Articles by Dr Jehan Perera

Nationalist Buddhist groups setting up temples and putting up statues in places where there are hardly any or no Buddhists has become a visible source of inter ethnic agitation. The Northern Provincial Council has passed a resolution that no Buddhist temples should be constructed in the North. Many Tamils see the putting up of Buddha statues and the construction of Buddhist temple as a projection of Sinhalese domination in the North after the defeat of the LTTE. They ask why Buddhist temples are being built and statutes are erected in areas where there are no Buddhists. Some of them are constructed by the armed forces. However, it is not only Buddhist groups that are engaging in this practice. Christians in the North have complained of Hindus doing the same and that large numbers of Hindu temples are coming up on encroached state and private lands using Diaspora money.

After a two year lull that followed replacement of the former government through the electoral process, public manifestations of inter community tension and media coverage of the same have been on the rise. There are indications of political maneuvering behind these efforts to disturb the peace in the country and to bring ethno-religious nationalism to the fore. Video footage of religious clergy engaging in vitriolic attacks on those of other ethnic and religious groups have gone viral on the social media. Most notably in the North and East, there are clashes being reported on inter religious grounds. There are many incidents of religious clergy getting involved in expansionist projects, such as religious conversions, destruction of ancient sites or building places of worship in areas where they are less numerous.

A particularly acute source of inter religious tension is the constant use of hate speech by groups that form themselves under the name of religion and attack those of other religions. Most visibly, nationalist Buddhist groups have been targeting the Muslim community in this regard. Ethno nationalist organizations have been engaging in hate campaigns and intimidating those of other communities at the local level. The expansion of the Muslim population, its increasingly visible economic strength, alleged connections to militant international Islamic groups and religious practices such as Halal have been the main focus of their campaigns. This has created and continues to sustain a sense of apprehension and insecurity in the Muslim community particularly in areas where they are a minority, which is most of the country.

During the period of the last government, these incidents of hate speech and violence were ignored by the government. There was also a widespread belief amongst human rights groups and the Muslim community that a section of the former government was also tacitly supporting the aggressors. On the other hand, at the present time government leaders have shown no support for actions that are in opposition to inter ethnic and inter religious harmony. Both President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe have made it clear that they wish these incidents to cease and the law to prevail. President Sirisena’s admonition that anyone who violates the law would be dealt with by the law enforcement agencies will serve to embolden the police to take deterrent action rather than stand idly as they did during the Aluthgama anti Muslim riots in 2014.

As a result of government policy that is not anti minority but is focused on preserving inter community relations, there is no mass sentiment that is in favour of communal confrontation visible in any part of the country. The National Peace Council has been conducting inter religious meetings at the community level. A gathering earlier this month in Trincomalee which was attended by members of all religions, and by government officials and police, on the contrary revealed a great deal of goodwill. The police officer who had been entrusted with communal amity said that there were youth who went about pasting stickers which had hate messages. But apart from pasting the stickers they did nothing much else, and the general population did not support them. It appears that at the level of the general population there is little or no personal animosities. On the contrary social relations and cultural similarities make the people prepared to sit with one another and attend meetings that are called in the name of inter ethnic and inter religious harmony.

Sri Lanka is fortunate in that its past traditions of inter ethnic and inter religious tolerance, of which there are records from the days of the kings, continues to prevail at the social and individual level. On the other hand, the visible manifestations of aggression and intolerance are politically created ones. When such politically motivated action takes place they are highly visible and are immediately given media attention. This creates an impression of crisis. But those who seek to attack those of other communities on account of religious rivalries and for purposes of religious domination do not have support amongst the people. Therefore the agitators are susceptible to control by the law enforcement agencies.

However, in contrast to the politically motivated inter religious tension, there is a degree of community level tension between the different ethnic communities living in the North and East that is having an impact on their lives. In Mullaitivu, an inter religious meeting became a forum for conflicting views to be expressed on matters pertaining to land. A Muslim participant explained that in 1990 when the LTTE expelled the Muslim population from the Northern Province, about 1500 Muslim families had left Mullaitivu. But now more than 26 years later, there are about 4500 Muslim families that have returned due to the natural increase in their population. Obtaining land for the additional families is providing to be difficult as it is resisted by those from the Tamil community and the government administration that functions in that area.

In Batticaloa it was a similar issue of land that led to one of the outbursts of the Buddhist monk against the government servant which went viral on the social media. The monk was angry that Sinhalese who sought land permits were being denied them although they had a claim to the land, according to the monk. On the other hand, the Tamils in the area felt that it was they who were under threat, now that the Eastern Provincial Council had a Muslim Chief Minister. According to them most of the provincial council appointments were going to Muslims, including being security guards in Tamil schools. They also pointed out the prosperity of Muslim towns in the east, as compared to the impoverished Tamil towns that lay adjacent to them.

In situations where there is political mistrust between communities and a history of conflict, it is important that governmental and provincial authorities should take decisions in a fair manner and in a manner that does not create more conflict. The use of a majoritarian mindset by politicians to favour their own community when they are the majority in a region is not conflict-sensitive nor is it acceptable. Decisions that are taken need to be seen as fair by all communities. If this is not the case, inter ethnic and inter religious harmony will be difficult to achieve, and the gains of the present will be dissipated in the new conflicts of the future. The role of civil society would be to identify these conflicts in dialogue with the communities and find ways to take them up to those who make the decisions so that they may decide fairly and take into consideration the concerns of each community in a conflict-sensitive manner.

There seems to be a rethinking on the part of the government regarding the nature and extent of constitutional reform. The SLFP is of the stance that the Constitution should be amended without going in for a referendum. SLFP media spokesman Minister Dilan Perera said “We have spoken with the President and taken a clear decision on this. Electoral reforms must take place and a new system introduced and we believe in maximum devolution of power within a unitary state. We have also made it clear that we will not support the merger of provinces or to lessen the power of the governors to make it a nominal position.” For its part, the UNP has taken the position that it would support a system where the office of executive president would continue with special powers that the 19th Amendment to the Constitution had conferred.

International Day of Persons with Disabilities (December 3) is an international observance promoted by the United Nations since 1992. The observance of the day aims to promote an understanding of disability issues and mobilize support for the dignity, rights and well-being of persons with disabilities. It is meant to have as much significance as other better known days, such as International Human Rights Day or International Women’s Day. It was on Disabilities Day that the National Peace Council held the inaugural meeting of its inter-religious committee in Kilinochchi, the former capital of the LTTE, which saw heavy fighting seven years ago. The event itself was held in the Cooperative Hall which, according to an inscription on the wall, had been opened by the Hon Namal Rajapaksa during the period of the last government.

The large hall in which social and educational events take place is part of the massive infrastructure development that the former government engaged in the North and East in the belief that it would win the hearts and minds of the people. The former government’s political strategy with regard to the people living in the former war zones of the North and East was that economic development would suffice, and it was not necessary to either ascertain the truth about the past or to address the political issues that had given rise to the war. But this belief was shown to be incorrect as the Tamil voters in the North and East voted repeatedly against the government that provided them with economic infrastructure but without attending to their individual basic needs or to their collective need for political rights.

A large and well attended event to mark International Day of Persons with Disabilities took place on the ground floor of the two storey Cooperative Hall. Those who attended were family members of the disabled persons. Some were blind, some were in wheelchairs while many walked relatively normally but with limbs that were missing. The event that I had come to participate in was upstairs. The level of participation was less than we had expected. During the discussions that followed it became clearer why this was so. We were chided for having organized our event on International Disabilities Day. This day has significance in Kilinochchi and other Wanni districts where some of the fiercest fighting of the war took place. One participant advised us that this was a day that must be given as much importance as International Human Rights Day or International Peace Day, and asked us whether we held a regular event on such a day instead of celebrating it.

