By Shakthi De Silva –
Two Years Down The Line: What Has This Government Achieved & What Should We Look Forward To In 2017?
As we know, the present government of Maithripala Sirisena came to power on a mandate of eradicating the country from nepotism and unimpeded corruption which was alleged to have run into the billions. It promised reconciliation and peace building to the international community and economic development along with sustainable debt management to the domestic public.
Ranked 83rd least corrupt country from a 168 (according to a transparency international report) the political leadership of Sri Lanka has revised and reevaluated investment project blueprints undertaken by the last regime. The country has been removed from the Committee to Protect Journalists Impunity Index, and has engaged in the grandiloquence of “transforming the island” to a financial and logistics hub in Asia. So is Sri Lanka on the path to rapid development and economic stability?
Well let’s not rush.
To start of, 2016 saw the Maithripala government co-sponsoring a resolution titled ‘Promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka’ which decisively set it on the path to achieve lasting peace and reconciliation through a transitional justice process. The resolution promised to establish a hybrid court with a special counsel’s office, a truth and reconciliation commission, an Office for Missing Persons and an Office for Reparations among other pledges. Although critiqued by certain conservative sections as a step taken to put the country and its armed forces on the ‘electric chair’, the resolution has highlighted the government’s political will to get the reconciliation process underway. How fast this process goes however, can be debated. Concerns have also been voiced as to the process of sequencing and indigenizing reconciliation among the communities of the country. In an interview to the Huffington Post, Gehan Gunatilleke voiced these concerns:
“Local civil society actors have been pressing for sequencing that does not place accountability on the back burner. But this has not been the consistent view of international actors and advisors. I’m afraid the lack of deference to local demands has cost this process important momentum in terms of establishing an accountability mechanism.”
In his article to ‘Groundviews’ Professor Jayadeva Uyangoda similarly highlighted that: “As a concept, reconciliation has not been intellectually indigenized in Sri Lanka.” Thus indulging in rhetoric and promises that will never be fulfilled will not augur well with a rather politically charged community that has, since the defeat of the Rajapaksa’s, been more and more vocal in both traditional and modern media. March 2017 will also see Sri Lanka’s human rights situation coming up for discussion at the UNHRC where the progress of the 2015 resolution will be reviewed. So one can expect more pronouncements and rhetoric promising-action, come January 2017.
Sri Lanka also got underway with the task of introducing a new constitution. The public representations committee on constitutional reform concluded their painstaking task and submitted a rather hefty 219 page document to the prime minster and the parliament. The prime minister added a new twist to the ‘constitution making-tale’ by establishing a constitutional assembly from the existing parliament and at present, proceedings are underway to create a new constitutional which, if goes as planned, will see it go for a referendum in 2017. In this context one has to bear in mind that the year has not been very good in terms of predicting referendums. Referendums this year has seen the loss of establishment candidates in the U.S, BREXIT in the EU, opposition to the Colombia peace process with the FARC and the end of the tenure of Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi. Moreover survey conducted recently by the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) revealed a rather shocking finding. A quarter of Sri Lankans are ‘unaware’ that there is even a Constitutional Reform process taking place, while “three-quarters of the population have not heard of the Constitutional Assembly.” So what will happen to the Sri Lankan constitution if it goes to a referendum next year? Only time will tell.
Although some may not know, the president went on to declare ‘2017’ a year to combat poverty in Sri Lanka; despite the lack of an institutionalized structure as yet. The ‘year of freedom from poverty’ declared by the president in his address to the 71st Session of the United Nations General Assembly will have to bring significant reductions in poverty levels which stands rather high in some parts of the country. This would require more than purely increasing taxes and would involve structural reform in the financial sector.
