By Jehan Perera –
Challenges such as the three month long teachers’ strike, the organic fertilizer crisis and the unconscionable case of prisoner intimidation remain to be resolved. But since returning from the United States where he addressed the UN General Assembly, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has expressed his views on matters concerning the country with pledges to enact a new constitution and to provide for electoral change. These are changes that have not been possible to implement for the past several years, if not decades, with any measure of success. The president made these pledges at the anniversary celebrations of the Sri Lanka Army whose contributions in the past during the war, and also in the past two years in dealing with the Covid pandemic, he extolled.
The pledges that the president has made are in the realm of the possible. Shortly after the government won the general elections with a 2/3 majority, the president appointed an expert committee to draft a new constitution. In April this year, Foreign Minister Prof G L Peiris explained the purpose as follows: “The present constitution itself was drafted 43 years ago and Sri Lankan society has changed significantly since then. Therefore, various parts of the Constitution in force today are outdated. We see it as a matter of urgency to study the entire Constitution in depth and formulate a new Constitution.” The workings of this committee have not been much publicized. Nor is the fundamental purpose of the constitutional change clear.
On the other hand, there is a wealth of previous experience on constitutional reform that the expert committee can utilize without needing to summon a long procession of organisations and individuals to make submissions before it. There have been multiple attempts in the past quarter century to devise a new constitution. The pioneering one which had its genesis in 1995 was the draft constitution of 2000 which made its early appearance in the form of a package of proposals for the devolution of power. This was presented as a solution to the ethnic conflict which had passed its first decade of internal warfare. One of the key architects of that initiative was Prof G L Peiris who was the constitutional affairs minister in that government headed by President Chandrika Kumaratunga. In addition, there were several all-party conferences, in which the phrase 13th Amendment Plus came into use though it was not precisely defined.
In a similar manner when President Gotabaya Rajapaksa made his speech in New York before the UN General Assembly he was not making a break with the past but was building on the past. The President said “Fostering greater accountability, restorative justice, and meaningful reconciliation through domestic institutions is essential to achieve lasting peace. So too is ensuring more equitable participation in the fruits of economic development. It is my Government’s firm intention to build a prosperous, stable and secure future for all Sri Lankans, regardless of ethnicity, religion, or gender. We are ready to engage with all domestic stakeholders, and to obtain the support of our international partners and the United Nations, in this process.” These are all challenges taken up but left unresolved by previous governments, the burden of which now lies with President Rajapaksa.
Unlike his predecessors who tried and failed, due to undermining by the opposition parties and the LTTE and also by inept governance, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is in an advantageous position. The military power of the LTTE is no longer in existence to blow up efforts to build consensus. The opposition parties led by the present leader of the opposition, Sajith Premadasa, is likely to conduct themselves in an responsible manner without engaging in nationalist polemics. Both the SJB and the JVP have been supportive of efforts to bring in the ethnic and religious minorities into the processes of governance and in being sensitive to their needs. They are more likely to support the government to arrive at a just and negotiated settlement and not in fanning the fears of the general population.
In taking forward the reconciliation process, President Rajapaksa has at his disposal the thinking, plans and mechanisms established by previous governments. The government has not discarded the key reconciliation mechanisms established by the previous government in terms of UN Human Rights Council resolution 30/1 of 2015. These mechanisms include the Office on Missing Persons (OMP), the Office for Reparations (OR) and the Office of National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR). The government has continued to maintain the institutions set up in terms of the co-sponsored UNHRC resolution. However, there has been a problem with some of the appointments that have been made. The appointments to those institutions needs to be done in consultation with those sections of the polity who have been most affected and who need to be able to place their trust in those institutions.
As the government possesses a 2/3 majority in parliament, the government is well positioned to achieve the major policy changes envisaged by the president and implement them. The major policy changes being planned need to be complemented by constructive changes on the ground. So far this is not being seen. Challenges such as the three month long teachers’ strike, the organic fertilizer crisis and the unconscionable case of prisoner intimidation remain to be suitably addressed and resolved. Policy changes that do not yield change on the ground that is visible will seem to be mere words without deeds. There is a need to overcome the cynicism that has come to the minds of people in the country regarding promises made by politicians. The ethnic and religious minorities need to be brought into the process of governance. This is not happening. Today’s newspapers, for instance, have advertisements calling for public comment on 26 persons selected for high posts in the state. Not a single of them is either Tamil or Muslim which stands as a symbol of the lack of inclusiveness in the national polity.
Reconciliation has been defined to mean transforming a divided past into a shared future. This is done by rebuilding relationships and the generation of trust. The peace scholar John Paul Lederach has written, “The focus of reconciliation is upon building new and better relationships between former enemies. Relationships are both the root cause and the long-term solution of conflict.” The president in New York said that he would like to engage with the Tamil Diaspora. This would mean a decision to de-ban the main Diaspora organisations that were suddenly banned in March this year in the face of the reversal that Sri Lanka suffered when it lost the vote at the UN Human Rights Council. Where reconciliation is concerned the issues of power sharing and inclusion in the new constitution that President Rajapaksa has promised will be crucial. There will be a need to consult with the ethnic and religious minority parties. If this is done then there can be a change that comes from engagement.
In this context, more important than talking to the Diaspora is for the government leadership to talk to the elected Tamil leaders in the country. They have the mandate of the Tamil people. Inasmuch as the government leadership, including the president, have opened the doors to dialogue with Sri Lankan civil society, which has been a rewarding experience, so should they open the door to dialogue with the leadership of the minority parties. The first step to rebuild relationships that have got broken is to talk to the other. When we talk to others, even those considered to be the enemy, we get a chance to hear what they say and to understand where they are coming from. And vice versa. The next is to develop trust. And for that the government needs to act a whole, and not in disparate parts. “Reconciliation implies building or rebuilding relationships today that is not haunted by the conflicts and hatreds of yesterday” – Priscilla Hayner