THIS year’s Independence Day national event was significant for two reasons. It was the first to be celebrated under the leadership of president Gotabaya Rajapaksa of whom much is expected, both in terms of giving meaning to effective government and in making the transition to the ethos and infrastructure of a developed society. During his period as secretary of urban development, the cities were beautified and modernised. Giving further substance to the positive expectations of him is also his track record as the defence secretary who survived an LTTE suicide attack and was a key member of the state’s defence apparatus that won the war defying expectations. Prior to him, the country had engaged in more than a quarter of a century of indecisive warfare that was sapping its morale and financial and human resources.
This display of decisive leadership to end the war has given rise to the expectation that the president can lead the country again to victory over a myriad of evils that threaten to engulf it. Among the challenges that president Rajapaksa is expected to tackle in a decisive manner are the runaway corruption in state institutions as revealed in the multiple bond scams and the Sri Lankan airlines bribery case. These two cases of corruption are in the limelight at the present time on account of the huge sums that have been misappropriated. However, the country is rife with similar instances of corrupt practices although the amounts may be smaller. Another challenge that the president is well suited to tackle is the lethargy in the state sector which he encountered first hand during the surprise visits he paid to several such institutions.
The second reason for the anticipation of the Independence Day celebration was the prospect of getting a further indication from the president as regards the future direction that the country would take under his leadership. Although nearly three months have passed since the election victory of president Rajapaksa, there remains a considerable uncertainty as regards the future direction of the country. The government’s election campaign was very much focused on national security and catered primarily to the ethnic majority community’s concerns. These included strong critiques of the previous government’s policies that appeared to cater to the ethnic minority interests and were deferential to the demands of international human rights organisations.
IN THE immediate aftermath of the change of government there were concerns that the new government would reverse the space given to ethnic minorities, opposition parties and civil society. However, this has not materialised in a uniform manner. One reason could be that the government has only a minority of parliamentary seats at the present time which makes it difficult to pass new legislation unless the opposition parties agree to cooperate. At the same time there is regression such as the opening of checkpoints on the road to and from the North and East. Bus travellers are asked to get down and walk to the checkpoints with their bags even at dead of night. More and more civil society groups are reporting that they are being visited by intelligence personnel. Among those so visited were the civil society group, and even religious clergy, who sang the national anthem in both Sinhala and Tamil in Colombo.
As a result, there is uncertainty about government policies and in particular the space it is prepared to give other actors to do their political and civil society work. This situation of uncertainty regarding political and civic freedoms is likely to continue until the forthcoming general elections at which the government is expected to win comfortably. The positive expectations of president Rajapaksa coupled with the protracted crisis within the main opposition party concerning its leadership are fuelling the hopes of a big win. Unlike the government which made the transition to a new leadership relatively smoothly, the opposition’s efforts at transition do not appear to be succeeding. The inability of the opposition to settle its leadership problems has diverted its energies to infighting rather than to being a counter to the government. As a result government leaders are talking in terms of obtaining a two-thirds majority in parliament at the forthcoming elections that would enable them to engage in constitutional change which could set the stage for more centralised state control over society.
In this context, president Rajapaksa’s Independence Day address was reassuring as he expressed positive and straightforward principles of governance. At the outset of his speech itself he laid down the foundational principles of freedom and liberty that would guide his government. Without qualifying his assertions he said, ‘Every citizen living in Sri Lanka has the right to live freely and securely. We will always ensure their right to think freely, hold independent opinions, and express themselves without any hindrance. We will always respect the right of any citizen to follow the religion of his or her choice. Every citizen has the right of free association and of free assembly. We will always defend the right of every Sri Lankan citizen to participate in the political and governance processes through his or her elected representatives. We consider all these as rights of human beings that no one can challenge.’
PRESIDENT Rajapaksa also reiterated his position first articulated in his oath taking speech shortly after being sworn in as president when he said he would be the president of all Sri Lankans, including those who had not voted for him. It is possible that having spent many years in the United States, the oldest democracy in the world, which is known as a melting pot of ethnic and religious identities, the president would have a broader perspective on racial issues that many other more parochial and insular Sri Lankan leaders may not have. This non-racial attitude would be strengthened by his commitment to merit as the basis of selection and to technocratic solutions to developmental problems.
In his Independence Day speech, the president applied these principles to the country’s ethnically and religiously plural society by saying, ‘In a democracy, when the leader is elected following a legitimate process, he becomes the president of all the people of the country. During his term of office, he must serve the entire Sri Lankan people. He is not bound to serve only the interests of the people who voted for him. I have the vision that I must serve as the leader of the country looking after all citizens rather than serve as a political leader concerned only about a particular community. As the president today, I represent the entire Sri Lankan nation irrespective of ethnicity, religion, party affiliation or other differences.’
Mostly everything that the president said in his Independence Day speech, when looked at in and of itself was exemplary. The challenge will be to implement these ideas in a manner that gains the trust and confidence of all sections of the country’s multi-ethnic and multi-religious population, who have been deeply divided and scarred by years of conflict, war and terrorism. This reality was reflected in the singing of the national anthem in Sinhala only at the national event in Colombo, even while the national anthem was sung in both Sinhala and Tamil in the north and east and in other parts where Tamil-speakers are the dominant population. Students at the University of Jaffna put up black flags in protest while the TNA did not participate in the Independence Day celebrations in Colombo.
The logic and spirit of the president’s Independence Day speech would be to end the distinction between centre and regions, so that the same rule applies all over the country. The growth of regionalism was a result of the regions being treated unequally. Equal treatment over a period of time may lead the people of the regions to believe they no longer need to be regions, but part of the whole. Firm and inclusive leadership that is cognizant of the pluralism and diversity within the country and embraces it all with equal commitment is what Sri Lanka needs in its transition.
Jehan Perera is executive director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka.