Monday, 16 May 2022 04:49

Getting Nearer To Solution As Options Narrow - Jehan Perera

Jehan Perera Colombo TelegraphPrime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s resignation has been overshadowed by the violence that took place immediately prior to it and after it. The PM’s meeting in the morning with local councilors of his party, numbering over a thousand, was followed by their attack on the demonstration site on Galle Face Seafront outside the PM’s residence. For over a month this had been the location of peaceful protests by mostly youth from all over the country, but also families, office workers and Colombo residents on an ad hoc basis. The wrecking of the demonstration site led to large scale mob attacks against the residences of government ministers, many of which were torched. A government MP has also died in the melee.

There is today a hardening of public sentiment against the government. A unity government that includes members of the former Rajapaksa government is difficult to envisage. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has been the main target of the month long protests. This suggests that a unity government under his leadership is a non-starter. Opposition leader Sajith Premadasa has been taking the position that he will not join a government under President Rajapaksa. “After an embarrassing and failed attempt to use thugs to suppress the protestors, the resignation of the prime minister and government alone is not enough.” He said that the only way of solving the crisis is if the president takes the first step by stepping down.

The priority at the present time would be to restore law and order and the economy. Over 40 members of the government have had their houses either attacked or destroyed. Government supporters who are believed to have taken part in the attacks against the demonstration site in Galle Face have been tracked down and mercilessly assaulted on their way back to their homes. There is hatred towards government members who are seen as responsible for the economic catastrophe that has seen real incomes being halved since the beginning of this year. All mainstream political parties stand discredited. The trust between the polity and citizenry needs to be restored.

Worsening Crisis
Members of the government cannot face the general public anymore. Vigilante groups are on the move, checking vehicles for government members. Indeed, the potential for violence at the present time is ever present. Tempers are running short in many places where people have been waiting in queues for weeks outside petrol stations and gas outlets. In declaring a state of emergency for the second time in barely a month, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa appears to be preparing for the crisis to worsen. In the face of an impending general strike, the government may feel it needs to deploy the military to take on essential services such as maintaining electricity and water supply.

The rumour mills have been at work to suggest that a campaign to suppress the protestors by violent means is being planned. On the more positive side, the president also appears to be preparing for compromise. He has met with the Bar Association who have been performing a yeoman service in terms of upholding the basic rights of free assembly, speech and public protest by going in hundreds, when necessary, to protect the rights of those arrested by the police during the protest campaign. The Bar Association has put forward a set of proposals that give a framework for resolving the political deadlock.

The key features of the Bar Association proposals call for a solution on the lines of the public demand that the president and prime minister should go and a new government that is minus the Rajapaksa family should be established. It calls for the establishment of an interim government of national unity in which the prime minister is one who is able to establish a consensus among all political parties to enact necessary reforms. Second, it calls for a 21st Amendment to the constitution by repealing the provisions of the 20th Amendment and restoring the 19th Amendment. There is also a call for the abolition of the executive presidency at a subsequent stage.

Rational Way
The sooner the government and President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in particular accept the Bar Association principles and transition to a new government the better it will be for the country. There is no rational way out for the government leadership but acknowledge the reality that they have lost their mandate to govern by the very fact of having led the country into the worst debacle ever. Economic reality is also against them. Unlike in Myanmar, the state in Sri Lanka is based on democracy and not on a military machine. Also, unlike in Myanmar, the Sri Lankan economy is totally dependent on foreign largesse for its survival at the present time. The donor countries who call the shots in Sri Lanka are those that have a democratic ethos so a crackdown by the military will not be viable.

The Bar Association proposals have been developed with the present political and economic impasse in mind. They state that their overarching requirement is the establishment of “a stable Government with the ability to implement reforms domestically and the ability/credibility to negotiate with the IMF, other multilateral agencies, and friendly countries to help Sri Lanka get out of the economic crisis.” However, there are other major issues that need to be considered also if Sri Lanka is to truly turn the corner. The most fundamental of these is to solve the ethnic conflict that gave rise to war that lasted three decades and which undermined the country’s long term prospects for economic and political development.

The challenge that needs to be taken up, sooner rather than later, is a need to better ensure the participation of national minorities who are regional majorities into the structures of governance. A salutary provision such as Section 29 of the first constitution after independence that sought to prevent discrimination needs to be enacted. Even the basic issue of language remains unresolved. The executive powers of the governors in the provinces, which are even more than the powers of the president in the country, need to be done away with. Resolving them can open up new channels of goodwill and support to the new government from both within the country and from the international community.