Noticeable achievements of the government this year include the passing of the 19th Constitutional Amendment and the Right to Information Act. Both have been hailed as opportune by many in civil society and has helped the government rank up its image abroad. This was compounded by the ratification of the International Convention for the Protection of All persons from Enforced Disappearance in May. Even the outgoing UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in his visit to Sri Lanka in September this year remarked that steps such as singing the National Anthem in Sinhala and Tamil play a significant role in the path to peace building. Another high level visit to the island was by Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights who outlined his concern ‘that the Government has not moved fast enough with tangible measures to build confidence among victims and minority communities.’ While criticisms both constructive and otherwise continue in the domestic and international foray; as a Sri Lankan what can truly be valued is the very presence of criticism which had hitherto been silenced by political authorities of the previous regime.
The year has also seen the increase of the geopolitical significance of the island in terms of visits from foreign naval vessels. As China launches its One Belt One Road initiative (OBOR) along the maritime Silk Road the presence of foreign vessels especially from India and USA will only increase. President Sirisena’s tenure has still not seen a Chinese submarine entering port but has witnessed the Indian ship Vikramaditya arrive to the island at the start of 2016. The Indian Coastguard Ship ‘Samudra Paheredar’ was next to visit on a ‘goodwill’ mission. These visits were followed by the Americans, with “USS Frank Cable” docking in our port in august trailed by “USS Somerset” in November, which took part in several programs and naval exercises with the Sri Lanka Navy. One of the last ships to arrive this year was the Japanese Maritime ‘Self Defense’ Ship ‘Kirisame’ which arrived at the Port of Colombo in December. All of these visits serve to heighten the strategic significance of the island and the possible geopolitical naval rivalry that is underway among these great powers to gradually see-off China from the Indian Ocean. Although this may not translate to ‘gunboat’ diplomacy the significance of the Indian Ocean and Sri Lanka’s location in it has not been lost on these ‘great powers’. In this regard, Sri Lanka’s ability to effectively balance all these foreign powers will undeniably be tested in the heated geo-political climate of 2017.
Moving onto the economy, the government’s ambitious plan for infrastructure development appears at first sight to rival the massive white-elephant projects of the previous regime. In a Keynote Address at the South Asian Diaspora Convention the Prime Minister outlined some of these projects:
“The government has launched a large scale economic and infrastructure project – the Kandy – Colombo – Hambantota Corridor that will reshape the country’s urban landscape with two airports and two sea ports. This corridor will amalgamate five separate projects.
- The Kandy Mega Development Project,
- the Wayamba (North-Western) Industrial and Tourist Development Project,
- the Western Megapolis,
- the Southern Tourist and Industrial Project and
- The Hambantota Economic Development Project.”
The ‘Megapolis’ is undoubtedly one of the most ambitious projects of the present government and a brief glance at some of the related proposals and blueprints by the engineers concerned, seems to suggest that the project is, fairly ‘out-of-this-world.’ The US $ 40 Billion Western Megapolis aims to convert Colombo as a business and financial hub to attract foreign investors to set up operations in Sri Lanka. Will rhetoric morph to actions? Well once again, 2017 holds the answer.
The prime minster and finance minister have also shown keen interest to jump start the dismal export-import trade in Sri Lanka by measures such as the Indo-Lanka ETCA and the Sri Lanka-Singapore FTA. In august this year I remarked in dbsjeyaraj.com that the possibility of the ‘china bashing’, prevalent in the ‘pre-election period’ would dissipate once the ground realities of the country’s economy was understood. Today this is starkly visible in the rhetoric and actions towards China by the Maithripala government. In addition, the prime minister appears to be keen on ‘balancing’ China and India and courts both ‘affectionately’; to increase investment projects in the country. However apprehensions persist among some groups as to the true intentions of these projects and the prime minister attempted to dispel such fears when he went on to comment on 2 Chinese investment projects (the Hambantota Air Sea Hub and the Financial City), underlining at the end of his remarks that ‘these programs have no military implications.’
