By Jehan Perera –
In the first three weeks after the presidential election, the government appears to be following a more balanced set of policies with regard to dealing with ethnic and religious minorities and political activists than was expected. The election showed the country was deeply polarized in terms of inter-community political choices. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa won the presidential election on a platform that gave primacy to national security with a large majority of the ethnic and religious minorities living in the former war zones of the North and East of the country voting against this. It gave rise to the fear that the government would not prioritise democratic freedoms and human rights and use national security reasons for cracking down on them and others. There was also apprehension that the government would lose no time to act against its political opponents and those sections of society that did not vote for them.
The issue of the security breach that had occurred in April of this year and which facilitated the Easter Sunday bombings which killed over 250 people and devastated the country’s economy loomed large as a factor that was repeatedly brought up during the election campaign and would have determined the electoral choice of the voters. As Muslim suicide bombers were responsible for the Easter carnage, the Muslim community had the apprehension that they would be seen as a national security threat and be subjected to harassment on this score. Also, during the election campaign President Rajapaksa said he would withdraw from the UN Human Rights Council resolution of October 2015, which was primarily meant to deal with war-time Tamil grievances, on the grounds that it was detrimental to Sri Lanka’s national interests.
During the election campaign some from civil society and the ethnic minorities spoke extremely critically of the president-to-be. After the election they saw themselves at significant risk of being targeted for being critical and for having different ideas to the ones that had won the majority of votes at the election. Many of them had been openly critical of those who now form the government, and were worried about the possibility of retaliation which has been a too frequent outcome of elections in the past. Some activists left the country, others made plans to do so and those who had no plans regretted being caught unprepared. Civil society and religious clergy from the North and East and also those from other parts of the country who had been hoping for a different electoral result expressed their anxiety to each other and in general felt very distressed.
However, the first three weeks of the new government have not seen an escalation of the political polarization between the ethnic and religious communities or targeting of civil society activists. The apprehension that government policy towards the communities would change has not materialized, at least not as yet. One of the first reports to come from the North was that NGO workers were being questioned about their work. Such reports also came from the south of the country. In addition, there were reports that new security checkpoints had suddenly emerged or re-emerged where they had once been located. However, it now appears that these checkpoints are more for symbolic purposes and to show presence, rather than to harass by getting passengers or to intimidate them.
A more significant sign of a continuation of accommodative policies with regard to ethnic minority sensitivities was the willingness of the new government to permit the LTTE Heroes Day commemorations to take place without hindrance in the North. Prior to 2015 these commemorations were not permitted. Students of the University of Jaffna who attempted such commemorations were either arrested or had their events raided and broken up. The most that was permitted was religious services inside places of religious worship and inside homes. This November with a new government in place there was apprehension that there could be a showdown as in the past. But the government did not block the commemorations that took place in public.
The government’s present spirit of accommodation cannot be taken for granted. It is quite likely that if Tamil nationalism starts to rise, and events such as the memorialization of the LTTE are used as an occasion for extreme demands including idealization of the concept of armed struggle, then there could be a clampdown. There is a need for public opinion formers to ensure that the youth in particular are not egged on to be confrontational. In such an event, the government’s present accommodativeness could give way to a national security response. The electoral mandate received by the government was to restore national security and so the government will be motivated to deliver on that expectation.
There is also concern that the government’s accommodativeness is likely to be a temporary phenomenon until the general elections which are likely to be held in April next year or soon thereafter. At the present time the government does not enjoy a majority in parliament although it has formed a minority government after the resignation of former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. Therefore, the government is stymied in its ability to pass new laws which may have controlling or repressive features and which restrict the freedoms and human rights of the people in the name of national security. In addition, it is possible that the present accommodativeness of the government is also due to a wish to woo those who did not vote for it at the presidential elections to change their minds and vote for it at the general elections.
Government leaders have been saying that they want to win the general elections with a 2/3 majority as this would permit them to change the constitution. A special target would be the 19th Amendment which restricts the power of the presidency and strengthens the independence of key state institutions. At the presidential election about 80 percent of the ethnic and religious minority vote went to opposition candidates. This would be a crucial vote base for the government to capture in order to provide them with the numbers to make up the desired 2/3 majority. This may account for the present silence of those members of the government who gave vent to strong nationalist and anti-minority sentiments in the course of the presidential election campaign. However, as these are also political leaders who campaigned hard for the government, the government is bound to keep them and reward them with prominent positions.
The problem for the government to overcome is that so long as those who have been champions of narrow ethnic nationalism and anti-minority sentiment are leading figures within its ranks, the ethnic and religious minorities are likely to remain sceptical about the government’s intentions. One solution would be for the government to create strong institutions that are based on principles of good governance, so that the rule of law prevails over the rule of men such as them. This is the way to ensure that the government builds confidence and trust in those who are currently sceptical about its intentions. Government leaders say they want a 2/3 majority in parliament to get rid of the 19th Amendment which they see as a stumbling block to what they want to do. This is a constitutional amendment that was passed without dissent in parliament in 2015. There may be inconsistencies in the drafting of that legislation. But the key element was about strengthening the independence of state institutions. The government must not see this as a problem. It is one thing to amend the 19th Amendment to remove the problems. It is another to undermine the independence of state institutions.