Apart from seeking a political solution to the ethnic conflict, President Wickremesinghe is also giving leadership to a new truth and reconciliation process. He has met with South African president Cyril Ramaphosa to discuss getting South African support to a Sri Lankan truth and reconciliation commission. Foreign Minister Ali Sabry recently met with civil society leaders to share with them his concept of a truth and reconciliation commission and ask for their feedback. He expressed confidence that there was strong political will for the success of this commission. He also said that the armed forces were supportive of the concept of a truth commission as they wanted their names cleared. At the current time entire divisions of the Sri Lankan armed forces are blacklisted by international human rights groups and by some foreign governments. The minister was keen on developing a mechanism on which there was consensus before it was operationalized in a manner that was credible and would win public support.
The main challenge for President Wickremesinghe and the government is to convince the general population that he and the government and serious and sincere in what they are doing. There are reports that the government is planning to send a delegation to South Africa to study the South African reconciliation process. Such studies have been undertaken in the past as well. More important than the optics of commitment is the reality. Truth and reconciliation cannot be offered to one section of the population and at one moment in time. Truth and reconciliation cannot be compartmentalized. It cannot be offered to the Tamils and not to Sinhalese and Muslims. Keeping two of the student leaders under prolonged imprisonment without charge is neither truth nor reconciliation. The government’s sense of justice needs to be evenhanded and it needs to demonstrate its commitment to the wellbeing of all.
The demand of the protest movement for a system change that would eliminate corruption, misallocation of resources and accountability is not confined to university students. It has a much wider base even though not being overtly manifested in the form of public protests and demonstrations. A moulavi in Batticaloa at a civil society meeting last week said that the reason they were not so active in the protest movement was the fear that they could be arrested and put away for a long time like the two student leaders and many others have been. He said that the demonstrations against the unjust incarceration of the two student leaders were very large, but the government was unyielding. In these circumstances, people who want change but do not want to be arrested can only look forward to elections as the democratic right they have to indicate their wishes and aspirations.
Despite his democratic credentials and desire to solve problems, President Wickremesinghe is demonstrating reluctance to commit himself to elections at this time. There are two sets of elections that need to be held- local government and provincial council. To his credit, whenever he has been in a position of power the president has given emphasis to reviving the economy and to resolving the ethnic conflict. This was the case in the two earlier spells he had as a national leader, as prime minister in 2002–04 and again in 2015–19. Unfortunately, on both occasions he lost power, losing heavily in the elections that followed. At present the government is under the leadership of the president who has retained the finance portfolio and has embarked upon a course of economic reform that is controversial and at the behest of international funding organisations, particularly the IMF. The president is also making pledges to tackle the sensitive issue of national reconciliation, which he once described in 2002 as being akin to sitting on top of a volcano.
This background may explain, though it does not justify, the president’s apparent determination to press ahead with an ill-timed reform of the election law at this very time. Local government elections are due in March having been already postponed by a year. The electoral reform process that the government is launching is likely to extend beyond March. This will be a replay of the government’s strategy in 2017 when it proceeded to reform the electoral law just prior to provincial council elections. The provincial councils, which were set up as a solution to the ethnic conflict, have been dysfunctional for the past four years. Instead of being devolved authorities, with decision making taking place closer to the people, they are all run in a tightly centralized manner by governors appointed by the president. The postponement of provincial council elections in particular has made a mockery of the devolution of power. The governors act as agents of the centre in a manner totally at odds to the wishes of the people of the province.
The economic crisis requires more than increasing taxes, decreasing government expenditures and getting a loan from the IMF. It requires a system of government in which people feel their participation makes a difference. The purpose of the provincial councils was to create devolved structures elected by the people of the province and responsible to them. If the provincial councils had been permitted to function as they were meant to, with sufficient resources allocated to them, Sri Lanka might have been able to withstand the economic crisis better than it currently is. Instead of sharing the national budget equitably with the provincial councils, the central government took the lion’s share for itself and with it the power to engage in development projects with large scale corruption that exceeds the budget of the provincial councils and which became white elephants. Ensuring devolution of power is part of the system change that is needed to get out of the economic morass the country is currently trapped in.
In this context, Batticaloa civil society leaders who felt that the government was not doing anything for them, spoke in terms of educating people to do more home garden cultivation and engage in self-employment projects to boost their income and consumption. But home garden cultivation can be at best only a poor supplement to the type of employment and earnings that are required for people to take advantage of opportunities in the modern age. In the discussion that took place in Batticaloa, there was criticism of the government’s budget proposals and lack of empathy for the problems of those at the bottom tiers of society. However, there was satisfaction expressed for one of the new policies. Budget proposal No: 13 says: “Although preliminary activities related to the disposal of government lands are carried out by District Secretaries through Divisional Secretaries, at a later stage such duties were also allocated to Sri Lanka Mahaweli Authority and the Land Reform Commission which were established for special requirements. It is reported that there are occurrences of discrimination and malpractice as preliminary activities related to disposal of lands are done in various ways by the respective entities.”
The budget proposal goes on to say “Therefore, as the aforementioned special requirements have already been met, a programme will be prepared during the next year to enable preliminary activities in relation to the disposal of all government lands, including the disposal of lands under the above two institutions, only by the Divisional Secretaries.” Previously when the Mahaweli Authority was in charge, decisions regarding the utilization of land in most of the country could be made from Colombo. The decentralization of decisions pertaining to land alienation to the divisional level will give people at the community level the possibility of having a greater say over the utilization of lands by the new property owners who are more likely to live closer to the area. This is in the spirit of the devolution of power which can lessen corruption and misallocation of resources, improve accountability and give a sense of belonging to all people in the common enterprise of reviving the national economy.