By Jehan Perera –
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s address to the nation was a carefully scripted one delivered in a tranquil environment overlooking a verdant green landscape with an ancient Buddhist monument symbolizing tranquility in the far background. It was delivered without the trappings of state power, not even the national flag. It seems to have been an endeavor to project the benign personality of the president and evoke sympathetic support of the people. In recent months the president has been coming in for strong criticism in the social media that is outside the realm of governmental patronage and control. Much of the criticism would be planted by political opponents who seek to create an image of a president who is failing. A significant proportion of the criticism appears to be from people who voted for the president but are now disillusioned between his promise and their lived reality. In reality, a sense of despondency is gripping the country.
Not even the commissioning of the Colombo Port City, regarding which much has been promised, has caused a sense of optimism to emerge. The grinding down of the economy takes a more prominent place than any dreams about the future. The spread of the Covid virus is a global phenomenon, but Sri Lanka now appears to be one of the worst affected countries rather than being trailblazer which it was in the past on social welfare issues. Borrowing from Bangladesh’s surplus foreign reserves is a sobering experience to a country that reached the status of an upper middle income country prior to the Easter bombing. There is also no quick fix that can come from governmental change. With the government having a two-thirds majority in parliament, the indications are that it will last out its entire term of office regardless of any shortcomings in its performance, and getting the country still deeper in debt.
The glimmer of hope in this bleak scenario comes from an unexpected quarter, the possibility of a constructive approach to the ethnic conflict which has long been Sri Lanka’s Achilles Heel, going back to the time of Independence. The release of 16 long term LTTE detainees from their prolonged imprisonment has been an exceptional event. It cannot, however, remain a single event if it is to lead to a constructive outcome. The fact that the release happened without any protest is a sign of the evolution of the Sri Lankan consciousness as much as an expression of trust and confidence in the personality of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his governmental colleagues. If any other government leadership had signed a similar executive order and released LTTE suspects, there would have been an outcry from those same quarters that the country’s security has been compromised.
The government’s decision to change course on the issue of post-war reconciliation has come after the passage of the EU parliamentary resolution by a massive majority of 628 to 15 votes in the 705 seat parliament. The fact that the overwhelming majority of parliamentarians from 27 European countries, and not simply one or two, have voted in this manner would be an eye-opener about the uphill task to change the opinion of the international community on this matter. The EU resolution in June this year is only the last of a series of four, which started with the UN Human Rights Council resolution in March 2021 and was followed by the Genocide resolution passed by the Ontario parliament in May and by the resolution presented to the US Congress also in May.
The reality in all these cases in the international domain has been that those who wish to be critical of Sri Lanka have won big whenever a vote on the issue is taken. Apart from the significant erosion of international support that the EU parliament’s resolution indicates, the nature of the sanction has jolted the government to take remedial action to prevent them from being escalated. The UNHRC resolution set up a process of human rights monitoring and accountability with, perhaps, longer term implications. The EU resolution, on the other hand, has the potential to immediately debilitate the Sri Lankan economy by the withdrawal of the GSP Plus tax concession. The government has had the experience of having lost the GSP Plus earlier, in 2010. The economy got weakened then too although it was in much better shape than it is in now, as the war had just ended and all economic indicators were set to rise.
The government’s decision to release the 16 LTTE detainees and its ability to release them without generating controversy or protests is a positive indication of the potential for further actions in the area of post-war reconciliation. Unfortunately this release was overshadowed negatively by the controversy associated with the pardon of a political ally and friend for murder, a conviction upheld by a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court. On the other hand, the goodwill accompanying the release of LTTE detainees can set the stage for transformations in the attitude of people of one community for another. This event must not remain a single event, but should set the stage for further actions to follow in the same spirit of justice and reconciliation. A much larger number of similarly situated persons continue to be held in custody whose cases also need to be considered with equal compassion.
The short debate that took place in parliament and set the stage for the release of the LTTE detainees is a symbol of how much has changed in Sri Lanka since the 1950s or even since the end of the war in 2009. The quality of the debate was generally edifying. Minister Namal Rajapaksa, son of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa set the ball rolling in parliament by speaking with eloquence on his personal experience in prison where he saw the wastage of youth in those who had been incarcerated for long years without trial or recourse to the judicial process. It would be no exaggeration to say that the moment for transformation is now and needs to be seized, to embark upon a process of change, and not simply on a single event change. If the government can address the ethnic conflict, and the diverse perceptions about it, and create a consensual solution, future success is assured.
The unscripted response of war time army commander General Sarath Fonseka in parliament that day was particularly impressive, and personally moving, on account of its spontaneous moral quality. He referred to the person who had brought the suicide bomber whose attack almost killed him. They had come again face to face again, this time in court though for different reasons. The former army commander observed that this person who had sought to assassinate him 15 years ago during the time of war, and who had also been in the prison with him, continued to be imprisoned without his case being decided in court. He said that the LTTE member had been punished enough and asked for his release.
Those who spoke in parliament that day pointed out that at the root of these long term detentions without trial is the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) which is now at the heart of a resolution by the EU Parliament to deny Sri Lanka the GSP Plus tariff concession that is of great importance to our economy. The PTA permits arrest without warrant and detention without the possibility of obtaining bail from judges unless the government agrees to it. This law has been used not only in the case of LTTE suspects but during the JVP insurrection and more recently to incarcerate suspects in the aftermath of the Easter bombings and also those whose political views are critical of the government in power.
There were other points made too at that debate by parliamentarians from different political parties and ethnic and religious communities. We can be confident that our country has the moral and intellectual capacities to overcome past and present obstacles to truly national development. M.A. Sumanthiran, Rauff Hakeem, Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam and Shanakiya Rasamanickam come to mind from that day’s parliamentary debate. They showed an understanding of the inter-connected nature of law and politics, and the need to transcend the past, be it through the reform of the PTA or the pardoning of those who had been fighters for a cause in the war that is now over. Together with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa they can jointly bring about transformation to this long bloodied and under-performing country in which unity among the communities needs to come first.