The saying “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” is often attributed to the founders of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Abraham Lincoln, among many others, though Lord Denning in The Road to Justice (1988) stated that the phrase originated in a statement of Irish orator John Philpot Curran in 1790. The phrase is often used to emphasize the importance of being vigilant in protecting one’s rights and freedoms. Recent controversies involving religion are giving a warning signal. Ethnic and religious identity are two powerful concepts by which people may be mobilized the world over. This is a phenomenon that seemed to have subsided in Western Europe due to centuries of secular practices in which the state was made secular and neutral between ethnicities and religions, but is rising again.
With less than a year and half to the presidential elections, President Ranil Wickremesinghe has a tight deadline to meet if he is to attain his aspirations for the country. His visit last week to Japan where he sought to renew ties which had made it Sri Lanka’s largest aid donor for decades, was reported to be highly successful. During his visit, the president had apologized to the Japanese government leaders regarding the cancellation of the Light Rail Transit project which was subsequently delivered by Japan to Bangladesh. The completion of the elevated railroad would have significantly reduced Colombo’s traffic jams. The disastrous mistake the previous government made in crudely cancelling the project unilaterally and without rational reason lost Sri Lanka the goodwill of Japan which will not be easy to get back. Getting Japan back as a donor partner would be a great boon. Overcoming the serious economic crisis that besets the country and its people would require a massive infusion of foreign assistance if the period of recovery is to be kept short and not prolonged indefinitely.
Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau’s remarks on May 18 that “Canada will not stop advocating for the rights of the victims and survivors of this conflict, as well as for all in Sri Lanka who continue to face hardship,” in the context of the recognition of May 18 as “Tamil Genocide Remembrance Day” has met with a strong rebuttal from the Sri Lankan government. It is tragic that 14 years after the end of the war, and with a president as internationalist and liberal as Ranil Wickremesinghe at the helm, that Sri Lanka should be losing ground internationally and its embassies abroad are unable to stem the tide because there is no political progress on the issue of national reconciliation at home. This is particularly tragic as Sri Lanka, after its economic collapse, needs international support more than ever.
The discussions that President Ranil Wickremesinghe has commenced with the Tamil parties in the north and east are being seen as a possible precursor to elections in those two provinces. The talks are scheduled over three days. The president has an interest in holding some form of elections as the government’s moral legitimacy has been undermined by its refusal to conduct the local government elections on schedule. The president would be conscious that the manner of his election, by parliament and not by the people, creates an issue of moral legitimacy that needs to be addressed. The grounds for the repeated postponement of local government elections, that the money is either unavailable or better spent elsewhere, is clearly unacceptable from a democratic or rule of law perspective. Opposition leader Sajith Premadasa’s offer to pass a constitutional amendment to have early presidential elections reflects this sentiment.
The government has withdrawn its draft Anti-Terrorism law (ATA), but only temporarily. Minister of Justice Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe has said that he has decided to provide more time for proposals for reform to be submitted to it. There have been a very large number of statements and protests made against the draft law from a wide swathe of society including the Bar Association, civil society organisations, trade unions and highest ranking religious clergy. The main cause of opposition to it has been its sweeping over-breadth which will enable the government to suppress public protests that are recognised as being democratic and legitimate the world over. When the reality of economic restructuring caused by the economic collapse strikes its likely targets who are the middle and working classes the agitation against the government is bound to grow. It appears that the government is preparing its security arsenal to meet the exigencies of public protests. The ATA will be one of its chief weapons.
The government appears to be bent on creating a mood swing in anticipation of elections in the belief that better off people are key opinion formers. The second round of reducing the prices of a variety of fuels (2 percent for ordinary petrol to 29 percent for super diesel used by luxury vehicles) is an indication that the government is seeking to improve its support base amongst the better off sections of the population. So far the government has resisted calls for local government elections, which are overdue, to be held. It would be aware that at the local level, people are suffering enormous price hikes, such as over 200 percent in the cost of their children’s school text books, let alone their electricity bills which have gone up by more than 300 percent. However, obtaining the people’s mandate through elections is a source of legitimacy. It enables a government to justify its existence and take decisions on behalf of the people.
Slowly but surely the ruling party is beginning to reassert itself. An indication is the removal of Prof GL Peiris from the chairmanship of the ruling party and replacing him with a Buddhist monk which gives a clear indication that the party intends to stay true to its nationalist roots. In the aftermath of the economic collapse last year Prof Peiris has been one of the few members from the SLPP to have adopted a reformist role. He was also one of the few members of the SLPP to vote for a reformist party member, Dullas Alahapperuma, to become the president of the country at the parliamentary election for the president. Unlike President Ranil Wickremesinghe who came in from the opposition, Dullas Alahapperuma would have had a bigger base of reformist support from within the ruling party which could have been used as leverage for a change in the system that had led to the collapse of the economy.
The government has decided to present its proposed Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) to parliament for debate on April 25. The decision to delay calling for a vote on it, and using the government’s majority not to bulldoze its decision is to be welcomed. The government needs to reconsider its present formulation as it would impact on the democratic space and rights available to political parties, trade unions and civic activists. In any legal reform, the fundamental rights and protection of citizens need to be guaranteed. The power of the people is shared with the government for their benefit as per the constitution. The ATA fails to achieve both these objectives. The draft ATA presented by the government has several features that are worse than the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) that it is intended to replace.
President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s stock is rising high in the higher echelons of society where there is virtual unanimity that the president’s handling of the economic crisis has been masterful. The president’s achievement is seen in his restoration of order out of the chaos of the Aragalaya period and by getting the IMF to grant its biggest ever loan to the country. The message is going out that the president is the best man for the job and that there is no alternative to him. Shortly after the IMF loan came through the government reduced the price of petrol and diesel by a significant amount and also brought down the price of several other essential commodities.
A year after the protest movement took off into a mammoth public display of the popular desire for change, it appears to be no more. What appears on the streets on and off is a pale imitation of the mighty force of people rich and poor, from north and south, who occupied the main roads of downtown Colombo for more than three months. The government under President Ranil Wickremesinghe is leaving no room for the people to get on the streets again. This has been through a combination of both efficient and repressive policies that exceed those of the predecessor government.