Articles by Dr Jehan Perera

The formation of the Government of National Unity in the aftermath of the victory of President Maithripala Sirisena at the presidential election of January 2015 generated hopes of a rejuvenation of the polity and the unleashing of its full post-war economic potential. However, much to the disappointment of those who believed in the new government, the rift between the UNP and SLFP, which are the two main constituent parties of the government, appears to be increasing with the passage of time. At its root is the perennial quest of politicians and political parties for power, to gain it, keep it and not to lose it.

The change of government that took place in 2015 gave rise to much hope that the new government would solve the most intractable problem that the country faces, and resolve the ethnic conflict that has been a festering sore from the time of Independence in 1948. It is not as if sincere efforts at problem solving were not made in the past. But a notable feature of past attempts at ethnic problem solving was that they were made by one of the two major political parties, while the other remained in opposition. The lesson of history is that the party in opposition always did its best to scuttle the efforts of the party in government in order to come back to power using unleashed emotions of nationalism. The failed solutions of 1957 (Banda Chelva Pact), 1965 (Dudley-Chelva Pact), 1987 (Indo Lanka Accord), 2000 (Chandrika Constitution) and 2002 (Ceasefire Agreement) provide a dismal testament to this reality.

The change of government that took place in 2015 gave rise to much hope that the new government would solve the most intractable problem that the country faces, and resolve the ethnic conflict that has been a festering sore from the time of Independence in 1948. It is not as if sincere efforts at problem solving were not made in the past. But a notable feature of past attempts at ethnic problem solving was that they were made by one of the two major political parties, while the other remained in opposition. The lesson of history is that the party in opposition always did its best to scuttle the efforts of the party in government in order to come back to power using unleashed emotions of nationalism. The failed solutions of 1957 (Banda Chelva Pact), 1965 (Dudley-Chelva Pact), 1987 (Indo Lanka Accord), 2000 (Chandrika Constitution) and 2002 (Ceasefire Agreement) provide a dismal testament to this reality.

The disquiet about the government’s commitment to deliver on its promises is now extending itself to those sections of the international community that gave their support to the government on the basis of its commitment to human rights and reconciliation. The sense of disenchantment amongst the general population is also getting more pronounced. The common factor is the failure of the government to deliver on its promises. With regard to the general population it is the continuing failure to deliver economic development that directly benefits those who depend on governmental largesse to get them out of poverty. It is also the ineffectiveness of the government’s anti-corruption programme that is reflected in the failure to take cases through to their conclusion.

The reality that Sri Lanka is a country in transition was brought to the fore once again when the Consultation Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanisms presented its final report to the government. Task Force members expected their report to be presented to President Maithripala Sirisena in view of its importance. They delayed issuing their report for several weeks on account of the difficulty of obtaining a time when the President could be present. With the date fixed the presentation ceremony was held at the Presidential Secretariat. But unfortunately, the President failed to turn up at the last minute. The organizers informed those gathered on the occasion, that he had fallen sick. Former President Chandrika Kumaratunga accepted the report on behalf of the government. Making a brief intervention she said that the present moment was an opportune one in which a solution to the protracted ethnic conflict could be found.

Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa has predicted the collapse of the government in the New Year and his return to power. He is demonstrating the same tenacity that stood him in good stead during his long stint in politics prior to rising to become the undisputed leader of the country. He was kept down by his party leaders but prevailed in the end. After his unexpected defeat at the presidential election of January 2015 that he called prematurely he has been tenaciously struggling to stage a political come back to the centre stage of power. Together with his supporters in the Joint Opposition he has been able to demonstrate mass support among a section of the people on numerous occasions but so far has been unable to convert that into real power.

The more positive way to view the year 2016 that comes to a close this week is that it was about the government preparing for the changes to come in 2017. This period of preparation must necessarily change into one of materializing of plans if the support of those who voted to bring the government to power is to be sustained. Apart from the lifting of the thrall of fear, everything else appears to be in a preparatory stage instead of being susceptible to speedy implementation. This is leading to erosion in public confidence in the government although there is no indication as yet that the political opposition is getting substantially stronger. In the coming period there will be three areas of governance in which the government will need to show evidence of results that are tangible. These would be in the areas of corruption, economic development and political reforms that address the ethnic conflict.

