By Jehan Perera –
The cabinet reshuffle that took place last week saw important portfolios switch hands within the government. The smooth transfer of ministries, and the grace of those were subjected to the change in accepting their new portfolios, offers hope that the tension that had dogged UNP-SLFP relations will now subside and pave the way for more effective governance. The past several months had seen many expressions of dissatisfaction from members of the two main political parties that make up the Government of National Unity. They openly cast doubt on the usefulness of the cohabitation agreement and argued it would be better not to extend the two year agreement when it reaches its culmination later this year in August. There was concern that the government might not even make it to the two year mark.
However, the key protagonists to the decision to stay together or depart are President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. Whatever may be their inner concerns, neither of them has publicly echoed the misgivings of their party members who prefer separation to unity. Their leadership positions have enabled them to take a more holistic view of political realities than their more impatient party members. Both of them have publicly affirmed that the two year cohabitation agreement will be renewed and extended for the entire five year duration of the government’s term of office. It would seem that the President and Prime Minister recognize that they need to stay together for two basic reasons.
The first need for continuing to govern together is to keep former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his political allies in the Joint Opposition from making a comeback to power. The former president continues to retain a significant degree of popular support amongst the general population. He also continues to have sizeable support within the SLFP in terms of the party machinery to which he gave leadership during the ten years of his presidency. The former president also appears to have access to large financial resources due to his long stay in the highest office in the country and to the support he enjoys with those who have access to vast financial resources. Apart from popularity, the Joint Opposition’s ability to marshal a vast multitude for their May Day show of strength was an indication of the financial resources at their disposal.
The second reason for the UNP and SLFP to stay together transcends the interests of individual politicians to stay in power or to keep others out of power. It goes to the heart of governance. The bipartisan UNP-SLFP government provides the platform for reform of the system of governance that could deal with the fundamental weaknesses that led to three decades of war and to the near collapse of state institutions during that period of turmoil. The government has a 2/3 majority which is the prerequisite for constitutional change. It should be noted that the Index of Fragile States put Sri Lanka in the top 20 of fragile states in 2008 and today it is still at 43 on the ranking list of fragile states out of the 178 countries that have been ranked. Both the decades of war and the weakening of state institutions were responsible for the devastation to the national economy and to the large scale human rights violations that took place.
Much was expected in terms of reform when the government changed in 2015. The political parties that spearheaded the campaign for change promised to establish good governance, restore the Rule of Law and to hold accountable those who had acted with impunity in their dealings with human rights and with financial crimes. Indeed, the new government lived up to expectations when it immediately transformed the political culture into one in which respect for life and for free speech took the centre stage. The culture of fear that once prevailed due to governmental actions is dispelled to a large degree. On the other hand, the government has so far failed to take action against those from the former government and other parties who committed human rights and financial violations in the past.
Little progress is to be seen in the few cases that the government has filed with regard to the outrageous crimes of the past, even those that took place outside of the war and which should therefore not be subject to the perils of nationalism. These include criminal murders and mega corruption. Although cases have been filed in courts, there has been little progress in solving them. It appears that the police and other investigative authorities are dragging their feet out of uncertainty as to what the political authorities who are their masters want to do. This has led to the speculation and surmise that the government is not of one mind in desiring the prosecution of at least some of those who have been accused of committing criminal, human rights and financial crimes in the past.
The appearance of weakness and indecisiveness of the government has led to insolent action against it and what it has promised to stand for. Some of the trade unions that have been trying to compel the government to follow their diktat by repeatedly going on strike have mocked the cabinet reshuffle as not contributing to the resolution of their issues. More serious has been the spate of attacks against the Muslim community that have spread fear to them. An alarming number of attacks against Muslim religious places of worship and businesses are being reported countrywide causing economic ruin to many people, hurting their religious sentiment and bringing them dismay and leaving the entire community in fear of life and security. The worsening trend has been going on for several years and has a pattern of repeating after a short lull. It has intensified since April this year with over 20 attacks or attempted attacks being reported from different parts of the country in the past two months.
Dealing with the aggression against the Muslim community requires a bipartisan effort as it involves dealing with Sinhalese nationalism that is a potent political force in the country, which few have dared to take on. The government has to pay attention to the growing anti-Muslim sentiments among segments of majority community and the use of violent means to take their message and action to the ground. This situation needs to be investigated and the root causes need to be addressed through meaningful short-term and long term actions. Countering false propaganda will need to be a central part of the government and civil society agendas.
The other important challenge that the government needs to take on is the reform of the constitution in order to ensure a greater measure of inter-ethnic power sharing which many governments in the past tried to but failed to do. The most significant feature of the cabinet reshuffle from the viewpoint of promoting a public consciousness of the need for political reform is the appointment of former Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera as both Finance and Media Minister. This gives a positive message that the government is serious about winning over public opinion to its reformist agenda. As Foreign Minister, he championed the cause of transitional justice and reconciliation in a way that won the international community’s backing for the country. Now with the two powerful posts of Finance Minister and Media Minister he can consider himself to be given the mandate to champion this most difficult cause of peace within the country.