THE past weekend saw a meeting between 120 members of district inter-religious groups from Mannar in the Northern province, Puttalam in the Northwestern province and Nuwara Eliya in the Central province. Although diverse in region, ethnicity and religion, these community leaders demonstrated a high degree of goodwill in engaging with each other in private and group dialogue. Their meeting and their dialogue was a reassuring sign that that the vast majority of people in the country, whether Sinhala, Tamil or Muslim, and whether Buddhist, Hindu or Christian, share a common desire to live in peace and harmony with each other. The overall warmth of the interaction, and their hope that their future engagement would be constructive, contrasts with the rhetoric of political leaders that threatens to sunder the peace in the days to come.
There is once again a mass mobilisation taking place that compares with the mass mobilisation that took place two years ago, hardly a year after the change of government had taken place in January 2015. Before the year was out, those who had lost power because of their electoral defeat launched a tremendous mass mobilisation effort to resist and defeat the new government. They used the resources they had generated during the previous decade when it was they who were at the helm of the country’s affairs and began to organise long marches and organised mass rallies. Without giving the new government the time to settle in, they demanded that the government should step down to make way for them to return to power in a short time. Today in a return to that turbulent past, the joint opposition is planning another mass mobilisation effort.
The mass mobilisation efforts of the opposition political parties that took place two years ago did not bring down the government. The government had not only won a five-year mandate to govern the country according to the constitution, they also had the powers of the presidency as well as a two-thirds majority in the parliament. However, the opposition protests had another outcome and probably the intended outcome. They deterred the government from delivering on the more controversial of its election-time promises. These included taking action against those charged with corruption, in pursuing those accused of violating human rights and securing a constitutional settlement of the ethnic conflict. The government appointed commissions of inquiry into allegations of large scale corruption, expedited the police investigation into human rights and started a constitutional reform process. But the results so far are desultory, giving rise to a popular perception that the government is not a strong or effective one.
THE timing of the joint opposition rally in Colombo is significant. It comes shortly after the entire opposition in parliament failed to vote on the provincial council electoral commission report on the delimitation of constituencies. The rejection of this report has meant that the provincial council elections will necessarily be postponed. Provincial council elections are currently overdue in three provinces and will shortly fall due in another three provincial councils. If the joint opposition had, indeed, been concerned about having provincial elections soon, they would not have abstained from the vote when the matter was taken up in the parliament. It is reported that among the main issues to be raised at the mass rally that is to take place shortly is the postponement of provincial elections and the demand for early national elections.
However the joint opposition’s failure to vote in the parliament on the issues of the delimitation report suggests that having early elections is not the real goal of the opposition parties. The opposition is reported to be facing its own problems with regard to elections. It has yet to decide on who would be its presidential candidate. The attempt to resurrect former president Mahinda Rajapaksa’s candidacy, when he has already been elected twice and the 19th amendment bans a third term, is an indication that the opposition is at the end of is tether on this issue. In these circumstances, it is not likely that the joint opposition wishes to force early elections. It is more likely that two other factors are motivating the opposition to make this effort.
One would be to deter the government from delivering on its promises made during the period of the last national election campaign more than three years ago. The speakers whose voices are most likely to be strident at the forthcoming mass rally will be those who talk in terms of threats to the nation and the dangers posed by the ethnic and religious minorities. It is reported that among the opposition slogans will be to defeat federalism and evoke blessings on the armed forces. Another would be to protest against the alleged persecution of government’s opponents by trying them before special courts. The setting up of the anti-corruption special court, with senior judges at its helm, and with the court mandated to sit continuously till they arrive at a verdict, is likely to be a matter of concern to members of the former government who hold leading positions in the joint opposition.
THE second reason for this mass rally would be as an image building exercise and to demonstrate to the voting public that they are a massive force that is destined to win the next set of national elections. The joint opposition intends its present political advantage over the government to be preserved. They scored victory over the government parties at the local government elections held earlier this year in February. It is reported that the each of the 3,475 local council members belonging to the opposition will be expected to bring a busload of people each, which will be a very large number. Political parties have mastered the method of bussing in vast numbers of people through the sponsorship of travel and meal costs. The resources for such an initiative will either come from the political parties themselves or from the local business community which is forced to take out insurance policies against a change of government.
At each and every turn, people are willing and eager to criticise the government mainly for its failures to deliver on its election-time promises which accounts for its dismal performance at the local government elections. However, the memory of the past abuses that took place under the previous government also remains alive. The government continues to retain the appreciation of the people on account of the fact that people of all regions, religions and ethnicities feel there is greater political freedom at the present time. The challenge for the government is how to prevent those who are extremists and who have strident voices from taking the centre stage and making the majority of people in the country also become extremist like them.
At the gathering of the community leaders of the three districts of Mannar, Puttalam and Nuwara Eliya, there was evidence of thought and relationships that belie the strident and racist rhetoric of political leaders. One woman community leader said that gatherings such as the one she was attending with participants from different regions, ethnicities and religions had provided a platform for her to see what is not seen, to hear what is not heard and to learn what is not known. A Buddhist monk spoke of the Maha Gosinga Sutta where deep in the forest the Buddha urged his disciples to see the beauty of human diversity and coexistence that dwelt within that forest and not only the natural beauty of the forest environment. There is depth and wisdom in Sri Lankan society that is enabling it to transcend thirty years of war at the present time and can also transcend the political storms that are about to descend upon the country. The government needs to deliver on its election-time promises having confidence in the people and not hold back for fear of the political backlash.
Jehan Perera is executive director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka.
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