However, our shortcoming enabled a discussion to take place on the issue of persons with disabilities in Kilinochchi. According to statistics available at the central government’s district secretariat, there are over 3285 persons with disabilities. But only 483 of them are being provided with the Rs 3000 grant to which they are entitled. It was also reported that the Northern Provincial Council has given a much larger figure for people with disabilities as being in the region of 18,000. The large disparity in numbers may be on account of different measures where it concerns disabilities. We were told that people with disabilities could include those who had no outer disability but had bullets inside them. These could also be chronic pain and mental trauma. Most recent reports on the health effects of war have focused on post traumatic stress disorder and other mental health problems, many of which are not identified as war-related disabilities until years after conflict ends.

The neglect of those who have disabilities in terms of obtaining financial assistance is often made worse by the discrimination they suffer in their daily lives. We were told that it was more difficult for those who had disabilities to get licenses for driving, even when they had passed their driving tests successfully. In addition they find it difficult to get into buildings that have not been constructed in a way to facilitate their entry and movement. A greater governmental demonstration of empathy for those with disabilities in the Wanni would make the general population feel that the government is concerned about those who are victims and contribute to the post-war healing process not only for those with disabilities but also for the general population.

Another point that was stressed in the discussion was the importance of caring for individuals as opposed to thinking of macro or political solutions only. At the present time the government is giving priority attention to issues of constitutional reform. The government has expressed its determination to seize the present opportunity when it has the two largest political parties in alliance and have also obtained the support of all the ethnic minority parties. In particular it will want to focus on finding a mutually acceptable solution to the ethnic conflict and to set in place a constitutional settlement that can be built upon in the future as well according to the changing needs of the country’s multi ethnic and plural polity. However, at the same time it is important that the individual needs of war affected people should also be given priority attention.

At the top of the list of concerns of the people of the Wanni is the fate of missing persons. The government commission on missing persons (the Paranagama Commission) reported that there were about 20,000 complaints of missing persons that they had recorded. These are people who continue to be missing seven years after the end of the war. The logical conclusion would be to assume that most of them are no longer alive. However, those who are relatives of missing persons, and those who saw them surrender to the security forces at the closing stages of the war, are not prepared to accept blanket statements about the fate of those they saw go missing. They say they saw the missing persons being registered and photographed prior to their disappearance. So someone somewhere will know what happened. At the discussion in Kilinochchi it was emphasized that the affected people will not accept blanket statements but will require individual accounts of what happened to be provided to them.

The government is today seeking to implement the transitional justice process that the international community has set for it, and is about to announce new mechanisms to follow the Office of Missing Persons that was recently put into law. These measures need to be accompanied by more caring for individual victims. Institutions such as truth commissions will help to create awareness in the general population about the true nature of war and those who were victims. It will create empathy and strengthen the resolve of society that the resort to arms and to violence must never again come to be. It will also give relief to those who are victims that they are able to tell their stories to the state, that must care for all equally, and demonstrate this care by going into the details of what happened to them and give them the answers they need to have.

At the end of our meeting at the Cooperative Hall, we were invited by one of the religious clergy to visit an orphanage and home for mentally disturbed persons. We met with young children who had lost their parents for various reasons. One of them was a child who lost her entire family in a bomb blast. I recalled that six years ago on a visit to Trincomalee I had been shown another child in another orphanage. Her mother had been killed as the family fled the last battles, and she had refused to move from her mother’s side until her father agreed to stop their fleeing from the battle zones to bury the body. Six years later the needs of these war victims need to be addressed better by the Sri Lankan state. Macro level change, such as constitutional reform, is difficult to achieve as it is politically controversial, and so is delayed. But this excuse cannot be given where it concerns giving a strong message of care to those who have been victims by reintegrating them into the mainstream society and giving them individualized care.