Well it’s not all been ‘infrastructure’ in the case of China-Sri Lanka relations. From establishing a special hospital for Kidney patients, to purchasing military transport planes from China, to pledges in the direction of increasing bi-lateral trade, China has been playing an increasingly robust role in the island. More importantly the next year (2017) marks 60 years since the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Sri Lanka and 65 years since the signing of the Rubber-Rice Pact between the two countries and one is bound to see high level visits and agreements signed on this anniversary.
Speaking in New Zealand the prime minister also alluded to the possibility of Sri Lanka moving away from the SAARC if the organization continues in its present fashion.
“The future of the SAARC depends on an outcome acceptable to all members. If not, SAARC’s days are numbered. Then, Sri Lanka will have to look for other options.”
A defragmented SAARC in the light of the BREXIT vote is not something that the SAARC secretariat would be too happy listening to. The prime ministers words may also not bode well to the other south Asian countries who may see the island as too opportunist in nature.
In terms of foreign policy visits and meetings in 2016 probably the most important one following the 2015 audience with the queen, was the opportunity for the president to go to the G7 meeting and converse with different heads of state. Prime Minister of Bangladesh Sheikh Hasina, President of the Republic of Indonesia Joko Widodo and many others were on the meeting list with the president at this occasion. More importantly for Sri Lanka, the bilateral meeting with the Japanese Prime Minister led to the offering of a 38 billion Yen Official Development Assistance loan to Sri Lanka under a low interest rate. One cannot also forget the 1.5 billion dollar loan for Sri Lanka under the Extended Fund Facility (EFF) of the IMF “to support the country’s economic reform agenda.” All of the above financial support was topped off in December with a USD 1,340 million concessionary loan for development purposes by the World Bank.
Relations with India were also exceptionally good as the Sri Lankan president met his Indian counterpart Prime Minister Narendra Modi for the 6th time since the formers election. On the sidelines of the Anti-Corruption Summit the president also met with the then British Prime Minister David Cameron. Therefore in terms of foreign repertoire the president has done quite well. This behavior is also reflective of the posture I predicted in my article ‘Friendship with All, Enmity with None’ earlier this year.
However relations with China have not been all too chummy. A cabinet decision this august led to the alteration of the C.H.E.C. Port City (Pvt) Ltd project resulting in the amendment of a vital clause. According to the changes made, no land will be granted on free hold basis to the Chinese Company, and all the lands will be on 99 year lease basis. This new development, in contrast to the previous government, serves to highlight a rather balanced approach in comparison to the pro china attitude that was adopted earlier. A Decision taken later by the cabinet was that 80 per cent of shares of the Port of Hambantota would be given to the Chinese company for USD 1.12 billion. Thus the entire Hambantota port scenario has exposed and continues to validate how the present Maithripala government attempts to depart from the pro-China policy of the previous government and showcase a more balanced and nuanced approach towards China.
More interestingly the present government, whether you wish to call it a coalition government, national unity government, hybrid government or otherwise’ is based on the principles of “consensus building and national unity” according to Mahinda Samarasinghe, in his address to the Non Aligned Movement in September 2016. Well, rhetoric does not seem to match actions, as the government has already seen political bickering and infighting among its members. It still remains to be seen how strong this ‘unity’ will hold once the Nitti- gritty of how to get the Hambantota Port city complex, and other proposed investment projects up and running, are going to be deliberated. Already fissures can be perceived both within each party and in the governments’ senior members and this might be something to look out for as 2017 progresses.
All in all, the government has a lot to accomplish in 2017 if it is to live up to its promises. Politically ‘dysfunctional’ seems to characterize its attitude towards finding durable solutions. ‘Apathy’ would best describe its approach towards resolving the financial chaos of the previous government and the governments’ steps to round up those involved in corruption can only be described as ‘dispiritingly acidulous’ in contrast to what was expected by many in January 2015. But Sri Lankans on the whole can remain satisfied that things have certainly improved since the new government took office and optimism may persist for the New Year provided that actions benefitting the people at large, once decided upon are effectually executed.
*The author is an undergraduate specializing in International Relations from the Colombo University