By Jehan Perera –
One of the positive features of the present time is the unity of the top leadership of the mainstream political parties. This was demonstrated in the eastern district of Ampara last week when the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) held its annual convention under the leadership of Minister Rauf Hakeem. The event was attended by President Maithripala Sirisena, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, Opposition and Tamil National Alliance leader R Sampanthan, and Minister Mano Ganesan of the Democratic People’s Front representing the Indian-origin Tamils. Each of these leaders represents the mainstream of each of the ethnic communities that together constitute the Sri Lankan nation. There was a visible manifestation of goodwill and partnership between the respective party leaders on this occasion which was evidenced by the speeches they made.
The situation today is far removed from that described soul searchingly by Neville Jayaweera in his memoirs titled “Exorcising The Past And Holding The Vision” published in 2014. In that book the former civil servant recounts how government leaders in the 1960s considered those of the Tamil ethnicity to be potential enemies of the state. When he was sent as a young man to head the administrative service in Jaffna as the Government Agent, he was instructed to be tough on any requests or demands made to him the Tamil political parties and their leaders. The orders he received from his superiors were that, he “should be unrelenting towards Tamil demands, and wherever possible, force confrontations with them and establish the government’s undisputed ascendancy.” In his memoirs he also refers to the petty manner in which the government leaders of those years turned down opportunities to visit the north.
There was a relapse to that way of thinking and behaving during the post-war period under the previous Rajapaksa led government when triumphalism and a national security mindset held sway. The election of President Sirisena and the formation of the new government under Prime Minister Wickremesinghe in 2015 changed the situation at the top, but not yet down the line. The problem today is that although the situation is greatly transformed at the higher levels of the polity, this consciousness has yet to seep down to the lower levels. Even as I was writing this column I received a telephone call from a staff member of my organization who had taken a group of women on an exchange visit to the east of the country saying that the police were questioning her and asking her about the programme. In the context of being questioned by the police, and the fear it automatically generates after years of national security-centered governance and impunity, my colleague said she felt her group was intimidated.
The slow movement when it comes to releasing of Tamil prisoners, suspected of having links with the LTTE, but against whom no charges have been framed despite the passage of many years, is another indication of the reluctance to give up the old ways of thinking on the part of the state authorities. A civil society colleague of mine Ruki Fernando who was arrested two years ago on trumped up charges of conniving in the revival of the LTTE along with a Tamil Catholic priest, continues to remain under investigation by the state authorities. Both of them were released from detention a few days after their arrest, but the case against them continues. There is either inertia in the governmental system that prevents wrongs being righted in a fast track manner or else the government is not of single mind to enforce the ideals it stands for.
Under these circumstances, the sense of alienation of sections of the people, particularly those from the ethnic and religious minorities, and even civil society, continues to fester in relation to the Sri Lankan state, even though at the highest levels of the polity there has been a remarkable change. The danger inherent in this situation is that a change at the top that is not supported by a similar change at the bottom can become unsustainable. There is a continuing and active effort on the part of a section of the polity that is influenced by the so-called Joint Opposition to bring in nationalist issues and to fan the flames of communal discord. The rally they held in Colombo last week demonstrated that they continue to muster a degree of popular support and their messages of narrow ethno-religious nationalism continue to possess resonance.
So far the government has not taken the ideological battle to the people. The government committed itself to constitutional reform to bring good governance to the country when it campaigned at the last presidential and general elections. It has also committed itself to the transitional justice process of reconciliation when it signed up to the UN Human Rights Council resolution. But after doing that it has been non-committal on what sorts of solutions and institutions it intends to set up to vindicate its promises. Instead of directly championing the causes it believes in, and leading from the front, it has appointed two civil society-led bodies to engage in consultations with the people. One is the Public Representations Committee on Constitutional Reforms while the other is the Consultation Task Force on reconciliation. In all likelihood, the two public consultations that the government has set in motion are likely to show that the people also have two or more perspectives on all issues of controversy.
The problem faced by the government is that it is not formed by one single party or even dominated by one party, but is a National Unity government that is composed of two parties that are sharing power. The advantage of this arrangement is that the government is able to enjoy a 2/3 majority in Parliament so long as the respective leaders of the two parties are in agreement. However, even when there is broad agreement on the direction in which the two parties would like the government to go, such as in relation to the Rule of Law, there is no agreement on the details. This is why new laws such as the Right to Information Act are not getting passed in the manner that was expected. In the circumstances of two parties and two leaders, there is the likelihood of the government not being able to give clear messages to the people.
Although parliamentarians unanimously approved the constitutional resolution on converting parliament into a constitutional assembly, there is still no clarity on the extent to which they agree on the three main constitutional reform issues of the executive presidency, electoral reform and the devolution of power. The absence of consensus can also be clearly seen in the President’s repeated assertion that foreign judges are not necessary for Sri Lanka’s accountability process whereas the UNHRC resolution that the government has co-signed specifies the reverse. In the absence of clear messages from the government, the people’s confidence in the government is likely to be eroded. There is no alternative to the government getting its act together and giving the political leadership to the reforms that are needed.
However, there is a healing and trust building role for the civil society-led public consultations to play. At two of the consultations I attended I heard members of the ethnic and religious minorities express their concerns about being left out. They mentioned that the issues of Muslim displacement from the North and the Muslim resettlement in Wilpattu had never been fairly represented and needed to be. These Muslims wished that someone other than Muslims would take up their cause. And there were Tamils who said that they doubted that they would get justice in the end. Both these opinions were expressed privately as those who appreciate the improvement over the past do not wish to be seen as grumblers and spoilers. Therefore even as the political leaders all communities come together as they did at the SLMC annual convention it is important that at other levels of society, and of the state, they give the necessary single minded leadership so that those who currently feel excluded are made to feel included.