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Can panel heal Sri Lanka's wounds?

Sri Lanka's cabinet meet in a town formerly held by Tamil rebels during the country's 30-year civil war in the latest effort to try to heal the wounds left by the bloody conflict.

COLOMBO // Sri Lanka's cabinet met yesterday in a town formerly held by Tamil rebels during the country's 30-year civil war in the latest effort to try to heal the wounds left by the bloody conflict.

The meeting in the northern town of Kilinochchi came as details emerged of a government reconciliation panel set up to search for answers to the conflict, which ended in May 2009. However, political analysts and politicians believe such measures aimed at reconciliation and healing are futile unless they are accompanied by a political solution to end Tamil claims of neglect. Others also claim the commission will have little impact and has been set up purely to appease the West and the United Nations, which have been seeking a response to claims of atrocities by government troops against civilians in the closing months of the war.

In May, the Sri Lankan president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, appointed the Commission of Inquiry on Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation, aimed at examining the conflict between February 2002 and May 2009. The eight-member panel, chaired by the former attorney general, CR de Silva, has been charged with reporting whether any person, group or institution directly or indirectly bears responsibility "in this regard". It is also responsible for reporting on measures to be taken to prevent conflict or ethnic unrest in the future and promote national unity among all communities.

Mr de Silva told The National yesterday that public sittings will commence next month and the commission will permit witnesses to give evidence via a videotape to protect identities. "Our mandate is to study and learn the causes that led to the conflict and recommend measures that won't see a recurrence of this situation," he said. Mr de Silva added that unlike South Africa's Truth Commission, which had a much wider mandate, the Sri Lankan panel will not have the authority to penalise anyone deemed responsible for the war.

He said sittings will move between districts to minimise inconvenience for witnesses from the north and the east. SI Keethaponcalan, the head of political science at the University of Colombo, said many in civil society believe the commission will have a similar outcome to half a dozen presidential commissions that have probed similar issues in the past but led to no action being taken. "In one instance, a panel concluded that no human rights abuses had occurred, when clearly there had been instances," he said.

E Saravanabhavan, a parliamentarian from the Tamil National Alliance and the publisher of the popular Tamil-language Uthayan daily, said the commission is just to satisfy and impress the West. "Nothing will come out [of it]. How do you expect people to go to offices of the commission in northern Jaffna, for example, when armed cadres of government politicians are still lurking around?" he said. "A truth commission is a good idea but not the way it has been structured in Sri Lanka."

Questions are also being raised about the period of investigation as it covers the 2002 ceasefire agreement between the rebels and the main opposition United National Party (UNP), which was in power at the time. One main issue of concern was over allowing top rebel leaders to travel abroad as VIPs. There were also allegations that supplies of arms carried on LTTE ships were allowed free access. "It's very vague. It appears to be more a pre-emptive measure against the formation of the UN Panel of Experts than a serious attempt to find the truth," said Mohamed Ayub, a journalist on the Colombo-based Daily Mirror newspaper.

Yesterday in Killinochchi, ministers led by the president made a "hearts and minds offer" to reduce the price of petrol and kerosene by three rupees (Dh10 fils) per litre in the northern Jaffna peninsula. Amid tight security, ministers accompanied by dozens of officials met in the region's security headquarters, once the regional office of the rebels. On June 24, the government decided to rotate cabinet meetings between each district to give ministers the opportunity to study the development needs of the provinces, an official at the president's office said.

But Mr Keethaponcalan said the government's gestures would not reconcile the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamils, nor the underlying problems that led to the conflict. Even before the war began in July 1983, Tamils had for years claimed they suffered discrimination in jobs, land use and education, and called for greater control of the areas in which they live. The rebels' demands included greater civil, political and social rights for their community.

Thousands of Tamils, Sri Lanka's largest community after the Sinhalese, suffered injury, abuse, trauma and loss of land or property during the conflict. "Proper reconciliation will come only after a political settlement of the Tamil issue is found," Mr Keethaponcalan added. "The government reconciliation panel is just an attempt to appease the international community." Sri Lanka has previously responded with its own panel whenever the international community has called for accountability on human rights issues during the war.

Soon after the US State Department's October 2009 publication of a report into alleged human rights abuses between January and May 2009, Mr Rajapaksa appointed a panel to probe the claims. The local panel report has yet to be published. Last month, after the UN Secretary-General, Ban ki-Moon appointed a panel to look at Sri Lankan accountability, the government responded by setting up the "lessons learnt and reconciliation" tribunal.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae