WHEN president Maithripala Sirisena first took up the challenge of tackling the country’s drug problem, its critics saw it as an idiosyncratic exercise that would soon fizzle out. The president’s championing of the death penalty made it seem to be more an individual rather than as a collective position of the government. Although Sri Lanka has had the death penalty in its laws, and public opinion surveys show popular backing for it, the death penalty has not been implemented for over four decades. The Buddhist ethos that is dominant in the country is one in which the taking of life is not condoned. In addition, the country has ratified international agreements in which the spirit is to protect human life under all circumstances.
Contrary to expectations, the president’s campaign against drugs has been both expanding and bearing fruit. Every week, if not every day, there are news flashes about the arrest of yet another drug dealer or about the apprehension of yet another huge consignment of drugs. Sirisena has sought to dispel any doubts about his seriousness to vanquish the drug lords. He has declared publicly that April 1 being April Fool’s day nor not, that the public destruction of a vast quantity of drugs that have been seized, will, indeed, take place. He has also promised to ensure that the destruction of other stocks of drugs that have been seized would take place publicly on a regular basis. This transparency will lay to rest the doubts in the minds of those who have a critical orientation towards the government.
The president’s resolute leadership in tackling the drug-related problems has also had the outcome of bringing other social and political forces into the anti-drugs campaign. An example would be the recent protest march and rally organised in Mattakkuliya by the Catholic Church led by Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith in which the president, prime minister and senior members of the government participated. The cardinal issued a pastoral letter urging all parishes and institutions to stage a demonstration on key roads in Colombo on March 31 after Sunday Mass denouncing drug trafficking. Sirisena’s personal interest in the issue has given an umbrella of protection to those who might otherwise not have wished to tackle a dangerous issue in which those who have a lot to lose could be dangerous enemies.
IN ADDITION to the main anti-drug event that took place in Mattakkuliya on Sunday that was attended by thousands of participants, there were also small-scale events that took place simultaneously in all 130 parishes in the vicinity of Catholic Churches in the Colombo area. One such event took place under the leadership of Fr Felician Perera, the parish priest of St Mary’s Church, Bambalapitiya. Over a hundred people engaged in a march on the main road. They carried banners and placards calling for an end to drug trafficking and to the havoc it was creating within families.
As explained by Fr Felician on this occasion there is a need for a three-track approach to dealing with the drug problem. The first track would be to create awareness of the problem of the drug trade and drug addiction and the danger that this poses to society including to those who are not currently being affected by the problem. Very often those who are not directly affected by a problem prefer not to get involved in dealing with it. They hope that the problem will not come to them. This leads to a lack of public spiritedness and to general apathy. There is a need for a process of confidence building to enable people who have got traumatised by the human rights violations and governance under a state of emergency during the long period of war, to lose their fear and sense of being vulnerable to those who might act against them outside of the law.
The second track is to strengthen the sense of community by engaging in joint activities. This spirit was evident in those who participated in the march and rally at Bambalapitiya. There was a discussion about how the drug problem was coming closer home and how even children of families living in the vicinity of the church have fallen victim to the problem of drug addiction. At the conclusion of the joint activities there was a request that the joint action should not end with this one, but should also take on the challenges of other problems such as corruption.
THE third track that needs to be taken on is to deal with the roots of the problem. If this problem is not tackled, then all that is being done is to engage in firefighting, where one fire is extinguished only to restart elsewhere. So far it appears that many of those being arrested are more in the middle tier of drug trafficking than at its core. Getting to the core requires an act of political will and courage, where the leadership of the government decides to crack down and actively pursue those who are breaking the law and are behind this ultra-lucrative trade. At the Mattakkuliya rally, Sirisena promised to end the drug problem within three months. With less than a year to go before he relinquishes the presidency Sirisena may be thinking about the legacy he will leave the country.
At the very beginning of his term as president, Sirisena on his own volition made the most important change for good governance and better justice in the country by passing the 19th amendment to the constitution that reduced the president’s powers and strengthened the institutions responsible for law and order and justice, especially the courts and the police. The 19th amendment was far reaching because it also strengthened other independent institutions too, such as the public service commission and the human rights commission. This has made governance in Sri Lanka less arbitrary and more law abiding than what it was. There is today less fear and more freedom for individuals to protest and to oppose the government than there was in the past.
The parallel to the ethnic conflict that continues to divide and debilitate the country is worth noting. The three track solution has applicability to this problem as well. The first track would be to create awareness about the issues that arise when ethnic majorities and ethnic minorities coexist in the same polity. They each have their own historical experiences and fears which are passed down generation by generation. There is also a need to engage in social cohesion activities that bring the different ethnic communities together, such as at the time of traditional festivals. The forthcoming Sinhala and Tamil New Year would offer such an opportunity. But most of all there is the need for political leadership to resolve the ethnic conflict, such as what President Sirisena is giving to put an end to the drug problem.
Jehan Perera is executive director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka.
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