By Jayantha Dhanapala and Savitri Goonesekere –
The Friday Forum comprises a group of concerned citizens who have come together to consider current issues of public interest with a view to making meaningful contributions towards peace, democracy, good governance and social justice in Sri Lanka. To pursue this objective, the Forum engages in regular discussions on matters of national interest, articulating its views and concerns. The following interventions are made in a spirit of democratic engagement to stress the need for a new social contract between Government and the people.
The end of the war with the military defeat of the LTTE has shown us that these events alone will not ensure the emergence of a stable peace with democracy and pluralism. It is the responsibility of the Government and the people of this country, in the context of the concept of sovereignty of the people, to rebuild the institutions and values that sustain peace, democracy and pluralism. Three years after the end of the war, we are deeply concerned about the continuing violent political culture, the deterioration of our national institutions and the undermining of our religious, cultural and social values.
In recent months, the pluralist character of our society has been strained by polarising forces. Instead of rebuilding inter-ethnic relations and inter-religious dialogue the Government and our political leaders have, through their commissions and omissions, contributed to their deterioration. The recent attack on the Dambulla Mosque is the most prominent among a number of attacks on the places of worship of religious minorities. The police merely watched and failed to act as thugs disrupted Friday prayers, vandalising the Mosque and threatening to demolish it. This clear demonstration of a breakdown of law and order, an issue of continuing concern, has met with silences and confusing messages from Government and public officials. Furthermore, the lack of broader citizens’ initiatives, including of the clergy of all faiths to address the situation, have contributed to weakening the confidence of religious minorities.
The representations to the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) by civil society leaders, religious clergy and concerned officials and the subsequent LLRC Report highlighted the critical importance and need for good governance and an environment of religious and ethnic dialogue and mediation. Furthermore, LLRC recommendations on demilitarisation, ending impunity, the treatment of former combatants, bringing an end to abductions, killings and political violence, the political process to find a political settlement are of utmost importance at this time. These recommendations should be highlighted by the Government in its public statements and addressed immediately. Furthermore, there needs to be a strong commitment towards the rule of law and mechanisms and legislation to address dangerous incitement to violence and hate speech. These abominable attacks are against the spirit of reconciliation and blunt the political opening provided by the LLRC.
The serious lapses in good governance and the deterioration of the rule of law are clearly manifested in a number of cases of political violence and abuse which have far reaching implications. The recent firing at the JVP meeting at Katuwana in Hambantota, leading to the gunning down of two individuals with many more injured is a reminder of the continuing violent political culture. The public murder of Bharatha Lakshman last year, in the lead up to the local government elections is yet to see an effective response from the law enforcement authorities. There seems to be a pattern of justice delayed becoming justice denied. The disappearance of journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda remains unaddressed. Former Attorney General Mohan Peiris’ statement in Geneva that Ekneligoda is safe in a foreign country has come under scrutiny in a court of law in Sri Lanka, where, according to media reports, he has declined to explain why he made this statement or provide his source of information. Such irresponsible comments by high officials in international forums combined with ineffective law enforcement and judicial procedures have added to the culture of impunity that prevails in the country. Minister Mervin Silva’s preposterous comments about attacking dissenting journalists and human rights defenders have gone unchecked by the Government and the ruling party. Such inflammatory and intimidating speech reflects the lack of respect for rule of law by persons in power. The people have a right to expect that all leaders of political parties and members of parliament should be conscious of the consequences of their political statements which can polarise public perceptions and undermine reconciliation and coexistence. We believe good governance, which necessarily involves the effective functioning of law enforcement mechanisms, needs to be given due importance in the actions of the President, legislators, judiciary and law enforcement officials. Furthermore, engagement by the media, religious and civil society leaders and the broader citizenry to hold the Government and our political leaders responsible will be necessary in order to curb, control and reverse the emerging trends of extremism and politicisation.
The Friday Forum has attempted to meet with the Inspector General of Police (IGP) to provide support towards arresting the culture of impunity, and measures to prevent acts of police brutality and the violent repression of public protests. However, we have neither been able to meet the IGP, nor have our suggestions and support for police training been heeded. Despite public pronouncements by the IGP of priority being given to better relations with the public we have received an unhelpful bureaucratic response.
If the issues inhibiting peace and reconciliation as highlighted by the LLRC report can be addressed, the problems facing the Government in international forums, whether by just or unjust external measures, will likely be neutralised.Sri Lanka’s international image is also important forSri Lanka’s business climate and the broader development of the economy. Merely blaming external actors for the woes inside the country is also unlikely to persuade the Sri Lankan public to ignore, forever, the local realities on governance. Indeed, the mounting protests by citizens against a range of issues from acts of police brutality, the politicisation of the judiciary and law enforcement, mismanagement of public funds and the political manipulation of economic policies, are symptomatic of a broader discontent with governance and abuse of power in the country.
We believe steps towards good governance, respect for the rule of law, peace with democracy and pluralism are a priority for our country at this moment. However, progress towards that goal will require an urgent sense of responsibility on the part of Government and the people. We must draw on our democratic and pluralist traditions and heritage to revitalise our commitments and responsibilities towards a new social contract between Government and the people.
Jayantha Dhanapala Professor. Savitri Goonesekere
On behalf of The Friday Forum;
Jayantha Dhanapala, Professor. Savitri Goonesekere, Most Reverend Duleep de Chickera, Dr. Jayampathy Wickramaratne, Professor Arjuna Aluwihare, Dr. Deepika Udagama, Suresh de Mel, Lanka Nesiah, Sithie Tiruchelvam, Dr. Devanesan Nesiah, Tissa Jayatilaka, Mahen Dayananda, Shanthi Dias, Reverend Jayasiri Peiris, Dr. U. Pethiyagoda, Anne Abeysekera, Ahilan Kadirgamar, Dr. Camena Gunaratne, Dr. A. C. Visvalingam, Dr. Selvy Thiruchandran, J.C. Weliamuna, Daneshan Casie Chetty, Dhamaris Wickramasekera, Ranjit Fernando, D. Wijayanandana, Prashan De Visser, Chandra Jayaratne