lanka implemented a highly successful rehabilitation programme which paved the way for restoration of peace. Contrary to speculation, there hadn’t been a single terrorist attack since the May 2009 though there were some detections of explosives. Sri Lanka rehabilitated nearly 12,000 LTTE cadres and the vast majority of them live peacefully. Among them Vishvamadu cadres who were lucky to receive Lt. Colonel Ratnapriya Bandu as their ‘guardian’ in 2012.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

One time Human Rights Commissioner, attorney-at-law Javed Yusuf, says Lt. Colonel Ratnapriya Bandu’s post-war experience with former Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) combatants and their families, in the Vishvamadu, area can be quite useful to the national reconciliation process.

 The former diplomat, educator and peace activist, Yusuf is certainly not alone in asserting Ratnapriya Bandu’s capacity to play a role in the reconciliation process.

Yusuf had been Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, in addition to being former Senior Advisor on Arab and Islamic Affairs to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and former Secretary General of the Peace Secretariat for Muslims. Yusuf managed the Peace Secretariat for Muslims during the Norwegian-facilitated peace process that ultimately led to the final war (2006 August-2009 May).

 Lt. Colonel Bandu, formerly of the Special Forces, played a critical role in the post-war reconciliation process in his capacity as the most senior officer responsible for Civil Security Department deployment in the north. Vishvamadu-based Lt. Colonel Bandu’s groundbreaking handling of the ex-LTTE cadres earned him love, respect and admiration from the vast majority of Tamils, living in the Vanni.

The writer sought Yusuf’s opinion on the Sinha Regiment officer’s still unused Vishvamadu experience.

Asked whether he could explain how the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR), responsible for spearheading post-war national reconciliation process as well as the civil society seeking the same, could utilize the Army officer’s experience and whether he would talk to Bandu if he hasn’t done so already, Yusuf said: " of the ways that ONUR works is to build trust among people of different communities at the grassroots level and attempts to facilitate the reconciliation process by acting as a catalyst to reconciliation initiatives. In this context, Lt. Colonel Bandu’s efforts and his work in winning the trust and confidence of former LTTE rehabilitated cadres, with whom he worked, will have many lessons for those working in the field of reconciliation. His efforts have received the attention of ONUR and his role is an interesting case study not only for ONUR but for all those working towards reconciliation."

The Island Midweek section dealt with Ratnapriya Bandu’s story, twice, in June 2018 in the wake of grateful Vishvamadu Tamils giving an unprecedented send off on June 10 to the Army officer. The two pieces titled ‘Vishvamadu images: BIG BOOST FOR NATIONAL RECONCILIATION’ and ‘Parliament reacting differently to images from the Vanni.’ Among those who responded to the writer’s query as regards Lt. Colonel Bandu’s experience was ONUR, headed by twice President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. On behalf of the ONUR, its Director General M.S. Jayasinghe said: ONUR has noted, with optimism, the developments in Vishvamadu in relation to the news reports about Lt.Col. Ratnapriya’s farewell event and his approach with local stakeholders. We will get in touch with Sri Lanka Army and seek any relevant inputs from the officer concerned as part of our efforts to understanding various perspectives and learning from experiences, to move forward. We already support initiatives to assist with livelihood, psycho social, development and similar needs of war-affected communities, including ex-combatants, to bring normalcy to their lives."

 Unfortunately, neither the government nor the civil society, has so far taken any tangible measures to learn from Lt. Colonel Bandu’s experience though Lanka is still struggling to cope up with reconciliation issues, nearly a decade after the conclusion of the conflict. Interestingly Lt.Col. Bandu had functioned as the Second-in-Command of the First Battalion of the Sinha Regiment, assigned to the 59 Division deployed across the Nanthikadal lagoon, during the final phase of the offensive carried out by the celebrated 58 Division and 53 Division.

Many an eyebrow has been raised over the continuing failure on the part of the government, and the civil society, to examine the Vishvamadu experience.

 Perhaps, National Integration, Reconciliation and Official Languages Minister Mano Ganesan, who had previously intervened on behalf of Lt. Colonel Bandu, on a request from ex-LTTE combatants, should explore ways and means of utilizing the officer’s valuable experience with members of one of the most ruthless terrorist organizations that enjoyed conventional military capability, till 2009.

Since the conclusion of the war, nearly 10 years ago, Western powers repeatedly pressured Sri Lanka on the diplomatic front, initially demanding an international war crimes investigation during the previous Rajapaksa administration. Following the change of government, in January 2015, the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government quickly accepted despicable Western strategy leading to Sept/Oct 2015 consensus on Geneva Resolution ‘Promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka’. Instead of genuine reconciliation, the Resolution on the basis of unsubstantiated war crimes allegations, recommended punitive and humiliating measures. Geneva, also recommended a brand new Constitution, subjected to approval at a countrywide referendum.

