There are indications of political maneuvering behind efforts to disturb the peace in the country and to bring ethno-religious nationalism to the fore. The rising number of incidents of hate speech and local level acts of violence that appear to have communal undertones has prompted former President Chandrika Kumaratunga to issue a strong statement that received national coverage. In her statement she noted the rise of hate speech in Sri Lanka in the recent past, which challenges the initiatives being taken by the government to heal the country after decades of bloodshed and destruction. She said that “Hate filled expressions and actions by groups with vested interests, resulting in demeaning, denigrating and inciting violence against fellow citizens of various ethnic, religious backgrounds has no place in Sri Lankan society.”
The passage of the second reading of the budget by a 2/3 majority in parliament indicates that the Government of National Unity continues to hold. The differences in opinion between the government partners that sometimes manifest themselves openly have not as yet destroyed their relationship. The most recent tug of war was over the actions of the Bribery and Corruption Commission. President Maithripala Sirisena was openly critical of the manner in which the Commission was handling high profile cases. This led to the resignation of the Director General of the Commission.
The Sri Lankan reaction to the outcome of the US election reflected the ethnic divide at its extremes. Even prior to the election Tamil nationalist politicians had dashed coconuts at temples to bring victory to Hillary Clinton. They believed that she would ensure that the problems of Tamils in Sri Lanka would remain on the US government’s list of priorities due to the interest she had shown in these matters in the past. After the election Sinhalese nationalists expressed their satisfaction at the victory of a kindred spirit who shared the same antipathy towards outsiders to the extent of physically building a wall to keep them out and put his country first. Those who were somewhere in the middle between these competing nationalisms and who looked upon the United States as the country were the values of universal human rights are upheld, renewed and regenerated were dismayed, although this is only likely to be a temporary setback to a nation that is nurtured on the lives of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.
The government’s handling of the Central Bank bond issue has generated a wave of public opinion that is critical of it. Even those who voted for the government and count themselves as government supporters have been placed in a situation of consternation. High among the reasons many of them cast their votes against the former government was its corruption. They expected that the new government would speedily deal with those who had been guilty of corruption. But the manner in which government members have been handling the Central Bank bond issue and their reluctance to have a transparent probe into it, has led to a feeling among government supporters of being left with no political champions of good governance any more.
President Maithripala Sirisena addressing the Armed Forces, ‘Gallantry Awards 2016,’ last week said that certain media organisations, journalists, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and traitorous forces act without realizing the importance of ensuring national security. The President, who is constitutionally vested with the authority of Commander-in-Chief of the Sri Lankan security forces said he was not ready to compromise national security in order to please NGOs. A sore point for the security forces with regard to NGOs would be the demand for war-time accountability and for post-war demilitarization of the former war zones of the North and East. Some NGOs have been in the forefront of the UN-sponsored resolution that calls for an investigation into the past and for post-war demilitarization among others.
The common cause of the National Unity Government to tackle the corruption of the past and to put an end to it in the present seemed to come apart at the seams when President Maithripala Sirisena made an angry critique of the way in which the investigations into corruption was taking place. The resignation of Director General of the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption (CIABOC) Dilrukshi Dias Wickramasinghe was prompted by the President’s remarks on CIABOC and on the police investigative agencies in the wake of former Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and three retired Navy commanders, being brought before courts. The President criticized the investigative bodies of launching politically motivated probes which led to the senior officials being put behind bars during the proceedings in court.
The furor over the the Eluga Thamil (Tamils arise) rally that took place in Jaffna last month is receding. At those protests a powerful and angry people’s movement was in evidence, led by Northern Province Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran, and organised by the Tamil People’s Council (TPC), an organisation that the Chief Minister heads. In addition, several Tamil political parties, including some constituents of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) participated. The demands put forward by the organizers included a call for federalism with the rights to sovereignty and self determination of the Tamil nation recognized, return of land in the Army’s control, release of political prisoners, an international investigation into war crimes and addressing concerns relating to missing persons were prominent. There were also clear anti-south manifestations in the slogans, which included a call to halt to putting up Buddhist shrines in the North and a call to stop southern fishermen, but without a mention of the massive encroachments by Indian fishermen.
Among the systems of good governance put into place after the watershed elections of January 2015, the 19th Amendment to the constitution takes pride of place. Over the past one and a half years there have been other path breaking legal enactments also, such as the Office of Missing Persons Act (OMP) and the Right to Information Act (RTI) which have the potential to transform the way governance takes place in the country. If implemented in a positive spirit, the OMP can bring closure to the grief of families of the disappeared and serve as a deterrent to future resorts to enforced disappearances. The RTI can pave the way for more transparent governance so that what the government says and does is not out of sync. However, these are still in the future, as they need to be implemented.
Sections of the polity that feel themselves to be excluded from the government’s decision making process and alliances are seeking to gain attention. In the North the Tamil People’s Council organized a largely successful protest march and rally against the failure of the government to adequately address the problems of the war affected Tamil people and also larger political issues of concern to the Tamil polity. In the south the Bodu Bala Sena or Buddhist Power Force (BBS) has been organizing protests against the dangers posed by Tamil nationalism including the event organized by the Tamil People’s Council under the name Ezhuga Thamizh (Tamils arise) and the government’s inaction to face down this challenge. However, it is important to distinguish between these two organizations. The BBS is a fringe group without mainstream Sinhalese backing whereas the Tamil People’s Council has substantial public support in the Tamil majority north.
Sri Lanka has entered into a period of conflict transformation. The theory of conflict transformation states that conflict changes the parties, their relationships and issues over time. There is a new relationship and the issues at hand can be addressed at a different level. This offers the chance to resolve the problem in a new way. The defeat of the LTTE on the battlefield and the Rajapaksa government in elections has created a big change in the environment. The way that the government handles inter-ethnic relations today is different from that of the past. The top leadership of the present government, President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, and also leading government figures such as Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera, do not see the Tamil and Muslim people separately from the Sinhalese. Their approach is to see the people as one, rather than in terms of their ethnicity or region.