August 2023

Election preparations must not stall reconciliation process - Jehan Perera

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.

The manner in which the president made promises regarding his prioritising of reconciliation gives rise to the surmise that he was being politically strategic in the context he was in. The president’s election by a parliament which though legal and constitutional was bereft of legitimacy gave rise to the need for him to appeal to the hopes of the international community whose aid at that time was crucial to the country’s survival. Civil society groups that might otherwise been highly critical of the manner in which the new president suppressed the protest movement became more muted in their criticisms. The unwillingness or inability of the opposition leadership to articulate its plans to revive the economy and address thorny issues such as the ethnic conflict continue to strengthen the claim that President Wickremesinghe is best suited to navigate the ship of state caught in the storm.

The president’s latest proposals with regard to the reconciliation process are no longer promising immediate or short-term achievements. Instead they explicitly focus on the medium to long term. This will give rise to the hope that the president will make good his plans after the next election. The detailed and comprehensive position paper on the 13th Amendment he read out in parliament recently went into the small print of the law. If those complexities are to be taken into account it would take at least a year or more to unravel them and to achieve an agreement with the Tamil parties. As a political formula regarding the sharing of power between the communities, the reform of the 13th Amendment is not one that can be achieved simply by a majority vote in parliament. It requires painstaking negotiation for which goodwill on both sides is necessary.

Obtaining a majority in parliament has not been a difficult task for President Wickremesinghe. The government has been willing to give the president its majority in parliament to pass any legislation that the President has deemed necessary. These include tax reforms that have placed huge burdens on taxpayers. However, the ability to pass legislation through a majority vote in parliament is no solution in situations of ethnic conflict unless the contesting ethnic minority agrees to the reform. If the proposed legislation is not accepted by the ethnic minority the problem will remain unresolved. This same reasoning is applicable to the proposed truth and reconciliation mechanism that the government has put forward in response to the pressures it is being subjected to by the international community and human rights organisations.

The detailed legislation that the government has drafted on the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission (NURC) will be of little value if it is seen as legislation that is passed by the government acting unilaterally. The legislation to set up the NURC will be of value if it is legislation that is passed by the majority in parliament with the concurrence of the minority parties. The NURC will require the consent of the Tamil and Muslim parties that have the acceptance of their communities. At present there is no indication that the Tamil and Muslim parties have given their consent to either the draft legislation to set up the truth commission or to the interim secretariat that is expected to spend about a year before setting up the permanent mechanism.

The government’s approach to both the 13th Amendment and to the truth commission suggests that its plan to tackle the ethnic conflict is one set for the future, at least a year in the future after the elections. This is the time frame for presidential elections which the government appears to be considering as its best chance for victory and survival. This may explain the president’s visits to the north and east of the country where he is promising non-controversial things such as massive development projects which he is spelling out in some detail, such as the rail connection with India in Mannar and developing Trincomalee port in the east. By way of contrast, proceeding with the reconciliation process, particularly in the form of the 13th Amendment and truth commission could prove to be controversial and cost the government to lose even public support among those who are wary or opposed to it.

The less widely publicised truth and reconciliation commission has still not evoked a comparable negative reaction from the general public. This is likely to be due to the lack of knowledge on the subject matter by the majority of the people. The moment that the government starts to campaign for the acceptance of these mechanisms, there is likely to be controversy that erodes the government’s plans in regard to finding a solution to the ethnic conflict.

There are indications that ethnic issues are once again being brought to the surface by sections of the polity with a nationalist orientation. They have been the big loser since the economic collapse which those in the protest movement blamed them for by making explicit the connection between those in power and corruption. One of the potential flashpoints is the contest religious shrine in Kurundi in the northern province. This is a site that is being claimed by both the Buddhists and Hindus. There was the possibility of clashes when adherents of the two religions were mobilized with the possibility of sending a countrywide message that there is fear and mistrust between those who belong to different ethnicities and religions.

Elections have traditionally been an occasion during which ethnic fears and polarisation are played upon to a maximum degree. There has been no more effective way for politicians to make a bid to get the people’s support than by causing fear in them of the other communities. This phenomenon is not limited to any one community but is common to allLast year saw the most nationalist government ever formed in the country collapse due to its internal inadequacies, and in particular mismanagement of the economy, and corruption. Fortunately, the possibility of ethnic-based violence is remote due to the discrediting of nationalist politicians. The plethora of problems that afflict the country make it possible to tackle the ethnic conflict and reconciliation issues while also giving attention to the economy and elections. This needs to be done or else another year will be lost. The time to do right and behave in a principled way is always now, not later. Statesmanship of the kind that made Singapore and South Africa is when priority is given to the national interest and not only to winning elections.