Jehan Perera Colombo TelegraphAt a time when the two elected branches of government have little or no legitimacy the unelected branch is gaining in legitimacy. The government has lost much of its legitimacy on account of being constituted in the main by those who were forced to step down in the face of the Aragalaya mass protests of a year and half ago. The Supreme Court’s verdicts in recent cases have been little short of remarkable. The verdicts in the Online Safety bill case involving control over the social media, De-radicalisation from holding violent extremist religious ideology-Regulation No. 1 of 2021, which would have permitted the government to send suspects off for compulsory rehabilitation without going through the courts, and the arrest of Mohamed Razik Mohamed Ramzy for hate speech being declared illegal have put the court solidly on the side of the democratic rights of the people.

Jehan Perera Colombo TelegraphThe Port of Colombo is the largest and busiest transshipment port in the Indian Ocean. It has been operating at more than 90 percent utilization since 2021, signaling its need for additional capacity. The US government investment of USD 553 million in Colombo port has come as a surprise. There were no public indications of this massive investment in one of the country’s most strategic assets. The investment will be in the Western Terminal of Colombo port which was offered to the Adani Group in India after the joint Japan-India bid to obtain control over the long established Eastern Terminal was blocked by trade union protests. The trade unions took the position that they did not wish the workers to be put under new management and to sell a national asset to foreigners. But the hand of geopolitics was believed to be behind the protests as China too controls a major terminal in Colombo port.

Jehan Perera Colombo TelegraphThe national priority ought to be reviving the economy, getting the production process underway, and distributing the costs of debt repayment in an equitable way among the rich and poor. Only those who are unscathed by the economic collapse would consider the national priority to be reform of the electoral system. With presidential elections due in less than a year President Ranil Wickremesinghe has taken it upon himself to embark upon a course of electoral reforms of major proportions for which he has appointed a presidential commission of inquiry. He appears to have done so without consultations with opposition parties or civil society. A group of senior lawyers issued a statement which highlights the irrelevance and duplication inherent in this initiative. The Lawyers Collective said that, “according to the Constitution, the Elections Commission is already mandated to issue guidelines to the media and political parties for the proper conduct of elections. It has also prepared numerous reports on many of the matters outlined in the Gazette Notification.”

Jehan Perera Colombo TelegraphThe government is coming up with many new laws, some of which have been positively viewed and others negatively. Among the positives have been the new anti-corruption law and the truth commission bill with the latest being the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR) bill. The negatives, however, outnumber the positives with the Online Safety bill and the Anti-Terrorism Act heading the list. They are both meant to suppress protests, both verbal and on the ground. There are other controversial laws hovering in the background, including the NGO control bill and the electoral reforms bill that are still to be presented to the general public or to parliament. What is common to these laws is that they have been prepared without transparency by unknown figures who keep to the background.

Jehan Perera Colombo TelegraphThere is a time frame beyond which those in power may not go, except with the consent of the people. President Wickremesinghe’s appointment of a commission of inquiry to investigate existing election laws and regulations and recommend changes has come without prior discussion or warning. It was a carefully kept secret until brought to the notice of the general public by the president’s appointment of the commission. The commission has been tasked with examining all existing election laws and regulations and making recommendations to suit current needs. According to its terms of reference the factors to which special consideration would be given include increased women and youth representation, introduction of electronic voting using modern technology instead of printed ballot papers and providing facilities for voting by Sri Lankans overseas. These are commendable. But the timing gives cause for concern.

Jehan Perera Colombo TelegraphThe oft repeated comparison between the economic and political chaos that prevailed before President Ranil Wickremesinghe took office and the stability thereafter is wearing thin. Mahatma Gandhi’s observation that preaching to a hungry man is not effective is becoming increasingly relevant in the present context in which government leaders and their supporters claim that conditions in the country are improving. This claim is giving rise to an argument that is subtly and not-so-subtly being made that elections at this time could pose a danger to these gains. But the reality on the ground contradicts these assertions. The economy has been shrinking from the time of the Aragalaya to the present. The economy has yet to make the turn. In the last quarter it shrank by 3 percent, adding to the 11 percent shrinkage the previous quarter. This was on top of the 7 percent shrinkage in the last year.

Jehan Perera Colombo TelegraphThe government has allocated Rs 11 billion in the provisional budget for next year for the presidential elections due in September. This is a positive indication that the government intends to hold those elections. Free and fair elections being held when due is a core concept of a functioning democracy. This was called into question earlier in the year when local government elections were postponed. They were due in March but were postponed on multiple occasions and now have been cancelled. There is no indication when they might be held. The government justified its refusal to hold those elections on the ground that the country was facing an economic crisis and the money could be better spent elsewhere.

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.

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The National Peace Council (NPC) was established as an independent and impartial national non-government organization