An Ideology of Reconciliation Cannot be Built Without Basic Ingredients of Democracy and Rule of Law

By Dr. Deepika Udagama

There are many views about what we must achieve in post-war Sri Lanka. There appears to be a general acceptance that reconciliation among the various ethnic groups in the country is of topmost priority.

Vigil against 18th Amendment held in Colombo on 8 September 2010-pic courtesy of: VikalpaSL

Some think that for reconciliation to be realized we must primarily focus on economic development; others think that we must focus on a political solution; yet others think that what is of crucial importance is the investigation of alleged war crimes and establishing the truth; some are of the opinion that all those measures are necessary.

There are indicators and bench marks developed to measure reconciliation. Most are about specific deliverables—devolution of power, resettlement of IDPs, demilitarization, equitable land policy, depoliticization of institutions and so on.

But have we, as a society, sufficiently invested our efforts at adopting a philosophy or fundamental principles on reconciliation that should inform our efforts in the post-war period? I do not think so. We have only the same fragmented and hackneyed political rhetoric of our troubled past.

There is a palpable absence of a national ideology that guides us in our efforts today. Even if the goal posts for reconciliation are identified, I wish to pose the question whether we can meaningfully achieve any of those goals without the establishment of a dominant ideology of reconciliation? Can there be reconciliation in an ideological vacuum? Can reconciliation be achieved through clinical and technical policies not accompanied by an overarching spirit of reconciliation? I think not.

Recently I was asked by a multi-ethnic group of Sri Lankan expatriates in Australia what reconciliation really means. The dictionary informs us that reconciliation is“to cause to be friendly or harmonious again”. What exactly is the measure though I was asked. My gut response was that it is about creating a genuine sense of equal belonging.

Reconciliation is a process that should address the psychological rather than the physical. It is not about the written agreements, handshakes or the visuals. It is this belief that drives me to say that adopting an ideology of reconciliation, with clearly-identified constituent principles, should have been our first priority.

The armed forces decisively defeated the LTTE destroying its military capability. There was then a clear victor and a vanquished. Instead of change, the political status quo at the centre got further entrenched. If there was hope for a progressive vision for reconciliation and reconstruction, such a vision did not emerge following euphoria over the military victory. The imagination of the political establishment seemed to go only so far as embracing triumphalism. No lyrical politics here. No poetry in the heart.

There were no moments of silence or days of mourning to remember the thousands of citizens killed on both sides of the conflict. There were the good ones and the bad ones; a clear victor and a vanquished; patriots and traitors. In such a polarized political backdrop, the creation of a new constitutional order enabling reconciliation was certainly not in the cards; nor was a well-thought- out vision on reconciliation.

Instead what we got was the Eighteenth Amendment to the 1978 Constitution. Even those jubilant over the war victory were troubled both by the Amendment’s contents and the process followed for its adoption. The Amendment, as we all know well, further concentrated power in an already powerful executive presidency.

The presidential term limit was removed, and the president got virtually unlimited authority to decide on the composition of the higher judiciary, the Election Commission, the Human Rights Commission, the Police Commission and other institutions the independence of which is crucial to providing checks and balances in government. Further, the powers of some institutions were diluted.

The Eighteenth Amendment Bill was rushed through parliament as an urgent Bill, thereby denying consultation and debate. Mysteriously, around that time several opposition parliamentarians joined government ranks swelling its parliamentary majority to the required two-thirds majority. All those events left a bad taste in the mouth of the alert citizen, whether belonging to the majority or a minority. The international community got worried. Things were moving fast, but in a very problematic direction. The historic moment was being squandered on hard politics.

An ideology of reconciliation cannot be built without the basic ingredients of democracy and the rule of law. Economic development is important, but that process alone cannot achieve reconciliation. In the first place, all communities must have the ability to meaningfully enagage in the decision making process in order that development may touch the lives of the people. That is why the likes of President Mandela first invested in a vibrant democratic constitutional order that guaranteed equal protection of rights through the rule of law.

My own set of immediate demands as a citizen are as follows—roll back the Eighteenth Amendment; restore the Seventeenth Amendment and the Constitutional Council with improvements; guarantee judicial independence and independence of all oversight bodies; stop political interference in and politicization of public institutions; take strong measures to prevent discrimination based on ethnicity, gender, language and religion; let law enforcement (meaning the ordinary law–not exceptional laws) take its own course, do not provide protection to erring political favourites; respect and protect free expression, association and assembly– adopt a policy of ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’; adopt a zero tolerance policy on torture, abductions and involuntary disappearances; permit free and fair elections and respect the people’s will.

That is already asking for a great lot. But without those fundamentals I doubt very much that we can progress in the right direction, both nationally and internationally.