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Mainstream, VOL LV No 30 New Delhi July 15, 2017

A Whiff of Fresh Air from Sri Lanka

Sunday 16 July 2017, by Apratim Mukarji


As the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe Government is short of a few months to roll on to its third year in office, Sri Lanka’s declining economy and unresolved political issues have served to erode much of the sheen that was generated in January 2015 with former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s surprise defeat and the ushering in of a new-look and promising government.

However, in this gathering gloom came a sudden and welcome whiff of fresh air with President Maithripala Sirisena affirming in the clearest possible terms his government’s resolve to go ahead with the framing of a new Consti-tution that is set to guarantee meaningful auto-nomy to the Tamils in the northern peninsula. On July 6, he said that the new Constitution would grant “extensive” autonomy to Tamils in the Northern Province. He was determined to prevent a repeat of the bloody separatist conflict that had claimed 100,000 lives between 1972 and 2009.

An elaboration of Colombo’s firm stand on the highly contentious issue came from the Cabinet spokesperson and Minister Rajitha Senarathne, who said that it was the responsi-bility of the government to fulfil the people’s mandate it had received in the elections. Making it clear that the government was determined to ignore the sustained and vociferous campaign by the powerful Buddhist clergy—who exercises enormous influence in the Buddhist majority country—in the matter, he remarked that “even the Mahanayake Theras” (the highest echelon of the clergy) were a part of the people’s mandate.

On July 4, the three chief incumbents of the Buddhist clergy had met and decided unani-mously that there was no need for a new Constitution and even an amendment to the existing Constitution in order to grant autonomy to the Northern Province. They also registered their strong protest against a government bill to incorporate into domestic law the Inter-national Convention on Enforced Disappearances. While the clergy and the Opposition led by former President Rajapaksa have warned the government of consequences of granting real-time autonomy to the Northern Province, they are particularly set against the convention on the ground that once made into law, this would be used to witch-hunt members of the former regime and security forces personnel.

The situation is further complicated by the reported reservation of the Sirisena faction of the government about the convention as it inter alia prefers, instead, the introduction of subs-tantial autonomy in the existing Constitution by way of amending it. While all the provinces would benefit in this process, the real beneficiary would be the Tamil-majority province and the government would also thereby honour its commitment.

The Tamil political leadership, however, has maintained its pressure on the government to play fair and fulfil all its commitments including that on aligning with the international con-vention. The Minister of National Dialogue and National Languages, a post created by the present government to specifically address the concerns of the minority communities, Mano Ganeshan, has already put forth his view that the government cannot now go back on its electoral promise to rewrite the Constitution in order “to promote post-war ethnic reconci-liation”.

“This government was elected in 2015 with a promise to abolish the Executive Presidency, change the Constitution, and bring about electoral reforms,” he has stated. “The majority Sinhalese as well as the minority Tamils and Muslims supported the present leaders on the basis of these promises. The minorities, especially, wanted all these three promises fulfilled. They would not accept piecemeal implementation of the promises.”

The Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the main minority supporter of the government, however, believes there is no need to feel that the Buddhist clergy’s opposition to the reconciliation process is a setback. This opposition is essentially part of a political campaign being led by Rajapaksa as he feels that the majority community is already thoroughly disillusioned with the government’s promises of an improved economy and new jobs. Sri Lanka is perceived to be bogged down with a massive debt burden (a process begun in earnest by the Rajapaksa regime in a hurry to usher in development after the civil war ended in 2009) to which subsequent foreign loans liberally endowed by China and other international players have kept adding. In May 2016, Sri Lanka owed China alone a massive $ 8 billion debt. A month later, the International Monetary Fund came to its immediate rescue by clearing a bailout package worth $ 1.5 bn. The government continues to be plagued by its inability to repay the accumulating loans.

