In his first independence day address on Wednesday, Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena eschewed nationalist rhetoric, which was the norm during the Mahinda Rajapaksa years, to reflect on the country’s fraught ethnic relations. Though the war against the LTTE was won in 2009, he said, the state has failed “to bring together the minds of the people of the North and South”, and called for a national reconciliation. Since winning the presidential election in January, Sirisena has given signals that he intends to reach out to the Tamils. The decision to replace the governor of the Northern Province with a civilian and the appointment of Kangasabapathy Sripavan as the chief justice of the country, the first Tamil to be appointed to the post in several years, are seen as conciliatory gestures. More administrative powers to the provinces have also been promised. That the Tamil National Alliance, the political voice of northern Tamils, attended the I-Day celebrations for the first time is presumably an indication of the thaw in north-south relations.
Language and religion are two issues that have wreaked havoc on Sri Lanka’s pluralistic society in the past and hold the key to any national reconciliation. Sirisena must go for administrative reforms — an equal opportunities commission, perhaps — to safeguard the rights of linguistic and religious minorities. Colombo must also begin the demilitarisation of Tamil areas. Large swathes of private land are under army occupation while its rightful owners continue to live in camps and makeshift shelters. A truth and reconciliation commission to investigate war crimes and missing persons would also help heal the war wounds.
Significantly, the president spoke about “following a foreign policy of the middle path, in friendship with all nations, and move towards the resolution of our national issues through the strengthening of our international relations”. With Sirisena expected in Delhi this month, the political climate has never been better for improving ties between the two countries.
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