By Jehan Perera –
The passage of the second reading of the budget by a 2/3 majority in parliament indicates that the Government of National Unity continues to hold. The differences in opinion between the government partners that sometimes manifest themselves openly have not as yet destroyed their relationship. The most recent tug of war was over the actions of the Bribery and Corruption Commission. President Maithripala Sirisena was openly critical of the manner in which the Commission was handling high profile cases. This led to the resignation of the Director General of the Commission.
Earlier the President and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had shown their differences over the former Governor of the Central Bank who had been accused of involvement in the Central Bank Bond scam. The impugned official was not reappointed and the President used his powers of appointment to ensure that a mutually acceptable replacement would be found. Another area of continuing engagement has been on the issue of international participation in a post war judicial accountability mechanism as called for by the UNHRC (Geneva) resolution.
In all relationships there arise tensions. Whether the relationship is between individuals or collectives, differences of opinion is the norm not the exception. Sometimes the differences are strong enough to manifest themselves in open hostilities and a breakdown of relations. Those who are opponents, and skeptics, might make much of this. But if the commitment to stay together through thick and thin is there (till death do us part as in marriage) the parties will find the way to come back together. This appears to be the spirit of the relationship between the president and prime minister.
The presentation in parliament of the six reports of the six subcommittees comprising parliamentarians is another reassuring sign of the unity that exists at the highest level of the polity. In the early part of this year the government decided that the entire parliament would sit as a constitutional assembly to work out a new constitution. The presentation of the six subcommittee reports to parliament sitting as the constitutional assembly indicates that the government is confident that it can take the constitutional reform process forward as planned.
What is especially noteworthy about the reports of the subcommittees is that they have been adopted by their members without division or any sign of internal dissent. The subcommittees have comprised members of all parties in parliament, including those belonging to the Joint Opposition. It therefore appears that the Joint Opposition members are cooperating with the constitutional reform process, even though they strongly criticize the government on other issues. Such constructive cooperation is to the credit of both the government and Joint Opposition.
The importance of Joint Opposition cooperation in the constitutional reform process is that some features of the proposed constitutional reforms are going to be controversial. The new constitution will need to be address the ethnic conflict in the country that led to three decades of war. The divisions between the ethnic and religious communities continue to remain strong. The legacy of over five decades of unresolved ethnic and religious grievances cannot be eradicated in one or two years. On the contrary these divisions can be mobilized, and exploited, by those who wish to negate the forthcoming constitutional reforms.
A second positive feature of the present time is the understanding at the higher levels of the polity, among those in parliament who understand the issues, that there is a unique opportunity to put the country onto the correct track in all aspects. Never before in Sri Lanka’s political history have the two main parties ever come together. It is also unique that the smaller ethnic, religious, and ideology driven parties (namely, the TNA, SLMC, Indian-origin Tamil parties and JVP) have seen value in cooperating with the government even though some of them remain outside of government. Many senior (and more reasonable) members of the Joint Opposition too appear to appreciate the uniqueness of the present situation.
The first challenge for the government leadership, in particular for President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, will be to keep the high level consensus on constitutional reform going. The second challenge would be to take this consensus downward to the people who will be ultimate arbiters at the referendum to come. The UK and US voters have shown how the majority of people can think differently from the established leaders and opinion formers in the country. In Sri Lanka too, after two years of the national unity government, there appear to be disturbances arising at the level of the people. There are signs of attempts being made to create incidents on the ground that could generate conflict and divisive sentiment among the people.
In different parts of the country, most notably in the North and East, there are clashes being reported on inter religious grounds. There are many incidents of religious clergy getting involved in expansionist projects, such as religious conversions or building religious shrines or places of worship in areas where they are less numerous. There have been violent words and incidents where members of one religion have attacked those of other religions. There is also the destruction of ancient religious sites. Those who come across as aggressors have their justifications for what they are doing, and argue that they are actually the victims. Some of these incidents are on social media. What is a matter of concern is that those who engage in violent speech and deeds appear to have significant popular support.
A statement signed by over three hundred persons and addressed to the government states that civil society groups have consistently documented and reported such attacks to relevant authorities. However, charges have never been brought against the perpetrators, despite the conduct of these aggressors being in clear violation of hate-speech and anti-discrimination protections under Sri Lankan law. Public behaviour of this kind is in clear violation of hate-speech and anti-discrimination protections under Sri Lankan law, particularly as provided for in the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Act (ICCPR Act).
The ICCPR Act provides that “No person shall propagate war or advocate national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility, or violence”, and that every person who does so, or who attempts to commit, aids or abets, or threatens to commit such acts, commits an offence that is punishable with up to 10 years imprisonment. The failure of the State to take immediate action to investigate and hold individuals accountable for this type of conduct is an unfortunate abdication of its obligations under law and a failure to uphold constitutional guarantees and the duty to protect all persons from such threats and violence.
The civil society statement also notes that the police need to adopt a uniform response to acts of religious violence, threats of violence, and hate-speech against religious and ethnic minorities. Under the fundamental principle of equality before the law, all who engage in such conduct must be held to account. It is the obligation of the police to enforce the law equally, without exception. Further, the protection of the tenet of equality must be paramount to all law enforcement authorities. This is critical to reconciliation, to which the government has publicly declared a commitment. The suspected arson attack on Saturday on a Muslim owned warehouse in a Colombo suburb that was previously burned down in 2013 by a mob means that such law enforcement is an urgent priority.