The government’s Adhikaranabhimani programme went to the North of the country last week to a mixed reception. In Mullaitivu in the Wanni area where the last battles of the war took place, the public reception had elements of hostility. Families of missing persons protested and it required police intervention to enable the programme to move ahead. Although intended to promote the concept of “access to justice” the focus of the protests was on the issues of missing persons and those detained for long periods without trial. Both of these have been longstanding and highly publicized issues, which have included public protests on a daily basis that have lasted for years at a time.
The government would be relieved by the non-critical assessment by visiting UK Minister for South Asia, United Nations and the Commonwealth, Lord Tariq Ahmad of his visit to Sri Lanka. He has commended the progress Sri Lanka had made in human rights and in other areas as well, such as environmental protection. He has pledged UK support to the country. According to the President’s Media Division “Lord Tariq Ahmad further stated that Sri Lanka will be able to resolve all issues pertaining to human rights by moving forward with a pragmatic approach.” The minister, who had visited the north and east of the country and met with war-affected persons tweeted that he “emphasised the need for GoSL to make progress on human rights, reconciliation, and justice and accountability.”
The media has reported that today President Gotabaya Rajapaksa will be announcing a new policy on national reconciliation in his address to parliament at the inaugural session following prorogation last month. Apart from bringing peace of mind and comfort to those bereaved by the three decades long war, the central issue of national reconciliation is to find an equitable solution to the ethnic and religious conflicts that have plagued the country since the dawn of independence more than seven decades ago. The focus now needs to be on the development of the country and its economy rather than to support any parochial or ethnic cause and continue with the divisive politics of the past. It is only by this that the country can get back on its feet as many have done following traumatic events. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected by a large majority with this hope in mind.
The government has been under especial scrutiny on issues of human rights in relation to the post-war reconciliation process following its election in 2019 and subsequent withdrawal from the UN mandated reconciliation process epitomized by Resolution 30/1 of 2015 of the UN Human Rights Council that was co-sponsored by the previous government. The appointment of Prof G L Peiris last year as Foreign Minister with a mandate to deal with this issue has been a positive step to consolidate and build on efforts to convince the international community that the reconciliation process continues to be a priority. One of the few areas of positive development in an increasingly pessimistic scenario at the present time is with regard to the institutions established to promote the reconciliation process in the past few years.
The president has recently been venting in his frustrations on public administrators and government officials whom he sees as failing to deliver on their duties and commitments. Several of them have been fired from their positions and some have resigned on their own. Ironically, most of these persons who have been moved out by design or by circumstance have been persons against whom there were no allegations of corruption, unlike in the case of many in the government. Though he had appointed many retired and serving military officers to high positions in the state, it does not seem to work well either, though this is less acknowledged. There is a lack of cohesion across many sectors and even within the ruling alliance. Building cohesive relationships between political parties and communities across the country is a challenge facing the President in 2022. The most important thing to hope for in the new year is that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa gets the right team around him and implements a zero-tolerance for corruption policy with all sections of the community being treated with fairness and equity.
The chairperson of the presidential commission on one country, one law, Ven Galagodaathe Gnanasara has expressed the view that the country should be ruled by the Sri Lanka army for a few years to put it right. Implicit in his assertion, if rightly conveyed by the Tamil language media to which he gave his interview, is his lack of faith in democracy. Also implicit is the preference for top-down decision making that is inherent in the military together with the use of force to subdue the opposition. So far the opposition to the government has been muted, inside the heads of people, but with time it is bound to spill outside with the economy in steep decline and corruption and impunity on the rise. Difficult decisions need to be made before the people’s frustrations take a public form.
Headstrong and misguided leadership has brought the country to a sorry pass. The Fitch Rating agency has downgraded Sri Lanka to a rank of CC. This reflects its view of an increased probability of a default event in coming months in light of Sri Lanka’s worsening external liquidity position and drop in foreign-exchange reserves. The government has responded by finding fault with the ratings agency for being biased and not looking at the entirety of the country’s financial situation and likely sources of foreign exchange inflows. The governor of the Central Bank had stated that the fast-depleting foreign reserves will receive a boost before the end of the year. On the other hand, the grim reality is that with every passing month the country’s foreign reserves have been shrinking and positive predictions to the contrary have not materialised.
In appointing the new Right to Information commissioners to five year terms, the government has chosen persons with credibility within human rights organisations. Two in particular are worthy of mention. Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena who was part of the previous commission has been a foremost and fearless critic of corrupt and undemocratic governance that spans many governments as a newspaper columnist and lawyer. Jagath Liyana Arachchi, also a lawyer, has been a source of strength to civil society as a political commentator and resource person at training programmes on issues of human rights, reconciliation and good governance. Their appointment to the Right to Information Commission will ensure that the positive role of the RTI Commission will continue.
The killing of a Sri Lankan in Pakistan by a frenzied mob who accused him of committing an act of blasphemy serves as a grim reminder of the ever-present danger of pent-up emotion exploding in society. Over the eons, religion has served to humanize the more primitive nature lurking within human beings. “Be kind to the stranger in your midst, because you were once strangers in the land of Egypt,” is the biblical injunction too often ignored by the very people who profess to follow its teachings. It is not only in Pakistan that such inhuman acts have occurred, especially when there has been a failure of national leadership to instill a higher ethos of morality in the people, too often for the sake of electoral gain.
Twice every year, the situation in the North and East of the country resembles that which existed during the three decades of war. One occasion is during May 18-19 which is the anniversary of the end of the war in 2009. The other is November 26-27 which used to be celebrated by the LTTE as Heroes Day when they remembered their war dead. Even though the war ended twelve years ago, these two days have the capacity to mobilise the sentiments of the Tamil people particularly in the North and East and to generate an equivalent opposite reaction in the government which leads to a heightened military presence. The period 2015-19, in which the government actively sought to promote a reconciliation process that gave more leeway to Tamil sentiment was one of de-escalation.