By Jehan Perera –
The media has reported that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa will be announcing a new policy on national reconciliation in his address to parliament at the inaugural session following prorogation last month. Apart from bringing peace of mind and comfort to those bereaved by the three decades long war, the central issue of national reconciliation is to find an equitable solution to the ethnic and religious conflicts that have plagued the country since the dawn of independence more than seven decades ago. The focus now needs to be on the development of the country and its economy rather than to support any parochial or ethnic cause and continue with the divisive politics of the past. It is only by this that the country can get back on its feet as many have done following traumatic events. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected by a large majority with this hope in mind.
Indeed, the country has faced multiple crises but through them all government has retained its 2/3 majority. This is an indication that even those dissatisfied with the government’s performance still continue to feel that they are better off as members of the government than outside of it. The recent announcement of the SLFP headed by former President Maithripala Sirisena that it would remain within the government alliance, while criticising it from within, is an indicator of the government’s stability. This follows similar declarations by three leading cabinet ministers from the 11 party alliance of small parties within the government, who have filed cases in the courts against the government. They too have said they would remain within the government and continue to challenge its decisions that they deem to be incorrect.
There are two other key reasons why the government has a measure of stability despite the deteriorating economic situation. The first of these is the pragmatic calculation of the government leadership that it is better to have its critics within the government than out of it. It seemed possible that the sacking of Minister Susil Premajayantha for being overly critical of the government would be the start of a purge of internal critics of the government that could cause an unravelling. But so far it is only Minister Premajayantha who has had to pay the price for his independence. This has been explained by the fact that the former minister was a member of the ruling party itself, unlike the other critics who belong to other parties.
Due to the multiple perspectives within the government, which represent the diversity of the government alliance, it has been able to reach out to the widest possible swathe of society. At the same time, it is able to woo diverse sections of the international community, including the three big international powers that hold the key to the country’s economic progress. These are China, India and the Western countries. China is continuing to provide economic resources on a large scale along with India. Both of these big powers seek to improve their position of influence on Sri Lanka and ensure a physical presence in the country which is being granted. Dealing with China has been the easiest, as it only seeks to gain more economic and physical assets within the country to ensure its permanent presence.
Dealing with India and the Western countries is more challenging as they require political concessions as well. In the case of India it is a political solution to the ethnic conflict which involved power-sharing with the minority Tamil community. In the case of the Western countries it is progress in terms of protecting human rights. With Sri Lanka being a country of interest to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, this means that its human rights record is scrutinised every three months. The forthcoming session in late February, which continues through March, will be especially important. The Sri Lankan government is expected to present a written report on its progress in terms of issues of accountability, truth seeking, reparations and institutional reform. The response of the majority of countries at the UNHRC can have a significant impact as it would influence the European Union’s pending decision on whether or not to suspend its GSP Plus tariff privilege which is a source of support to the Sri Lankan economy.
In this regard, last week’s botched attempt to explode a bomb in All Saints Church in Colombo and the botched police investigation into it have given the impression of a created event which is not going to help the government improve on its credibility with the international community, let alone people in the country. The government’s dominant ideology of ethnic majority nationalism and national security which it invokes at frequent intervals, and especially when it faces challenges, is unacceptable. These incidents may help to keep the ethnic majority loyal to the government. But they alienate the minorities and also those sections of the international community who are concerned about human rights
The bomb discovery, in which the Catholic priests did more to uncover evidence than the police, also served to divert attention from the 1000 day commemoration by the church of the Easter bombings. If the bomb had exploded within the church, it could have led to a renewal of tensions between the ethnic and religious communities and reinforced the need for a renewed focus on national security and legitimized the further growth of the security forces in the life of the country. On that occasion, as on this, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, the Archbishop of Colombo, played a crucial role in preventing an escalation of the crisis and in calling for the truth behind the bombings to be known. He has become increasingly straightforward in speaking truth to the rulers, even truths they do not wish to hear.
Events such as the Easter bombing, and now this latest incident, give the impression of security failure that is detrimental to the country’s internal communal harmony and to the international image of the country as a peaceful and secure one for both investment and tourism. Sri Lanka is yet to emerge from the thrall of nationalist politics, and its falsehoods and violence, where political leaders make deliberate and purposeful use of communal differences to win votes and come to power. They have succeeded time and again in this dastardly practice, but with it the country has failed to reach its full potential time and again. The costs have been high, whether in terms of lives lost, properties destroyed and economic growth stymied.
The historic task for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the government is to make a shift away from a mindset that emphasises national security as being the preserve of the security forces to a new mindset that includes the ethnic minorities and sees human security and wellbeing as the country’s need. The Sri Lankan state needs to consider all its people as citizens with equal rights, and not as ethnic majorities and ethnic minorities to be treated differently. And it needs to give priority to human security and wellbeing where gas cylinders do not explode and people have food and education at affordable prices. Both religious leaders and political leaders need to come up with an ideology of the wellbeing of all in which solutions that are beneficial to all are found, where basic needs of all are met, and there is no divide and rule, which is a recipe for long term failure.