The Sunday Leader

Govt Proved The Numbers Has To Prove It Has The Will

  • Reconciliation:

by N. Sathiya Moorthy

By defeating the ‘Joint Opposition’- sponsored no-trust vote against Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake, 145-51 in the 225-member Parliament, the ruling Maithiri-Ranil duo has proved that they have the numbers. The last time Minister Karunanayake faced a similar threat was in the previous Parliament. President Maithripala Sirisena averted a possible (?) embarrassment to the Government by keeping up the delayed promise to dissolve the House and order fresh polls.

The figures do not tell the full story when it comes to a new Constitution, especially on political solution and power-devolution to ethnic reconciliation. There were 28 absentees, including all 16 TNA members – apart from former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and present-day Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera, the latter a ‘conformed’ votary of political reconciliation and accountability probe.

Including the TNA, thus, the Government should have the required two-thirds majority to pass a new Constitution, leave alone reconciliation-centric amendments. Some of the provisions of a new Constitution draft, now under preparation, might require the clearance by a majority of the nine Provincial Councils, but only fresh elections would help re-constitute them. Others may have to face a national referendum. A new Constitution in its entirety or in parts would also have to pass the ‘judicial test’, in instalments or as a whole.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe reaffirmed the Government’s confidence in retaining the parliamentary majority while speaking on the no-trust vote against FM Karunanayake. Ranil taunted Mahinda R by saying that the House should suspend the former President for a week, for violating the provisions of the Fiscal Responsibility Act – as his own Finance Minister. Whether the PM follows up on it is a different matter, but he had proved the point, that the Government had the majority now – and so also the confidence.

Under the erstwhile Rajapaksa regime, the TNA, now the ‘official Opposition’ in Parliament, insisted that they should only have bilateral talks — and not all-party talks – on political solution and power-devolution to the ethnic issue. The party said that the ruling coalition had the required two-thirds majority, and whatever the Rajapaksa leadership decided, it would pass in the House. This time round, neither is the Government known to have consulted the TNA either on the provisions on power-devolution or on the modalities. The TNA too has been maintaining pregnant silence on both counts. Its sounds on ‘accountability issues’ is feeble or being drowned in the Bedlam of intra-Sinhala politics, unlike under the Rajapaksa regime.

 

‘Inclusive engagement’

Addressing the 32nd session of the UNHRC in Geneva, High Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein called for a comprehensive strategy on ‘transitional justice’ to implement the Sri Lankan Government’s commitment to Resolution 30/1 on ‘accountability probe’. Such a strategy should enable Sri Lanka to “pursue different processes in a coordinated, integrated and appropriately sequenced manner”. This, Prince Zeid added, “will require the inclusive and meaningful engagement of all Sri Lankans. I will present an oral update later in the session”.

The UNHRC chief’s observations were a part of his ‘oral statements’ slated for the June session each year. It is preceded by the March session, and followed by the September session, where resolutions are moved, voted upon, et al. On Sri Lanka, this time round, the UNHRC seems to imply that the Government is yet to strategise on a strategy on ‘transitional justice’, despite the co-authored resolution of the previous year.

By extension, it could mean that the UNHRC is not ready to forget and forgive. That’s to say, ethnic reconciliation and accountability issues are two sides of the same coin, run on parallel tracks and the former cannot replace the latter. Whether it was the timing of the ‘Ravi vote’ or the UNHRC resolution that was wrong, the conclusion/result is the same.

The Government’s confidence on a parliamentary majority and any promise of a political solution, as a substitute for accountability commitments could not go far… In the reverse, it’s not unlikely that the Government’s parliamentary majority could come under stress if ‘transitional justice’ were to take precedence over political reconciliation of non-accountability kind.

