By Jehan Perera –
There has been a trend of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa making senior appointments in which those who are outside the established administrative systems are being brought in to provide leadership and ensure effective and non-corrupt practices. As a large number of these appointments have been from the security forces this has given rise to a perception that the country is heading towards eventual military rule. There is a concern that the forthcoming general elections will be followed by constitutional changes that will entrench the military in governance as in some other countries such as Myanmar. This is unlikely to be the case in Sri Lanka as democratic traditions upholding civilian control of government are deeply ingrained in the fabric of political society.
A more positive view would focus on the dilemma that President Rajapaksa is facing. He was elected in the hope that he would bring a change to the corrupt governance of the past in which political leaders failed to keep their commitments. The country is facing unprecedented challenges today for which the president cannot be held responsible. The foremost of these is the Covid-induced economic downturn which has driven large numbers into unemployment and debilitated the economy. The president’s harsh upbraiding of Central Bank officials was due to his recognition that the government was not being provided with solutions to revive the economy.
Among the president’s reasons for appointing a host of serving and retired security forces personnel to positions of authority within the state administrative system is to put a stop to corruption and to promote efficiency within the state sector. Years of heavy investment in the security forces due to the war has made the security forces personnel better trained and more used to staying within the administrative system. This is especially in comparison to their counterparts in the public service which has got over extended due to politically motivated appointments which has swelled their ranks.
There are however reasons for the concerns about the lack of minority representation in the new and ad hoc institutions of governance. A functioning parliament could have represented the ethnic, religious, social and economic diversity of the country’s people and their needs and aspirations. If sections of the people feel that they are not being included in decision making, and that decisions being made exclude them, there can grow an alienation of heart and mind that cannot be stopped by more security measures and more intelligence gathering alone. Earlier this month, the president appointed two separate Presidential Task Forces, one to build a Secure Country, Disciplined, Virtuous and Lawful Society, and a second for Archaeological Heritage Management in the Eastern Province.
Both of these task forces are dominated by members drawn from the security forces and have wide mandates. Both of them are also chaired by Defense Secretary Maj. Gen. (Retd) Kamal Gunaratne. The Defense Secretary has said the role of the Presidential Task Forces (PTFs) has been misinterpreted. He emphasized that he has not been empowered to bring under his control public officials, other than those at the Ministry of Defense, nor did he wish to do so. He explained that the PTFs in question only exist to get the assistance of the public officials to ensure the national security of the country. With regard to the PTF on the Eastern province he said, “We need to secure our country’s heritage and protect it for our future generations, that’s why the President established this Task Force following a request made by the Buddhist Sangha. We don’t limit this protection to Buddhist and archaeological sites, we will protect sites of all communities, may they be Hindu, Islamic or another religion.”
The task force on Archaeological Heritage Management in the Eastern Province has been mandated to identify sites of archaeological importance in the Eastern Province and identify the extent of land that should be allocated for such archaeological sites and take necessary measures to allocate them properly and legally. The Defense Secretary asserted that “We are sensitive not to create issues between communities or on religious grounds, our first priority is to create the climate for the archaeological department to carry out their duties without any interference. They are tasked with identifying all sites of archaeological importance and get the sites surveyed with the assistance of the survey department.” However, the problem is with the ethnic and religious composition of the task force which has no minority representation although the Eastern province has a population that is over 75 percent Tamil and Muslim.
There are many unresolved issues that Sri Lanka needs to deal with in the future in order to become a truly peaceful and socially cohesive country. The issues of ethnic and religious representation in decision making bodies and of history have been divisive ones in the country starting from the debate over which ethnic and religious community was here first and which has the claim of ownership of the country or part thereof to that of devolution of power and the nature of the state. History has been used by politicians as a rallying point for promotion of nationalism and ethnic pride as well as the creation of enemies who need to be kept at bay. History is also important because it gives legitimacy to claims over land, which is important to both individuals who own the land and to communities who seek to be dominant in those parts.
All of these issues are burning ones in the case of the Eastern province, which is the only province in the country in which no one ethnic or religious community is an outright majority. Therefore, changes in the population composition of the Eastern province have consequences that go beyond those in other provinces. In addition, the Eastern province is part of the territory that Tamil nationalists have claimed as the Tamil homeland along with the Northern province, and for which the LTTE fought to create an independent state of Tamil Eelam. Within the Eastern province is also the Ampara district which together with Trincomalee is only one of two in the country in which the Muslims are the single largest community.
In the aftermath of the thirty year war against Tamil separatism in 2009 and the Easter bombing by suicide bombers from the Muslim community influenced by international Islamic ideologies in 2019, the containment of extremist ethnic and religious minority influence seems to have become an important part of state policy. It is in this political context that land is being transferred from minority usage to be used to protect ancient archaeological sites. In Pottuvil, in the Ampara district, the dispute over the Muhudu Maha Vihara temple land could increase in intensity as it has the potential to lead to the displacement of Muslim communities living in the contested areas. The presidential task force that has been appointed for the purpose of problem solving in the Eastern province needs to have Muslim and Tamil representation, and in more than token numbers, if its recommendations are to be seen as based on objective truth and unbiased.