By Jehan Perera –
The visit last week to Sri Lanka of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was in contrast to his previous visit in 2009, a few weeks after the country’s three decade long internal war came to its violent denouement. With the aftershocks of the war still subsiding his visit was neither encouraged nor welcomed by the then government. This time around the Sri Lankan government actively sought the visit of the UN Secretary General. It had achievements to show, and highlight, as they were oriented to good governance and reconciliation. Mr Ban Ki-moon appreciated the passage of the 19th Amendment to the constitution whereby the newly elected president voluntarily relinquished some of the extraordinary powers vested in the presidency. He also referred to the Right to Information Act which brings Sri Lanka to the fore of transparent government in terms of its potential.
In a speech he delivered during his visit the UN Secretary General said “This is my first visit to Sri Lanka since 2009, when I saw great suffering and hardship. Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced and in need of humanitarian aid after the terrible conflict that tore the country apart…Today, the picture is very different. I congratulate the Government and people of Sri Lanka for the progress you have made.” The aftermath of the war’s end in 2009 saw the incarceration of about 300,000 people who had been living in the battleground areas of the last phase of the war. These included tens of thousands of children, nursing mothers and the elderly and feeble. With single minded zeal to safeguard the country from terrorism, these war survivors were held in barbed wire camps in primitive conditions to ensure that LTTE members amongst them could be weeded out.
What seems to have impressed the UN Secretary General most of all was the visible difference he saw in the north of Sri Lanka that has occurred between2009 and 2016. When he visited Sri Lanka in 2009 the war was just coming to an end. Thereafter he would have seen the incarceration of the 300,000 people that took place after the war. He also saw the vast destruction that war had brought to the north of the country. This time when he visited the change is remarkable. There is considerable reconstruction that has taken place with the road system better than it ever was in the past and with construction boom of new buildings, both by government and private investors. There is freedom of movement and freedom of speech. Freedom from fear is almost total, except for the apprehension that the present situation may not be sustainable and the past will come back to haunt the country.
The rebuilding that has been taking place in the north, and which favourably impressed the visiting UN Secretary General is not a recent phenomenon. The large scale investments in infrastructure, including roads and public buildings, began shortly after the war ended under the previous government. It was unfortunate that the suspicions of the then government towards the Tamil people and international community meant that they did not trust members of the international community to come and see for themselves how life had changed in the country after the war. The previous government even debarred the handpicked team of investigators appointed by the UN Secretary General to visit Sri Lanka to investigate the last phase of the war. If they had been permitted to visit Sri Lanka and collect their information they would have seen for themselves that changes for the better were taking place after the war.
The major transformation in Sri Lanka at the present time is the openness of the government to the international community in all aspects. The passage of the Office of Missing Persons Act through Parliament shows that the government is serious about keeping its promises regarding the transitional justice process. The government is aware that it co-sponsored the UN Human Rights Council resolution on achieving post-war reconciliation and upholding of human rights, and therefore needs to keep its side of the agreement. It also knows it has to honour economic contracts, such as those with China, even if they were signed by members of the previous government on unfavourable terms to Sri Lanka. In addition, Prime Minister Ranil Wickemesinghe is travelling to different countries taking with him the message that Sri Lanka can become an example of post-war reconciliation and economic development.
Last week Sri Lanka hosted the 6th annual Defence Seminar which was appropriately titled “Soft Power and its Influence on Global Issues” and was attended by leading military commanders and scholars from around the world. The country defeated separatist militancy through the use of hard military power. The thrust of Foreign Secretary Esala Weerakoon’s concluding speech was that Sri Lanka’s soft power will also be how to win the peace and ensure that the country’s security forces are a respected and trusted part of the state alongside other institutions of good governance and rule-based systems such as an independent judiciary, public service, election commission and human rights commission. From January 2015 onwards, with the election of a national unity government headed by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, Sri Lanka has been on a course of democratic transition that has brought a shift in policy and in thinking on issues of governance and the protection of human rights meet international expectations.
Now that the government is winning the hearts and minds of the international community, it is necessary to focus its attention on achieving similar success with the local population. At the time it defeated the previous government headed by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, the new government generated enormous goodwill and positive expectations, particularly from those sectors of the population who felt under threat from the ethnic nationalism of the previous government which utilized the hard power of the state to intimidate and suppress them. However, this goodwill is in danger of being eroded due to the failure to implement changes on the ground. In recognition of the disillusionment that can set in, President Maithripala Sirisena’s affirmed that the problem of displacement will be addressed within three months in an effort to win the hearts and minds of the Tamil people.
There is also a need on the part of the government to keep the general public informed about the reforms it is planning both with respect to constitutional reform and the reconciliation process. It was reported last week that the government has fast-tracked the process of drafting the new Constitution. The Steering Committee which is drafting the constitutional proposals has decided to hold meeting on consecutive days so as to complete its task as early as possible. Four out of six sub-committees appointed to work on different aspects of the Constitution have submitted their reports to the Steering Committee headed by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. The remaining two subcommittees were requested to submit their reports by the end of last week. The Steering Committee will incorporate the recommendations before compiling the final report to be presented to Parliament.
However, the general public knows little or nothing about the content of these constitutional reform proposals. This was reflected in a civil society meeting which was addressed by an opposition parliamentarian also last week. The theme of the discussion was the lack of transparency in the constitutional reform process and the dangers that can arise from it. He had said that there was a proposal to have a special constitutional court that would not be under the Supreme Court in matters of governance, and this could lead to authoritarian rule. The problem with the present lack of transparency is that it enables the opposition to make the case that both the constitutional reforms and the reconciliation process are jeopardizing the sovereignty and unity of the country. The less than enthusiastic local media coverage of the UN Secretary General’s visit reflects this suspicious thinking within the larger society whose hearts and minds are yet to be won over to the government’s political reform process.