By Jehan Perera –
The significance of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s speech at the UN General Assembly in New York last week was his use of the time allocated to him to provide an outline of the government’s policies towards the challenges besetting the country. The president covered the main issues that confront the world with his focus on Sri Lanka. These included measures to contain the Covid pandemic, the economic crisis, environmental degradation and violence. In the final section of his speech, the president went into some depth regarding the government’s approach to national reconciliation. However, the response within the country has been muted and for good reason. Those who voted for the government on an entirely different platform, which emphasized ethnic majority nationalism and anti-international sentiments, seem at a loss.
It is only recently that the government has started to speak in terms of enhancing practices of reconciliation and obtaining international support for it. At the two elections that brought this government to power, the Easter Sunday bombing and the consequent threat to national security took the centre stage. The majority who voted for the government did so to protect themselves and their country from a variety of security threats they were told of, both within and outside the country. The wretched failure of the previous government to prevent the bombing, the first terrorist act of any magnitude since the war ended a decade earlier, was attributed to the personal weakness of the then government leaders. It was also attributed to the 19th Amendment which sought to give state institutions protection from use for partisan reasons by government politicians. The 19th Amendment was blamed for creating several weak centers of power which paved the way for the Easter bombing.
A second theme at the two elections was depiction of ethnic and religious minorities as potential security threats. This stemmed from the country’s experience of three decades of internal warfare with the armed Tamil separatist movements. This was followed by the Easter bombings by extremists from the Muslim community who were feared to be having a vast support base both internally within the country and also externally. In these circumstances, the re-centralisation of power within the government hierarchy received public acceptance by the ethnic majority as being part of the government’s democratic mandate. At the same time, by denying the equally legitimate concerns of the ethnic and religious minorities, the electoral results demonstrated the existence of an acute polarization and wound in the body politic that continues to fester to the point of bringing in the possibility of international intervention.
The challenge for the government is to represent the interests of all communities and not only the majority who voted it into power. The problem is that the government’s mandate comes, by and large, from the vote of the ethnic and religious majority in a country that has been polarized on ethnic and religious lines for many decades. An ugly part of this reality is that in the prisons are a few hundreds of Tamils and Muslims for the most part who are in custody for periods ranging from a few months to many years without trial. They are being held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, ostensibly until the security forces find adequate evidence to put them before the courts of law. This contradicts the rule of law and the presumption in our legal system that we are innocent until proven guilty.
In June this year the EU parliament passed a resolution that the GSP Plus tariff privileges made available to Sri Lanka should be withdrawn unless the government fulfilled its obligations in regard to the upholding of human rights. The resolution, expressing “deep concern over Sri Lanka’s alarming path towards the recurrence of grave human rights violations”, and makes specific reference to the use of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). The resolution notes the “continuing discrimination” against and violence towards religious and ethnic minorities, while voicing “serious concern” about the 20th Amendment passed in 2020, and the “resulting decline in judiciary independence, the reduction of parliamentary control, and the excessive accumulation of power with the presidency”. It also highlights “accelerating militarisation” of civilian government functions in Sri Lanka.
A delegation from the EU is currently in Sri Lanka to meet with members of the government, opposition and civil society to ascertain whether the country is fulfilling its obligations to be a beneficiary of EU trade benefits. It is likely that the delegation will be provided with evidence of human rights violations and acts of impunity. There are hundreds of persons languishing in prisons without being put on trial, many of whom are Tamils, suspected to be LTTE members, and more of them are Muslims, suspected of having links with the Easter bombings. When questioned in parliament about the latter, the minister in charge justified those detentions on the grounds that Muslim youth, including the Muslim parliamentarian who had questioned him, could contain Islamic State ideology in their heads and therefore be security threats. Continued arrests add to this number and also creates a fear psychosis in the community that could create the very extremism that it means to nip in the bud.
At the last elections the most potent theme was the failure of the then government to act effectively to protect the country from the Easter suicide bombing and the pressures from human rights actors in Geneva. Among the issues that loomed large at the last election was also the charge that the previous government was giving in too much to the Muslim community within the country. The fact that the Easter attacks were by Muslim suicide bombers added force to this charge. The prioritization of national security in the election campaign had popular support. The influential religious clergy, associations of professionals and mass media also joined the battle in earnest and their messages reinforced one another. The recent debate in parliament suggests the government’s thinking continues to be in sync with the mandate it received at those elections.
In his speech in New York, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has shown signs of diverging from the politics of the past. The president said “Fostering greater accountability, restorative justice, and meaningful reconciliation through domestic institutions is essential to achieve lasting peace. So too is ensuring more equitable participation in the fruits of economic development. It is my Government’s firm intention to build a prosperous, stable and secure future for all Sri Lankans, regardless of ethnicity, religion, or gender. We are ready to engage with all domestic stakeholders, and to obtain the support of our international partners and the United Nations, in this process.” However, the president’s speech continues to be at variance with the ground realities at the present time and the general manner of governance since the president took office in November 2019.
So far the pledge of a new direction is articulated in words and not actions. The time for the government to make the president’s words real and act accordingly is now. This will help to overcome the deep and dark cynicism that has enveloped the country regarding promises made by politicians. The first step would be to apply the logic of the justice minister in parliament. Replying to an opposition parliamentarian who called for the arrest of Minister Lohan Ratwatte who stands accused of entering a prison and threatening prisoners with his gun, the justice minister said that everyone is entitled to the presumption of innocence until proven guilty. This fundamental principle of civilized society must also apply to the hundreds of Tamils and Muslims in jail without evidence to charge them in a court of law. The threats to national security need to be overcome by winning the confidence of all the communities in the Sri Lankan state by treating them without discrimination, as children of one mother proclaimed by our national anthem.