By Jehan Perera –
The government has begun to respond to the mounting criticism of its handling of the economy by explaining the background to the current economic crisis. The difficulty of the government to deliver economic benefits to the general population for more than a year since it assumed office is the biggest drawback it is facing at the popular level. Last week, development strategies and international trade minister Malik Samarawickrama gave a clear explanation of the government’s position on the economy in parliament. He pointed out that there were both external and internal constraints on Sri Lanka’s economic situation that were beyond the control of the present government. The external constraints included the economic downturn in China, the ongoing crisis in the middle east, the impact of the Syrian crisis on European economies and interest rate increase in the United States.
Minister Samarawickrama also explained the consequences of the previous government’s policy on loans. Due to Sri Lanka’s economic transition to a low middle income country, it was no longer eligible for concessionary loans from Western countries. Therefore the previous government had borrowed on a commercial basis at high interest rates, but used the money for low productivity investments. It had a virtually unlimited supply of such loan funds due to the special relationship it had cultivated with China. The problem that the present government is faced with today is to repay these loans without getting into a vicious cycle of further indebtedness.
The need for the government to take this information to the people became evident at a civil society discussion on the reconciliation process held in Kurunegala last week. One of the key points brought at the discussion was the charge that the government was not doing what it had promised during the election that brought it to power. A specific reference was to the purchase price of rice, which was promised to be stabilized. However, after the elections the price of rice has plummeted further. The other was with regard to the fertilizer subsidy which has been replaced with a grant and an exhortation to utilize carbonic fertilizer.
There was also the critical observation that while the government was not delivering on the promises it had made, it was now getting ready to do things that it had promised not to do. The government was alleged to be reneging on its election time pledge not to permit any war hero to be handed over to the international community. This has become one of the opposition’s main propaganda points against the government. The opposition cites the UN Human Rights Council resolution that the government co-sponsored in Geneva, and which calls for the participation of international judges and prosecutors.
On the other hand, what was encouraging at the discussion in Kurunegala was the willingness of the participants to appreciate the need for a lasting political solution to the problem of the Sri Lankan state with the ethnic and religious minorities. When the four areas of the transitional justice process that would lead to reconciliation were outlined to them, there was no dissent from the participants. The four areas of transitional justice mandated by the UN system are seeking the truth about the past and its violations, judicially imposed punishment for those who have been perpetrators of crimes, reparations for losses suffered, and the reform of institutions to ensure that the past will not happen again.
During discussions with civil society groups, two key messages get highlighted. The first is the limited information available to the general population regarding these issues. There is an absence of strong and systematic messaging by the government. Second, the message from the Tamil-speaking participants from the North and East is their scepticism about the ultimate outcome of the ongoing transitional justice process. This highlights the need for greater inclusion of such groups into the process and for trust building with them. The role of civil society in these circumstances in taking the message to the people and in ensuring a sense of participation is extremely important.
The great majority of those who attended the Kurunegala discussion, which included religious clergy from all four religions, school teachers and grassroots society members, were appreciative of the concept of transitional justice. However they said that the government had yet to take this message clearly to the masses of people. There was appreciation that the concept of transitional justice was a reasonable one and fair and essential by the larger society. More significantly, when they were asked to respond to questions, most agreed that the truth about the past needed to be ascertained. Almost an equal number agreed that those who committed crimes outside of their duties should be punished, and close to half of them had no objection to a hybrid court with international participation.
The outcome of the discussion with the community leaders in Kurunegala is not an exception. Discussions with similar groups in Kalutara, Ratnapura and Trincomalee have also revealed a similar pattern of answers. This shows that the population at large reflects the moderate ethos of the present political leadership. The present government has not adopted a belligerent stance in dealing either with the international community or with those who are in the opposition within the country. The attendance of all top political leaders of the government and ethnic minority parties at the annual convention of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress is evidence of their desire to cohabit, coexist and be mutually supportive.
The task for the government is to mobilize the moderate sentiment of the general population so that they will be publicly supportive of the need to engage in reconciliation and constitutional reform activities at the national level. At present there is little or no mass awareness of what this government framework is in respect to both these highly important, and potentially controversial, areas of reform. As a first step it is necessary for the government to carry out a mass education campaign, so that the people who are going to be consulted have a fair idea of what the issues at stake are. The government needs to communicate a stronger message to the people with regard to the economy, transitional justice and constitutional reform.