Nationalist Buddhist groups setting up temples and putting up statues in places where there are hardly any or no Buddhists has become a visible source of inter ethnic agitation. The Northern Provincial Council has passed a resolution that no Buddhist temples should be constructed in the North. Many Tamils see the putting up of Buddha statues and the construction of Buddhist temple as a projection of Sinhalese domination in the North after the defeat of the LTTE. They ask why Buddhist temples are being built and statutes are erected in areas where there are no Buddhists. Some of them are constructed by the armed forces. However, it is not only Buddhist groups that are engaging in this practice. Christians in the North have complained of Hindus doing the same and that large numbers of Hindu temples are coming up on encroached state and private lands using Diaspora money.

After a two year lull that followed replacement of the former government through the electoral process, public manifestations of inter community tension and media coverage of the same have been on the rise. There are indications of political maneuvering behind these efforts to disturb the peace in the country and to bring ethno-religious nationalism to the fore. Video footage of religious clergy engaging in vitriolic attacks on those of other ethnic and religious groups have gone viral on the social media. Most notably in the North and East, there are clashes being reported on inter religious grounds. There are many incidents of religious clergy getting involved in expansionist projects, such as religious conversions, destruction of ancient sites or building places of worship in areas where they are less numerous.

A particularly acute source of inter religious tension is the constant use of hate speech by groups that form themselves under the name of religion and attack those of other religions. Most visibly, nationalist Buddhist groups have been targeting the Muslim community in this regard. Ethno nationalist organizations have been engaging in hate campaigns and intimidating those of other communities at the local level. The expansion of the Muslim population, its increasingly visible economic strength, alleged connections to militant international Islamic groups and religious practices such as Halal have been the main focus of their campaigns. This has created and continues to sustain a sense of apprehension and insecurity in the Muslim community particularly in areas where they are a minority, which is most of the country.

SOCIAL TOLERANCE
During the period of the last government, these incidents of hate speech and violence were ignored by the government. There was also a widespread belief amongst human rights groups and the Muslim community that a section of the former government was also tacitly supporting the aggressors. On the other hand, at the present time government leaders have shown no support for actions that are in opposition to inter ethnic and inter religious harmony. Both President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe have made it clear that they wish these incidents to cease and the law to prevail. President Sirisena’s admonition that anyone who violates the law would be dealt with by the law enforcement agencies will serve to embolden the police to take deterrent action rather than stand idly as they did during the Aluthgama anti Muslim riots in 2014.

As a result of government policy that is not anti minority but is focused on preserving inter community relations, there is no mass sentiment that is in favour of communal confrontation visible in any part of the country. The National Peace Council has been conducting inter religious meetings at the community level. A gathering earlier this month in Trincomalee which was attended by members of all religions, and by government officials and police, on the contrary revealed a great deal of goodwill. The police officer who had been entrusted with communal amity said that there were youth who went about pasting stickers which had hate messages. But apart from pasting the stickers they did nothing much else, and the general population did not support them. It appears that at the level of the general population there is little or no personal animosities. On the contrary social relations and cultural similarities make the people prepared to sit with one another and attend meetings that are called in the name of inter ethnic and inter religious harmony.

Sri Lanka is fortunate in that its past traditions of inter ethnic and inter religious tolerance, of which there are records from the days of the kings, continues to prevail at the social and individual level. On the other hand, the visible manifestations of aggression and intolerance are politically created ones. When such politically motivated action takes place they are highly visible and are immediately given media attention. This creates an impression of crisis. But those who seek to attack those of other communities on account of religious rivalries and for purposes of religious domination do not have support amongst the people. Therefore the agitators are susceptible to control by the law enforcement agencies.

