The unanimous passage through Parliament of the amendment to the law that establishes the Office of Missing Persons has revived the hope that the government will give priority to inter-ethnic reconciliation. The formation of the Government of National Unity has provided an unique opportunity to obtain a bipartisan political consensus that encompasses the two main political parties in the country, and indeed the larger polity, to deal with the country’s longest standing unresolved problem—its ethnic conflict. The Office of Missing Persons (OMP) was one of the four reconciliation mechanisms that the government promised to the international community in Geneva in October 2015. This was the landmark event that turned the international community from being a critic of Sri Lanka’s reconciliation policies to being a supporter.
The two main factors that caused a change of government in 2015 are reappearing at the present time. The first is the feeling amongst the religious and ethnic minorities that the government is not doing enough to protect them. During the period of the former government the minorities even felt that the government was opposed to them. This was on account of its inadequate efforts at post-war normalization and the growth of religious intolerance. The election of the new government came as a great relief to the minorities. Their sense of fear and jeopardy lifted in large measure. Even though the military presence in the North and East did not significantly diminish there was a revival of civilian institutions. The government no longer came across as being a hostile entity.
Eight years after the end of the war the consolidation of peace and restoration of normalcy in Sri Lanka is generally taken for granted. This is also the perception of the general population outside of the North and East where most of the war, and its associated destruction, took place. On the other hand, in the North and East, there is a strong sense of continuity with the past. This is on account of continuing grievances with regard to the fate of missing persons and return of land that remains under the military. These unresolved issues rankle and generate new rounds of resentment. The continuing discontent in the North and East is however not in the forefront of popular consciousness in the rest of the country. The issues that loom large there are different.
Some years ago, in 2011, there was a phenomenon called the “grease devils” that struck fear in communities in different parts of the country, and particularly those living in areas in which the Tamil people predominate. Semi clothed men with grease on their bodies started to infiltrate into the homes of people. They broke inside and sometimes groped women but usually they only caused utter fear and no other physical harm. As in the case of the present upsurge in anti Muslim violence, the grease devil attacks took place in a number of places almost simultaneously, as if pre-planned. On occasion when people from the affected communities gave chase they found the suspected grease devils running into camps of the security forces in their bid to getaway. As suddenly as it started the grease devil phenomenon ended. There were no arrests by police that led to convictions.
The cabinet reshuffle that took place last week saw important portfolios switch hands within the government. The smooth transfer of ministries, and the grace of those were subjected to the change in accepting their new portfolios, offers hope that the tension that had dogged UNP-SLFP relations will now subside and pave the way for more effective governance. The past several months had seen many expressions of dissatisfaction from members of the two main political parties that make up the Government of National Unity. They openly cast doubt on the usefulness of the cohabitation agreement and argued it would be better not to extend the two year agreement when it reaches its culmination later this year in August. There was concern that the government might not even make it to the two year mark.
During the period of the previous government May 18 became a day of tension in the North. The previous government celebrated the war victory over the LTTE in the South of the country, while prohibiting any public memorial services for those who died in the last battles in the North. The report last week that police in the North had obtained a court order to put on hold a commemoration event in Mullivaikkal scheduled for May 18, the day the war ended, therefore took the centre stage of public attention in the North. It seemed that the prohibition was for all commemoration services for the victims of the war and that the past had returned to haunt the present. However, the court order was with regard to a single commemorative event. It was not a general directive that prohibited all commemorative activities.
There was some uncertainty whether Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Sri Lanka to join the country in its celebration of the International Day of Vesak would turn embarrassing to the host government. Prior to his visit nationalist politicians and nationalist civil society leaders from the ethnic majority community called for black flag protests. This was against what they called Indian intervention. Two controversial matters currently being negotiated between the two countries are the Economic and Technology Cooperation Agreement (ETCA) and the Trincomalee harbor project that revolves around the lease of oil tanks. ETCA has generated formidable opposition amongst sections of the local business community and professionals led by medical doctors of the government medical doctors association who fear that they will not be able to withstand Indian competition. Those who sought to give an ulterior motive to the Indian premier’s visit were also able to draw on memories of the Indian intervention of the 1980s that contributed to the strengthening of Tamil militancy in the country.
The Joint Opposition was successful in political and psychological terms when it succeeded in ensuring large scale participation of its supporters at its May Day event. Galle Face Green, which covers 18 acres of land, is perhaps the largest open air venue for public events in the country. In the past this has been the venue allocated to the Pope to conduct religious services as was last done in 2015. Members of the Joint Opposition claimed that the crowd at the May Day rally of the Joint Opposition was even larger than those who came to attend the Pope’s event. But there was also a difference. The vast majority of those who came to see the Pope did so at their own expense. They were neither bused nor provided with meals and drinks by the Church.
Sri Lanka secured a timely victory in the European Parliament when a motion to deny the country of the benefit of the GSP Plus tariff concession was defeated by a large majority of 436 to 119. There were doubts about the outcome of the vote as a visiting EU delegation last month issued a critical report on the country situation. The delegation had focused on economic and labour issues and found there were many deficiencies in the law and in its implementation on the ground. They reported that they had found a number of workers who have been objects of labour rights violations, including harassment to trade unions, illegal dismissal of trade union leaders, sexual harassment and labour rights violations within the free trade zones. The report has also touched on shortcomings on the enforcement on other human rights issues, in particular the use of torture and the rights of ethnic, religious and sexual minorities.
The tragedy at Meetotamulla, in the outskirts of Colombo, where a massive garbage dump came crashing down on people living on its perimeter, has generated an outpouring of support for the victims and frustration about the failure of successive governments to deal with the problem. About 40 persons are confirmed dead and several more remain unaccounted for giving rise to speculation that the actual death toll may be even higher. Unfortunately, this was a tragedy that could be seen to be coming. Those living in the vicinity of the garbage dump had been agitating for many years about the dangers posed to them by the prospect of disease and also by the stench but to no avail. In the meantime the mountain of garbage simply grew and grew and grew.