Political Commentary

The Sri Lankan reaction to the outcome of the US election reflected the ethnic divide at its extremes. Even prior to the election Tamil nationalist politicians had dashed coconuts at temples to bring victory to Hillary Clinton. They believed that she would ensure that the problems of Tamils in Sri Lanka would remain on the US government’s list of priorities due to the interest she had shown in these matters in the past. After the election Sinhalese nationalists expressed their satisfaction at the victory of a kindred spirit who shared the same antipathy towards outsiders to the extent of physically building a wall to keep them out and put his country first. Those who were somewhere in the middle between these competing nationalisms and who looked upon the United States as the country were the values of universal human rights are upheld, renewed and regenerated were dismayed, although this is only likely to be a temporary setback to a nation that is nurtured on the lives of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.

The government’s handling of the Central Bank bond issue has generated a wave of public opinion that is critical of it. Even those who voted for the government and count themselves as government supporters have been placed in a situation of consternation. High among the reasons many of them cast their votes against the former government was its corruption. They expected that the new government would speedily deal with those who had been guilty of corruption. But the manner in which government members have been handling the Central Bank bond issue and their reluctance to have a transparent probe into it, has led to a feeling among government supporters of being left with no political champions of good governance any more.

President Maithripala Sirisena addressing the Armed Forces, ‘Gallantry Awards 2016,’ last week said that certain media organisations, journalists, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and traitorous forces act without realizing the importance of ensuring national security. The President, who is constitutionally vested with the authority of Commander-in-Chief of the Sri Lankan security forces said he was not ready to compromise national security in order to please NGOs. A sore point for the security forces with regard to NGOs would be the demand for war-time accountability and for post-war demilitarization of the former war zones of the North and East. Some NGOs have been in the forefront of the UN-sponsored resolution that calls for an investigation into the past and for post-war demilitarization among others.

The common cause of the National Unity Government to tackle the corruption of the past and to put an end to it in the present seemed to come apart at the seams when President Maithripala Sirisena made an angry critique of the way in which the investigations into corruption was taking place. The resignation of Director General of the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption (CIABOC) Dilrukshi Dias Wickramasinghe was prompted by the President’s remarks on CIABOC and on the police investigative agencies in the wake of former Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and three retired Navy commanders, being brought before courts. The President criticized the investigative bodies of launching politically motivated probes which led to the senior officials being put behind bars during the proceedings in court.

The furor over the the Eluga Thamil (Tamils arise) rally that took place in Jaffna last month is receding. At those protests a powerful and angry people’s movement was in evidence, led by Northern Province Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran, and organised by the Tamil People’s Council (TPC), an organisation that the Chief Minister heads. In addition, several Tamil political parties, including some constituents of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) participated. The demands put forward by the organizers included a call for federalism with the rights to sovereignty and self determination of the Tamil nation recognized, return of land in the Army’s control, release of political prisoners, an international investigation into war crimes and addressing concerns relating to missing persons were prominent. There were also clear anti-south manifestations in the slogans, which included a call to halt to putting up Buddhist shrines in the North and a call to stop southern fishermen, but without a mention of the massive encroachments by Indian fishermen.

Among the systems of good governance put into place after the watershed elections of January 2015, the 19th Amendment to the constitution takes pride of place. Over the past one and a half years there have been other path breaking legal enactments also, such as the Office of Missing Persons Act (OMP) and the Right to Information Act (RTI) which have the potential to transform the way governance takes place in the country. If implemented in a positive spirit, the OMP can bring closure to the grief of families of the disappeared and serve as a deterrent to future resorts to enforced disappearances. The RTI can pave the way for more transparent governance so that what the government says and does is not out of sync. However, these are still in the future, as they need to be implemented.

Sections of the polity that feel themselves to be excluded from the government’s decision making process and alliances are seeking to gain attention. In the North the Tamil People’s Council organized a largely successful protest march and rally against the failure of the government to adequately address the problems of the war affected Tamil people and also larger political issues of concern to the Tamil polity. In the south the Bodu Bala Sena or Buddhist Power Force (BBS) has been organizing protests against the dangers posed by Tamil nationalism including the event organized by the Tamil People’s Council under the name Ezhuga Thamizh (Tamils arise) and the government’s inaction to face down this challenge. However, it is important to distinguish between these two organizations. The BBS is a fringe group without mainstream Sinhalese backing whereas the Tamil People’s Council has substantial public support in the Tamil majority north.

Sri Lanka has entered into a period of conflict transformation. The theory of conflict transformation states that conflict changes the parties, their relationships and issues over time. There is a new relationship and the issues at hand can be addressed at a different level. This offers the chance to resolve the problem in a new way. The defeat of the LTTE on the battlefield and the Rajapaksa government in elections has created a big change in the environment. The way that the government handles inter-ethnic relations today is different from that of the past. The top leadership of the present government, President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, and also leading government figures such as Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera, do not see the Tamil and Muslim people separately from the Sinhalese. Their approach is to see the people as one, rather than in terms of their ethnicity or region.

The speech by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon when he was in Sri Lanka that referred to Sri Lanka along with Rwanda and Srebrenica has created political controversy. In remarks that deviated from the prepared text of his speech, the UNSG said “…something more terrible, serious happened in the past. In 1994 in Rwanda there was a massacre. More than one million people were massacred. The UN felt responsible for that…We said repeatedly ‘Never again, Never again’…It happened just one year after in Srebrenica… We did it again in Sri Lanka...” The opposition has made this into one of their key issues against the government. They have alleged that the references to Rwanda and Srebrenica are indicators that the UN system is pushing ahead with its agenda of labeling Sri Lanka as guilty of the international crime of genocide and punishing those who ensured the military victory over the LTTE.

Government leaders have been saying that the draft constitution will be placed before the Parliament prior to the budget debate that takes place in November. A new constitution which would require a referendum could prove to be the government’s Waterloo if the people reject it. Last week Chairman of the Public Representations Committee Lal Wijenayake, made an announcement that five of the six sub-committees of Parliament that had been delegated the task of submitting reports on various aspects of the new constitution had completed their work. The Public Representations Committee (PRC), appointed by the Prime Minister with 19 other members, made a special effort in consultations with the general public on the matters connected with the drafting of the new constitution. Chairman Wijenayake assured those who had made submissions to the PRC that their views would be taken into account in the drafting of the new constitution.