By Jehan Perera –
In the public perception there is a sense of drift in the constructive activities of the government on all fronts. President Maithripala Sirisena has been attempting to overcome this sense of drift by political means. He has been having public programmes that enhance his own visibility. An example would be the SLFP Youth Convention where he expressed his intentions of holding the much delayed local government elections this year. He also gave leadership to a public exhibition of locally manufactured products at the BMICH which attracted large crowds who were able to make purchases at relatively low rates. However, his oft repeated pledge to have a cabinet reshuffle does not appear to be reaching fruition.
One of the most important promises of the President during his election campaign was to eliminate corruption from the government. But now there is a widespread public perception that corruption is no longer on the decline as it was during the first several months of the new government, but is now rising with a vengeance with little or nothing being done to put a stop to it. The public expectation was that a cabinet reshuffle would have been part of an effort to reverse this negative trend. However, the indications are that there will not cabinet reshuffle of any significance in the immediate future. Those who have been subject of political and ethical controversy are also those who played an indispensable role in bringing the government to power.
If it is to happen at all the best time for a cabinet reshuffle would be with the signing of the new Memorandum of Understanding between the two main parties to the National Unity Government in August. The MOU between the UNP and SLFP is only for two years. There is little reason to doubt that the partnership between the two parties will continue. With the Joint Opposition led by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa continuing to hold together, and the popularity of the former president remaining high, the government has no option but to continue to work together as a national unity government to ensure political stability. The signing of the new MOU would be an occasion for the two parties to the alliance to come to an improved working arrangement.
Taking the country to a new level requires that decisions be taken with regard to economic development on the one hand, and inter-ethnic reconciliation on the other. On both of these fronts there has been little or no progress. The basic direction has been set but there is no speedy movement forward. There are internal doubts and divisions between the two coalition partners. It might seem that if one party were to take over the reins of government it can decide by itself. The problem is that in both areas of economic development and reconciliation there is controversy about what to do that could sink a single party that seeks to implement progressive policies on its own. There is a need for the two parties to come to a consensus on the way forward and to move forward to a new level of engagement with the two economic powerhouses of Asia, China and India.
Government members have expressed their disappointment that the economic assistance anticipated from Western countries has not materialized. At the beginning of their tenure the new government even went to the extent of stopping all Chinese funded economic projects on the grounds that they were expensive and been negotiated with the former government in a non-transparent manner which gave rise to allegations of corrupt practices. In taking this decisive action the government may have been anticipating compensatory, and cheaper, inflows of resources from Western countries. The memory of how the UK government once funded the lead development project of the 1980s, the Mahaweli river diversion scheme, turned to be a dream in the second decade of the 21st century.
Of all the developed countries it is only Japan that has maintained its economic assistance programme on a large scale for Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka being categorized as a middle income country, albeit at the lower level, but much better off than many other countries, has led them to be deemed to be more deserving of concessional Western assistance. The government has now renegotiated most of the existing Chinese projects. There is the possibility of a leap forward in cooperation if the Hambantota port project goes through, though at the political cost of a permanent Chinese presence that has deep political implications for Sri Lanka’s relations with neighboring India. The government is attempting to balance this out by having Indian investments and also by entering into the Economic and Technology Cooperation Agreement (ECTA) with India, while also having free trade agreements with China and Pakistan.
The second area on which there needs to be greater agreement between the two coalition partners is the issue of inter-ethnic reconciliation and post-war justice. The ethnic conflict is the most divisive issue in the country, which has defied seven decades of post-independence political initiatives aimed at conflict resolution. The problem in the past is that the efforts of one party to resolve the problem were always undermined by the other. There is presently a high degree of dissatisfaction within the Tamil polity that the government is proceeding too slowly in addressing the issues that have debilitated them in the past. The constitutional reform process, which seemed to be proceeding smoothly, now appears to be stalled due to the differences of opinion within the coalition partners. Efforts to undo the ill effects of the war are also proceeding at a slow pace.
At the last session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva which took place a fortnight ago the government was successful in obtaining a two year extension to deliver on the promises it had made in October 2015, but which remain largely unfulfilled. In the course of his presentations to the international community in Geneva, Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera said that the government intended to keep its promises due to its concern for its Tamil citizens, and not because of international pressure. However, those who oppose the government’s co-sponsoring of the UNHRC resolution are attempting to mobilise the opposition of the general public. They claim that the government has agreed to a hybrid court which would bring international judges into Sri Lanka in violation of the country’s sovereignty. On the controversial issue of foreign judges sitting in judgment on Sri Lankan military leaders, both President Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe have taken a common position.
The failure of the government to implement the legislation pertaining to the Office of Missing Persons, which was promised to address the grievances of those thousands who are missing their loved ones in the war, needs to be overcome by a similar common stance by the two leaders. The recent decision of the government to return the military occupied land in Keppapilavu, which was the subject of prolonged civilian protest, is an indication that unified decisionmaking is on track. Altogether, a total of 468 acres of land are to be released. The Defence Ministry has said that the ongoing release of military-held land was taking place under the directions of President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe. It is important that on other controversial issues, ranging from Chinese projects and the ECTA economic agreement with India that the leaders of the government take on a similar unified position. The government needs to ensure that decisions that are taken are implemented. This can lead to the investor confidence that is currently lacking to the detriment of economic progress.