COMMUNITY TENSION
However, in contrast to the politically motivated inter religious tension, there is a degree of community level tension between the different ethnic communities living in the North and East that is having an impact on their lives. In Mullaitivu, an inter religious meeting became a forum for conflicting views to be expressed on matters pertaining to land. A Muslim participant explained that in 1990 when the LTTE expelled the Muslim population from the Northern Province, about 1500 Muslim families had left Mullaitivu. But now more than 26 years later, there are about 4500 Muslim families that have returned due to the natural increase in their population. Obtaining land for the additional families is providing to be difficult as it is resisted by those from the Tamil community and the government administration that functions in that area.

In Batticaloa it was a similar issue of land that led to one of the outbursts of the Buddhist monk against the government servant which went viral on the social media. The monk was angry that Sinhalese who sought land permits were being denied them although they had a claim to the land, according to the monk. On the other hand, the Tamils in the area felt that it was they who were under threat, now that the Eastern Provincial Council had a Muslim Chief Minister. According to them most of the provincial council appointments were going to Muslims, including being security guards in Tamil schools. They also pointed out the prosperity of Muslim towns in the east, as compared to the impoverished Tamil towns that lay adjacent to them.

In situations where there is political mistrust between communities and a history of conflict, it is important that governmental and provincial authorities should take decisions in a fair manner and in a manner that does not create more conflict. The use of a majoritarian mindset by politicians to favour their own community when they are the majority in a region is not conflict-sensitive nor is it acceptable. Decisions that are taken need to be seen as fair by all communities. If this is not the case, inter ethnic and inter religious harmony will be difficult to achieve, and the gains of the present will be dissipated in the new conflicts of the future. The role of civil society would be to identify these conflicts in dialogue with the communities and find ways to take them up to those who make the decisions so that they may decide fairly and take into consideration the concerns of each community in a conflict-sensitive manner.

Nationalist Buddhist groups setting up temples and putting up statues in places where there are hardly any or no Buddhists has become a visible source of inter ethnic agitation. The Northern Provincial Council has passed a resolution that no Buddhist temples should be constructed in the North. Many Tamils see the putting up of Buddha statues and the construction of Buddhist temple as a projection of Sinhalese domination in the North after the defeat of the LTTE. They ask why Buddhist temples are being built and statutes are erected in areas where there are no Buddhists. Some of them are constructed by the armed forces. However, it is not only Buddhist groups that are engaging in this practice. Christians in the North have complained of Hindus doing the same and that large numbers of Hindu temples are coming up on encroached state and private lands using Diaspora money.

After a two year lull that followed replacement of the former government through the electoral process, public manifestations of inter community tension and media coverage of the same have been on the rise. There are indications of political maneuvering behind these efforts to disturb the peace in the country and to bring ethno-religious nationalism to the fore. Video footage of religious clergy engaging in vitriolic attacks on those of other ethnic and religious groups have gone viral on the social media. Most notably in the North and East, there are clashes being reported on inter religious grounds. There are many incidents of religious clergy getting involved in expansionist projects, such as religious conversions, destruction of ancient sites or building places of worship in areas where they are less numerous.

A particularly acute source of inter religious tension is the constant use of hate speech by groups that form themselves under the name of religion and attack those of other religions. Most visibly, nationalist Buddhist groups have been targeting the Muslim community in this regard. Ethno nationalist organizations have been engaging in hate campaigns and intimidating those of other communities at the local level. The expansion of the Muslim population, its increasingly visible economic strength, alleged connections to militant international Islamic groups and religious practices such as Halal have been the main focus of their campaigns. This has created and continues to sustain a sense of apprehension and insecurity in the Muslim community particularly in areas where they are a minority, which is most of the country.

