Articles by Dr Jehan Perera

As his presidential term draws to its close President Maithripala Sirisena is making it clear that he is not ready to quit the political centre stage without a fight. The president’s thinking appears to be more in accord with the words of the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas who wrote, “Do not go gentle into that good night…” The president is reported to be on the verge of asking the Supreme Court for an advisory opinion regarding when his term of office actually ends. The question is whether it ends on the day he took his oaths as president or on the day the 19th Amendment, which reduced his term from six to five years, was signed. If it is the latter the president will be entitled to six months more to remain as president.

There are five important issues that the country faces at the present time. They are dealing with the post-Easter Sunday bombing fallout and resulting anti-Muslim sentiment, taking forward the constitutional reform and inter-ethnic reconciliation process, reviving the economy that has not attracted the investments in productive capacity that are necessary for self-sustaining growth, finding an accommodation with the big powers that are putting contrary pressures on Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean, and the latest problem of the reintroduction of the death penalty that is jeopardizing the country’s standing as a humane and civilized one, and also runs afoul of its commitments that will keep special economic privileges such as the European Union’s GSP plus tariff concession. So far hardly any of Sri Lanka’s political leaders have publicly demonstrated the intellectual capacity to grasp these challenges in their totality and find a framework to cope with them.

The wounds inflicted upon the body politic by the Easter Sunday bombing continue to fester and become more poisonous. They are not going away as might have been hoped for, and as might have been expected, in a country where much is eventually swept under the carpet to be forgotten by all except the victims. This increasingly looks like the fate of those who died or went missing in the three decade long ethnic war. The much debated transitional justice process, dealing with the human rights violations that
took place during that period, which was being pushed forward by initiatives from the international community, appears to be derailed at this time with political attention shifting to the Easter Sunday bombings and its fallout.

Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith expressed the sentiments that are with most Sri Lankans today irrespective of their ethnicity or religion. At the reopening of St Anthony’s Church, Kochchikade, which was one of the two Catholic churches that were heavily damaged in the suicide bomb attacks on Easter Sunday, he said that many people in the country are living in confusion in the aftermath of the attacks and are wondering whether the country can overcome the situation. He said What we need is a leadership that will work for the country rather than themselves. A leader with a backbone who will not protect the guilty. A leader who is not afraid to punish wrongdoers. He added that the country needed leaders who would safeguard the rights of the people and would provide for economic upliftment. “These are the kind of leaders that the country needs today. We pray that there will be such leaders.”

Sri Lanka is still trying to emerge out of its three decade long ethnic war that ended in 2009. Unfortunately, the Easter Sunday bombings linked to the Islamic State (IS), and the damaging reaction to it by those who ought to be responsible political leaders, are taking our country once again in the direction of another ethnic conflict. The bombing has been used to create a great rift in Sri Lankan society. The new ethnic polarization that has set in has led to the first post-independence government in which there is no Muslim representation at the ministerial level.

The threat of further attacks by extremist Muslim groups linked to the Islamic State has receded. Due to the breakdown of trust in the political leaders it needed the reassurance of the army commander to make people believe that they could send their children to school. The confidence of the security forces in the improvement of the ground situation is evident in the more relaxed way they are getting about checking vehicular traffic. This is true even in the North, which was under strict surveillance in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday bombings. As recent as last week travelers to the North, and in people living in the North, complained about the hardships they were experiencing at the many checkpoints which are not present in the same way in the rest of the country.

The bombai-mutai seller said that sales were poor.   People who once bought his sweets were today treating him differently because he was Muslim.  He was a poor man trying to make his living while carrying candy floss on the streets of Colombo. My wife bought three packets, asked him to keep the change, and told our children that he too would have a family at home waiting for his return.

The 10th anniversary of the end of the three decade long war that pitted the Sri Lankan state against the LTTE passed by uneventfully and without mass mobilization of people to mark the day. The period of May 18 and 19 in which the final battles of the war were fought has been one of contestation within the country. There are those who would celebrate the war victory and those who would mourn the heavy human toll that occurred at the war’s end. Since the change of government in 2015 the middle path of marking the day as one of remembrance was adopted in which both aspects were taken into account.

Sri Lanka's army commander, Mahesh Senanayake is reported to have told the BBC too much of freedom had led to the Easter Sunday suicide bombings, which killed over 250 people. Too much of freedom, too much of peace for the last 10 years. People forget what happened for 30 years. People are enjoying peace and they neglected security, he said, when asked why Sri Lanka was targeted.

The security situation remains fraught with uncertainty and tension. Not many children in their school uniforms were to be seen on the streets, even though the government schools reopened this week after a prolonged and enforced holiday. Religious leaders have requested the government to keep the schools closed for further period until the situation is brought firmly under control. Although large numbers of arrests have been made, and number around 200 according to news reports, this is not reassuring to the general population. President Maithripala Sirisena has said that there are still another 25-30 active members from the group involved in the Easter Sunday bombings still at large, though he expressed confidence in the ability of the security forces to nab them.