The visit last week to Sri Lanka of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was in contrast to his previous visit in 2009, a few weeks after the country’s three decade long internal war came to its violent denouement. With the aftershocks of the war still subsiding his visit was neither encouraged nor welcomed by the then government. This time around the Sri Lankan government actively sought the visit of the UN Secretary General. It had achievements to show, and highlight, as they were oriented to good governance and reconciliation. Mr Ban Ki-moon appreciated the passage of the 19th Amendment to the constitution whereby the newly elected president voluntarily relinquished some of the extraordinary powers vested in the presidency. He also referred to the Right to Information Act which brings Sri Lanka to the fore of transparent government in terms of its potential.
The constitutional reform process moving forward rapidly, though without a high level of publicity, indicates that the government leadership has a businesslike approach to political reform. It is reported that four of the six subcommittees who were given different areas of constitutional reform to deal with have handed in their reports to the steering committee on constitutional reform headed by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, which is responsible for producing the draft constitution. The subcommittees are on Fundamental Rights, Judiciary, Law and Order, Centre Periphery Relations, Public Finance and the Nature of the State. The government appears to be making the best use of the opportunity that has presented itself in the form of the government of national unity, which gives it a 2/3 majority in Parliament, capable of getting even controversial legislation through. Some of the constitutional reforms will be controversial, especially those provisions that relate to the ethnic conflict. The absence of fanfare may be because the government prefers to get those through the parliamentary hurdle first before taking them to the people.
The visit to Sri Lanka of Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg to Sri Lanka was significant as it confirmed that the long and positive relationship that Norway has had with Sri Lanka is back on track. The two visits earlier this year of Foreign Minister Børge Brende and Foreign Secretary Tore Hattrem (who had been Norwegian ambassador to Sri Lanka during the last phase of the war) signaled the change. Relations between the two countries got strained after the Norwegian facilitated ceasefire agreement broke down. Sinhalese nationalists with the tacit backing of the government in power at that time accused Norway of being partial to the LTTE and acting in ways that were detrimental to Sri Lanka’s sovereignty. Visitors from Norway at that time felt it was pragmatic to say they were from Europe. However, the warm welcomes afforded to the high level Norwegian visitors this year showed how much has changed since the new government took office.
The issue of fulfilling the pledges made to the international community in Geneva seemed to threaten the unity of the government even a month ago. In October 2015 the government co-sponsored the resolution on Sri Lanka that was sponsored by the United States and backed by the majority of countries in the UN Human Rights Council. There were publicly articulated differences of opinion in which Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera sought to reassure the international community that the government would be standing by its pledges while President Maithripala Sirisena sought to reassure the ethnic majority population that the country’s sovereignty would not be jeopardized or the soldiers who fought in the war would not be hauled before international tribunals.
Civil society members from all parts of the country walked into Temple Trees last week to meet with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. This was the first time for most of them. This included religious clergy from both the North and South. In past years, they had been more accustomed to the government treating them in a hostile manner which meant Temple Trees was out of bounds. One of the Buddhist monks said he chose not to come in the past, because he did not agree with the practices of those who had been incumbents. The meeting was held in the super size meeting hall built by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa during his two terms as president. Although Temple Trees is usually the domain of the prime minister and not the president, the former president made it his abode. Thousands of people from all walks of life were invited to Temple Trees to meet with him at state expense. The giant meeting hall could easily seat over 2000 persons in air conditioned comfort. Some who were at the meeting said that it was capable of seating as many as 7000.
The thrust of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s presentation to those who were gathered there was that the government wished to make NGOs and civil society organizations become partners with the government. He said this would not be only at the national level but also at the grassroots level. NGOs at the grassroots level have often got to fight against prejudice due to the belief within the government officials that they are anti government or doing the bidding of foreign donors. But today at the national level, NGOs are performing an important national consultation process that connects with what the government is preparing to do in terms of the transitional justice and reconciliation process. One of the key requirements of the international community is a process of public consultations that would legitimize the investigation into the past and the accountability, reparations and institutional reforms that come out of it.
The determination with which the opposition parties pursued their protest march was not an indication of their strength. The march seemed to make little sense even as it wended its way down the hills from Kandy, the last kingdom of the Sinhalese to Colombo, the present capital of Sri Lanka. The symbolism was apposite for one of the main slogans of the protest marchers was the betrayal of the country to foreign forces. There were many onlookers though relatively few of them joined in the march. Usually such a bid to generate spontaneous public protest would come towards the end of a government’s term of office when it has over-extended its stay in power and the people are dying for a change. But a mere year and a half of a government which has four more years to go is too soon to evoke a people’s movement to overthrow, or even to destabilize, the government.
The main slogans of the protest marchers related to the economic hardships faced by the people and to warnings about the threat to national sovereignty posed by the government’s constitutional reforms and war crimes trials against the security forces. The slogans regarding the economic hardships, and the much resented Value Added Tax would have evoked an empathetic feeling amongst the bystanders. But these are not issues that could move people to seek a change of government that is yet finding its feet, and has only been in power for a relatively short period of time. It is not as if the people are unaware of how the cost of living was going up during the period of the previous government. It is also much more widely known that government contracts now require more time, as they have to go through established processes, and are not granted at the discretion of those in positions of power.
The ethnic fault line in society was exposed in the clash between two groups of students at Jaffna University last week. The immediate cause of the dispute was a late request by Sinhalese students at the university to perform the traditional Sinhalese Kandyan dance at a ceremony to welcome incoming new students. This request was turned down by the organizers of the event. However, the following day when the event took place a Kandyan dancing troupe made its appearance which was resisted by the larger student body. The end result was a violent confrontation between two groups of students who divided on ethnic lines. This resulted in the temporary closure of the university, and the university administration, in an abundance of caution busing the Sinhalese students out of Jaffna.
The international community appears to be accepting the Sri Lankan government’s position that international judges will not sit in judgment regarding war crimes committed during the course of the country’s civil war. The UN Human Rights Council resolution of October 2015 which the government co-sponsored left the situation ambiguous. It stated that there would be international participation of foreign and Commonwealth judges but did not specify in what form that participation would be.
The EU has downsized its list of conditions for Sri Lanka to regain the GSP Plus benefits that it lost in 2011. At that time the EU set out a list of 15 conditions that the government had to meet if it was to retain the GSP Plus benefits. The previous government flatly refused to move on them citing national security and national sovereignty as the reasons. Ironically when the new government made public its intentions to reapply for the GSP Plus benefits, the EU set out 58 conditions. But now it is reported the country will now only have to fulfill 15 of them. These 15 conditions include provision for independent and impartial appointments to key public positions, to repeal those sections of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) which are incompatible with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) or amending them so as to make them clearly compatible with it, to respond to a significant number of individual cases currently pending before the UN Working Group on Enforced Disappearances; and to ensure journalists can exercise their professional duties without harassment.
The UN Human Rights Council sessions in Geneva no longer dominate the media headlines the way they used to. During the time of the previous government the UNHRC sessions in Geneva were utilized to rally popular support on the grounds that it was needed to counter the hostile intent of the Western-led component of the international community. The former government used to give the most detrimental interpretations to the intentions of the international community and gave the work of the UNHRC the maximum of negative publicity before, during and after those sessions. It accused the international community of seeking to punish those in the Sri Lankan military who had won the war and promised not to betray them. They gave a narrow interpretation to the successive resolutions of the UNHRC since 2009 as being motivated by the desire to punish Sri Lanka and its war heroes.