By Jehan Perera –
The government comfortably overcame a vote of no confidence in one of its key ministers over the rise in the price of fuel. Those who expected to have greater numbers supporting the no confidence motion miscalculated that the apparent differences and rivalries within the government would be uppermost. Any government, or institution for that matter, would have its internal differences. The current government is better secured against these differences that might otherwise split it into different competing parts on account of the familial bonds that bind the leadership together. The President, Prime Minister, newly appointed Finance Minister, as well as the former Speaker who is now Irrigation and Internal Security Minister, are closely knit brothers who have gone through trials and tribulations together.
An iconic photograph of recent times would be the joy on (then) President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s face when he embraced his brother (then) Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa shortly after the latter survived a suicide bomb attack at the height of the war. The brothers, however, have different strengths and constituencies. They have different groups who follow and advise them, and each of these groups would prefer if their leader was the first among equals. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s comment that he has another eight years in which to achieve his goals has been widely discussed. It would send a signal to others in the polity that it would be premature to gather around another member of the family at this time in anticipation that the baton would be passed on at the conclusion of the president’s current term in 2024.
On his part, the president has been promoting the institution he once served and to which most of his confidantes belonged or continue to belong. The institution of the military is one where the closest of human bonds can be forged, because on the battlefield each depends on the other for their lives. In his early period in office the president has been promoting the military, both serving and retired, wherever he can, as ambassadors to foreign nations, as Covid health guideline monitors and as a supra grade of administrators in government departments. It is often the case that those appointed to these positions are not the best suited to the tasks they have been set to do. But the president evidently trusts them and they are his support base. Unlike any other president in the past, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is not a member of a political party. Civil society organisations have periodically called for a non-party presidency who is non-partisan in decision making.
However, there is a need to challenge the excesses. The president’s pardoning of a soldier who was held by several courts including the Supreme Court to have deliberately killed children and adults, eight in all, outside of the battlefield may be due to his conviction that loyalty to the military counts most. However, the president is expected to uphold the system of checks and balances, and if he favours one institution at the expense of the others, it leads to a weakening of the entire structure of governance. Another looming challenge is that posed to the autonomy of institutions of higher education and specifically the universities. The government decision to vest the Kotelawala Defence University with powers to authorize other institutions of higher education is a threat to the freedom of thought and expression. The military hierarchy who will head the KNDU can be expected to have values that are important to the military, but not to democracy which is based on human rights.
The KNDU law cannot be supported for the reasons shown by the Federation of University Teachers Associations (FUTA) which has urged the government to withdraw the legislation and to limit it to the military. At the same time there are other issues on which civil society can consider giving constructive support to governmental initiatives. For instance they do not engage with NGOs who provide a variety of services complementing the work of the government. The most important of these is the national reconciliation process. There are indications that the government is shifting its stance on the issues of post-war reconciliation. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s election victory on a highly nationalist platform won him a big majority of votes of the Sinhalese ethnic majority. The government felt empowered to publicly declare its intention to withdraw from the post-war reconciliation process initiated by its predecessor government with support from the international community. This was followed by withdrawal from UNHRC resolution 30/1 of 2015 co-sponsored by the previous government.
However, the four subsequent internationally driven resolutions against Sri Lanka emanating from Geneva (UNHRC), Ottawa (Ontario Parliament), Washington DC (US Congress) and Brussels (EU Parliament) seem to have led to a serious rethink within the government about its policy towards post-war reconciliation. All four make human rights and the ethnic conflict their centerpiece. Though not yet publicly commented upon, the signs of change are two-fold. The first is the increased visibility of the US embassy in meeting with the leaders of the Tamil and Muslim parties. The media has reported that US Embassy officials discussed issues of post-war reconciliation efforts, devolution of power, rule of law and the Prevention of Terrorism Act with SLMC leader Rauff Hakeem. Recently, a US embassy delegation led by Ambassador Alaina B. Teplitz held similar discussions with TNA leader R. Sampanthan where the focus was on the proposed new Constitution.
The second sign of a change is the statement from the Presidential Secretariat announcing a recommendation emanating from the President Commission of Inquiry for Appraisal of the Findings of Previous Commissions and Committees on Human Rights and the Way Forward headed by Justice AHMD Nawaz. This is with regard to the EU call for the abolishing of the Prevention of Terrorism Act long seen by those promoting national security as part of the country’s first line of defence. The Commission said that it cannot agree with calls for repealing the PTA but Sri Lanka’s anti-terrorism law should be reformed in line with similar laws in other countries, including the UK. This would be aimed at affirming Sri Lankan sovereignty and national security interests, which are important to the government’s voter base, while complying with the requirements of the EU parliament which has called for the repeal of the PTA on the grounds that it violated human rights.
The Presidential Secretariat statement also contains a significant section taken from a tweet by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in which he mentioned that “It is the policy of the Government to work with the United Nations and its agencies to ensure accountability and human resource development in order to achieve lasting peace and reconciliation. The Government is committed to providing solutions for the issues to be resolved within the democratic and legal process and to ensure justice and reconciliation by implementing necessary institutional reforms.” This is the first official indication that the government is reconsidering its earlier position that it would blaze its own path with an indigenously generated reconciliation model which would not require international collaboration. In this context it would be useful if the government focused closer attention to the achievement of the UN Sustainable Goals, especially Goal No 16 which calls for Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions.
Veteran Tamil political leader V Anandasangaree who has championed Tamil rights for a long time, and whose son is a Canadian parliamentarian, has referred to these recent developments and said that the President who holds the defence portfolio, Prime Minister and Finance Minister being members of Rajapaksa family could ensure genuine post-war reconciliation. He also urged President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government not to leave the problem for a future administration to resolve, but address it now. If the president is to successfully address the problem that has eluded a solution since independence, and been the biggest disaster to Sri Lanka’s development, he will need to broaden his support at multiple levels. He will need the support of the ruling party led by his brothers as well as civil society, but also that of the ethnic minority parties and the opposition political parties. This will require patience, dialogue and self-sacrifice, and the need to break from the past and chart a statesmanlike course of action.