By extension, the ‘wise men’ in the Joint Opposition – and possibly on the Treasury Benches – might expect a full and final closure to ‘accountability probe’ of the UNHRC prescription (or, possibly any other’) before even considering constitutional provisions for ethnic reconciliation. Conversely, it could harden political positions on either side of the ‘ethnic divide’ (leaving out the Muslims and the Upcountry Tamils, both from this argument and other, more serious national discourses).

If at least some ‘wise men’ in the international community thought that accountability-discourse could be a pressure-tactic to push the Sinhala polity and the Sri Lankan State to yield on constitutional reconciliation, it could send out exactly opposite message to the Tamils, especially to the SLT Diaspora. The resultant implosion could render Sri Lanka out of gear and the international community out of reckoning.

 

Vital questions

In a more recent exposition, President Maithripala Sirisena has said that the Rajapaksa leadership was yet to answer questions on why it had not taken any effort to promote ethnic reconciliation and inter-communal harmony in the post-war scenario. “Sri Lanka was entangled in a huge web of domestic and international issues” when he came to power in January 2015, Sirisena observed. “… when I and my government attempt to take our country out of this mess, the detractors of the Government say I was going to betray the country”. He flatly rejected “those unfounded and fabricated allegation” that his Government was going to “give opportunities to foreign powers to invade Sri Lanka”.

There were different opinions and different interpretations over Sri Lanka’s foreign policy, the President said. The government could not take advices given by any Tim, Dick or Harry. It would instead follow the most pragmatic and suitable foreign policy that would bring maximum dividends to the country. It was with this policy, the government has won the friendship, acceptance and respect among the global community and top world leaders in the past one and half years, the President said.

In context, Sirisena declared that “his government was not dictated by any foreign power or did not take order from any one. There was no one to pressurize Sri Lanka today”. He, however, added that the “international community expects Sri Lanka protect human rights, fundamental rights, strengthen the rule of law, democracy and the concept of good governance. They also want a free media culture in Sri Lanka”.

President Sirisena was possibly implicating the predecessor regime in relation to what all that the international community wanted done now – and what all Sri Lanka had lacked under the Rajapaksa regime. The irony of the current Sri Lankan situation is that all those that were part of the Rajapaksa regime – starting possibly with Sirisena – could conveniently draw a strong delineating line between their own past and the present.Barring Ranil’s UNP, all members of the present government were part of the predecessor one, too. They were part of the previous Government and of the Cabinet too. SLFP members, including Sirisena, were also members of the party high-power committees. It may be true that the Rajapaksas took decisions – but others, did acquiesce without murmur, leave alone protest.

Sirisena, for instance, was also the Acting Defence Minister, during five different stages of ‘Eelam War IV’ – though only for days at each instance. It included the final battle and the final day. Also, given the collective responsibility of the Cabinet in any ‘democracy’, they cannot escape their own share of the blame, if any – or, praise, if any.

It’s as much within the party, SLFP, especially so as the Rajapaksa leadership had slipped up badly at every stage and none questioned it. They were not known to have done so in private, either. Instead, some of them were believed to have only conveyed strong reservations to whatever was sought by the TNA, or indicated as possible acceptance by the other delegation to the negotiations. The delegation had started the talks for the Government, then claimed it to be a party-level talk, and later on said the final decision had to be cleared by the party before being presented to Parliament.

Today, when the Government has the numbers, it should not fritter away its energies and acceptance-level (limited to Parliament, not necessarily to voter-preference) still at name-calling or chasing shadows. It should start talks with the TNA on the one hand, and within the Government parties on the other – and with the international community, on the third front.

Sri Lanka cannot afford to have a unilateral draft Constitution of the Government being rejected by the TNA and the Tamils. It cannot also have the effort – however limited and/or sincere/insincere – to be stymied by the international community reviving the ‘accountability probe’ issue at the UNHRC around the time, the draft Constitution comes up for serious discourse within the nation. It has to act, and only then talk – not the other way round, on either of the issues or any issue for that matter!

 

(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: sathiyam54@gmail.com)

 

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