THE two main factors that caused a change of government in Sri Lanka in 2015 are reappearing now. The first is the feeling amongst the religious and ethnic minorities that the government is not doing enough to protect them. During the period of the former government, the minorities even felt that the government was opposed to them. This was on account of its inadequate efforts at post-war normalisation and the growth of religious intolerance. The election of the new government came as a great relief to the minorities. Their sense of fear and jeopardy lifted in large measure. Even though the military presence in the north and the east did not significantly diminish, there was a revival of civilian institutions. The government no longer came across as being a hostile entity.
Unfortunately at the present time, instead of consolidating this trust, the inaction and negative posturing by some leaders in the government are eroding trust. Today, there is a growing sense of disappointment about the government amongst the ethnic and religious minorities and also amongst large sections of the ethnic and religious majority population. This is on account of failure to honour promises made. During the 2015 election campaign, the two main themes of the opposition leaders who now head the country were the eradication of corruption and the restoration of the rule of law. There was widespread recognition that the previous government had breached the bounds of corruption. There was also widespread fear of the impunity with which the former government leaders wielded their powers of life and death.
The first sign of governmental backtracking on the two main issues that determined the course of the 2015 elections was the issue of corruption. The promise that the 19th amendment to the constitution brought, and the independent commissions that it set up, have been virtually negated. At the initial stages the appointment of an empowered Bribery and Corruption Commissioner gave confidence that those great social ills would no longer reign as number one in public life. However, the delays to take forward the corruption cases against those of the former government who had already been convicted in the court of public opinion dented the mood of optimism. The belief in the anti-corruption mission of the government took another body blow at the resistance to investigate the central bank bond scam.
THE common justifications given by government for the slow progress of the cases involving past corruption is that gathering evidence takes time. The legal cases have to be prepared carefully to prevent them from failing in the court of law. This is also the justification given by state officials when they are asked why the murder cases involving top journalists and sports personalities are not being pursued with the determination that they ought to be. However, the government was elected with a mandate to ensure the rule of law. It needs to give priority to delivering on the mandate which they sought from the people. Instead the government leaders who promised to make a change for the better for the country appear to be politically paralysed.
The whole point of leadership is to make a difference and carry one’s own support base. The government leaders promised to make a difference once they were elected. They need to deliver on their promises. But now they appear to be giving priority to preparing for the next round of elections when the two parties who form the government coalition may end up as rivals again as they were before the formation of the national unity government. The same attitude of giving priority to prevailing at the next election can be seen in the government’s hands-off attitude towards the problem of inter religious violence. Particularly concerning to the ethnic and religious minorities have been the insidious attacks against their places of worship and business.
There are incidents of violence against the religious and ethnic minorities being reported on an increasing basis from different parts of the country. Sometimes these incidents are not even reported in the mainstream media which leaves the majority of people knowing little of the problems that their fellow citizens in another part of the country are experiencing. Muslim places of worship and commercial establishments have been the special targets for attacks. Similar incidents of violence are taking place against Christians from small evangelical churches, which are most vulnerable to attack, as their places of worship are not frequented by a large population. Some of them are engaged in missionary activities which are provoking to sections of the larger population. But the practice of violence against them cannot be permitted.
THE government’s failure is to take concrete action to stop these acts of violence. Prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has said that the government will pass new laws to deal with the problem. But there are existing laws that permit the police to take necessary action. The bar association has called on the police ‘to take all security measures to ensure that these attacks against racial and religious communities do not occur and the attorney general to expedite the prosecution of all suspects in appropriate circumstances for offences under Chapter XV of the Penal Code and the provisions of the ICCPR Act, irrespective of their social status.’ The government needs to muster up the political will to appoint the correct people who will command the confidence of the law enforcement agencies to ensure that the rule of law prevails.
The government also needs to deliver on its other commitments. It promised constitutional reforms and it promised to implement transitional justice. Where constitutional reform is concerned the government promised to change the executive presidential system, the electoral system and the devolution of powers. There are news stories of discussions taking place and reports being submitted but without concrete progress in evidence. Where transitional justice is concerned the government promised to establish a truth commission, an office of missing persons, an office of reparations and a special court for war crimes. The government asked the United Nations for two more years and got it, but since then nothing more seems to be happening.
There is today an unacceptable gap between what the government has promised and what it is delivering. This inaction is sought to be justified on the grounds of politics. One is to say that with two parties that are traditional rivals at the helm, there is no consensus on which way to move. Another is to say that the government cannot afford to antagonise the Sinhalese majority. The problem is that the government is being strategic about remaining in power and viewing future elections. On the contrary, it needs to be strategic about delivering on its promises. If it fails to bring about the changes that it promised the coalition for change that contributed to bring it to power may not survive till the next election.
Jehan Perera is the executive director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka.
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