There are indications of political maneuvering behind efforts to disturb the peace in the country and to bring ethno-religious nationalism to the fore. The rising number of incidents of hate speech and local level acts of violence that appear to have communal undertones has prompted former President Chandrika Kumaratunga to issue a strong statement that received national coverage. In her statement she noted the rise of hate speech in Sri Lanka in the recent past, which challenges the initiatives being taken by the government to heal the country after decades of bloodshed and destruction. She said that “Hate filled expressions and actions by groups with vested interests, resulting in demeaning, denigrating and inciting violence against fellow citizens of various ethnic, religious backgrounds has no place in Sri Lankan society.”

There are indications of political maneuvering behind efforts to disturb the peace in the country and to bring ethno-religious nationalism to the fore. The rising number of incidents of hate speech and local level acts of violence that appear to have communal undertones has prompted former President Chandrika Kumaratunga to issue a strong statement that received national coverage. In her statement she noted the rise of hate speech in Sri Lanka in the recent past, which challenges the initiatives being taken by the government to heal the country after decades of bloodshed and destruction. She said that “Hate filled expressions and actions by groups with vested interests, resulting in demeaning, denigrating and inciting violence against fellow citizens of various ethnic, religious backgrounds has no place in Sri Lankan society.”

The passage of the second reading of the budget by a 2/3 majority in parliament indicates that the Government of National Unity continues to hold. The differences in opinion between the government partners that sometimes manifest themselves openly have not as yet destroyed their relationship. The most recent tug of war was over the actions of the Bribery and Corruption Commission. President Maithripala Sirisena was openly critical of the manner in which the Commission was handling high profile cases. This led to the resignation of the Director General of the Commission.

The Sri Lankan reaction to the outcome of the US election reflected the ethnic divide at its extremes. Even prior to the election Tamil nationalist politicians had dashed coconuts at temples to bring victory to Hillary Clinton. They believed that she would ensure that the problems of Tamils in Sri Lanka would remain on the US government’s list of priorities due to the interest she had shown in these matters in the past. After the election Sinhalese nationalists expressed their satisfaction at the victory of a kindred spirit who shared the same antipathy towards outsiders to the extent of physically building a wall to keep them out and put his country first. Those who were somewhere in the middle between these competing nationalisms and who looked upon the United States as the country were the values of universal human rights are upheld, renewed and regenerated were dismayed, although this is only likely to be a temporary setback to a nation that is nurtured on the lives of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.

The government’s handling of the Central Bank bond issue has generated a wave of public opinion that is critical of it. Even those who voted for the government and count themselves as government supporters have been placed in a situation of consternation. High among the reasons many of them cast their votes against the former government was its corruption. They expected that the new government would speedily deal with those who had been guilty of corruption. But the manner in which government members have been handling the Central Bank bond issue and their reluctance to have a transparent probe into it, has led to a feeling among government supporters of being left with no political champions of good governance any more.

President Maithripala Sirisena addressing the Armed Forces, ‘Gallantry Awards 2016,’ last week said that certain media organisations, journalists, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and traitorous forces act without realizing the importance of ensuring national security. The President, who is constitutionally vested with the authority of Commander-in-Chief of the Sri Lankan security forces said he was not ready to compromise national security in order to please NGOs. A sore point for the security forces with regard to NGOs would be the demand for war-time accountability and for post-war demilitarization of the former war zones of the North and East. Some NGOs have been in the forefront of the UN-sponsored resolution that calls for an investigation into the past and for post-war demilitarization among others.

The common cause of the National Unity Government to tackle the corruption of the past and to put an end to it in the present seemed to come apart at the seams when President Maithripala Sirisena made an angry critique of the way in which the investigations into corruption was taking place. The resignation of Director General of the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption (CIABOC) Dilrukshi Dias Wickramasinghe was prompted by the President’s remarks on CIABOC and on the police investigative agencies in the wake of former Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and three retired Navy commanders, being brought before courts. The President criticized the investigative bodies of launching politically motivated probes which led to the senior officials being put behind bars during the proceedings in court.