By Jehan Perera –
One of the areas in which the present government has been underperforming is in the area of communications. Previous governments have been conscious of the importance of communicating their messages to enable the general public to be informed of their achievements. They have also acted upon that very strong political impulse. There was a cartoon in the early 1990s showing former president Ranasinghe Premadasa emerging from out of multiple television sets. This was at a time when the government had ordered all television stations existing at that time in the country to carry the government news bulletin at the same time. The plethora of television stations of today did not exist at that time and it was easier for the government to compel the few independent television stations at that time to fall into line.
By way of contrast, the present government has been prepared to uphold the freedom of media to the extent that media institutions, including television stations, do not feel intimidated to be critical of the government and supportive of the opposition. The government has also not been fully utilizing the state-owned media to promote the government agenda. It is only in recent times that state media has begun to highlight the government’s achievements in a systematic manner. Nowadays the state media is giving emphasis to the economic development programmes of the government especially in the rural sector. What the government is doing in terms of development in different parts of the country are being communicated in a manner that gives people living in other parts of the country the hope that they too will be beneficiaries in the not-too-distant future. The communication of hope is a necessary one to sustain political support.
However, an area in which there continues to be a lacuna is that of national reconciliation. This continues to be an area of contestation due to the history of war, terrorism and war crimes committed during the campaign to carve out a separate state the country. Although the war has been over nearly a decade the wounds of war remain unhealed and the divided frames of mind continue to exist at all levels of society, and also within the mass media. The absence of a political solution that would address the roots of the ethnic conflict and the issues of accountability for human rights violations that occurred during the period of the war makes a for a potent mix that is being exploited by opposition political parties on both sides of the ethnic divide.
Among the many election slogans of the opposition at the local government elections of February that saw it make significant gains, the issue of the threat posed to the country by separatist forces took a central place in the South of the country, whereas in the North it was the absence of a political solution to the grievances of the ethnic minorities. Addressing the concerns of the people regarding the implications of the reconciliation process requires constant communication with them to counter the polarizing messages of nationalist politicians on both sides of the ethnic divide.
So far the burden of explaining the need for a reconciliation process and the government’s plans in this regard has been left to civil society organisations. The experience of these groups is that the general population is receptive to the need for a reconciliation process. When the government’s plans in this regard are explained to them there is an appreciation of its positive features and their alignment to the national interest. However, the ability of civil society organisations to reach the scale of operations needed for countrywide impact is limited. There has been a need for government-led initiatives that set the tone, gives the necessary official seal of approval and obtains the degree of media publicity in order for the general population to believe that what is being explained to them is also what will happen. One such initiative is that undertaken by the Office of National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR) headed by former president Chandrika Kumaratunga.
This month he government has commenced another awareness creation platform titled “Ahanna” in the Sinhala language (“listen” in English, “kelungal” in Tamil) which is presently engaging with the general population. The programme is being led by the government’s Secretariat to Coordinate Reconciliation Mechanisms in coordination with community police units. They are currently taking two routes from Colombo, one down the Galle Road and the other up the Kandy Road. The word “Ahanna” is more descriptive of what this awareness creation campaign stands for, as it suggests both listening and also asking questions and thereby promotes dialogue between those who are resource persons and the community. The resource persons are drawn from both the government and from civil society.
The Ahanna campaign is an indicator that the government takes its mission of national reconciliation seriously and is seeking to mobilise community support for the reconciliation process. The need for the government to give leadership to reconciliation initiatives that bring people belonging to different communities closer to each other is that the answers to their differences cannot come from the communities themselves. The general population is divided on the issue of reconciliation as much as the political parties. There is a need for the government to transcend these ethnic and communal differences and propose those structures of governance in which a reconciled Sri Lankan polity and a Sri Lankan identity can best arise.
There are two important aspects to the reconciliation process that need to be conveyed to the general population. The first is the need for constitutional reform that would embody the principles on which constructive engagement and power sharing between the different ethnic communities will take place. The second is with regard to principles of transitional justice in which issues of past misgovernance and human rights violations are dealt with and reparations made. The recent establishment by the government of an Office of Missing Persons and the draft law on an Office for Reparations provide concrete material that can be shared with the general population at the present time. It is important to note that in taking the reconciliation message to the general population it is also important that a concrete framework for political and constitutional reform is placed before the people.
When the government of former president Chandrika Kumaratunga launched its “Sudu Nelum” campaign on a political solution, it had a concrete framework in terms of a “devolution package” that it had proposed and stood by. By way of contrast, the present government has not yet come out with its political framework for a political solution and constructive engagement between the ethnic communities. So far the government has only presented the different options that its constitutional expert committee has proposed without also stating the options that it will stand behind. Until the government does this, and its leaders champion those specific solutions, the message of Ahanna will necessarily have to be a general one rather than a passionate and committed one.