Articles by Dr Jehan Perera

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.

The speech by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon when he was in Sri Lanka that referred to Sri Lanka along with Rwanda and Srebrenica has created political controversy. In remarks that deviated from the prepared text of his speech, the UNSG said “…something more terrible, serious happened in the past. In 1994 in Rwanda there was a massacre. More than one million people were massacred. The UN felt responsible for that…We said repeatedly ‘Never again, Never again’…It happened just one year after in Srebrenica… We did it again in Sri Lanka...” The opposition has made this into one of their key issues against the government. They have alleged that the references to Rwanda and Srebrenica are indicators that the UN system is pushing ahead with its agenda of labeling Sri Lanka as guilty of the international crime of genocide and punishing those who ensured the military victory over the LTTE.

Government leaders have been saying that the draft constitution will be placed before the Parliament prior to the budget debate that takes place in November. A new constitution which would require a referendum could prove to be the government’s Waterloo if the people reject it. Last week Chairman of the Public Representations Committee Lal Wijenayake, made an announcement that five of the six sub-committees of Parliament that had been delegated the task of submitting reports on various aspects of the new constitution had completed their work. The Public Representations Committee (PRC), appointed by the Prime Minister with 19 other members, made a special effort in consultations with the general public on the matters connected with the drafting of the new constitution. Chairman Wijenayake assured those who had made submissions to the PRC that their views would be taken into account in the drafting of the new constitution.

The visit last week to Sri Lanka of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was in contrast to his previous visit in 2009, a few weeks after the country’s three decade long internal war came to its violent denouement. With the aftershocks of the war still subsiding his visit was neither encouraged nor welcomed by the then government. This time around the Sri Lankan government actively sought the visit of the UN Secretary General. It had achievements to show, and highlight, as they were oriented to good governance and reconciliation. Mr Ban Ki-moon appreciated the passage of the 19th Amendment to the constitution whereby the newly elected president voluntarily relinquished some of the extraordinary powers vested in the presidency. He also referred to the Right to Information Act which brings Sri Lanka to the fore of transparent government in terms of its potential.

The constitutional reform process moving forward rapidly, though without a high level of publicity, indicates that the government leadership has a businesslike approach to political reform. It is reported that four of the six subcommittees who were given different areas of constitutional reform to deal with have handed in their reports to the steering committee on constitutional reform headed by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, which is responsible for producing the draft constitution. The subcommittees are on Fundamental Rights, Judiciary, Law and Order, Centre Periphery Relations, Public Finance and the Nature of the State. The government appears to be making the best use of the opportunity that has presented itself in the form of the government of national unity, which gives it a 2/3 majority in Parliament, capable of getting even controversial legislation through. Some of the constitutional reforms will be controversial, especially those provisions that relate to the ethnic conflict. The absence of fanfare may be because the government prefers to get those through the parliamentary hurdle first before taking them to the people.

The visit to Sri Lanka of Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg to Sri Lanka was significant as it confirmed that the long and positive relationship that Norway has had with Sri Lanka is back on track. The two visits earlier this year of Foreign Minister Børge Brende and Foreign Secretary Tore Hattrem (who had been Norwegian ambassador to Sri Lanka during the last phase of the war) signaled the change. Relations between the two countries got strained after the Norwegian facilitated ceasefire agreement broke down. Sinhalese nationalists with the tacit backing of the government in power at that time accused Norway of being partial to the LTTE and acting in ways that were detrimental to Sri Lanka’s sovereignty. Visitors from Norway at that time felt it was pragmatic to say they were from Europe. However, the warm welcomes afforded to the high level Norwegian visitors this year showed how much has changed since the new government took office.

The issue of fulfilling the pledges made to the international community in Geneva seemed to threaten the unity of the government even a month ago. In October 2015 the government co-sponsored the resolution on Sri Lanka that was sponsored by the United States and backed by the majority of countries in the UN Human Rights Council. There were publicly articulated differences of opinion in which Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera sought to reassure the international community that the government would be standing by its pledges while President Maithripala Sirisena sought to reassure the ethnic majority population that the country’s sovereignty would not be jeopardized or the soldiers who fought in the war would not be hauled before international tribunals.