Thirtyone months ago, the ethnic Tamils had voted oerwhelmingly for the Maithripala Sirisena- Ranil Wickremesinghe combine, backed by former President Chandrika Kumaratunga, as did indeed every other section of the majority Sinhalese, Muslims, Malays and others. At the time the newly appointed Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera called the results a “rainbow revolution”. The unexpected result of the presidential election in January 2015, reinforced later in the year by those of the parliamentary elections, proved to be a balm for the sorely wounded national psyche badly in need to recover from the prolonged and bloody ethnic conflict.

Judging by the frequent reiterations by the government of its determination to pursue its promises to the minority communities to a logical conclusion, it is still possible to believe in Colombo’s sincerity. On January 5 this year, Sirisena lashed out at government critics for their opposition to ethnic reconciliation efforts and called them “anti-nationals”. While the efforts had been welcomed and appreciated at both home and abroad, he said that “opportunistic forces” were trying to scuttle these for narrow political gains, thereby “acting against the country”. Those who were working against the government, he charged, were actually working against the stability of Sri Lanka and preventing its reconstruction.

The Tamils in particular and other ethnic minority communities like the Muslims, however, seem to be unwilling to rest in peace after reposing faith in the goodwill of the government and are constantly hammering at immediate and visible implementation of concrete steps for the fulfilment of the electoral promises. Besides, international donors and players and the United Nations Human Rights Commission remain on vigil to ensure that the government does not falter mid-way by capitulating to the ultra-nationalist Sinhalese.

It goes without saying that the Tamils feel in unison that the progress at reconciliation is tardy and must be expedited to restore their faith in the government they had largely helped win the elections. Speaking in Parliament on February 22 this year, Leader of Opposition R. Sampanthan complained that the present regime was treating the Tamils in the same manner as the Rajapaksa Government did. Mentioning the two key issues in reconciliation, the restoration of land in the previous war zone to their rightful owners and the final accounting of the missing or disappeared persons during the war and especially in its closing months in 2009, he said: “I am extremely unhappy with the way our people are treated by this government with respect to their land.”

Indicating that the Tamils suspected a deliberate use of double standards in respect of accounting for the missing or disappeared persons, he said: “So many soldiers (who were almost invariably Sinhalese) are missing; (yet) their families are not protesting. The government must be talking to them offering some solace; there must be some conciliation. The same is not available to our people.”

Is there any danger of a revival of Tamil militancy in case the government eventually shies away from satisfying the aspirations of the main minority community? If Colombo goes ahead with the framing of a new Constitution in order to provide genuine autonomy to the provinces, a nationwide referendum would be inevitable. There is apprehension that the government would be defeated in such an eventuality with the Sinhalese majority voting against the referendum.

While the TNA continues to be positive about the government’s overall good work, it is facing a rising opposition to its pro-government stance from sections of Tamils in the Jaffna peninsula. The Northern Province Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran, having largely botched up in governing the province even within his limited powers, has been instigating these Tamils largely to cover his own failings.

Significantly, common Tamils are also clearly exercised over their two chief concerns, recovery of their land seized by the Army during the war and a satisfactory accounting of their relatives missing in the war. In March and April this year, the Northern Province witnessed their amply expressed frustration. In February-March, hundreds of families in Mullaitivu district held a prolonged fast in protest against the Army’s continuing holding of their land and homes. They asked why the army was still holding on to their land almost eight years after the war ended (in May 2009).

On April 27, the entire Northern Province observed a total shutdown in protest against what the Tamils felt was the government’s inaction in tracing the fate of the thousands of persons who went missing since the insurrection began thirty years ago. The Eastern Province, where the Tamils account for one-third of the population, saw a partial hartal on the same issue.

In the second half of 2017, therefore, Sri Lanka finds itself on a considerably rough patch, sandwiched between hard choices of staying true to the electoral promises to the minority communities and to the international community and, in the process, risking antagonising the majority community and ultimately facing a defeat. The government is also buffeted by allegations of rising and widespread corruption and a weakened economy with all its ramifications.

Apratim Mukarji is an analyst of South and Central Asian affairs.

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