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.
The Sri Lankan government goes into the current session of the UN Human Rights Council with several accomplishments to show. These are primarily at the level of change of spirit and less as concrete changes that can be quantified. It is difficult to quantify the impact of the lifting of fear of agents of the state and their associates acting with impunity, of white vans into which people disappear and the attitude of confrontation. But these have transformed life in the country. The passage of the Right to Information law in Parliament unanimously, without a vote and therefore without division, is an indication that there is broad acceptance in the polity, to which the government gives leadership, that good governance is good for all. In addition, the government has been able to showcase the draft law setting up the Office of Missing Persons, which is one of the four transitional justice mechanisms that it promised to establish at the October 2015 session of the UNHRC.
There have been indications of a growing gap between the positions taken by the UNP and SLFP which are the two main constituent parties of the National Unity Government. Some months ago it took the form of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe speaking positively in terms of international involvement in the country’s post-war accountability process while President Maithripala Sirisena said the reverse. At the present time the point of concern would be the fate of the Central Bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran. The SLFP has opposed his reappointment. On the other hand, the UNP led by the Prime Minister have expressed their confidence in the Governor’s contribution to the economy as a member of the government team. This is an issue on which the two parties will have to find a mutually acceptable solution if their relationship is not to be soured and they continue to cooperate on important issues as they have been doing so far for the past one and a half years since the election of the new government.
The 32nd session of the UN Human Rights Council starts this week in Geneva at which the case of Sri Lanka will be taken up. UN Human Rights Commissioner Zeid Ra'ad Zeid Al-Hussein will make a statement on the progress that has taken place with regard to the UNHRC resolution of October 2015 which was co-sponsored by the Sri Lankan government. The main institutional development to be presented will be the Office of Missing Persons of which the Sri Lankan government has presented draft legislation approved by the cabinet of ministers. There will be many other developments reported too, such as the government’s ratification of the UN Convention on Enforced Disappearances, the issuance of Sri Lankan passports to those who claimed asylum abroad, the deproscription of many banned organizations and the report of the Public Representations Committee on Constitutional Reform.
The June session of the UN Human Rights Council is expected to be an important test for the government. The resolution that it co-sponsored in October 2015 stated that the UN High Commissioner would submit an oral update to the Human Rights Council at its thirty-second session (June 2016) and a comprehensive report followed by discussion on the implementation of the present resolution at its thirty-fourth session (March 2017). In recent weeks there have been several announcements by the government to highlight the progress that it has made in implementing the UNHRC resolution.
The immediate cause of the fracas in the east involving the chief minister, governor and naval officer was personal pique. That incident has been sought to be politicized by an opposition that is ever mindful of the power of inter-ethnic mobilization of nationalism. They have warned of the undermining of the security forces of the country by the ethnic and religious minorities. The fact that it was a Muslim chief minister who spoke offensively in public to a naval officer from the predominantly Sinhalese security forces was given full play by the opposition that had once exploited narrow nationalism to win successive elections, and endeavour to continue in the same way. Former president Mahinda Rajapaksa even sought to draw a link between this incident and another recent one, in which TNA leader R Sampanthan entered an army camp with some of his supporters to inspect land that had been taken over from civilians during the war.