Jehan Perera Colombo TelegraphEven as the country appears to be getting embroiled in more and more conflict internally, where dialogue has broken down or not taken place at all, there has been the appearance of success internationally. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa will be leading a delegation this week to Scotland to attend the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26). Both the president, at the UN General Assembly in New York, and Foreign Minister Prof G L Peiris at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva seem to have made positive impacts on their audiences and especially amongst the diplomatic community with speeches that gave importance to national reconciliation based on dialogue and international norms.

Jehan Perera Colombo TelegraphThere are statements emanating from the government that it is planning to conduct provincial council elections in the early part of next year. It is reported that cash-strapped though it is, the government will be providing parliamentarians who are in charge of district development with Rs 100 million each to engage in development activities in their electorates. In addition, former members of provincial councils and local government authority members will also be entitled to substantial monetary resources to do likewise. If these large sums of money are made available to politicians to spend prior to the election, they could contribute to the thinking that the government is investing in development for better times ahead despite the hardships of the present. But the cost of this gamble which will include printing money could be high, so there must be other motivations.

Jehan Perera Colombo TelegraphChallenges such as the three month long teachers’ strike, the organic fertilizer crisis and the unconscionable case of prisoner intimidation remain to be resolved. But since returning from the United States where he addressed the UN General Assembly, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has expressed his views on matters concerning the country with pledges to enact a new constitution and to provide for electoral change. These are changes that have not been possible to implement for the past several years, if not decades, with any measure of success. The president made these pledges at the anniversary celebrations of the Sri Lanka Army whose contributions in the past during the war, and also in the past two years in dealing with the Covid pandemic, he extolled.

Jehan Perera Colombo TelegraphThere are multiple signs that the country is in a major crisis that is most visibly manifesting itself in the economic downturn but also in the moral sphere, law and order and international relations. The reopening of the country after the 40 day lockdown saw lines of people forming outside of local milk production outlets in their attempt to purchase milk food for their families. There were accompanying media reports of a shipload of milk powder being diverted to another country’s port due to the inability of the Sri Lankan importer to obtain the foreign exchange necessary to pay for the containers they had ordered. It is not only that imported goods are unavailable, their prices have also shot up. Social media has shared visuals taken from the early 1970s when queues formed in Sri Lanka for rice and basic staples during the time of the world food crisis. It happened due to external forces on that occasion, which cannot be applied at this time. It happened, therefore it can happen again.

Jehan Perera Colombo TelegraphThe significance of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s speech at the UN General Assembly in New York last week was his use of the time allocated to him to provide an outline of the government’s policies towards the challenges besetting the country. The president covered the main issues that confront the world with his focus on Sri Lanka. These included measures to contain the Covid pandemic, the economic crisis, environmental degradation and violence. In the final section of his speech, the president went into some depth regarding the government’s approach to national reconciliation. However, the response within the country has been muted and for good reason. Those who voted for the government on an entirely different platform, which emphasized ethnic majority nationalism and anti-international sentiments, seem at a loss.

Jehan Perera Colombo TelegraphThe drama over Prisons Minister Lohan Ratwatte could not have come at a worse time for the government. But it can also be the turning point. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is due to address the UN General Assembly in New York this week. The attention of the international human rights community has been focused on Sri Lanka during the past week due to the recently concluded sessions of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. Sri Lanka was a country of interest due to its checkered human rights track record, especially in relation to the war, and subject to a special address by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet. Next week will see an EU delegation visiting Sri Lanka to assess the human rights situation in relation to the GSP Plus tariff privilege that the country obtained again in 2017 having lost it for seven years in 2010.

Jehan Perera Colombo TelegraphThe 48th session of the UN Human Rights Council that started this week in Geneva will not be having any new UN resolutions with regard to Sri Lanka. This session will only see the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet make her report. But that report can set the direction for what will follow, with an EU assessment of the GSP Plus tariff privilege set for November. Sri Lanka is one of a handful of countries singled out for special attention as a follow up to the UNHRC resolution on Sri Lanka passed in March this year. This was not the scenario anticipated by the government last year in March when it withdrew from UNHRC Resolution 30/1 that was co-sponsored by its predecessor in October 2015. Despite the withdrawal, Sri Lanka has fallen into an unfavorable spotlight due to the new UNHRC Resolution 46/1 which was passed earlier this year over its objections by means of a vote.

Jehan Perera Colombo TelegraphThe presidential proclamation declaring a state of emergency did not immediately provoke a negative reaction. In his proclamation, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa stated that he was of the opinion this was necessary to ensure public security and maintenance of supplies and services essential to the life of the community in view of the prevailing emergency situation in Sri Lanka in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. The media has been showing images of hoarded sugar stocks being unearthed and taken away by the security forces to be distributed to the public. But those who hoarded the sugar or any other item were not arrested and the government has apparently paid for their goods. These could have been done without declaration of emergency. It is unclear whether the power of the government with its 2/3 majority was inadequate to handle this crisis without the emergency.

Jehan Perera Colombo TelegraphThe government’s readiness to restart the reconciliation process and to engage with civil society organisations involved in it has been subject to both appreciation and scepticism. Those from civil society who have been involved have felt positively about the recent meetings they had with government leaders including President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The president’s unexpected tweet that he would work with the UN to achieve lasting peace and reconciliation by implementing necessary institutional reforms came as a surprise as they were out of sync with the stances previously articulated by the government. Both the presidential and general elections that brought the government to power emphasized the enemies within and without rather than reconciliation.

Jehan Perera Colombo TelegraphThere are indications that the government wishes to restart the reconciliation process that came to a halt with the defeat of the former government in November 2019 after four years of its rule and with many of its pledges unfulfilled. The victory of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the presidential elections brought the internationally backed reconciliation process to a halt. During the time of the previous government international experts set up offices, some even in the Prime Minister’s Office to work on reconciliation mechanisms. Two of them saw the light of day—the Office on Missing Persons and the Office for Reparations. However, the potentially most important one, the Truth-seeking Commission fell off the table due to the infighting between the former president and prime minister.

Jehan Perera Colombo TelegraphThe withdrawal of the Kotelawala National Defence Academy (KNDU) bill which was to be debated in parliament this week offers more time to the government to reconsider its plans for higher education. The bill generated opposition from multiple parties. Trade unions, including ones supportive of the government such as the GMOA, political parties and civil society groups united in their opposition to the increased role for the military that was explicit in the bill. Due to their success in the war sections within the government and military have come to the conclusion that the military model, with its emphasis on discipline, unity of purpose that arises from a clear top-down chain of command, and ready availability of large numbers to perform tasks at short order, is a desirable model for governance in Sri Lanka. The super performance of the military in performing record numbers of vaccinations in an orderly manner has provided further evidence of the positive role of the military.

Jehan Perera Colombo TelegraphThe government is making a resolute effort to turn Sri Lanka around and put it in the direction of rapid economic development. The systematic manner in which it has been conducting the Covid vaccinations has earned recognition by WHO as well as the international community. The value of the military in getting things done on a large scale with minimum of delay has been manifested in the partnership that they have struck with the health authorities. The memory is fading of how some of the government leaders dabbled in alchemy and the spirit world to find an antidote to the COVID virus, despite being vested with the responsibility to strengthen the health of the country’s people. There is also increased space being given to civil society to engage in protests, such as the protracted teachers’ strike and the agitation against the expanding mandate of the Kotelawala Defence University.

Jehan Perera Colombo TelegraphThe government comfortably overcame a vote of no confidence in one of its key ministers over the rise in the price of fuel. Those who expected to have greater numbers supporting the no confidence motion miscalculated that the apparent differences and rivalries within the government would be uppermost. Any government, or institution for that matter, would have its internal differences. The current government is better secured against these differences that might otherwise split it into different competing parts on account of the familial bonds that bind the leadership together. The President, Prime Minister, newly appointed Finance Minister, as well as the former Speaker who is now Irrigation and Internal Security Minister, are closely knit brothers who have gone through trials and tribulations together.

Jehan Perera Colombo TelegraphThe appointment of Basil Rajapaksa as Finance Minister comes at a time when the country’s economy is in shambles and large numbers of people are enduring hardship. His formal entry into the government, and the authority vested in him through a heavy load of government departments, has given rise to the hope that there will be greater rationality in government decision making in facing the economic challenges. Imports have been restricted and the entirety of the country’s foreign exchange reserve is committed to repaying foreign debt. It is necessary that there should be an influx of foreign exchange. The two key economic challenges that the new minister faces is to find new sources of loans and to preserve the export markets the country currently has. It appears that the reliance on Chinese finances alone, which was once thought possible, has reached its limits for both economic and political reasons.

Jehan Perera Colombo TelegraphThe government has announced that it is taking steps to replace the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) with a law that is more in conformity with international standards. The Foreign Ministry reported it had informed the EU of action underway to revisit provisions of the Prevention of Terrorism Act with the study of existing legislation, past practice, and international best practices. The EU was informed of the decision made by the Cabinet of Ministers to appoint a Cabinet Sub-committee and an Officials Committee to assist it and to review the PTA, and to submit a report to the Cabinet within three months. The Officials Committee comprises officials from the Ministries of Justice, Defence, Foreign Affairs, Public Security, Attorney General’s Department, Legal Draftsman’s Department, Police, and the Office of Chief of National Intelligence. The Foreign Ministry also announced that the government will continue its close and cordial dialogue with the EU with regard to commitments, while demonstrating the country’s substantial progress in areas of reconciliation and development.

Emerging Possibility of Joint Problem Solving

Jehan Perera Colombo TelegraphPresident Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s address to the nation was a carefully scripted one delivered in a tranquil environment overlooking a verdant green landscape with an ancient Buddhist monument symbolizing tranquility in the far background. It was delivered without the trappings of state power, not even the national flag. It seems to have been an endeavor to project the benign personality of the president and evoke sympathetic support of the people. In recent months the president has been coming in for strong criticism in the social media that is outside the realm of governmental patronage and control. Much of the criticism would be planted by political opponents who seek to create an image of a president who is failing. A significant proportion of the criticism appears to be from people who voted for the president but are now disillusioned between his promise and their lived reality. In reality, a sense of despondency is gripping the country.

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