- Monday, 15 August 2016
The issue of fulfilling the pledges made to the international community in Geneva seemed to threaten the unity of the government even a month ago. In October 2015 the government co-sponsored the resolution on Sri Lanka that was sponsored by the United States and backed by the majority of countries in the UN Human Rights Council. There were publicly articulated differences of opinion in which Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera sought to reassure the international community that the government would be standing by its pledges while President Maithripala Sirisena sought to reassure the ethnic majority population that the country’s sovereignty would not be jeopardized or the soldiers who fought in the war would not be hauled before international tribunals.
The passage of the law setting up the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) has laid to rest doubts regarding the government’s commitment, and ability, to take forward the reconciliation process, to remain politically strong within the country and also to deliver on the promises it made in Geneva. The OMP is one of the four domestic mechanisms the government undertook to set up in response to the international pressure for Sri Lanka to agree to international mechanisms to ensure accountability for war crimes and serious human rights violations. The other three mechanisms are a truth commission, an office of reparations and a special court.
- Friday, 12 August 2016
Civil society members from all parts of the country walked into Temple Trees last week to meet with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. This was the first time for most of them. This included religious clergy from both the North and South. In past years, they had been more accustomed to the government treating them in a hostile manner which meant Temple Trees was out of bounds. One of the Buddhist monks said he chose not to come in the past, because he did not agree with the practices of those who had been incumbents. The meeting was held in the super size meeting hall built by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa during his two terms as president. Although Temple Trees is usually the domain of the prime minister and not the president, the former president made it his abode. Thousands of people from all walks of life were invited to Temple Trees to meet with him at state expense. The giant meeting hall could easily seat over 2000 persons in air conditioned comfort. Some who were at the meeting said that it was capable of seating as many as 7000.
The thrust of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s presentation to those who were gathered there was that the government wished to make NGOs and civil society organizations become partners with the government. He said this would not be only at the national level but also at the grassroots level. NGOs at the grassroots level have often got to fight against prejudice due to the belief within the government officials that they are anti government or doing the bidding of foreign donors. But today at the national level, NGOs are performing an important national consultation process that connects with what the government is preparing to do in terms of the transitional justice and reconciliation process. One of the key requirements of the international community is a process of public consultations that would legitimize the investigation into the past and the accountability, reparations and institutional reforms that come out of it.
- Friday, 12 August 2016
The determination with which the opposition parties pursued their protest march was not an indication of their strength. The march seemed to make little sense even as it wended its way down the hills from Kandy, the last kingdom of the Sinhalese to Colombo, the present capital of Sri Lanka. The symbolism was apposite for one of the main slogans of the protest marchers was the betrayal of the country to foreign forces. There were many onlookers though relatively few of them joined in the march. Usually such a bid to generate spontaneous public protest would come towards the end of a government’s term of office when it has over-extended its stay in power and the people are dying for a change. But a mere year and a half of a government which has four more years to go is too soon to evoke a people’s movement to overthrow, or even to destabilize, the government.
The main slogans of the protest marchers related to the economic hardships faced by the people and to warnings about the threat to national sovereignty posed by the government’s constitutional reforms and war crimes trials against the security forces. The slogans regarding the economic hardships, and the much resented Value Added Tax would have evoked an empathetic feeling amongst the bystanders. But these are not issues that could move people to seek a change of government that is yet finding its feet, and has only been in power for a relatively short period of time. It is not as if the people are unaware of how the cost of living was going up during the period of the previous government. It is also much more widely known that government contracts now require more time, as they have to go through established processes, and are not granted at the discretion of those in positions of power.
- Monday, 25 July 2016
The ethnic fault line in society was exposed in the clash between two groups of students at Jaffna University last week. The immediate cause of the dispute was a late request by Sinhalese students at the university to perform the traditional Sinhalese Kandyan dance at a ceremony to welcome incoming new students. This request was turned down by the organizers of the event. However, the following day when the event took place a Kandyan dancing troupe made its appearance which was resisted by the larger student body. The end result was a violent confrontation between two groups of students who divided on ethnic lines. This resulted in the temporary closure of the university, and the university administration, in an abundance of caution busing the Sinhalese students out of Jaffna.
Both sides to the dispute had their cases to make. On the side of the organizers the previous practice had been to only have a traditional Tamil cultural procession as an opening item on the agenda. The request for a change had come only the day before the event when the programme for the event had already been finalized. On the other hand, the students who wanted the insertion of the Kandyan dance argued that a significant proportion of the incoming students were Sinhalese and in addition the Science Faculty which they were joining had a majority of Sinhalese students in it. This was a problem that might have had an outcome based on a win-win solution if the focus had been on meeting the needs of the two student groups rather than on the contrary positions they took, which alas had no meeting point.