Sri Lanka is at the threshold of its third transition within the space of a decade. The first took place in 2009 on the battlefields of the north when the LTTE was militarily defeated and the government regained control over the entirety of the country. The second transition took place in 2015 with the political defeat of the former government that won the war at the presidential and general elections that took place in the course of the year. The issue of Foreign Minister Ravi Karunanayake’s involvement in the Central Bank bond case and its potential fallout could be the third transition. The way that the polity, not just the government, tackles this issue could prove to have momentous consequences.
By signing into law the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) and by placing it with the Ministry of National Integration and Reconciliation of which he is also minister, President Maithripala Sirisena has sent a strong message that he is committed to the national reconciliation process. The UN Secretary-General commended the government for establishing the OMP as “a significant milestone for all Sri Lankans still searching for the truth about their missing loved ones” adding that “The United Nations stands ready to support this process and the Secretary-General looks forward to the OMP becoming operational as soon as possible, starting with the appointment of independent commissioners.”
The visit of UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Counter-Terrorism Ben Emmerson to Sri Lanka and his public comments indicate a visible toughening of the stance of the international community with regard to delivering on its promises on the reconciliation process to the UN Human Rights Council. He said Sri Lanka could face a range of measures, including a referral to the UN Security Council, if it fails to meet commitments it made under the UNHRC resolution of 2015. He said that there was little evidence that perpetrators of war crimes were being brought to justice and that progress had come to a virtual halt. There is a question of credibility of the UN system if countries can make promises to the UN which they subsequently fail to keep.
Unless the government shows that it is capable of delivering results soon, the slow progress of problem solving at the ground level will continue to erode public support for the government. The weak performance of the economy is on the minds of most people. The expected job creation through industrial growth has not materialized nor has there been technological improvement that could raise the level of incomes of agricultural and fishing families. Instead of rising standards of living they experience the rising cost of living. In the case of the North and East where the bulk of the war affected people live, the discontent is even greater. They bear a double burden. In addition to not partaking of the fruits of nationwide development along with their compatriots in the rest of the country, they also suffer from the slow return of lands taken over by the military.
The unanimous passage through Parliament of the amendment to the law that establishes the Office of Missing Persons has revived the hope that the government will give priority to inter-ethnic reconciliation. The formation of the Government of National Unity has provided an unique opportunity to obtain a bipartisan political consensus that encompasses the two main political parties in the country, and indeed the larger polity, to deal with the country’s longest standing unresolved problem—its ethnic conflict. The Office of Missing Persons (OMP) was one of the four reconciliation mechanisms that the government promised to the international community in Geneva in October 2015. This was the landmark event that turned the international community from being a critic of Sri Lanka’s reconciliation policies to being a supporter.
The two main factors that caused a change of government in 2015 are reappearing at the present time. The first is the feeling amongst the religious and ethnic minorities that the government is not doing enough to protect them. During the period of the former government the minorities even felt that the government was opposed to them. This was on account of its inadequate efforts at post-war normalization and the growth of religious intolerance. The election of the new government came as a great relief to the minorities. Their sense of fear and jeopardy lifted in large measure. Even though the military presence in the North and East did not significantly diminish there was a revival of civilian institutions. The government no longer came across as being a hostile entity.
Eight years after the end of the war the consolidation of peace and restoration of normalcy in Sri Lanka is generally taken for granted. This is also the perception of the general population outside of the North and East where most of the war, and its associated destruction, took place. On the other hand, in the North and East, there is a strong sense of continuity with the past. This is on account of continuing grievances with regard to the fate of missing persons and return of land that remains under the military. These unresolved issues rankle and generate new rounds of resentment. The continuing discontent in the North and East is however not in the forefront of popular consciousness in the rest of the country. The issues that loom large there are different.
Some years ago, in 2011, there was a phenomenon called the “grease devils” that struck fear in communities in different parts of the country, and particularly those living in areas in which the Tamil people predominate. Semi clothed men with grease on their bodies started to infiltrate into the homes of people. They broke inside and sometimes groped women but usually they only caused utter fear and no other physical harm. As in the case of the present upsurge in anti Muslim violence, the grease devil attacks took place in a number of places almost simultaneously, as if pre-planned. On occasion when people from the affected communities gave chase they found the suspected grease devils running into camps of the security forces in their bid to getaway. As suddenly as it started the grease devil phenomenon ended. There were no arrests by police that led to convictions.
The cabinet reshuffle that took place last week saw important portfolios switch hands within the government. The smooth transfer of ministries, and the grace of those were subjected to the change in accepting their new portfolios, offers hope that the tension that had dogged UNP-SLFP relations will now subside and pave the way for more effective governance. The past several months had seen many expressions of dissatisfaction from members of the two main political parties that make up the Government of National Unity. They openly cast doubt on the usefulness of the cohabitation agreement and argued it would be better not to extend the two year agreement when it reaches its culmination later this year in August. There was concern that the government might not even make it to the two year mark.
During the period of the previous government May 18 became a day of tension in the North. The previous government celebrated the war victory over the LTTE in the South of the country, while prohibiting any public memorial services for those who died in the last battles in the North. The report last week that police in the North had obtained a court order to put on hold a commemoration event in Mullivaikkal scheduled for May 18, the day the war ended, therefore took the centre stage of public attention in the North. It seemed that the prohibition was for all commemoration services for the victims of the war and that the past had returned to haunt the present. However, the court order was with regard to a single commemorative event. It was not a general directive that prohibited all commemorative activities.