In 2003, aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier, the then US President George W. Bush delivered an infamous address proclaiming an end to large scale combat operations in Iraq. “Major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed” he said, in front of a massive banner that said ‘Mission Accomplished’. Later on, Bush and this speech in particular became the subject of so much ridicule because most of the combat related and civilian deaths in Iraq occurred after this speech was delivered. And we know now what his words and actions, based on little to no concrete evidence or data, resulted in or contributed significantly towards.
It’s the mission accomplished speech of Bush that sprang to mind when I read last week former President Chandrika Bandaranaike-Kumaratunge’s assertion in an interview published in the media that reconciliation in Sri Lanka was “successfully carried out”. She also goes on to say that with the establishment of the Office on Missing Persons and the new Constitution, “there would not be any necessity to have courts to probe war crimes”. The former President is the head of the Office of National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR). It is unclear whether this interview represents the views of ONUR, or whether they were just the former President’s opinion.
Either way, the comments are revealing and need to be placed in some context. Last week, the Secretariat for Coordinating Reconciliation Mechanisms (SCRM) moved into what is billed by the developers as the “sole luxury office complex” in Colombo. The Parkland Office Complex down Park Street is home to Marks & Spencer, Envoy, Dialog, Mobitel, Ericsson, Maersk Lanka and others. As of last week, the Government’s apex reconciliation body’s headquarters is also in this space. Your author questioned openly on Twitter whether this was the best way to spend funds earmarked for reconciliation. The intent was not to begrudge SCRM staff a working environment conducive to productive output, a central location and essential amenities. It was to flag that it isn’t clear why a luxury office complex is needed for a government agency, and why suitable office space couldn’t be found elsewhere.
The other concern is related to optics. In January, the on-going plight of families of the disappeared was again highlighted by the plight of mothers who went on a fast in Vavuniya. As I read the news of SCRM’s relocation to Parklands, I wondered what these mothers would think and feel were they ever to make it to Colombo, and requested a meeting with the head of the SCRM or any of its staff, in their swank new office space. But perhaps meeting face to face those most affected by violent conflict isn’t really a priority for reconciliation moving forward.
The final concern was around donor priorities and oversight. The government never fails to ask for more time and resources around reconciliation. The first is a call for patience. The second is a call for funding. If the United Nations in Sri Lanka and other entities, including bilateral donors, provide funds for government entities intended to be used towards reconciliation, it would border on farce if it included overheads which included, by definition, luxury office space. For these donors, who usually have at least half a dozen forms to track and justify every cent of every dollar spent, it is incredible how SCRM’s decision to locate itself at Parklands passed muster. And while last week there was vocal pushback on social media around the choice of a high-end, five-star hotel as the venue for a workshop organised by SCRM, far more concerning are recurrent costs incurred as a consequence of opting for renting the Parklands office, and as a percentage of available funding per year, how much of this money could have been better used to more meaningfully address enduring challenges around reconciliation at the national, regional and village levels across the country.
When noting unequivocally that reconciliation is a success, perhaps the former President and head of ONUR was also perhaps unaware of the fact SCRM has deleted all references on its official Twitter account that the final report of the Consultation Task Force (CTF) would be translated into Sinhala and Tamil in full. The tweets promised the translations by the end of January. The translations have not come. The tweets have been deleted.
We then come to the issue of war crimes and courts to address issues around accountability. The CTF final report has a number of specific recommendations in this regard, anchored to thousands it interacted with, including the security forces, over 2016. The report highlights clear fault-lines between communities and reaffirms what is intuitively evident – there are major political challenges around reconciliation in order to address underlying root causes of violent conflict. This is not just some academic exercise. It also emphatically isn’t something the President, PM, JO, former Presidents, Parliamentarians or even civil society can fully contain, represent or define, much as they would each like to. This is why the CTF report is of unprecedented historical importance – it placed for consideration the mandate, reach and depth of transitional justice mechanisms in the hands of citizens including those most affected by violent conflict, who don’t have the luxury of switching off, turning away from or escaping somehow what is to this day, the trauma of war and of not knowing the fate of those who disappeared. Yet, weeks since the report was handed over, there is no word to what degree, if at all, any of CTF’s recommendations will be taken seriously.
To recap, reconciliation under the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government remains mired in an acronym soup of confusion and disarray. There is no discernible political will around it. There is no strategic overarching vision. Donor priorities seem out of whack. There is poor communication at best. Those most affected by the war remain marginalised and have to resort to demeaning fasts to get their voice heard. The sheer indignity and violence of this goes unacknowledged by government and large sections of mainstream media. A nationwide consultative process commissioned by the PM in 2016, that resulted in a vital report, is precisely that which the government now wants buried and forgotten. The PM doesn’t acknowledge it. Latching on to a single issue, the President contests it. One entity in charge of reconciliation, having moved into luxury offices, as a first priority, deletes promises to translate into Sinhala and Tamil the contents of this report. It remains unresponsive to any question posed repeatedly over social media. It organises events where foreign experts who know nothing about Sri Lanka offer advice on process design. The head of another government entity anchored to a reconciliation mandate submits in public, even in her private capacity, opinions diametrically opposed to key recommendations of the consultative report, which was ironically officially handed over to her. In doing so, she strongly suggests reconciliation is in fact to be devoid of any meaningful accountability.
So, this is what success around reconciliation looks like! One can’t help but think this is similar to how George W. Bush must have seen victory, in 2003.
First published in The Sunday Island, 5 February 2017.