By Jehan Perera –
This New Year will be a year of change as the government faces a make or break situation internationally. The next session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in March is positioned to deliver a resolution that calls for an international probe into Sri Lanka’s conduct of its war. The weeks and months to come are therefore going to be crucial. The international community is watching whatever steps Sri Lanka takes in the direction of greater human rights, national reconciliation and accountability. Unless change happens, the government and the country too will be at the receiving end of UN-sanctioned scrutiny that will leave it little room to manoeuver. International sanctions of one kind or another will be a step away.
In this context, the government will necessarily have to change course in the New Year. It can no longer go down the old path that lay down a policy of centralization and uniformity, in which the government’s top leaders sought to control society and make it uniform. It may be recalled that shortly after the war’s end, President Mahinda Rajapaksa said that henceforth there will be no majority or minority but only patriots and traitors. The government’s vision of centralization and uniformity was encapsulated in its post-war slogan of “one country, one people.” It also meant singing the national anthem in only one language, and not two, unlike the national anthem of South Africa which is sung in five languages and from whence the government hopes to get support to counter the international demands being placed on it.
The essential feature of the government’s post-war policy has been the centralization and concentration of power, which even its cabinet ministers do not like as it marginalizes them too. Belying the general expectation that the end of the war would lead to a reduction in the role of the military there has been a continuing spurt in the growth of the military budget and the role of the military in civil society. This has been accompanied by a concurrent undermining of the institutional autonomy that might have protected pluralism and diversity in society. The independence of the public service and judiciary amongst others has been laid low. The 18th Amendment concentrated the powers of appointment of all top state bodies in the hands of the President.
But now as the country enters its fifth year since the end of the war, the inability of the policy of centralization to cope with the international demands being placed on the country is becoming clearer. The government has been producing report after report on its implementation of development projects and recovery of the war-affected parts of the country, but with few international takers. Their observations do not endorse the government’s claims of progress, which the international community will surely take note of at the coming session of the UN Human Rights Council. The UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons, Chaloka Beyani, who visited Sri Lanka recently referred to “growing food insecurity and indebtedness in the Northern Province” and to the fact that “displaced and resettled communities seem to remain vulnerable to recurrent shocks”.
Within Sri Lanka, however, the political astuteness of the President and his personal popularity have enabled him to retain majority support despite the discontents arising out of economic hardship, corruption and weakened rule of law. In his book, “Leadership without easy answers” Ronald A Heifetz of Harvard University has discussed the notion of history as the story of great men and their personal talents. President Rajapaksa would qualify for this category. Although the population at large, even the Sinhalese ethnic majority has become highly critical of his government’s post-war policies in respect of misallocation of economic resources, impunity for gunmen and corruption, they will continue to vote for the personal attributes and charisma of the great leader who vindicated their trust. The President is seen as the leader who restored peace to the country by defeating the LTTE. Due to this advantage, President Rajapaksa is better equipped than any other leader to change the country’s post-war journey to one that meets the expectations of all sections of its multi-ethnic and plural population. But in order to do this, the President will be needng to accept that the policy of centralization of power and the role of the military in society have reached their limits.
The President has asked his party members to be ready for elections in the New Year at the ruling party’s annual convention. The President did not say it would be presidential or parliamentary elections but the speculation is that it will be the latter. Although he did not say which election would take place a presidential election is the more likely as the President is the greatest asset the government has. Government sources have said that the President is likely to seek a fresh mandate on a manifesto that will give him greater maneuverability to cope with the demands emanating from the international community. They also said that the government’s previous mandates were for a more nationalist line, but this is outdated as it today stands in the way of coping with the present international environment. In this context the government is expected to face the elections on a more pro-reconciliation platform.
The challenge for the President is to provide leadership that would empower Sri Lankan society to overcome its internal divisions that create the background for international intervention. According to Heifetz, progress in problem solving is the measure of true leadership. He says, “Leaders mobilize people to face problems and communities make progress on problems because leaders challenge them and help them to do so.” This has not so far been forthcoming in a positive sense with regard to the reconciliation process and therefore there needs to be change. It is a different ideal of leadership than the one in which “leadership means influencing the country to follow the leader’s vision” and society looks to the leader to solve problems for them with his centralized powers.
This is the context in which President Rajapaksa will call for an election sometime next year. Such elections will not only give a fresh six year term, but also a fresh mandate to make the changes necessary to reconciliation that have the people’s approval. The period of an election campaign is one in which the people are particularly interested in listening to political debates and discussing on them. The opportunity to create awareness of national problems is unparalleled during a period of electioneering. Election campaigns provide a unique opportunity to political parties and their leaderships to educate the general public on important national issues. The ground is ready for sowing the seeds of change.
There is much goodwill at the community level for getting over the past, and building bonds of inter-community amity. A recent series of exchange visits between the Galle and Batticaloa municipal councils, which included elected politicians and public officials, was a demonstration of such goodwill and mutual appreciation. The visitors from Batticaloa were impressed that the Galle Municipal Council building had name boards in all three languages and had provision for Tamil-speaking officers which they took to be a sign of reconciliation from the bottom up. The visitors from Galle were impressed by the development and culture of Batticaloa which was not as they thought a former battle zone would be. They all sought reconciliation and working together, including with the central government authorities. If the President is prepared to change course in the New Year he is likely to find himself supported by the electorate.