By Jehan Perera –
The Independence Day celebrations this year will be significantly different from those of the recent past. The government has said that the ceremony will be simple. There is an emphasis on cost cutting. The previous government spared no cost to make its celebrations grand affairs. One of the main issues on which the presidential election was fought over was corruption and waste, and the misdirection of economic resources away from the poor to those at the helm of the government. The opposition parties leveled charges against the former United People’s Freedom Alliance government that it led the country into massive debt due to its white elephant projects, waste and corruption.
There will also be another significant difference. Over the past five years since the end of the war in 2009, the previous government emphasized the war victory at the Independence Day celebrations. There was a display of the country’s military power. The previous government believed it had an unbeatable formula to obtain the support of the majority of people due to its constant mobilization of Sinhalese ethnic nationalism. It constantly reminded the ethnic majority of the military victory it had obtained over the LTTE and the militancy of the Tamil ethnic minority. It also claimed that the international community was seeking to revive the LTTE and used that justification to bolster the strength of the military and rule the ethnic minorities with a heavy hand. Even the Independence Day celebrations were used for this purpose.
On this occasion, however, the celebrations will be led by a government that comprises the spectrum of political parties in the country, and also its ethnic and religious diversities. Those who are in the government are bound at this time by bonds of commitment and loyalty that came about in contesting against, and defeating, a government that centralized power and focused on ethno-nationalism to gain popular support. The new government has decided to express sympathy and reach out to the victims of the country’s three-decade long war at this year’s Independence Day celebrations. This will be an action that binds the people of the country together in recognizing that the war, violence and destruction that accompanied it were a tragedy to all sections of the people.
It has been announced that the governmenthas approved a joint proposal made by the Acting Foreign Minister Ajith P Perera and the Minister of Home Affairs and Fisheries Joseph Michael Perera to make a special Statement on Peace at the Independence Day celebrations. The new government took into consideration the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission appointed by the previous government. The LLRC recommended that a “separate event be set apart on the National Day to express solidarity and empathy with all victims of the tragic conflict and pledge our collective commitment to ensure that there should never be such bloodletting in the country again.” The previous government did not accept this recommendation and only remembered the soldiers who had sacrificed their lives in the war.
However, it is not only with regard to the ethnic conflict that the new government is making a break with the past. The interim budget of the National Democratic Front government presented by Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake was easily the most people-friendly budget of any government in recent times. It was described as a mini-budget, unlike the main budget that makes its appearance in November. Although the new government is led by a political party that is known to be pro-business, the interim budget has been criticized by the business community for being too harsh on big business and being a “Robin Hood” type of budget that takes from the rich in order to give to the poor. It will have a significant impact on the lives of the majority of people who are still far from being the middle income earners that Central Bank figures given during the period of the former government used to make out.
The new government is not repeating the politically damaging policies of the short-lived United National Front government of 2001-04 which was also headed by today’s Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe. That government too inherited an economy in very bad shape. The expenditures on the war against the LTTE that was taking place in full force at that time had drained the economy. One prong of the government’s remedy to this problem was to slash government expenditures and to try to stimulate private sector investments. The UNF government was successful in reviving the economy. Its policies were rational in terms of economics. But its policies created hardships to the masses of people and were resented by them. This had negative implications for other reforms that the government felt it had to make.
In 2001 the war was going badly for the government. Elephant Pass, one of the biggest military bases of the government in the North had fallen to the LTTE. The economy had plunged to negative growth. The UNF government sought to deal rationally with the issue of the war against the LTTE by entering into a ceasefire agreement with it with the support and praise of the international community. The international community was prepared to support the government in this. What followed was a textbook case of mediation and conflict resolution. However, the UNF government’s efforts to make the LTTE a partner in the peace process caused unease amongst the majority of people who did not trust the LTTE. This enabled the government’s political rivals to accuse it of betraying the country to the LTTE and to the international community. As a result the government could not keep its hold on power and was soon defeated at elections.
In catering to the needs of the majority of people through its mini budget, the new government has shown it is being pragmatic about retaining the support of the majority of people in anticipation of general elections in June. If it is to prevail at the forthcoming elections, it will be important for the new government to woo the ethnic majority, of whom a majority voted for the former president at the recently concluded presidential election. In the period 2001-04, the UNF government lost its popularity due to its harsh economic policies in relation to the majority of people, but also due to the erosion of confidence that accompanied its efforts to compromise with the LTTE for the sake of peace. There is a similar issue this time. This time around, the LTTE is no longer the party that has to be placated. The international community is pressing for governmental accountability on the issue of war crimes.
Unlike the former government that refused to engage with the international community on war crimes, the new government has shown its willingness to engage with the international community on the issue of war crimes. It is in this context that the pledge of the new government leaders not to permit any Sri Lankan to be taken away to an international court for war crimes and instead to hold a domestic inquiry into accountability issues needs to be viewed. It has sent one of the country’s top diplomats Jayantha Dhanapala to the meet with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to ask for time and space to cope with this issue. Unless this is given, the issue of war crimes and accountability can undermine the prospects of the new government with the Sinhalese majority regardless of the economic benefits it provides the people.