By Jehan Perera –
Most of the country would have heaved a sigh of relief at the early release of the Ceylon Teachers Union leader Joseph Stalin and his colleagues from Covid quarantine. This was a long standing trade union and part of civil society who had been arrested and sent for two weeks of Covid quarantine after being given bail by the courts for having engaged in a public protest. The cause they were seeking to uphold is the independence of higher institutions of learning, in particular the universities, from political and even worse military control. They were true civil society heroes, both lay and clergy, non-violent and self-sacrificial, and for that reason virtually the entire teaching profession went on a protest strike to demonstrate their solidarity.
The misuse of COVID health regulations to prohibit public protests is unacceptable in a democratic society. This is especially the case when public gatherings involving government politicians in particular take place regardless of Covid health restrictions. Similar repressive actions using Covid health regulations have quelled other protests too, such as those against the ban on chemical fertilisers which is threatening to destroy small scale farmers, corporation staff protesting against failure to pay salaries and environmental activists opposing the construction of a new power plant in an environmentally fragile area.
The government’s responsiveness to unnecessary public harm, in this case to hapless school children, is a positive indication that constructive engagement with it is possible and of some value.
The teaching profession going on strike is a very costly matter. The children of the country, including mine, lost one week of their formal education as a result. Perhaps it was a recognition of this price being paid by millions of the country’s children that softened the hearts of the government leadership who are known to take hard headed decisions.
At the base of democracy is the right of people to dissent and when they do so peacefully they need to be protected. It is to be hoped that the government will be similarly responsive to the hardships that have suddenly and unexpectedly befallen other sectors of the population, in particular the farmers of the country. Without adequate notice a total ban has been placed on chemical fertilizer imports which has led to a disastrous situation to millions of farmers and those who rely on agriculture for their sustenance. A phased approach involving a process of engagement and education of the farming community may have been more acceptable, and needs to be considered.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s commitment to revolutionise agriculture is commendable. At the same time it is to be hoped that he will show flexibility and responsiveness to the plight of the farmers. The banning of fertilizer imports cannot be compared to defeating the LTTE which some government supporters on this matter have been saying. The former is being sought to be done immediately, while the latter was done according to a plan that took at least three years to unfold and had been planned for even longer. The short term price can be unbearable to those at the bottom of the income pyramid. A change of time frame for implementation of the ban, accompanied by an educational programme, may be appreciated all round.
Faced with a myriad of problems, each of them serious enough to undermine the wellbeing of the country, the government can be seen to be moving in the direction of constructive engagement with its critics. It is ironic that the threat of withdrawal of the GSP Plus should have presented this relatively rare opportunity for constructive engagement in the national interest. Lately the Western led international community has become especially critical of the country, with four anti-Sri Lanka resolutions this year. Nelson Mandela said “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.” In a like spirit, the new Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa has been meeting with the diplomatic community in the country and on a personal basis with many of them.
The international community’s contribution to the wellbeing of Sri Lanka’s people has become crucial on two issues at least. One is to secure a sufficient number of Covid vaccines to permit the country to open up and to revive its tourist industry which used to be one of its biggest foreign currency earners. The second is to secure both trade opportunities and loans to tide over the present financial crisis where foreign debt that has to be repaid is threatening to bankrupt the country. Due to the shifting government policy there seems to be a brightening of the economic picture. Barclays Bank in its latest credit research has sounded upbeat, saying Sri Lanka is making ends meet despite challenges. According to it, funding lines obtained in recent months have reduced the risk of an imminent debt adjustment and recommended the purchase of Sri Lanka’s sovereign bonds.
A second initiative is one being facilitated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. A group of civil society members met with Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dinesh Gunawardena, Minister of Justice, Ali Sabry, State Minister of Regional Cooperation, Tharaka Balasuriya and Foreign Secretary, Admiral Professor Jayanath Colombage at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs last week. At the outset of the meeting Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena said that this meeting is to help to understand the expectations from the government side and that the common intention is to democratically take the country forward. Justice Minister Ali Sabry said that they wished to obtain the views on how to face the challenges both nationally and internationally and emphasized the need to balance competing interests. Foreign Secretary Colombage made a sober and rational point by point response to the memorandum presented to the government team by the civil society members.
The discussions that followed took place in an environment of equal treatment and mutual respect. The civil society members, welcomed the opportunity to engage with members of the government on topics of post-war reconciliation, civil society space, and governance. They emphasized the need for the government to view civil society as a partner in resolving national issues and to be consulted. They called on the government to take meaningful and concrete stops to address emblematic human rights cases, repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act, uphold civil society space, establish District Reconciliation Committees and form a parliamentary caucus on reconciliation, among others. The government members affirmed their commitment to getting the participation of civil society in development and post-war reconciliation and ensure that any prospective law with regard to NGOs would be discussed with them.
The government members also stated their conviction that government policy was to treat every citizen equally, to consider diversity to be a blessing rather than a liability and that the provincial council system would be sustained, and the elections would be held when technical issues are sorted out. They pointed out that institutions set up for reconciliation, including the Office on Missing Persons, the Office for Reparations and the Office of National Unity and Reconciliation would work in coordination in the future. The need to make the appointment process a more inclusive one was made. The meeting concluded with the prospect of future dialogue and engagement, with the civil society members calling on the government leadership to inform the general public about its position on issues of post-war reconciliation in particular and obtain their support. The prospect of moving from a divided past to a shared future is an alluring one that needs to be realized on the ground through a more all-encompassing dialogue.