Jehan Perera Colombo TelegraphOn numerous occasions President Ranil Wickremesinghe has said he was elected president to get Sri Lanka out of its economic morass and will do his utmost to fulfill that obligation. This has led to much speculation regarding the president’s intentions with regard to conducting presidential elections prior to achieving economic success. The truth of the president’s utterances with regard to his commitment to resolving the economic crisis is to be plainly seen in his determination to push ahead with unpopular economic policies. He has been unrelenting in sticking to higher tax rates than the masses of people can afford and to the privatization of state owned enterprises. Both of these policies are unpopular to the point of jeopardising his bid to be re-elected at the forthcoming presidential election, but the president has stuck by his convictions.

There was also a second promise that the president made soon after astonishingly becoming president elected by parliament even though holding only one of the 225 seats in it. He said he felt he had an obligation to solve the ethnic conflict that has been with Sri Lanka from the dawn of Independence and not leave it to burden future generations. It would be no exaggeration to say that Sri Lanka lost thirty years of foreign investments and accompanying development due to the instability brought about by the war. The president reassured the people that the political solution to the ethnic conflict had been discussed and negotiated many times in the past and he would build on those past efforts to achieve success. He promised this would all happen in the country’s 75th year of Independence, now more than a year ago.

Over the past two years since becoming president, President Wickremesinghe has sketched out his vision of reconciliation in Sri Lanka in very clear and precise terms. He did so, for instance, at an inter-religious symposium on peace and reconciliation in March this year, which was attended by religious clergy and civil society activists from all parts of the country. In a matter of no more than twenty minutes, the president sketched out the essential elements on such a solution without consulting any notes, as it was all in his mind. But unfortunately for Sri Lanka and its people, the president has not chased down those reforms in reconciliation in the manner he has for the economy.

President’s Failure
The president’s failure to stand by his own vision of reconciliation and a political solution to the ethnic conflict is costing the country dearly. The absence of a strongly held and consistent policy on national reconciliation has become obvious in the most unfortunate way in the past two weeks. It began with the heavy handed efforts of the police to prevent Tamil people from publicly commemorating their loved ones and those who had perished in the last phase of the war. The police went to the extent of securing court orders which they misapplied to prohibit people from gathering together to remember the suffering of those last days and to share the kanji (rice porridge) that sustained the lives of those trapped in the battlefield with nowhere to go.

It seems that there were only a few places where the heavy hand of the police was used to suppress the people coming together, though this may have deterred much larger numbers of people in many more locations from trying to do the same. But these incidents, though few, were captured on video and circulated around the country, and the wider world, which certainly showed the government in a very bad light. One such incident captured on video shows police going to the homes of women who commemorated the loss of their loved ones in defiance of the police orders not to do so in the public they had chosen. The police chose the night time to make their foray into the homes of the women, perhaps to make it easier for them to arrest the women. But the women resisted arrest and therefore had to be dragged screaming and struggling into the police vehicles.

Another similar incident in which the police appear in a very unfavourable light was when they went to Eastern University where a small group of students were engaging in a memorial activity centering around the sharing of rice porridge among themselves on the lines of “do this in memory of me.” As the court order not to engage in such activities had changed by now, and the president himself had said that such memorials are permissible, the police did not forcefully seek to stop the students from going ahead with their memorialization ceremony. However, they showed their opposition by pointing at the students in a threatening manner and speaking angrily at them. They also took video films of the students and their ceremony at close range, which would create the fear in the students that this material was being kept by the police for future use.

Not Reconciliation
What took place in the country over the past two weeks was not reconciliatory but indicated resentment and confrontation. This is contrary to avowed government policy, which draws its inspiration from the resolution that the government under Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe signed in 2015 in agreement with all the 47 countries in the UN Human Rights Commission. In terms of this resolution, the government has done much, setting up an Office on Missing Persons, an Office of Reparations and an Office for National Unity and Reconciliation in the period 2016 to 2018. In addition, after taking on the presidency in 2022, the government under President Wickremesinghe has been doggedly going ahead with setting up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. However, given what is happening on the ground, the credibility of the government is low in terms of the people’s belief in its willingness to deliver on the national reconciliation process.

When a country wants to progress from having been in a situation of war and division to peace and reconciliation, there is an internationally accepted four-step process. This is to ascertain the truth of what happened during the period of conflict, hold to account those who violated the law, offer compensation to those who were victimized by the conflict, and engage in political reform to ensure that the root causes of the conflict are addressed. Before his term of office comes to a close in six months, President Wickremesinghe still has the opportunity to redeem the government in the eyes of both its people and the international community. He needs to do this soon as the international political climate is becoming negative to Sri Lanka where the reconciliation process is concerned, which would have a spillover effect onto the economic recovery process as well.

The annual statements of Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau that genocide occurred during the final stages of the war, the new resolution calling for a referendum on Tamil Eelam presented to the US Congress by a bipartisan group of US legislators, and the latest report of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights that the government should acknowledge the involvement of state security forces and affiliated paramilitary groups in human rights violations and to issue a public apology cannot be simply ignored. These different positions taken by powerful global actors show that the problem of reconciliation is not going to get better on its own, but needs to be actively promoted. Even though the time remaining is short the president needs to urgently convene an all party conference to work out a roadmap to reconciliation that they agree to support now and after the forthcoming election.

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