Military personnel stationed in the North are often perplexed when told that their continued presence is objectionable to the local population. Their experience is different. When they ask the people about their presence, the answer they say they receive is a positive one whether in term of preserving law and order or in terms of providing material assistance. The sceptic would point out no civilian population in a post-war setting would be willing to tell uniformed military personnel that their continued presence is objectionable. But this may not be the only truth of the matter.
Early in the morning as I walked down a street in Jaffna, I heard a cry “Annai, annai.” Initially I took no notice and kept on walking, but the cry was persistent. So I looked back to see two small children behind the gate of their house. I smiled at them and recommenced my walk. But again the cry “Annai, annai” rent the air. This time I turned back and walked to the source of the sound. The elder one, a girl of about six years of age, ran away but the little one, a boy of no more than three stood his ground. Eyes gleaming and with a drippy nose he stood and smiled. I reached out through the chained gate and stroked the top of his head and he laughed happily and ran away.
The government has commenced launching its Gam Peraliya or rapid rural development programme and is also about to commence prosecutions under the fast track anti-corruption courts it has established to fulfil its election time promises. The extent to which these two initiatives will capture the public imagination and win hearts and minds remains to be seen. The general public discourse at the present time is decidedly unfavourable to the government. With sixteen months to go before the next presidential election the hope that the government can be redeemed remains low. The prime complaint against the present government is that it is like a bullock cart that is being pulled along by an ox and a buffalo who are not in synchrony.
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.