It 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 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.
A 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.
The 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.
The 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.
The stock market boomed after the much awaited domestic debt restructuring programme (DDR), but the national economy continues to be in deep trouble. It does not seem to have the productive capacity and the general population does not have the purchasing power to lift itself out of the doldrums. Even those at the top end of the production chain, the owners of factories, are lamenting the lack of consumer demand for their goods and services. People do not have the money to purchase their output. Examples are given of three lorries per day leaving the factory whereas 60 went out prior to the economic collapse. Or of factories that have laid off 50 of their 200 employees. The newspaper delivery man said that the sale of the state-owned newspapers by him has slumped. He explained that offices used to buy them and said 15 of the 18 offices he distributed them to in the neigbourhood had closed.
President Ranil Wickremesinghe notched up another achievement when parliament ratified the Domestic Debt Restructuring (DDR) programme with a majority of 60 votes with 122 members voting for and 62 against with 40 abstentions. Parliamentarians who would need to think about their re-election prospects would have been reluctant to vote for a programme that imposes more burdens on an already burdened population. But the president stood his ground, and by his vision of the country’s economic future, and the rest of the government acquiesced. The president has been successful in steering the ship of state into calmer waters. He is also setting in place laws like the proposed Anti Terrorism Act, the Broadcasting Authority Bill and the anticipated NGO Act which could be used in a sophisticated way to silence critics and to immobilize them.
The ongoing session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva is proof enough that the international quest for justice and accountability in Sri Lanka is continuing. UN Human Rights High Commissioner Volker Turk, who presented the annual report, noted that “In Sri Lanka, although the government has regrettably rejected aspects of the Council’s resolutions related to accountability, it has continued to engage with our presence on the ground. Sri Lanka has received a dozen visits by mandate holders in the past decade and I encourage the authorities to implement their recommendations.” The change in the presidency from Gotabaya Rajapaksa to Ranil Wickremesinghe has made no difference to the expectations of the international community and to the demands placed on the government.
The present stability in the country is taken as an indication that the situation is improving. The law and order, drop in inflation, and absence of visible shortages, such as in front of petrol stations, signifies a vast change as compared to the situation a year ago. But shortages continue, an example being “Jeevanee” (oral rehydration salt drink) which is necessary for those who are undergoing medical treatment for illnesses such as dengue or doing sports. The shortage of Jeevanee is said to be due to issues in importing raw materials needed to produce it locally. More expensive substitutes are available at more than double the price. Those who are able to make ends meet, and have a bird’s eye view of the situation, are generally appreciative of the government’s success in ensuring normalcy in the country.