Jehan Perera Colombo TelegraphIt is disappointing that the hopes that were generated a year ago by President Ranil Wickremesinghe regarding the solution to the ethnic conflict appear to be receding at present. Shortly after he was elected president, the president gave indications that he would prioritise national reconciliation. He asserted that the 13th Amendment that established provincial councils was a part of the Constitution that needed to be implemented. He also pledged to solve the ethnic conflict by the time the country was celebrating its 75th anniversary on February 4. More than six months later there has been no progress on this matter. On the contrary there has been a reversal with influential voices questioning the need for the provincial council system growing louder even as faith in the president’s power to effect change from the top continues to grow.

Jehan Perera Colombo TelegraphThe situation in the country, particularly with regard to the economy and politics, can be described as stable but stagnant. The economy is stable in that it has not experienced further collapse in comparison to the kind witnessed last year when international bankruptcy was admitted. But the economy still continues to contract, with a contraction of over 11 percent taking place in the beginning part of the year. The shortages of goods and power sources that brought the people on to the streets in angry protest have not recurred. This has come as a relief as in other parts of the world international bankruptcy has been accompanied by successive rounds of economic collapse. The government’s ability to bring down the rate of inflation and eliminate shortages is recognised, though the shrinking demand due to price increases is continuing to debilitate living standards.

Jehan Perera Colombo TelegraphA little publicized march wended its way from Talaimannar in the north-west coast to Matale in the central hills. The march retraced the jungle track of 200 years ago that brought a flow of men and women in the tens of thousands from the south of India to work on the newly established tea plantations of Sri Lanka. The symbolic reenactment of that journey took place over the past fortnight. But only a handful could cope with the rigours of the long march and kept going from Talaimannar to Matale. Tens of thousands had perished in the previous centuries along the way. In some groups, as many as 40 percent died along the way. Those who trod the same route in the modern era were mindful that the ground they walked upon contained the graves of missing people of another era. The hundreds who joined the march at various points along the trail had all the modern amenities of paved roads, shops and eating places on the roadside and hygienic facilities to sleep and refresh themselves. They were treated with tolerance by most and with empathy by many.

Jehan Perera Colombo TelegraphThe government appears to be giving considerable attention to the national reconciliation process and issues arising from it. President Ranil Wickremesinghe is currently championing this process which was dormant for the past five years or more.  The prospects for national reconciliation reached their height during the last period when he gave leadership to the government in 2015-18. The reconciliation process at that time had much wider participation than at present.  As prime minister at that time, the president was able to have the entire parliament form itself into a constitutional committee which took on responsibility for different areas of constitutional reform.  With regard to dealing with the aftermath of the war, late foreign minister Mangala Samaraweera, former president Chandrika Kumaratunga and the Consultation Task Force formed out of civil society took on a multiplicity of tasks.

Jehan Perera Colombo TelegraphThe need to cope with the immediate realities of economic collapse and the resulting political protests have occupied the center stage of political interest for the past two years. But now President Ranil Wickremesinghe has brought the ethnic problem and reconciliation process back to the center stage of national politics, where it should be. The unresolved ethnic conflict continues to exert a baleful influence on the country’s efforts to respond to the economic and political crises. The belief that the ethnic conflict ended on the battlefields of Mullaitivu with the elimination of the LTTE leadership has long proved to be unfounded. The weakening of internal and overt Tamil resistance to domination by the centralised state has been accompanied by a strengthening of external interventions.

President Ranil Wickremesinghe has announced that he will convene a meeting with all political parties to decide on the implementation of the 13th Amendment in full or in part. Shortly after being elected president by parliament he pledged to resolve the ethnic conflict and take the burden off the shoulders of future generations. As part of his solution he referred to the need to fully implement the 13th Amendment, including the devolution of police and land powers that successive governments have not been willing to do in contravention of the constitutional clauses that necessitate them to do so. He responded to criticisms of his stance with intellectual clarity and pointed out that the devolution of police and land powers is already a part of the constitution, and if they were not to be implemented legally parliament needed to abolish them with a two-thirds majority.