Rs. 1.6 bn worth US project

 In support of the Geneva project, Western powers, following the change of government in January 2015, had made available substantial funds in support of the post-war national reconciliation process. The European Union and the US, this year, granted Rs 4.3 bn in support of the Sri Lanka reconciliation process. Perhaps, the recipients of the EU and US funding may seek to benefit from Lt. Colonel Bandu’s experience. There is no clear estimate of the amounts spent by foreign taxpayers in support of reconciliation projects here.

Let me reproduce verbatim a US embassy press release, titled ‘USAID partners with community organizations and government to support reconciliation in Sri Lanka’ issued last Friday (July 20). The statement dealt with releasing of a staggering Rs. 1.6 bn on June 29, 2018, to community organizations to cover projects covering a three-year period. The US statement: "On June 29, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) awarded approximately 1.6 bn Sri Lankan rupees ($10,000,000) in grant assistance to Global Communities to engage local communities in reconciliation activities.

"This three-year initiative will partner with the Government of Sri Lanka and local civil society to address underlying challenges to reconciliation. The project will promote a shared and inclusive Sri Lankan identity, reduce socio-economic disparities, and strengthen resilience among multi-ethnic and multi-religious communities."

 The statement quoted USAID Mission Director to Sri Lanka and the Maldives Reed Aeschliman as having said: "USAID is proud to partner with the Sri Lankan people and government in their efforts to build a society that works together for the greater good and prosperity of the country."

"Activities will expand citizen-driven initiatives and networks among local communities and support those affected by the war. They will also strengthen local governments and community-based organizations that provide critical services to the most needy and increase access to psychosocial services.  Additionally, the project will increase opportunities for youth and women to exercise leadership in promoting responsible citizenship and reconciliation.

 "USAID has provided development and humanitarian support to the Government and the people of Sri Lanka for more than 60 years."

 The writer didn’t receive a response to the following questions emailed to the US embassy soon after receiving the statement which The Island carried on its front page. The print media largely ignored the statement: (a) Could you please give us the number of civil society organizations involved in this particular project? (b) Were there North-East based organizations among those recipients? The Island also sought pictures taken at the event.

EU funds projects to the tune of Rs 3.7 bn

 The European Union, now at logger heads with Sri Lanka in the wake of President Maithripala Sirisena vowing to resume judicial executions, regardless of consequences, launched a high profile project, with the support of Germany, in November 2017. According to the EU, the project is aimed at strengthening the reconciliation processes in Sri Lanka (SRP). The high profile project is implemented by GIZ and the British Council. The EU-German initiative intends to support government, non-government, and grassroot-level initiatives in six different areas. The EU explained:

 Tracking Progress on Reconciliation involves developing a barometer for this purpose, in cooperation with national and international partners. This area will also work to produce scorecards to assess performance of the government’s reconciliation initiatives.

Facilitating Learning and Institutional Development seeks to establish sustainable, institutionalized capacity development of stakeholders along with training and dialogue platforms.

Through Communication and Inclusive Policy Making the programme aims to increase public engagement in the reconciliation process, involving the media, government, civil society and development partners.

 The area of Dealing with the Past comprises two units. The first being historical dialogue, which aims to create a space to acknowledge the past and discuss history and memory. The second is strengthening mental health and psychosocial support services, which aim to build capacity, develop referral systems, and promote emerging/promising practice in the field.

 Through Arts & Culture, SRP will develop the capacity of organisations and build networks in this field, while supporting arts and culture initiatives on reconciliation, the production of related content, and coordinating forums such as the WINGS conference and film festivals.

 The sixth area, Reducing Language Barriers, involves developing the bilingual capacities of public service officers, improving and facilitating access to bilingual services and increasing the number of registered bilingual translators and interpreters."

 The following is the text of EU statement verbatim issued on 2018 March 21. Headlined ‘Ministry of National Integration and Reconciliation, the European Union and the Government of Germany to support reconciliation in Sri Lanka’, the statement dealt with a four-year programme: "The Ministry of National Integration and Reconciliation, the European Union and the Government of Germany launched a programme today to support reconciliation in Sri Lanka. The programme, worth Rs 2.7 billion, will be in collaboration with the Ministry of Co-existence, Dialogue, and Official Languages, the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR), as well as other relevant line ministries and civil society organizations. It will be implemented by the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) and the British Council.

