The ongoing deliberations of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva have not yielded any surprises. Delivering a joint statement on behalf of Macedonia, Montenegro, the United States and the United Kingdom during the UN High Commissioner's report on Sri Lanka, held on 21 March 2018 in Geneva, the UK said Sri Lanka is safer and freer than it was in 2015. However, it added that it was disappointed that the pace of progress has been slow. It stated that “Much still remains to be done to implement Sri Lanka's commitments. We remain concerned about reports of abuse of authority by some security officials. And multiple incidents of inter-communal violence, attacks, and hate speech against minorities are alarming and demonstrate the need for reconciliation efforts."
Any apprehension that the government would take to a more authoritarian path through the extension of the State of Emergency was dispelled by its revocation by President Maithripala Sirisena. When the president declared a State of Emergency to cover the entire country there was criticism that this was an overreaction to the problem of anti-Muslim violence as the violence was largely confined to the Kandy district and did not cross over to the other 24 districts. However, to the targeted Muslim population who live as minorities throughout the country, and to the great majority of peace loving citizens of all communities, the declaration of a countrywide emergency was primarily a reassuring signal that government wanted to make sure it would not spread.
The quelling of anti Muslim violence in Kandy took longer than anticipated. The curfew in the Kandy district continued for close on a week. A state of emergency, which gives the government special powers, and which enables the military to take on police functions, has been in effect since Tuesday. The protracted anti Muslim violence is a wake-up call about the tensions that line beneath the surface in society, which make them susceptible to abuse by powerful forces with larger political motivations. In a manner reminiscent of the prelude to the three decade-long war against the Tamil rebel movement, the sentiment is being promoted amongst sections of the Sinhalese ethnic majority is that the Muslim minority is a source of threat to their own security.
The setback suffered by the government at the local government elections has not dissuaded it from following through on its plans for national reconciliation. This is a cause for hope that the battle for national reconciliation through a lasting political solution is not yet lost, although it has got much delayed and the best time for moving forward is now gone. The government recently appointed the members of the Office of Missing Persons and is preparing to pass a new law on enforced disappearances. However, the time frames for visible action may change, with constitutional reform being pushed to the back. The political vulnerability of the government will be greatest with regard to constitutional reform that changes the nature of the state, and brings into focus the long term apprehension regarding the devolution of power.
The unexpectedly strong electoral performance by the newly formed SLPP whose chief protagonist is former President Mahinda Rajapaksa at the recent local government elections was a wake-up call to the parties in government. The opposition has argued that the elections, which came a little after the mid-point of the government’s five year term, was akin to a referendum and therefore those in government had lost their mandate to govern. This argument has been countered on the basis that a local government election cannot take the mandate away from a national election. As the pressure on the government has subsided the timing of the election can be said to be a blessing in disguise. It is clear from the election results that if the parties in government had continued in the same manner, they risked being badly defeated at the next general elections in 2020.
Sri Lanka’s three year journey with a national unity government comprising the two major national political parties is in doubt. The unity arrangement whereby the two traditional rivals shared power was always a contested one. Both parties felt they deserved better and each felt undermined by the other. They had different political visions, one more grounded, the other more cosmopolitan, and so deciding together was different. This was also the government’s strength, as it brought in a better balance, but decisionmaking was always slow. The local government election that they kept on postponing for more than two years has been the government’s undoing. When the government finally held those elections, the two main partners, the UNP and SLFP, turned against each other to give victory to the SLPP.
The recently formed Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) led by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa won most of the local government authorities in the South of the country in a landslide victory that caught the government and many others by surprise. The next few days will show if the SLPP, which is the breakaway faction of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) will be able to woo the newly elected council members from the SLFP-led United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) of President Maithripala Sirisena to enable the SLPP to form the administration of more local authorities. There is also the possibility that similar crossovers can be generated at the national level, leading to instability in the government itself.
This year’s Independence Day celebration was marked by a strong effort of the government to represent the diversity of the country’s people in the cultural expressions during the official events at Galle Face. In keeping with the new tradition set by the government in 2015, the national anthem was sung in both Sinhala and Tamil. But more than on previous occasions, the traditional dances and other cultural items were conducted that represented all the communities in their diversities. At the level of the people, this cultural expression represented the reality of the capital city, and also other parts, in which there is a strong representation of all the ethnic and religious communities who coexist in friendship and harmony for the most part.
What was unfortunately absent at the Independence Day celebration was any expression of political unity in which those of different political persuasions and belonging to different political parties could put their differences behind them to unite on at least one day. If the absence of the Joint Opposition from the Independence Day celebrations showed the bitterness of the division on party political lines, the absence of the main political party of the Tamil people, the TNA, from the Independence Day events demonstrated the reality of an ethnically divided polity that continues even 70 years after the colonial departure. Although holding the mantle of the Leader of the Opposition, TNA leader R Sampanthan failed to attend the ceremony in Colombo.
In a move that will highlight the continuing ethnic polarization in the country, the TNA said its members would not participate in the Independence Day National Celebration due to local government election campaign activities in the Trincomalee District. TNA and Opposition Leader R. Sampanthan had informed this in advance to the Independence Day Celebrations Committee. Some candidates of several Tamil political parties also decided to hoist black flags in the North and North East areas to express their displeasure with the prevailing state of affairs in respect of Tamil rights stating that although the country had gained freedom 70 years ago, the Tamil people had not yet tasted true freedom. The prevalence of a high degree of ethnic nationalism indicates that it will remain a potent force for the foreseeable future.
