Sri Lanka: No country for Mr. Mandela

By Apratim Mukarji

One of the enduring memories I have brought back from a recent visit to Sri Lanka was the frequentwistful thinking how lucky the island would have been had it possessed a statesman like Nelson Mandela. When such a wish was expressed by a person like Manouri Muttetuwegama,chairperson of the Consultation Task Force (CTF) on Reconciliation Mechanisms,one was obliged to sit up and take notice.

Behind such wistful expressions lies the realisation,now almost universal in the country,that both President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe have failed to rise up to the stature of South Africa’s iconic leader Mandela in steering the people out of the inherited morass of racial hatred and resultant separatism and lift them up towards truth and reconciliation.

Sri Lankans,who were inspired directly by South Africa’s experiment with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and Mandela’s towering personality as its helmsman,are however well-aware that twenty-two years after its inauguration,the TRC is quite a distance away from completing its task.If anything,racism is more entrenched in South African society than before though it has also become “unspoken”,as a former chairperson of the TRC Barney Pityana once commented..

But to civil society,that is not the point of argument at all.The difference with Sri Lanka,which eventually ended its thirty-year-old civil war in My 2009,is that within three years of the National Unity Government in office led by Mr. Sirixsena and Mr.Wickremasinghe and within the first year of the functioning of the CTFRM,the government has made it clear that it is the least interested in following up the programme for racial reconciliation initiated by itself with much hope.

The government has made known this major policy change by sending two signals to the people.Even a year after the final report of the CTF was submitted to the authorities with detailed recommendations in January 2016,it lies unattended and,by inference,ignored till this day .Both the President and the Prime Minister,who were instrumental in setting up the CTF and in providing all the necessary wherewithal chose to stay away when the final report was presented,causing enormous embarrassment to the CTF members.The report was eventually presented to the former President Mrs.Chanrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga as a face-saving manoeuvre.But the deliberate slight administered to the CTF did not escape anybody’s notice.

The second signal that the racial reconciliation issue has been relegated to the backburner has been sent through the alacrity with which the government took up the goal of constitutional reform,such as,drafting of a new constitution and getting it debated and passed by Parliament.Thus,in a master stroke,which may prove to be potentially damaging for the future of Sri Lanka,political reform has been placed on a higher pedestal than any of the other declared goals of the ‘rainbow coalition’ that won the people’s approval,brought down the former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and ushered in the present government.It has also escaped nobody’s attention that another promised political reform,abolition of executive presidency,has been given a quiet burial.no one in authority any longer talks about this brave idea these days.However,analysts believe that the government lacks political will and a clear vision even to carry out far reaching political reforms.After the promised constitutional reforms are carried out,a nation-wide referendum to test the people’s will has been promised but the feeling in the country is that the government is yet to start preparing for implementing such a programme and that a sharp division within the government is proving to be the main dampener.Former President Rajpaksa,who is now the main opposition leader,has been quick to seize the opportunity and is working feverishly to whip up the Buddhist clergy’s and the majority Sinhalese community’s entrenched fear of Buddhism losing its primacy in the course of carrying out constitutional reforms.

Analysts in Colombo agree on two major points: that the President and the Prime Minister have developed serious differences of opinion over pursuing the promised goals of the government and that as a result,the process of reforms,political (mainly constitutional),economic (in agriculture and aimed at reducing inequality among communities and regions) and transitional justice “under the overarching theme of human rights” has slowed down.

Prof.Jayadeva Uyangoda said, “The President and the Prime Minister have now completely drifted away from each other and are manoeuvreing to retain the centre of power with them.The President is acting as a check on the Prime Minister so that the latter does not extend his areas of influence in matters of governance.They clearly show a lot of tension between themselves.

While Mr.Rajapaksa was clearly waiting to benefit from this development,the two “competing” voices from the government were disturbing for the country.Meanwhile,it had become apparent that the government lacked a unified approach on all the major goals before it,ethnic reconciliation, investigations into human rights violations during the last few decades,and constitutional reforms.Unless the United National Party (led by Mr.Wickremasinghe) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (led by Mr.Sirisena) agreed to wok together, “I cannot foresee any significant progress”, Prof.Uyangoda said.

Dr.Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu,another eminent Sri Lankan analyst who was also Secretary to the Consultation Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanisms,was frankly disappointed with the pace at which the government was handling its reforms programme.”What brought about unity between the two traditional rival political parties was the common desire to get rid of Mr. Rajapaksa,which the majority of the people also wanted.But now it has become obvious that the National Unity government does not know how to move forward,” he said. For example,Mr.Sirisena who was the main votary of abolition of executive presidency did no longer talk about it.Why? Because,as he did not control the SLFP to which he belonged,he was concerned about what might happen to him in case executive presidency was abolished.So his sole goal today was how to be the president of his party.

While the main players in Colombo thus remain engrossed in their power play,an unfortunate casualty is the painstaking work done by the CTF in charting the uncertain course of achieving ethnic reconciliation and transitional justice.Intimately connected with this is the fate of the minority communities,especially the norther Tamils who are the worst victims of the civil war.While thousands of the victims of excesses committed during the civil war wait for justice,yet another example of failure to restore transitional justice is the continuing recourse by the government to the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA).As a team of United Nations Working Group on Illegal Detention visiting Sri Lanka recently has reiterated,the failure to repeal this act continues to facilitate an unfair treatment of suspects detained under it (confessions extracted in the absence of lawyers) and sustains Sri Lanka’s failure to enact legislation in consonance with international human rights law and best practices.

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Apratim Mukarji is a former Senior Fellow,Indian Council of Social Science Research,New Delhi,and has authored two books on Sri Lanka.

2 Comments for “Sri Lanka: No country for Mr. Mandela”

  1. gamarala

    The PTA enables the state to arrest and keep citizens in detention without being charged in a court of law.
    Such legislation is now extinct in real democracies.
    It was/is being used mainly against minorities, especially Tamils.

  2. Kumaran

    Mr. Mukarji, It is no use dwelling in what could have happened. One thing I must mention is had the Late Indira Ghandi minded her own and India’s business in the late 1970s, and not sponsored overtly and covertly the LTTE, then our very mediocre leadership would have managed the affairs of state without the catastrophic events that led to a thirty year war, with thousands of innocent of all three ethnicities lost, untold billions of dollars worth of damage, undue and excessive foreign influence and terrible record to get over. Into the midst, comes successive less than mediocre governments. Even now, if India would strive to serve Sri Lanka and look at that service as a completely goodwill mission then there maybe a very good chance for Sri Lanka.

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