The unexpected resurrection of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa’s hope to be a third term president of the country has taken the centre stage of political debate. It also highlights the vulnerability of the rule of law. One of the memorable phrases of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission appointed by the former president to cope with the international demand for accountability for war-time violations of human rights was that the Rule of Law rather than the Rule of Men should prevail if the tragedies of the past were not to repeat themselves. But to politicians whose quest for power is unlimited such principles of democratic governance may be dispensed with as and when the need arises.
One of the areas in which the present government has been underperforming is in the area of communications. Previous governments have been conscious of the importance of communicating their messages to enable the general public to be informed of their achievements. They have also acted upon that very strong political impulse. There was a cartoon in the early 1990s showing former president Ranasinghe Premadasa emerging from out of multiple television sets. This was at a time when the government had ordered all television stations existing at that time in the country to carry the government news bulletin at the same time. The plethora of television stations of today did not exist at that time and it was easier for the government to compel the few independent television stations at that time to fall into line.
With the next presidential election due before the end of next year, and with a possibility that an early election might be called even by January next year, the question of who might be the next presidential candidates is getting to the fore. There has been speculation that the felicitation ceremony for Health Minister Dr Rajitha Senaratne on obtaining an international honour was a launching pad for his bid to be a presidential candidate from the government side. The opposition has not been without its share of contestation too. The statement issued by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s office that he had not yet decided on who should be the opposition’s presidential candidate, and to disregard the claims that he had already selected his brother Gotabaya, is an indication of the tensions beneath the surface which are not limited only to the government.
Military personnel stationed in the North are often perplexed when told that their continued presence is objectionable to the local population. Their experience is different. When they ask the people about their presence, the answer they say they receive is a positive one whether in term of preserving law and order or in terms of providing material assistance. The sceptic would point out no civilian population in a post-war setting would be willing to tell uniformed military personnel that their continued presence is objectionable. But this may not be the only truth of the matter.
Early in the morning as I walked down a street in Jaffna, I heard a cry “Annai, annai.” Initially I took no notice and kept on walking, but the cry was persistent. So I looked back to see two small children behind the gate of their house. I smiled at them and recommenced my walk. But again the cry “Annai, annai” rent the air. This time I turned back and walked to the source of the sound. The elder one, a girl of about six years of age, ran away but the little one, a boy of no more than three stood his ground. Eyes gleaming and with a drippy nose he stood and smiled. I reached out through the chained gate and stroked the top of his head and he laughed happily and ran away.
The government has commenced launching its Gam Peraliya or rapid rural development programme and is also about to commence prosecutions under the fast track anti-corruption courts it has established to fulfil its election time promises. The extent to which these two initiatives will capture the public imagination and win hearts and minds remains to be seen. The general public discourse at the present time is decidedly unfavourable to the government. With sixteen months to go before the next presidential election the hope that the government can be redeemed remains low. The prime complaint against the present government is that it is like a bullock cart that is being pulled along by an ox and a buffalo who are not in synchrony.
Just as in the south in the Sinhalese-majority areas where ethnic nationalism is being used for political advantage, a similar phenomenon is taking place in the north and east of the country in the Tamil-majority areas. It is being used in the north, among others, to protest against the increase in criminal activities that most recently included the rape and murder of a six year old child. The rise in ethnic nationalism is taking place with a corresponding decline in the electoral strength of those who are taking moderate and non-racist positions. This was visible at the recently concluded local government elections where nationalist parties improved their performance at the cost of moderate parties both in the north and south.
The war ended nine years ago but the country has still to address issues of healing and transition meaningfully or effectively. This may be disappointing but it is not too surprising. Dealing with the past is never easy. In Colombia, where a peace accord between the government and rebels was signed in 2016, and ended a five decade long civil war which had led to more than 200,000 deaths, a presidential election was held last month. The government candidate from the party of the president who had signed the peace accord lost and the opposition candidate from the party of a hardline president who fought the war against the rebels won. This has thrown the internationally backed peace process into doubt even though the former president and rebel leader were awarded the Nobel peace prize.
The departure of the United States from the UN Human Rights Council will weaken a global institution which has been mandated to protect and uphold human rights throughout the world including Sri Lanka. The UN body was established in 2006 with the aim of promoting and protecting human rights around the globe, as well as investigating alleged human rights violations and is made up of 47 member states, which are selected by the UN General Assembly on a staggered basis each year for three-year-long terms. Members meet around three times a year to debate human rights issues and pass non-binding resolutions and recommendations by majority vote.
In the past two weeks there have been indications that the government parties are trying to sort out their differences. SLFP National Organiser, Minister Duminda Dissanayake has said that contrary to views expressed by some SLFP members, there were no discussions during the recent SLFP Central Committee meeting about the party trying to quit the National Unity Government. At the same time the Joint Opposition appears to have ruled out the possibility of reunification of the SLFP under President Maithripala Sirisena. Prof G L Peiris who heads the SLPP which outdid the SLFP at its maiden contest has said that they would also not be supporting the president in any re-election bid.