Political Commentary

Jehan Perera Colombo TelegraphThe Channel 4 documentary that claims to give the story behind the Easter bombing has restarted the debate within the country about who was behind the foul deed and why. The answer is not proving to be simple. It has become the subject of anger, threat and controversy. The identities of the suicide bombers and their victims are known. Eight suicide bombers died. 269 innocent people also died. All of the bombers were Muslim. Some of them were highly educated and came from prosperous families. They would not have wished to sacrifice their lives except for a cause they believed in as being of the utmost importance. The identity of the victims is also known. Most of them were Catholic, both Sinhala and Tamil, and 45 were foreigners. The victims also included a large number of children including the three children of Scotland’s largest landowner.

Jehan Perera Colombo TelegraphThe country to which President Ranil Wickremesinghe returned after his international successes in the Americas remains in dire straits. In both Cuba and New York, the president made his mark at the podium holding his own with giants on the world stage. Addressing heads of state at the G77 Summit in Cuba, the president spoke of the significance of science, technology and innovation in shaping the future of developing nations. He referred to the new technological divide emerging in the 21st century, necessitating the adoption of digitalization and new technologies, such as Big Data, IoT, AI, Blockchain, Biotechnology and Genome Sequencing, to bridge the gap. He also reaffirmed Sri Lanka’s commitment to supporting the new Havana Declaration and called for the collective voice of G77 and China to be heard in international fora.

Jehan Perera Colombo TelegraphThe system change the protest movement sought was focused on ending corruption seen as the main cause of the economic collapse that took place a year and a half ago. Those who joined the protest movement from all parts of the country and who came in improvised transport, including tractor trailers and lorries used for the transport of agricultural produce, came from a tradition in which the state was the benefactor of the people. What they were experiencing was suddenly the opposite. The shortage of dollars to purchase fuel, food and medicine, among other necessities was believed to have been caused by the theft of the dollars in the country and those dollars being shipped to other countries by corrupt leaders. The feeling that the leaders had left nothing for the people but had taken all the dollars to themselves caused outrage.

Jehan Perera Colombo TelegraphThe increase in the price of petrol and diesel has been accompanied by the removal of the QR Code quota system for the purchase of fuel. The elimination of long lines of vehicles, and people, outside of the fuel stations that existed a year ago is one of the signs of normalisation that is credited to President Ranil Wickremesinghe and his government. The tripling of fuel prices over the past year, which has now increased further, would be a key factor in reducing demand and eliminating the need for the quota system. The price hikes would also make it more attractive for foreign companies to sell fuel in Sri Lanka and make their profits. On the other hand, the impoverishment of the general population by the tripling, if not more, of most prices since the economic crisis commenced is a central feature of the present reality. The increase of petrol and diesel prices will impact on other costs which will impoverish the people still more.

Jehan Perera Colombo TelegraphIt is disappointing that the hopes that were generated a year ago by President Ranil Wickremesinghe regarding the solution to the ethnic conflict appear to be receding at present. Shortly after he was elected president, the president gave indications that he would prioritise national reconciliation. He asserted that the 13th Amendment that established provincial councils was a part of the Constitution that needed to be implemented. He also pledged to solve the ethnic conflict by the time the country was celebrating its 75th anniversary on February 4. More than six months later there has been no progress on this matter. On the contrary there has been a reversal with influential voices questioning the need for the provincial council system growing louder even as faith in the president’s power to effect change from the top continues to grow.

Jehan Perera Colombo TelegraphThe situation in the country, particularly with regard to the economy and politics, can be described as stable but stagnant. The economy is stable in that it has not experienced further collapse in comparison to the kind witnessed last year when international bankruptcy was admitted. But the economy still continues to contract, with a contraction of over 11 percent taking place in the beginning part of the year. The shortages of goods and power sources that brought the people on to the streets in angry protest have not recurred. This has come as a relief as in other parts of the world international bankruptcy has been accompanied by successive rounds of economic collapse. The government’s ability to bring down the rate of inflation and eliminate shortages is recognised, though the shrinking demand due to price increases is continuing to debilitate living standards.

Jehan Perera Colombo TelegraphA little publicized march wended its way from Talaimannar in the north-west coast to Matale in the central hills. The march retraced the jungle track of 200 years ago that brought a flow of men and women in the tens of thousands from the south of India to work on the newly established tea plantations of Sri Lanka. The symbolic reenactment of that journey took place over the past fortnight. But only a handful could cope with the rigours of the long march and kept going from Talaimannar to Matale. Tens of thousands had perished in the previous centuries along the way. In some groups, as many as 40 percent died along the way. Those who trod the same route in the modern era were mindful that the ground they walked upon contained the graves of missing people of another era. The hundreds who joined the march at various points along the trail had all the modern amenities of paved roads, shops and eating places on the roadside and hygienic facilities to sleep and refresh themselves. They were treated with tolerance by most and with empathy by many.

Jehan Perera Colombo TelegraphThe government appears to be giving considerable attention to the national reconciliation process and issues arising from it. President Ranil Wickremesinghe is currently championing this process which was dormant for the past five years or more.  The prospects for national reconciliation reached their height during the last period when he gave leadership to the government in 2015-18. The reconciliation process at that time had much wider participation than at present.  As prime minister at that time, the president was able to have the entire parliament form itself into a constitutional committee which took on responsibility for different areas of constitutional reform.  With regard to dealing with the aftermath of the war, late foreign minister Mangala Samaraweera, former president Chandrika Kumaratunga and the Consultation Task Force formed out of civil society took on a multiplicity of tasks.

Jehan Perera Colombo TelegraphThe need to cope with the immediate realities of economic collapse and the resulting political protests have occupied the center stage of political interest for the past two years. But now President Ranil Wickremesinghe has brought the ethnic problem and reconciliation process back to the center stage of national politics, where it should be. The unresolved ethnic conflict continues to exert a baleful influence on the country’s efforts to respond to the economic and political crises. The belief that the ethnic conflict ended on the battlefields of Mullaitivu with the elimination of the LTTE leadership has long proved to be unfounded. The weakening of internal and overt Tamil resistance to domination by the centralised state has been accompanied by a strengthening of external interventions.

President Ranil Wickremesinghe has announced that he will convene a meeting with all political parties to decide on the implementation of the 13th Amendment in full or in part. Shortly after being elected president by parliament he pledged to resolve the ethnic conflict and take the burden off the shoulders of future generations. As part of his solution he referred to the need to fully implement the 13th Amendment, including the devolution of police and land powers that successive governments have not been willing to do in contravention of the constitutional clauses that necessitate them to do so. He responded to criticisms of his stance with intellectual clarity and pointed out that the devolution of police and land powers is already a part of the constitution, and if they were not to be implemented legally parliament needed to abolish them with a two-thirds majority.