"The goal of the four-year programme is to support government, non-government and grassroots organisations in the national reconciliation process. The primary focus of the programme is to track progress on national reconciliation, facilitate learning and strengthen institutions at national and sub-national levels as well as promote public engagement in policy making. The programme will also contribute to dealing with the past through memorialisation, strengthening mental health and psychosocial care, and using art and culture as a medium to promote reconciliation. As a means to help address challenges identified by the Government of Sri Lanka, the programme will lay emphasis on reducing language barriers in order to provide better public services. Some of the key outputs of the programme include:

* a mobile museum and theatre in 35 locations reaching up to 350,000 people;

* 6,000 clients accessing mental health and psychosocial support services;

* a minimum of 300 media personnel and cultural actors trained in arts and culture, aiming to reach a minimum audience of 4-5 million;

* 1,200 public officers receiving language training, including police, court officials and health workers.

The European Union has supported reconciliation in Sri Lanka since 2017 through various programmes and with a total funding amounting Rs 3.7 billion.

 For more than 15 years, projects / programmes funded by the German government contribute to the overarching objective of peace building and reconciliation."

 In addition to Rs 2.7 bn made available in support of the four-year project, the EU has granted another Rs 1 bn since the beginning of 2017. If totalled, EU and US funding alone in 2017 and 2018 amounted to an astounding Rs. 5.3 bn.

Perhaps the Sri Lanka Army can offer the services of Lt. Colonel Bandu to those civil society organizations and ONUR engaged in peace building. In case, they aren’t keen to benefit from his experience or the Army, and for some silly reason does not want to exploit the Vishvamadu success, ONUR and civil society should go straight to the people of Vishvamadu to learn their experience during the 2012-2018 periods. The failure to benefit from hitherto unknown highly successful Vishvamadu reconciliation cannot be acceptable under circumstances, especially since Western powers are funding costly projects. The inordinate delay in utilizing the officer’s experience to further develop existing reconciliation process is shocking. The failure on the part of the Army to benefit from its Vishvamadu experience is pathetic. Absence of Vishvamadu images of grateful ex-LTTE combatants, their families and other Tamils felicitating Lt.Col. Bandu in any of the government-run websites, including that of the Army and ONUR, is nothing but a disgrace.

Images from Vishmadhu must have been posted on ONUR website at least after the writer sought its Director General, Jayasinghe’s opinion on Lt. Colonel Bandu’s achievement.

The government certainly owed an explanation to the discerning public why Vishvamadu achievement is continued to be ignored amidst continuing efforts to pursue war crimes inquiry. The government and the Army seemed to be blind to the fact that Lebanon, bound peacekeepers are held up since 2018 March pending Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) vetting, largely due to unsubstantiated war crimes allegations.

 The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government created history in 2015 Oct by co-sponsoring Geneva Resolution against its own armed forces.

War-winning President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s group, too, has failed to pressure the government over the handling of the post-war national reconciliation process (read a lucrative industry). In addition to the funding made available by the EU and the US, several other ‘sources’, including Norway, provided funds to civil society groups here. The government and those who funded costly projects should now examine them to ascertain the failure to achieve national reconciliation. Had previous projects succeeded, the EU and US wouldn’t have to grant a further Rs. 5.3 bn since last year for the same.

In fact, successive governments never bothered to properly examine grandiose projects undertaken by Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and civil society during the conflict and after. For want of an efficient monitoring process, those recipients pursued agendas, in some instances severely inimical to national interest. During the conflict, foreign powers and NGOs granted funds amounting to millions of USD to various organizations that propagated the LIE a negotiated settlement a necessity as the LTTE couldn’t be defeated militarily.

Even Mahinda Rajapaksa, at the onset of his first term, strongly believed in Oslo- negotiations. Soon after becoming the Opposition Leader in 2004, Rajapaksa accepted Oslo mediation and proceeded accordingly. But, once the war erupted, Mahinda Rajapaksa gave unparalleled political leadership to bring the conflict to a successful end. NGOs and civil society worked overtime to convince Rajapaksa that whatever the difficulties negotiations were necessary to thwart an LTTE offensive. They proceeded even after the abortive attempts on the then Army Commander Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka’s life on the afternoon of April 25, 2006 and Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa six months later. Had the LTTE succeeded, the war couldn’t have been won three years later. Whatever, the post-war differences, Fonseka and Gotabhaya Rajapaksa achieved what previous Army Commanders and Defence Secretaries couldn’t achieve. They brought about the post-war national reconciliation process.