By Jehan Perera –
Any apprehension that the government would take to a more authoritarian path through the extension of the State of Emergency was dispelled by its revocation by President Maithripala Sirisena. When the president declared a State of Emergency to cover the entire country there was criticism that this was an overreaction to the problem of anti-Muslim violence as the violence was largely confined to the Kandy district and did not cross over to the other 24 districts. However, to the targeted Muslim population who live as minorities throughout the country, and to the great majority of peace loving citizens of all communities, the declaration of a countrywide emergency was primarily a reassuring signal that government wanted to make sure it would not spread.
When assessing any action it is important to make a contextual analysis of the background within which it happens. In previous periods of crisis, governments have resorted to rule by emergency regulations which they continuously extended so that it finally became a case of concentrating power and using it against the democratic opposition parties. The insurrections of the past, both JVP and LTTE, gave successive governments ample opportunity to justify the extension and abuse of emergency laws. Indeed, the use of emergency laws became so prolonged that law enforcement officers forgot the regular laws and began to see the emergency laws as the norm. In those instances a justified need at one point of time gave rise to a longer term abuse of power that continued.
However, in the case of the state of emergency declared a fortnight ago this abuse did not happen. The government announced that it would be a temporary measure and would not last beyond the period of anti Muslim violence that it was invoked to put an end to. The declaration of emergency was coupled with a restriction on social media. This was because social media was being used to spread false messages and inflame hatred against one or other sections of the people. The social media, especially Facebook and WhatsApp had become free spaces in which false information and messages of hate and mistrust were being transmitted to the country at large. These restrictive measures needed to be seen in the context that they were meant to protect a vulnerable minority and only for a temporary period, which the government has delivered on.
The temporary declaration of emergency and the restrictions placed on social media highlight strong and weak points of the government. The strong points are that the government continues to abide by the fundamental principles of democracy, which is the rule by regular law that gives full space for the exercise of democratic freedoms, while being non-racist and protective of minority rights. The lifting of the state of emergency and restrictions on social media may have been expedited by the cautions from the United States, European Union and United Kingdom which in unison expressed their concerns about the state of emergency and restrictions placed on social media. These are the norms in the established democracies. Unfortunately, however, these are not the norms in Sri Lanka which in fact has norms of political conduct that go in the opposition direction.
The weak point of the government has been its inability to make use of the democratic space it has opened up to carry its message sufficiently powerfully to the people. On the contrary it has abdicated the larger part of the space to racist and nationalist groups and to opposition parties that have utilized the democratic space made available to spread negative messages amongst the general population. An example would be former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s appeal for calm at the time that anti Muslim violence was taking an upward climb. This was welcome. But while the former president appealed for calm, he simultaneously used the opportunity to blame the government for seeking to divide the country through constitutional reform. This was a case of appealing for calm on the one hand while rousing nationalist fears on the other hand.
There is no denying that the opposition led by the former president has been showing political skill and resilience since their unexpected defeat at the last presidential and general elections in 2015. They have been utilizing the democratic space opened up by the government to campaign against it on the basis of painting worst case scenarios. This has been done both openly at political rallies and also indirectly by putting ideas of nationalism and fear for the future of the country at the forefront of their political activities. The strength and resilience of the former president and his cohort of party members is admired by many. On the other hand, by widening the rift between the ethnic and religious communities they are leading the country back to abyss of inter communal conflict that would be disastrous to the country.
The underutilized strength of the government is the fact that it is essentially a coalition government between the two main parties. The strength of being a coalition of the two traditionally largest political parties is that it brings in a bipartisan character to controversial political decisions. This is extremely important in dealing with issues such as constitutional reform and transitional justice that are aimed at addressing the root causes of conflict. But overshadowing this positive potential is the negative aspect that the two parties appear unable to agree on basic issues of governance and therefore the government is failing to make the decisions that need to be made to ensure good governance. Instead the opposition is looking more successful in driving a wedge between the two coalition partners.
The most recent initiative of the opposition is the motion of no-confidence against Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. By getting this motion passed, the opposition is hopeful that they can scuttle all the plans of the government to resolve the long standing ethnic conflict through political reform and ensure accountability for crimes of human rights violations and corruption. The priority given to this can be seen by the absurd claims made by leading members of the opposition that the results of the local government election have shown that the masses of people absolve those in the opposition of having committed any wrongs in the past. The opposition is holding out the bait that a member of the junior partner in the present government coalition can be rewarded with the post of prime minister. Through this strategy they are seeking to break the unity of the government.
This is a very crucial time for the country. The memory of the anti Muslim actions and the prospects of the country careening out of control to disaster loom large. It is essential that the leaders of the government coalition remember the ideals that brought them together in 2015. Their chief slogans were good governance, anti corruption, a political solution to the ethnic conflict and human rights for all. In particular President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe need to overcome their differences. Neither can survive in the longer term without the other. The need is for the two parties to unite in parliament to pass laws that will strengthen the institutions of the state, such as the judiciary, so that the system of government becomes more powerful than the individuals. This can be seen today in the United States where the excesses of President Donald Trump are moderated by the system and the ship of state is steady.