The chairperson of the presidential commission on one country, one law, Ven Galagodaathe Gnanasara has expressed the view that the country should be ruled by the Sri Lanka army for a few years to put it right. Implicit in his assertion, if rightly conveyed by the Tamil language media to which he gave his interview, is his lack of faith in democracy. Also implicit is the preference for top-down decision making that is inherent in the military together with the use of force to subdue the opposition. So far the opposition to the government has been muted, inside the heads of people, but with time it is bound to spill outside with the economy in steep decline and corruption and impunity on the rise. Difficult decisions need to be made before the people’s frustrations take a public form.
Headstrong and misguided leadership has brought the country to a sorry pass. The Fitch Rating agency has downgraded Sri Lanka to a rank of CC. This reflects its view of an increased probability of a default event in coming months in light of Sri Lanka’s worsening external liquidity position and drop in foreign-exchange reserves. The government has responded by finding fault with the ratings agency for being biased and not looking at the entirety of the country’s financial situation and likely sources of foreign exchange inflows. The governor of the Central Bank had stated that the fast-depleting foreign reserves will receive a boost before the end of the year. On the other hand, the grim reality is that with every passing month the country’s foreign reserves have been shrinking and positive predictions to the contrary have not materialised.
In appointing the new Right to Information commissioners to five year terms, the government has chosen persons with credibility within human rights organisations. Two in particular are worthy of mention. Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena who was part of the previous commission has been a foremost and fearless critic of corrupt and undemocratic governance that spans many governments as a newspaper columnist and lawyer. Jagath Liyana Arachchi, also a lawyer, has been a source of strength to civil society as a political commentator and resource person at training programmes on issues of human rights, reconciliation and good governance. Their appointment to the Right to Information Commission will ensure that the positive role of the RTI Commission will continue.
The killing of a Sri Lankan in Pakistan by a frenzied mob who accused him of committing an act of blasphemy serves as a grim reminder of the ever-present danger of pent-up emotion exploding in society. Over the eons, religion has served to humanize the more primitive nature lurking within human beings. “Be kind to the stranger in your midst, because you were once strangers in the land of Egypt,” is the biblical injunction too often ignored by the very people who profess to follow its teachings. It is not only in Pakistan that such inhuman acts have occurred, especially when there has been a failure of national leadership to instill a higher ethos of morality in the people, too often for the sake of electoral gain.
Twice every year, the situation in the North and East of the country resembles that which existed during the three decades of war. One occasion is during May 18-19 which is the anniversary of the end of the war in 2009. The other is November 26-27 which used to be celebrated by the LTTE as Heroes Day when they remembered their war dead. Even though the war ended twelve years ago, these two days have the capacity to mobilise the sentiments of the Tamil people particularly in the North and East and to generate an equivalent opposite reaction in the government which leads to a heightened military presence. The period 2015-19, in which the government actively sought to promote a reconciliation process that gave more leeway to Tamil sentiment was one of de-escalation.
“There is a conversation between Lord Buddha and his disciple Ananda in which Ananda declares, ‘This is half of the holy life, lord: admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie.’ The Buddha replies: Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life. When a monk has admirable people as friends, companions, & comrades, he can be expected to develop & pursue the Noble Eightfold Path.” Upaddha Sutta (SN 45.2)
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has appointed a presidential task force to take forward the concept one country, one law that proved to be an effective slogan at the election campaign that won him the presidency in 2019. Of course, those were different times. At that time the country was still trying to recover from the shock and demoralisation of the Easter bombing that had taken place six months before. The Muslim community came under special scrutiny as the suicide bombers had been Muslim. The concept of one country, one law came across as a powerful unifying theme to the majority of the population who felt that ethnic and religious minorities had created enclaves, both in territory and in law, which undermined the unity of the country.
Even as the country appears to be getting embroiled in more and more conflict internally, where dialogue has broken down or not taken place at all, there has been the appearance of success internationally. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa will be leading a delegation this week to Scotland to attend the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26). Both the president, at the UN General Assembly in New York, and Foreign Minister Prof G L Peiris at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva seem to have made positive impacts on their audiences and especially amongst the diplomatic community with speeches that gave importance to national reconciliation based on dialogue and international norms.
There are statements emanating from the government that it is planning to conduct provincial council elections in the early part of next year. It is reported that cash-strapped though it is, the government will be providing parliamentarians who are in charge of district development with Rs 100 million each to engage in development activities in their electorates. In addition, former members of provincial councils and local government authority members will also be entitled to substantial monetary resources to do likewise. If these large sums of money are made available to politicians to spend prior to the election, they could contribute to the thinking that the government is investing in development for better times ahead despite the hardships of the present. But the cost of this gamble which will include printing money could be high, so there must be other motivations.
Challenges such as the three month long teachers’ strike, the organic fertilizer crisis and the unconscionable case of prisoner intimidation remain to be resolved. But since returning from the United States where he addressed the UN General Assembly, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has expressed his views on matters concerning the country with pledges to enact a new constitution and to provide for electoral change. These are changes that have not been possible to implement for the past several years, if not decades, with any measure of success. The president made these pledges at the anniversary celebrations of the Sri Lanka Army whose contributions in the past during the war, and also in the past two years in dealing with the Covid pandemic, he extolled.