The government is under siege as it is not delivering results to the people. This is especially true of the economy where the situation is deteriorating by the day and the country is borrowing endless billions from foreign countries that have a stake in Sri Lanka. There is a seemingly endless drop in the value of the Sri Lankan currency, sharply rising costs that are beyond belief, and the worst may be to come. The increases in prices of basic commodities, accompanied by shortages, have severely impacted upon the standard of living of the general population and even prompted the government to call out the army to maintain social peace where queues have formed, as at petrol stations. The fear and deference that people once gave to the government leadership, both on account of war-time victories and ruthless governance, has given way to jests and insults. This is the way in advanced democracies, and it is time that Sri Lanka should be this way, to give no room to political leaders to act inappropriately.
Shortages of petrol, diesel, kerosene, cooking gas, milk foods and skyrocketing prices are reminiscent of the situation that once prevailed in the war zones of the north and east. The people in those parts tell visitors that they are able to cope with the shortages as they learnt to do so during the war. They ran their vehicles on kerosene, could not provide their children with chocolates and paid Rs 800 a kilo for sugar. In a twist of fate, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa who gave leadership to the war effort now faces a similar situation in the entire country. During the war he gave his generals the authority to plan out and implement their strategies while using his relationship with then President Mahinda Rajapaksa to give them the covering space and resources necessary. Now he needs to give those ministers of the government who are capable, the same degree of autonomy.
The government’s delay in going to the IMF has been explained by its economic decision-makers as due to the concern that IMF conditions for a financial bailout package will impose more burdens on the general population. So is staying where we are. A national government, which implies joint governance with the Opposition in which the ethnic and religious minorities have sufficient and adequate representation, will enable difficult decisions to be made.
The crisis in the country was evident in the long lines of vehicles parked outside gasoline stations awaiting the next consignment of diesel. They were to be found all over the country and at all times of the day and night. The hours lost and the inconvenience would have infuriated each and every driver of those vehicles, and their families and dependents for whom diesel means income, whether to transport goods, passengers or tourists and to harvest their fields. They would have cursed those responsible and occasionally, when lines were broken, cursed each other. Now again, there is no cooking fuel, but that is confined to the home and so the anger is less visible.
The government has sent its “A Team” to Geneva to face the international human rights community and the UN Human Rights Commission. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has raised concerns about the lack of accountability in Sri Lanka. In her report, Bachelet said human rights violations and abuses were continuing to spread throughout the country. She attributed that to the failure of the government to carry out necessary reforms to its legal, institutional and security sectors. She said the government had shown some willingness to initiate reforms. However, she said the steps taken so far have done little to address past human rights violations or redress the harm done to victims.
The multiplicity of problems facing the government and the country and to which solutions are nowhere in sight, is undermining the government’s credibility. Renewing its electoral mandate seems to be a strategy that the government is contemplating. The mandate obtained by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the presidential election was seen as paving the way for a new era in disciplined and development-oriented governance. There were high expectations from him. The massive election victory that the government obtained, both at the presidential and general elections appeared to clear the decks for sweeping change. The president’s military background and successful track record as Defense Secretary, gave people the confidence in change that would benefit the country. But today it is seen that hardly anything has changed. Corruption is rife and, worse still, the government is not in a problem solving mode.
Every Independence Day there is the hope that the country will turn the corner and reach the potential it had in 1948. Leonard Woolf, the British Civil Servant who wrote “Village in the Jungle” saw the newly independent country as a future “Switzerland of the East” if it found a way to share political power amongst its different ethnicities and regions in the way that Switzerland had. But once again Independence Day reminded the country of the seemingly permanent divide that exists in the country without getting erased with the passage of time and the gaining of wisdom. The divides showed starkly on this occasion. The event was boycotted by several of the most important national actors which demonstrates a political polarization that the government has been unable to bridge.
The government’s Adhikaranabhimani programme went to the North of the country last week to a mixed reception. In Mullaitivu in the Wanni area where the last battles of the war took place, the public reception had elements of hostility. Families of missing persons protested and it required police intervention to enable the programme to move ahead. Although intended to promote the concept of “access to justice” the focus of the protests was on the issues of missing persons and those detained for long periods without trial. Both of these have been longstanding and highly publicized issues, which have included public protests on a daily basis that have lasted for years at a time.
The government would be relieved by the non-critical assessment by visiting UK Minister for South Asia, United Nations and the Commonwealth, Lord Tariq Ahmad of his visit to Sri Lanka. He has commended the progress Sri Lanka had made in human rights and in other areas as well, such as environmental protection. He has pledged UK support to the country. According to the President’s Media Division “Lord Tariq Ahmad further stated that Sri Lanka will be able to resolve all issues pertaining to human rights by moving forward with a pragmatic approach.” The minister, who had visited the north and east of the country and met with war-affected persons tweeted that he “emphasised the need for GoSL to make progress on human rights, reconciliation, and justice and accountability.”
The media has reported that today President Gotabaya Rajapaksa will be announcing a new policy on national reconciliation in his address to parliament at the inaugural session following prorogation last month. Apart from bringing peace of mind and comfort to those bereaved by the three decades long war, the central issue of national reconciliation is to find an equitable solution to the ethnic and religious conflicts that have plagued the country since the dawn of independence more than seven decades ago. The focus now needs to be on the development of the country and its economy rather than to support any parochial or ethnic cause and continue with the divisive politics of the past. It is only by this that the country can get back on its feet as many have done following traumatic events. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected by a large majority with this hope in mind.