The absence of Tamil political representation from the Independence Day celebrations this year was in contrast to three years ago. On February 4, 2015, little more than three weeks after the Tamil polity voted virtually in unanimity for the common candidate of the opposition parties, and ensured President Maithripala Sirisena a narrow win, the TNA took part in the Independence Day celebrations. The victory of President Sirisena at the presidential election was only made possible by the joining together of a coalition of opposition parties representing different political ideologies and ethnicities. There was hope of speedy reforms that would take into consideration the grievances of rights violations suffered by the ethnic and religious communities. But this has not happened as yet, and as a result of this blighted hope, the power of narrow ethnic nationalism in the country continues to grow.
Until the declaration of local government elections two months ago, the government was making progress on both constitutional reform and transitional justice in terms of dealing with the past issues of human rights violations. These included the report by the Steering Committee of the Constitutional Assembly which presented options for the most contentious issues in the constitutional reform process, including the questions of whether Sri Lanka would remain a unitary state or move in the direction of a federal state. But with the local government elections looming and in recognition of the politically sensitive nature of the constitutional reform and transitional justice processes, and to their vulnerability to being exploited by nationalists, the government put those issues on the back burner in the run up to the local government election. Even though the solution to the ethnic conflict is a national issue of utmost importance, it remains subordinate to the other important goal of winning elections and remaining in power as necessary in an electoral democracy.
It will take more time for the Tamil leaders who have to obtain public support from the Tamil polity to attend the Independence Day celebrations. When the TNA attended the 2015 Independence Day celebrations this was the first time since 1972. There is the need for a political solution to the ethnic conflict without which such support will be difficult to generate. A political solution has still to happen, even though Sri Lankans have had 70 years to work out the answer. The hardest problem for the government is to find a solution to the ethnic conflict that is endorsed by all communities. The differences between the parties, even within the government alliance, are very great. The past three years have not been sufficient for them to develop enough trust and understanding between themselves to reach out to each other and compromise on their differences.
The TNA has been disadvantaged by the slow progress made by the government to address the issues uppermost in priority to the Tamil polity. The TNA has undergone a break up with the EPRLF leaving to form a rival coalition with other Tamil parties. The TNA is under severe attack from Tamil parties that are opposed to it on the grounds that it is complicit with the government in failing to address priority issues of concern to the Tamil people. The criticisms are that the TNA leadership’s general support of the government has prevented it from wresting more political and economic rights from the government. These include failure to utilize the constitutional reform process to negotiate a merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces and federalism. Unfortunately, in the case of the ethnic conflict, the anti TNA rhetoric which has the potential to harness Tamil nationalism also has the potential of provoking more Sinhalese nationalism.
The formation of a new Tamil political alliance, created to challenge the dominance of the ITAK led TNA, between the TULF of Anandasangari and the EPRLF faction of Suresh Premachandra, has been a blow to the monopoly of the TNA. In his Independence Day statement TNA leader Sampanthan’s called on the government to restart the constitutional reform process after the election, and to present the draft constitution. Due to its inability to show progress to the Tamil electorate, the TNA is losing ground to the Tamil nationalist parties which are more willing to take a confrontational course with the government. The expectation therefore is that the TNA will not be able to repeat its virtual monopoly over the Tamil electorate in the North and East. It is in these circumstances that the TNA chose to keep away from the Independence Day celebrations. Like the government, the TNA chose to prioritise the forthcoming local government elections.
The TNA’s manifesto for the forthcoming local government election states that that the solution it seeks with regard to the ethnic problem in Sri Lanka is similar to what was in the Oslo Declaration. This was the joint declaration by the representatives of the then UNF government and the LTTE at the third round of peace talks between the two parties in 2002. The negotiators on the two sides agreed in the Norwegian Capital in December 2002 to "explore a political solution founded on internal self-determination based on a federal structure within a united Sri Lanka." The TNA manifesto said that the same policy framework was placed before the people at the 2013 Northern Provincial Council election and the Parliamentary election in August 2015. These are the difficult issues that have to be faced and overcome if both the people and the political parties are to celebrate Independence Day in 2019 together.
President Maithripala Sirisena’s recent criticisms of his partner in the government coalition, the UNP, have sent signals that the UNP-SLFP alliance may be ending sooner rather than later. At the general elections of August 2015, the two parties entered into an agreement to be in partnership for a period of two years. Those two years have ended and it appears that their partnership may be ending too. Among the criticisms that the president has made are those about governmental involvement in the Central Bank bond scam case and the middling performance of the economy. The president declared his intention to take over the reins of the economy through the National Economic Council he had set up three months ago.
President Maithripala Sirisena’s application to the Supreme Court to obtain its opinion on the length of his term came as a surprise to the general public, and evidently to most in the government. The bid for an extended term was generally viewed as a violation of his commitments, due to 19th Amendment, which reduced the presidential term from 6 to 5 years, being passed with his approval. However, the presidency is the main source of the SLFP’s power within the government. Therefore preserving the presidency is a political necessity to the SLFP and needs to be seen as such. The Supreme Court opinion that the president’s term will be five years against 6 years was a blow to the President and to the SLFP. It has highlighted the fact that the president can only give his strength to the SLFP membership for less than two years as presidential elections will now fall due in 2019.