SOCIAL TOLERANCE
During the period of the last government, these incidents of hate speech and violence were ignored by the government. There was also a widespread belief amongst human rights groups and the Muslim community that a section of the former government was also tacitly supporting the aggressors. On the other hand, at the present time government leaders have shown no support for actions that are in opposition to inter ethnic and inter religious harmony. Both President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe have made it clear that they wish these incidents to cease and the law to prevail. President Sirisena’s admonition that anyone who violates the law would be dealt with by the law enforcement agencies will serve to embolden the police to take deterrent action rather than stand idly as they did during the Aluthgama anti Muslim riots in 2014.

As a result of government policy that is not anti minority but is focused on preserving inter community relations, there is no mass sentiment that is in favour of communal confrontation visible in any part of the country. The National Peace Council has been conducting inter religious meetings at the community level. A gathering earlier this month in Trincomalee which was attended by members of all religions, and by government officials and police, on the contrary revealed a great deal of goodwill. The police officer who had been entrusted with communal amity said that there were youth who went about pasting stickers which had hate messages. But apart from pasting the stickers they did nothing much else, and the general population did not support them. It appears that at the level of the general population there is little or no personal animosities. On the contrary social relations and cultural similarities make the people prepared to sit with one another and attend meetings that are called in the name of inter ethnic and inter religious harmony.

Sri Lanka is fortunate in that its past traditions of inter ethnic and inter religious tolerance, of which there are records from the days of the kings, continues to prevail at the social and individual level. On the other hand, the visible manifestations of aggression and intolerance are politically created ones. When such politically motivated action takes place they are highly visible and are immediately given media attention. This creates an impression of crisis. But those who seek to attack those of other communities on account of religious rivalries and for purposes of religious domination do not have support amongst the people. Therefore the agitators are susceptible to control by the law enforcement agencies.

COMMUNITY TENSION
However, in contrast to the politically motivated inter religious tension, there is a degree of community level tension between the different ethnic communities living in the North and East that is having an impact on their lives. In Mullaitivu, an inter religious meeting became a forum for conflicting views to be expressed on matters pertaining to land. A Muslim participant explained that in 1990 when the LTTE expelled the Muslim population from the Northern Province, about 1500 Muslim families had left Mullaitivu. But now more than 26 years later, there are about 4500 Muslim families that have returned due to the natural increase in their population. Obtaining land for the additional families is providing to be difficult as it is resisted by those from the Tamil community and the government administration that functions in that area.

In Batticaloa it was a similar issue of land that led to one of the outbursts of the Buddhist monk against the government servant which went viral on the social media. The monk was angry that Sinhalese who sought land permits were being denied them although they had a claim to the land, according to the monk. On the other hand, the Tamils in the area felt that it was they who were under threat, now that the Eastern Provincial Council had a Muslim Chief Minister. According to them most of the provincial council appointments were going to Muslims, including being security guards in Tamil schools. They also pointed out the prosperity of Muslim towns in the east, as compared to the impoverished Tamil towns that lay adjacent to them.

In situations where there is political mistrust between communities and a history of conflict, it is important that governmental and provincial authorities should take decisions in a fair manner and in a manner that does not create more conflict. The use of a majoritarian mindset by politicians to favour their own community when they are the majority in a region is not conflict-sensitive nor is it acceptable. Decisions that are taken need to be seen as fair by all communities. If this is not the case, inter ethnic and inter religious harmony will be difficult to achieve, and the gains of the present will be dissipated in the new conflicts of the future. The role of civil society would be to identify these conflicts in dialogue with the communities and find ways to take them up to those who make the decisions so that they may decide fairly and take into consideration the concerns of each community in a conflict-sensitive manner.

There seems to be a rethinking on the part of the government regarding the nature and extent of constitutional reform. The SLFP is of the stance that the Constitution should be amended without going in for a referendum. SLFP media spokesman Minister Dilan Perera said “We have spoken with the President and taken a clear decision on this. Electoral reforms must take place and a new system introduced and we believe in maximum devolution of power within a unitary state. We have also made it clear that we will not support the merger of provinces or to lessen the power of the governors to make it a nominal position.” For its part, the UNP has taken the position that it would support a system where the office of executive president would continue with special powers that the 19th Amendment to the Constitution had conferred.