Jehan Perera Colombo TelegraphThe stock market boomed after the much awaited domestic debt restructuring programme (DDR), but the national economy continues to be in deep trouble. It does not seem to have the productive capacity and the general population does not have the purchasing power to lift itself out of the doldrums. Even those at the top end of the production chain, the owners of factories, are lamenting the lack of consumer demand for their goods and services. People do not have the money to purchase their output. Examples are given of three lorries per day leaving the factory whereas 60 went out prior to the economic collapse. Or of factories that have laid off 50 of their 200 employees. The newspaper delivery man said that the sale of the state-owned newspapers by him has slumped. He explained that offices used to buy them and said 15 of the 18 offices he distributed them to in the neigbourhood had closed.

Jehan Perera Colombo TelegraphPresident Ranil Wickremesinghe notched up another achievement when parliament ratified the Domestic Debt Restructuring (DDR) programme with a majority of 60 votes with 122 members voting for and 62 against with 40 abstentions. Parliamentarians who would need to think about their re-election prospects would have been reluctant to vote for a programme that imposes more burdens on an already burdened population. But the president stood his ground, and by his vision of the country’s economic future, and the rest of the government acquiesced. The president has been successful in steering the ship of state into calmer waters. He is also setting in place laws like the proposed Anti Terrorism Act, the Broadcasting Authority Bill and the anticipated NGO Act which could be used in a sophisticated way to silence critics and to immobilize them.

Jehan Perera Colombo TelegraphThe ongoing session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva is proof enough that the international quest for justice and accountability in Sri Lanka is continuing. UN Human Rights High Commissioner Volker Turk, who presented the annual report, noted that “In Sri Lanka, although the government has regrettably rejected aspects of the Council’s resolutions related to accountability, it has continued to engage with our presence on the ground. Sri Lanka has received a dozen visits by mandate holders in the past decade and I encourage the authorities to implement their recommendations.” The change in the presidency from Gotabaya Rajapaksa to Ranil Wickremesinghe has made no difference to the expectations of the international community and to the demands placed on the government.

Jehan Perera Colombo TelegraphThe present stability in the country is taken as an indication that the situation is improving. The law and order, drop in inflation, and absence of visible shortages, such as in front of petrol stations, signifies a vast change as compared to the situation a year ago. But shortages continue, an example being “Jeevanee” (oral rehydration salt drink) which is necessary for those who are undergoing medical treatment for illnesses such as dengue or doing sports. The shortage of Jeevanee is said to be due to issues in importing raw materials needed to produce it locally. More expensive substitutes are available at more than double the price. Those who are able to make ends meet, and have a bird’s eye view of the situation, are generally appreciative of the government’s success in ensuring normalcy in the country.

Jehan Perera Colombo TelegraphThe arrest of parliamentarian and leader of the Tamil National People’s Front Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam would be yet another incident that feeds into the sense of unequal treatment of individuals and communities in the country. It also highlights two areas of particular concern. The first is the high level of surveillance that continues in the former war zones of the north and east. The visitors to those parts of the country would not fail to see the large presence of uniformed personnel in these two provinces, even at tourist sites. They remain as a visible reminder of the unsettled and violent conditions that prevailed since the late 1970s and which ended in May 2009. The failure on the part of the country to overcome the legacy of its violent past despite the passage of 14 eventful years is epitomized by the large spending still taking place on the security forces even in the midst of the general economic collapse.

Jehan Perera Colombo TelegraphThe 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.

Jehan Perera Colombo TelegraphWith 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.

Jehan Perera Colombo TelegraphCanadian 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.

Jehan Perera Colombo TelegraphThe 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.

Jehan Perera Colombo TelegraphThe 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.

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