Sri Lanka: Ethnic reconciliation facing double jeopardy
by R Hariharan on 04 Dec 2016 0 Comment

Double jeopardy: No one shall be liable to be tried or punished again for an offence for which he has already been finally convicted or acquitted in accordance with the law and penal procedure of each country. International Covenant on civil and political rights, Article 14(7).


To say that many Sri Lankans who voted the President Maithripala Sirisena-Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe combine to power are disappointed with its performance to provide good governance would be repeating a cliché. But that would be ignoring the magnitude of the twin tasks of promoting ethnic reconciliation and restructuring governance. It requires the dismantling of an empire of sleaze and corruption that had come into existence during President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s rule for over nine years, which thrived upon structural weaknesses and ethnic animosities. 


Australian journalist Greg Bearup has quoted JC Weliamuna, chairman of the Presidential Taskforce on the Recovery of Stolen Assets, describing the task as “incredibly complex” that would take time and international cooperation.


And the jerry-built grand coalition of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and its arch political rival the United National Party (UNP) in power may not be the ideal instrument to dismantle the institutionalised corruption in Sri Lanka’s body politic, to prevent the rise of another leader who could use it to his advantage. But that is what people of Sri Lanka have voted for as both President Sirisena and PM Wickremesinghe had shown rare unity of purpose in defeating Mahinda with the promise to deliver upon two seamlessly connected reforms: structural reforms to promote clean governance and enduring ethnic reconciliation.


The 26-year long episodic wars Sri Lanka fought against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), till President Rajapaksa eliminated it in May 2009, is a testimony to the failure of the State and nation to promote both structural reforms and ethnic reconciliation.


However, ethnic reconciliation between Sinhalas, Tamils and Muslims is perhaps more important as the nation cannot afford to sacrifice two generations of progress and over 150,000 lives lost in the civil war all over again. Without a viable and equitable constitutional structure, ethnic reconciliation is not possible.


In spite of many built-in political handicaps and ponderous processes of parliamentary democracy, the work on producing a new constitution has made some progress. The Steering Committee has received the six-sub committees constituted for making recommendations to the constituent assembly in the areas of fundamental rights, judiciary, finance, law and order, public service and the all-important centre-periphery relations.


Each one of these areas, particularly the centre-periphery relations, has the potential to divide and delay the process due to entrenched prejudices encouraging divisive politics among Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim constituencies, faithfully reflected in national politics. It is imperative for the Parliament, conscious of its historic responsibility, to accommodate most of the aspirations of all sections of the people. Failure to do so would put the clock back and snuff out even the few positive steps taken so far on national ethnic reconciliation. 


To achieve unity of purpose, the leadership has to evolve strategies to handle the social and political fallout of its actions, stoked by Rajapaksa loyalists, which are already showing up. Most disturbing is the revival of the activities of the notorious anti-Muslim outfit, the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), an extreme right wing Sinhala Buddhist organisation. Its venom-spewing leaders are again finding space on the national stage.


Recently, the BBS leader Galagoda Atte Gnasara threatened to launch attacks on Muslims “to settle the issue with stones, poles and blood” if the police did not arrest and deport Abdul Razik, secretary of the radical Muslim outfit Thowheed Jamaat (THJ), as “Sinhalese were getting attacked in Colombo.” He was reacting to the arrest of Dan Priyasad of the BBS after he made several statements threatening to bomb Muslims in the country, including the members of the THJ. It is significant that the Muslim community itself has condemned the activities of THJ.


Apart from allegations of fraud in the 2005 presidential election and human rights aberrations during the Rajapaksa regime, investigations into some of the major cases involving the Rajapaksa clan have reached an advanced stage. Yoshitha, a naval officer and son of former president Rajapaksa, was arrested in January 2016 over allegations of siphoning off millions of dollars of government money to a sports business owned by the family. 


His name has also come up in the reinvestigation of the case of Wasim Thajudeen, national rugby icon, who was found dead in his burnt car in May 2012, which was apparently hushed up by intervention at the highest level by suppressing evidence pointing to murder. The involvement of military intelligence has also been revealed in the investigations. 


Yositha’s elder brother, Namal, is being investigated in a number of cases of alleged money laundering. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the all-powerful defence secretary and brother of ex-president Rajapaksa, is facing a $130 million dollar corruption case in an armoury business run by the Sri Lanka Navy during his term in office. He is also suspected to be involved in the murder of Lasantha Wickremetunge, editor of the Sunday Leader, who was to appear in a defamation case to substantiate Gotabaya’s alleged corrupt deals in arms procurement.


Investigations in this case have revealed the involvement of military intelligence officers at the highest level. Basil, former president’s brother and minister for economic development during Rajapaksa days, has also been arrested a number of times on charges of corruption, financial irregularity and misuse of office.


The former president’s cousin, Jaliya Wickramasuriya, has been arrested for accepting a commission of $245,000 while serving as the country’s ambassador in the US. Another cousin, Udayanga Weeratunga, who served as Sri Lankan ambassador to the Russian Federation for nine years, has been absconding after the Ukraine government accused him of selling arms to the rebels.


It is important to bring to book those found guilty in these cases for the government to regain the trust of the people, particularly minorities, as democratic processes have been completely eroded.


To sum up, time is running out for the ruling coalition to speed up the processes for finalising a new constitutional framework and promoting national ethnic reconciliation. As these are mutually reinforcing imperatives to live up to the peoples’ expectations, the ruling coalition leadership should bury their internal differences to prevent other political priorities from stalling the processes, using entrenched ethnic prejudices in the communities. Otherwise the nation would be dissipating the gains of ushering in peace after making huge sacrifices to bring the Eelam wars to a successful close.

-         Written on November 30, 2016


Col R Hariharan, retired, served as head of Intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force from 1987 to 90. He is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the South Asia Analysis Group. E-mail:

Courtesy: Sri Lanka Perspectives November 2016, South Asia Security Trends, December 2016 issue.   

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