18 March 2016

Scuttling reconciliation from within

You can keep people out of close-door meetings, but you'll have to talk to them outside
Outside of constitutional reform, the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe Government’s ‘reconciliation’ process has now matured to a concrete formulation, namely the ‘Consultations Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanisms’ [‘Task Force’ from now on].  

This Task Force, appointed by the Prime Minister, recently opened online submissions ‘submissions in order to seek the views of stakeholders, experts and the general public on the design of the reconciliation mechanisms’. The reconciliation mechanisms envisaged include an Office of Missing Persons, a Truth, Reconciliation, Justice and Non-Recurrence Commission, an accountability mechanism and an Office of Reparations’.   These submissions, we are told, would complement ‘face-to-face consultations will take place in all districts of the Island via town-hall meetings, focus group discussions and structured interviews.’

Heady stuff, no doubt.  However, let us be charitable. Any exercise that seeks public views has to be applauded, except where the purpose is to place on already blueprinted measures a bold label, ‘Based on Public Views’.  We know this happens. 

There is a problem with the composition of the Task Force.  It is interesting that the composition-fixated lovelies who raised a hue and cry when the previous regime appointed the LLRC have not bothered to dissect this particular body in terms of representational value.  One on one, this Task Force has a massive credibility gap on account of one-sidedness as well as the credibility of some of its members who have failed the moral test of good-governance essentials such as transparency and accountability in financial dealings of organizations they run. 

Dayan Jayatilleka calls it ‘the Consultational Task Force of NGO types’.  He is correct.  He adds that the purpose is ‘to enforce the intrusive, US-driven Geneva Resolution under the monitoring of a UN expert’.  He is probably right, but let’s not jump to conclusions.  We can say this, though: a country on on

Verite Research found ‘only a small number of civil society organization implement good governance practices,’ and observed that ‘most CSOs either lack a clear distinction between the roles and responsibilities of the organisation’s management and board of directors, or disregard existing management structures in day-to-day operations’.  Even more damning is this: “the leadership of an organisation is often heavily concentrated in just a few individuals, limiting transparency and accountability”.  Those who know the history of the Task Force members and the organizations they work with/for, would say “you are talking about some of these people!”  Small wonder that the anti-LLRC voices have gone silent for most of them were ‘NGO types’.  And it is to the hands of such people that the task of ‘reconciliation’ has been passed. 

Add the fact that the lot represent a tiny sliver of the full spectrum of opinions on the issues pertaining to reconciliation and one has to conclude that the appointers are either lacking in wisdom (or even basic intelligence) or are as pernicious as the appointed in terms of intent and practices. 

Dayan has pointed out, correctly that the membership of the Task Force is heavily loaded in favour of ethnic minorities.  Sure, there are some ‘Sinhala’ names, but do the bodies they come with represent Sinhala sentiments on these issues? No.  They have by and large been in the forefront of federalist moves and have directly or indirectly operated as pawns of rabid Tamil extremism.  Dayan is thus justified in his warning, “Only the socially blind cannot read the signs of Sinhala angst; only the politically deaf do not hear the rumblings of Sinhala rage”.

It reminded me of something that happened around ten years ago.  There was (and perhaps it still exists) an outfit that came up with a project called ‘One Text Initiative’.  It was one of those many ‘peace-seeking projects,’ which I believe received funding from the USA.  The purpose was to get people of different political leanings to discuss and debate the much discussed and debated ‘ethnic’ with the objective of arriving at agreement.  The main political parties as well as organizations supporting particular ‘solutions’ were in the mix.  Among them were people who were openly or discreetly supporting the LTTE.  Missing here was Sinhala Opinion, not just the ‘extremists’ but the non-extremists too! 

A question was raised over this omission and the response from the movers and shakers was simple and simplistic: ‘we can’t move forward with them’.  

Reconciliation, then, was not the objective even then.  It was about imposing preferred political outcomes on the majority community.  The person who raised the question made a mild observation: ‘Well, you can leave them out of this exercise but sooner or later as we move ahead, you are going to meet them in the street!  What are you going to do then?  Isn’t it better to have them here and here them out and have them hear you out, than to face them out there?’ 

He was, naturally, overruled.  But what happened?  Those who were ‘left out’ came out.  Those who did the behind-closed-doors number, remained under self-enforced house-arrest. 

Today, they feel powerful. It’s not new.  They were as or indeed more powerful during Chandrika Kumaratunga presidency and from 2001-1004 when the UNP was in power (under a President largely approving of the Government’s ‘approach’ to the ‘ethnic issue’).   They haven’t changed, it seems.  They haven’t learnt.  They still concur, in effect, with those who tried to get ‘One Text Without the Sinhalese’. 

“But we are open to all suggestions from all communities!” did I hear one of the Task Force members cry out in indignation? Sure!  That’s what’s called ‘participatory development’.  It’s all about going through the motions so agenda can acquire legitimacy.  When people participate in an exercise run by shady characters with shady track records, who are pretty bad on accountability and transparency to boot, you don’t get reconciliation that’s worth anything.  You mess things up.

And remember, all this is happening in a context where a government confused about its identity is also clueless about handling the economy in the fact of a global financial crisis.  Hard times are ahead and this is something that the Government itself has acknowledged.  It will hit and the most his simply due to numerical strength will be the Sinhalese.   The perception will be that it is the Government that is doing the punching.  Remember also that there is a growing perception that this Government is patently anti-Sinhala and you can thank for NGO types, Mangala Samaraweera, Rajitha Senaratne, Chandrika Kumaratunga and UNP’s CFA with the LTTE for this. 

There’s the perception that ‘nothing has changed’ vis-√†-vis all that was terribly wrong with the previous government.  Add to this the fact that ‘Incompetent’ is a tag the Government has earned for itself.  The UNP, just 7 months after winning an election has been forced to organize a ‘We support the Government’ demonstration.  This is the context in which moves such as the appointment of a Task Force of this nature feeds the Sinhala angst that Dayan speaks of.  It’s a short distance from there to ‘Sinhala rage’.  And this time around, the moderates who voted against Mahinda Rajapaksa (rather than voted for Maithripala Sirisena), will not come rushing to defend the Government.  Take away their support and you are talking of a pretty bad wicket. 

It all boils down to a simple question, assuming of course we are talking reconciliation and nothing else: ‘where do you want to talk with the Sinhalese, in the room sitting around a table or out there on the street?’ 

This article appeared in the Daily Mirror, March 18, 2016 under the column title 'Subterranean Transcript'.  Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer who can be reached at malindasenevi@gmail.com