Minister Rajapaksa’s appointment suggests that the policy followed by the government since the election of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in November 2019 will be changing. Minister Rajapaksa is believed to have a greater receptivity to the concerns of the Western bloc of countries which have been disapproving of Sri Lanka’s growing political and economic dependence on China with whom they have a strong rivalry. During both the period of war and its aftermath, Minister Rajapaksa was the government’s focal point in meeting with international donors and multilateral agencies with regard to relief, rehabilitation and recovery issues. As the brother of both President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, he will be a trusted interlocutor in navigating the process of change. In doing so it will be interesting to see the changes he makes from the past when large infrastructure loans were taken for projects with very poor returns.
While addressing the economic challenges, the new minister will also have to deal with the present downside of political decision making. His appointment as Finance Minister was accompanied by another event that also took political centre stage. This was the breakup by police of a peaceful protest by a civil society group including an icon of free education, Joseph Stalin, head of the Ceylon Teachers Union. The protestors, including elderly women and religious clergy, were arrested by the police on grounds of violating Covid health guidelines. When the judge refused to send them to a distant quarantine center, the police forcibly carried them off and they were virtually thrown into buses to be transported to an army camp in the North. Arresting and detaining persons who are exercising their peaceful right to protest sending them to quarantine has a chilling effect on the freedom to dissent which is fundamental to democracy.
Similar undemocratic actions have quelled other protests too, such as those against the ban on chemical fertilizers which is threatening to destroy small scale farmers and force them to sell their land. The government needs to accept that recent demonstrations carried out by vulnerable communities relate to their unmet needs which creates insecurity and causes mistrust. The lament of plantation workers in tea estates, the anger of farmers who suffer loss of their crops due to hasty decisions of the government with regard to importation of fertilizers cannot be brushed aside as being manipulations of opposing political actors alone, but they include those who voted for the government as well.
Ironically, during the past several days, government leaders have been receptive to meetings with members of civil society in the aftermath of the EU parliamentary resolution on Sri Lanka. The EU parliament’s resolution that calls for a withdrawal of the tariff concession, though as a last resort, has sent a shock wave through both the government and the country’s business sector as it could have very deleterious economic consequences. Support from civil society organisations could stand the government in good stead, both by lobbying among the international community and by creating awareness among the general population of the course of action that the government has to follow if it is to salvage the country’s economic fortunes.
Among the issues that the CSOs have presented to the government are matters relating to the post-war reconciliation process that go beyond the repeal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act. The EU parliamentary resolution specifically mentioned the PTA and the need to do away with it. The government has appointed a committee to formulate amendments to the PTA or to devise an alternative law which both fulfills international standards and ensures national security. However, the focus on the PTA by itself is unlikely to be sufficient to meet the EU requirement for continuation of the GSP Plus concession. The GSP Plus is given as an incentive to countries that are genuine in their intentions to uphold human rights and improve the living conditions of their people.
The 27 international agreements that Sri Lanka has ratified and needs to implement for purposes of the GSP Plus are wide ranging and include human rights, labour rights, environmental protection and also governance, including corruption which has been a mega problem in this country for decades. In terms of these agreements, civil society groups, such as the Ceylon Teachers Union play an important watchdog role. In their meetings with the government, the civil society members called on the government to protect human rights defenders, ensure a safe and enabling environment in which civil society can operate free from hindrance, surveillance, insecurity and not threaten them with reprisals. Currently NGOs have been placed under the Defence Ministry which can create an impression that the government considers CSOs to be a national security threat instead of being part and parcel of the democratic system.
It should be noted that the EU parliamentary resolution is only one of four that has been passed against the government in the past six months. The other three are the UN Human Rights Council resolution on post-war transitional justice, the Ontario parliamentary resolution on genocide and the pending US Congressional resolution on the lack of forward movement in finding a political solution to the longstanding ethnic conflict. The best way to address these concerns, which are being kept alive in foreign capitals by the Tamil Diaspora, is to recommence the reconciliation process in earnest in addition to paying all round attention to human rights concerns. The present time, when the country is led by a government that has credibility as a nationalist one, and the opposition and international community is ready to support, would be the best time.
At their meetings, the CSOs have called on the government to, among other matters, implement the 13th Amendment in full and conduct provincial council elections immediately, ensure structural safeguards for the Human Rights Commission, the Office on Missing Persons and the Office for Reparations to operate effectively and independently and investigate and, if warranted, prosecute alleged crimes relating to human rights violations and serious violations of international humanitarian law, including for longstanding emblematic cases. Apart from seeking alternatives to the Prevention of Terrorism Act, the government needs to find convincing answers to these issues.
While CSOs engage constructively with the government they need to play their watchdog role as well. At the base of democracy is the right of people to dissent and when they do so peacefully they need to be protected. As stated by the Bar Association, public protest straddles three important fundamental rights in the constitution – the freedom of speech and expression, the freedom of peaceful assembly and the freedom of association. Public protests also strengthen the freedom of thought which was entrenched as a fundamental right in the constitution. Whether in Western nations or in Eastern ones such as Japan and South Korea, these are akin to sacred rights, as much as they ought to be to us. Systems function best when there are checks and balances which requires a more sophisticated understanding of democracy and its frame.