The dual character of the government of national unity has meant that the government has not been of one mind in respect of transitional justice with regard to war time issues, constitutional reform and even anti-corruption action. The general public, especially those who voted for the government in the hope that it would change the political culture of the country, and put an end to corruption, had been feeling badly let down by the government. However, it now appears the government is getting mobilized to act with greater unity of purpose. The sentencing of the most influential public official of the past period, Presidential Secretary Lalith Weeratunga to three years rigorous imprisonment together with a fine of Rs 52 million in total is an indication of a turning point.
The same punishment has been meted out to the Anusha Palpita, Director General of the telecommunication commission. They have been found guilty of misappropriating government funds for political purposes in the run up to the 2015 presidential elections. The finding of guilty made against the former presidential secretary and head of the telecommunications regulatory authority of grossly and massively misusing government property will send a warning signal to those who have been accused of corruption during the period of the former government. Prior to the announcement of the verdict there apprehension that those accused of corruption would find some way out of the charges against them. Although the main election slogan in the 2015 election campaign was getting rid of corruption, change has been slow in coming. So slow in fact that many thought it would not come at all.
In obtaining action that is meaningful, the key issue to deal with has been to get the two main parties that form the government of national unity, the UNP and SLFP, to be of one mind with regard to the problems that need to be solved. Significant developments that have taken place in the past month suggest that this unity of purpose is taking hold, albeit slowly and sector by sector. The economic arena is the one to which the government leadership has given priority. The combining of the Finance Ministry and Media Ministry under Mangala Samaraweera is an indication of this priority which is yielding the necessary results. The passage of the tax bill which saw major tax reform seeks to expand the tax net and stamp out evasion, though it was opposed by the opposition and those sections who will get within the tax net, was due to the two parties reaching agreement at the leadership level.
The launch of the government’s economic programme for the future, Vision 2025 took place last week in a similar manner. President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe launched an eight-year economic development plan Vision 2025 which outlines a series of development programs focused on the entire economy. The plan maps out the development journey of Sri Lanka in the coming years - and over the next three years the government will implement a comprehensive economic strategy to address constraints to growth. According to Vision 2025, the government aims to raise per capita income to USD 5,000 per year, create one million new jobs, increase foreign direct investment to USD 5 billion per year, and double exports to USD 20 billion per year. The launch event of the plan for economic development also had a political dimension as it highlighted the corruption, shortcomings and wrong turns taken by the previous government in this area.
However, the greater political significance of the launch of the government’s new economic programme was the implied message that the President and Prime Minister were thinking of a future together that goes beyond the 2018 deadline of its detractors and even beyond the 2020 target of its supporters. Those who wish to see the collapse of the government are looking for signs that the unity agreement of the UNP and SLFP will lapse at the end of the year and not be renewed. However, both the President and Prime Minister on several occasions have said that they will work together till the next round of national elections are due in 2020. But Vision 2025 to which both of these leaders signed on to suggests a further five years together.
The launch of Vision 2025 by the government provides a model that the government can replicate in those other important areas where it needs to be acting in more decisively. The government’s progress in the area of transitional justice and implementing the promises it made in Geneva to the international community has been slow. In October 2015 and again in March 2017 the government promised to establish four key institutions—a truth commission, an office of missing persons, an office of reparations and a special court for accountability purposes. Only the legislation for the office of missing persons has been passed by parliament and gazetted by the president. But to date none of these has been set up, not even the office of missing persons. The government could consider using the Vision 2025 model to take the big picture about transitional justice and dealing with the past to the people.
The problem that the government is having in establishing the office of missing persons is that there is miscommunication about its purpose. This is due to the lack of transparency about the transitional justice process in which the office of missing persons is one element. As in the case of the economy, people need to know what the transitional justice mechanisms are about and how they relate to one another. If they are only presented as single entities separated from each other, it is easy for detractors of the government and of transitional justice to make their own worst-case interpretations of them. Currently the four transitional justice mechanisms are being given a distorted interpretation of being aimed at the punishment of security forces personnel who won the war.
A similar problem holds true of the constitutional reform process. So far the government has not presented the broad framework of the envisaged reforms. It is only giving out bits and pieces of its thinking as articulated by its various spokespersons. This has enabled the opposition to claim that the government is going to do controversial things such as reducing the status of Buddhism or creating a federal state. The government needs to put out its broad frameworks for both transitional justice and for constitutional change on the table. The President and Prime Minister need to join hands as they did at Vision 2025 to explain what these mean to the people. Political leaders who aim to be statesmen should have confidence that people will be prepared for constructive change that they understand.