Towards a Sri Lankan identity | Sunday Observer

Towards a Sri Lankan identity

22 January, 2023

President Ranil Wickremesinghe has repeated his call for all political parties and ethnic communities to get together to rebuild the nation that is at a perilous juncture. He highlighted this in Parliament and at several venues across the country.

This is a timely call, given the need to move forward with an accelerated program to extricate ourselves from the present economic quagmire, a result of following wrong and misguided policies for the past 75 years.

We are now on the verge of celebrating the 75th anniversary of Independence – a fitting occasion for an introspection as well as looking positively at the future. Quite apart from resolving the economic crisis, we have to formulate a solution to the National Question without delay. We may have won the battle against terrorism, but unfortunately we have not won the peace still.

It is with this aim in mind that President Wickremesinghe announced the establishment of a Social Justice Commission (SJC) to build a country where everyone can live in harmony, by solving the problems of the people belonging to all sections of the population. Going beyond the establishment of the SJC, the President also announced the formation of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), perhaps on the lines of the one in South Africa.

Actually, we already had a similar commission – the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), whose report and far-reaching recommendations have mostly been ignored by successive Governments. If the leaders of this country had earnestly implemented most of these recommendations, we may have had some respite in Geneva. But the full credit should go to President Ranil Wickremesinghe and former Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera for implementing at least a few LLRC recommendations including the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) and the Office of Reparations (OR) during the Yahapalanaya years. However, Governments gave these institutions only half-hearted support and they are yet to fulfill their mandate in full.

The TRC will hopefully have a wider focus and mandate. We cannot expect to have a positive future without coming to terms with our past. If this includes investigating any excesses that may have been committed during the battle against terrorism by both Government forces and the LTTE, it must be done. According to the President, the security forces have given their nod to such an exercise.

The TRC as envisaged is a purely domestic mechanism, but it must be an honest exercise in finding out the truth. There should be no time-buying exercises aimed at appeasing the international community.

We have given enough excuses to the international community all these years and some real work must be done now. In fact, this is the only way to ward off foreign interference. If we adopt delaying tactics, the pressure on us will only worsen at the next sessions in Geneva.

The President has also said that the Government would fully implement the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. This is not the first time that this commitment has been made – former President Mahinda Rajapaksa promised ‘13 Plus’ – a version of the Amendment that goes beyond the core features. However, this promise was never delivered.

This time, there is no doubt that President Wickremesinghe, who has always stood for the devolution of power, will do the needful. Regardless of the debate on the origin of the 13th Amendment, it is now part and parcel of the Constitution. Provincial Councils (PCs) exist and many subjects other than Land and Police powers have already been devolved to the Provinces.

The full implementation of the 13th Amendment will necessarily entail the granting of such extensive powers to the PCs. It must be stressed that countries which have devolved powers to their states or provinces, have never seen the secession of such provinces or states.

In any case, the President is engaged in discussions with Tamil Parliamentarians and other Tamil politicians with regard to resolving the national question. He has also invited the Tamil Diaspora groups for talks on the same subject and some have responded positively.

In fact, some Diaspora groups have indicated that they would help the country ride out the economic storm if a clear roadmap is available for establishing peace and reconciliation.

Predictably, some extremist nationalist groups have stirred to life, spewing nonsense about separatism. These so-called patriots have so far hindered every attempt made by every Government to achieve peace and ethnic reconciliation. The President and the Government must pay no heed to these groups and individuals who eschew ethnic harmony.

It is disheartening to note the main Opposition parties’ somewhat lukewarm response to the President’s overtures to discuss and arrive at a consensus on this and other issues of national importance, preoccupied as they are with the impending Local Government (LG) election.

That is no doubt important, but this is no time for playing politics. The Opposition must support the Government’s initiatives to resolve the national question and the economic crisis. They must remember that they will also be saddled with the same debilitating issues if and when they come to power, if they do not cooperate with the Government now.

The President had also said that in order to build a country where all races coexist and achieve economic prosperity, everyone must return to the Sri Lankan identity established by the late Prime Minister D.S Senanayake 75 years ago.

It is rather pathetic that almost 75 years after gaining Independence, a truly Sri Lankan identity sans an ethnic mindset has still proved elusive. Now we have a golden opportunity to achieve this aim and make Sri Lanka truly inclusive for all communities and religious groups. We must not forsake it.