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.
Civil society members from all parts of the country walked into Temple Trees last week to meet with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. This was the first time for most of them. This included religious clergy from both the North and South. In past years, they had been more accustomed to the government treating them in a hostile manner which meant Temple Trees was out of bounds. One of the Buddhist monks said he chose not to come in the past, because he did not agree with the practices of those who had been incumbents. The meeting was held in the super size meeting hall built by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa during his two terms as president. Although Temple Trees is usually the domain of the prime minister and not the president, the former president made it his abode. Thousands of people from all walks of life were invited to Temple Trees to meet with him at state expense. The giant meeting hall could easily seat over 2000 persons in air conditioned comfort. Some who were at the meeting said that it was capable of seating as many as 7000.
The thrust of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s presentation to those who were gathered there was that the government wished to make NGOs and civil society organizations become partners with the government. He said this would not be only at the national level but also at the grassroots level. NGOs at the grassroots level have often got to fight against prejudice due to the belief within the government officials that they are anti government or doing the bidding of foreign donors. But today at the national level, NGOs are performing an important national consultation process that connects with what the government is preparing to do in terms of the transitional justice and reconciliation process. One of the key requirements of the international community is a process of public consultations that would legitimize the investigation into the past and the accountability, reparations and institutional reforms that come out of it.
The determination with which the opposition parties pursued their protest march was not an indication of their strength. The march seemed to make little sense even as it wended its way down the hills from Kandy, the last kingdom of the Sinhalese to Colombo, the present capital of Sri Lanka. The symbolism was apposite for one of the main slogans of the protest marchers was the betrayal of the country to foreign forces. There were many onlookers though relatively few of them joined in the march. Usually such a bid to generate spontaneous public protest would come towards the end of a government’s term of office when it has over-extended its stay in power and the people are dying for a change. But a mere year and a half of a government which has four more years to go is too soon to evoke a people’s movement to overthrow, or even to destabilize, the government.
The main slogans of the protest marchers related to the economic hardships faced by the people and to warnings about the threat to national sovereignty posed by the government’s constitutional reforms and war crimes trials against the security forces. The slogans regarding the economic hardships, and the much resented Value Added Tax would have evoked an empathetic feeling amongst the bystanders. But these are not issues that could move people to seek a change of government that is yet finding its feet, and has only been in power for a relatively short period of time. It is not as if the people are unaware of how the cost of living was going up during the period of the previous government. It is also much more widely known that government contracts now require more time, as they have to go through established processes, and are not granted at the discretion of those in positions of power.