Political Commentary

Just as in the south in the Sinhalese-majority areas where ethnic nationalism is being used for political advantage, a similar phenomenon is taking place in the north and east of the country in the Tamil-majority areas. It is being used in the north, among others, to protest against the increase in criminal activities that most recently included the rape and murder of a six year old child. The rise in ethnic nationalism is taking place with a corresponding decline in the electoral strength of those who are taking moderate and non-racist positions. This was visible at the recently concluded local government elections where nationalist parties improved their performance at the cost of moderate parties both in the north and south.

The war ended nine years ago but the country has still to address issues of healing and transition meaningfully or effectively. This may be disappointing but it is not too surprising. Dealing with the past is never easy. In Colombia, where a peace accord between the government and rebels was signed in 2016, and ended a five decade long civil war which had led to more than 200,000 deaths, a presidential election was held last month. The government candidate from the party of the president who had signed the peace accord lost and the opposition candidate from the party of a hardline president who fought the war against the rebels won. This has thrown the internationally backed peace process into doubt even though the former president and rebel leader were awarded the Nobel peace prize.

The departure of the United States from the UN Human Rights Council will weaken a global institution which has been mandated to protect and uphold human rights throughout the world including Sri Lanka. The UN body was established in 2006 with the aim of promoting and protecting human rights around the globe, as well as investigating alleged human rights violations and is made up of 47 member states, which are selected by the UN General Assembly on a staggered basis each year for three-year-long terms. Members meet around three times a year to debate human rights issues and pass non-binding resolutions and recommendations by majority vote.

In the past two weeks there have been indications that the government parties are trying to sort out their differences. SLFP National Organiser, Minister Duminda Dissanayake has said that contrary to views expressed by some SLFP members, there were no discussions during the recent SLFP Central Committee meeting about the party trying to quit the National Unity Government. At the same time the Joint Opposition appears to have ruled out the possibility of reunification of the SLFP under President Maithripala Sirisena. Prof G L Peiris who heads the SLPP which outdid the SLFP at its maiden contest has said that they would also not be supporting the president in any re-election bid.

Political attention at the present time is focused on two issues that are being used to create a sense of larger governmental failure. The first is that of payments made by a single business company, PTL and its subsidiaries, to a large number of parliamentarians whose number seems to be increasing by the day. Although the sums being mentioned are in the millions, which is very large by the calculations of ordinary citizens, they are nowhere near the tens and hundreds of millions that are understood to be part of every major infrastructure project, some of which have turned out to be pure white elephants, such as the Mattala International airport. As mentioned by some of the politicians whose receipts of funding have been exposed, the practice of receiving funds from business enterprises is widespread.

President Maithripala Sirisena’s speech at the commemoration event for the late Ven Madulawave Sobitha Thero, was another indication that all was not well within the unity government. The venerable monk was the person who welded several disparate political parties and civic groups together to challenge the might of the Rajapaksa government. The previous government exemplified the Rule of Men and not the Rule of Law, which its own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission warned against. Its leaders still show little or no remorse for the violations of law and human rights in the past. The commemoration held in the venerable monk’s honour was intended to be an occasion for remembering what he had stood for and the promises that those who had worked with him made regarding good governance and against corruption. Instead of which, President Sirisena made it into an occasion to severely criticize the outcome of that endeavor.

The sudden recommencement of the constitutional reform process after a break of over six months coincides with JVP’s proposed 20th Amendment to the constitution which would abolish the executive presidency in its present form. The parliamentary steering committee which is headed by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is reported to have instructed its experts committee to submit a paper for consideration within two weeks. If the 20th Amendment were to become law it would mean the diminishing of the president’s role in governance and a corresponding enhancement of the prime minister’s power. It would also do away with the need for a national election for the presidency, as the president would be elected by parliament. This would present a scenario that could see the evolution of a new partnership between President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

The rise in public manifestation of ethnic nationalism in the North was evident at this year’s commemoration ceremonies of the last phase of the war at Mullivaikkal of May 18, 2009. Several thousands of people attended the ceremony of remembrance held there at the monument erected in memory of the civilians killed in the war. This is the first time since the end of the war that a political event took place on May 18. Politicians from the moderate TNA who attended the event were not permitted to speak and instead university students and nationalist members of civil society groups took the centre stage. Although it was the Northern Provincial Council that had resolved to remember the Tamil civilians who died in the war, it was reported that even the Chairman of the Northern Provincial Council was physically stopped from entering the podium.

Kandy Truth Commission photo130518

On Sunday a meeting of a truth commission took place in Kandy in which I was an observer. This was not the truth commission promised by the government to the international community in Geneva in October 2015. Rather, it was an unofficial body, a citizens’ truth commission, set up by the District Inter Religious Committee of Kandy. The District Inter Religious Committee (DIRC) had previously been involved in mitigating the violent situation that had arisen Kandy in early March 2018 and which lasted for a week in defiance of police curfews declared in the district. The DIRC members influenced the government officials, relevant religious leaders and academic persons in the area to take necessary action to solve the problem. In the midst of the troubled period, the DIRC also held a media conference to request all communities to be peaceful and to avoid escalating the problem.

One of the promises of the government alliance when they contested the 2015 presidential and general elections was to end corruption. The belief that corruption was deep rooted in the former government was well entrenched by the time of those elections. The promise to end corruption by the new government leaders was also believable as both President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe did not come with such baggage. This belief was increased by the immediate passage of the 19th Amendment to the constitution that strengthened the independence of the judiciary, the police and the bribery commission.