New Sri Lankan Government Walks Tightrope of Ethnic Nationalism
Taking the Oath: Difficult times ahead for Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena
COLOMBO: In the immediate aftermath of the change of government and government policy following the presidential election there has been a flurry of visits to Sri Lanka by representatives of foreign governments. The representatives of the foreign governments who are presently visiting Sri Lanka come with a broad mandate to get acquainted with the new situation and to assess the prospects for sustained change. Sri Lanka has several unique factors that give it an importance that is disproportionate to its size. Its strategic location in the Indian Ocean and its large and active Diaspora in many countries would be two of the issues that cater to the self-interest of those countries. There are also more altruistic explanations too.
The peaceful transition from an increasingly authoritarian government that appeared to be entrenched in power to a multi-party government in which there is cohabitation between a president and prime minister who come from rival parties has few if any precedents. The new government’s willingness to engage in dialogue with the international community is another positive change of direction. The constructive engagement of the present time in contrast to the approach of the former government whose lack of engagement with the international community was based on an emphasis on Sri Lanka’s national sovereignty. In their eyes, engagement accompanied by change was equated as giving in to international pressure. The former government feared that any accommodation on issues of human rights would open the door to an international probe on war crimes.
The outcome of this refusal to engage was detrimental to the country’s national interests. The former government’s response to the international pressure on it was to appoint its own bodies, such as the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission and the Missing Persons Commission. But even here its implementation of recommendations made was not convincing and did not give any appearance of a change of heart. This led to the gradual imposition of economic sanctions, such as the withdrawal of EU GSP Plus concession, and to the setting up of the independent investigation into war crimes by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. This special UN mandated team is scheduled to present its findings at the March session of the UN Human Rights Council meeting. The report is likely to generate controversy within Sri Lanka, both on account of its findings and the recommendations that are made.
The representatives of the international governments who are currently visiting Sri Lanka are getting two contrary messages regarding the timing of the release of the UN report on war crimes. One opinion is that they should seek the release of the report as scheduled in March. The other opinion is that the report should be released after the general elections scheduled for June. The first of these two points of view reflect the concern that if the report is not released for the March session of the UNHRC, it may be overtaken by other events and lose its relevance. The other view is that an early release of the report, in the run up to the general election, will enable it to be used as a political weapon within Sri Lanka, and this will be injurious to inter-ethnic harmony and reconciliation in the country.
The promise of the joint opposition, which has been repeated after President Sirisena’s election victory, that the new government will hold snap general elections as promised in their 100 day programme may come back to haunt them. Elections in a multi ethnic and multi religious society can become divisive as rival political parties seek to gather votes to themselves. One of the easier ways is to rouse up issues of ethnic identity and the threats to one ethnic group from the others. Now that the joint opposition forms the new government they have to face this challenge, and the reality of competition between political parties that formed their joint opposition alliance. But this will also narrow the options for change, and for dealing with contentious issues, prior to the holding of the general elections.
The victory of President Sirisena at the presidential election was by a very narrow margin. Although he got the largest part of his vote from the Sinhalese community, his opponent, former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, got even more votes from the Sinhalese community than did President Sirisena. The former president utilized the power of ethnic nationalism to the maximum to bolster his voter base. This is a reality that those who are desirous of change in the polity, be they Tamil nationalists or international human rights activists, need to be conscious of. It is also a reality that the new government is also conscious of, and makes them careful in relation to nationalism. The defeat of the former president who sought to mobilize Sinhalese nationalism will be seen as a setback for Sinhalese nationalism. Therefore the new president will need to be especially careful not to make the Sinhalese community feel that their interests are being undermined. It is necessary for the political leadership of the ethnic minorities to realize this and to give more time and space to the new government.
Despite the need to be cautious the government has made some symbolic concessions to reconciliation. At the Independence Day celebration a statement on peace and reconciliation was read out in all three languages. The statement responded to the recommendation of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation which recommended that a separate event be set apart on the National Day to express solidarity and empathy with all victims of the tragic conflict. The Declaration of Peace stated, among others, that "As we commemorate the 67th Independence Day of our nation today, we pay our respects to all the citizens of this country, of all ethnicities and religions, who lost their lives due to the tragic conflict that affected this land for over three decades, and for all the victims of violence since Independence.” The breadth of this statement included the rebels who died as well, not only in the LTTE led separatist conflict but in the JVP insurrections as well.
However, reflecting the power of nationalism on both sides of the ethnic divide, the participation of some of the top leaders of the TNA at this year’s Independence Day celebration, after a break of over four decades, has given rise to controversy within the Tamil polity. Tension within the TNA which is the largest Tamil parliamentary party has risen over the participation of two of its leader R Sampanthan and deputy secretary M A Sumanthiran at this event. The last time the Tamil leadership attended the ceremony was in 1972 prior to the passage of the first Republican Constitution which replaced the Soulbury Constitution bequeathed to Sri Lanka by the departing British colonial rulers. The 1972 Constitution was passed without accepting any of the proposals made by the mainstream Tamil parties, which saw the worsening of the political alienation of the Tamils from the Sri Lankan polity. Those who opposed their participation appear to have done so as there is still no agreement on a political solution that would meet the aspirations of the Tamil people.
The role of the ethnic and religious minorities in the victory of President Maithripala Sirisena at the presidential election was considerable. Between 80 to 95 percent of the Tamil and Muslim vote respectively went to President Sirisena. This has led to a renewed sense of confidence within the minority communities of their power and role within the Sri Lankan polity. Along with their greater sense of confidence is an expectation that the wrongs of the past will be rectified soon. It is to be expected that there will be impatience that the political and human rights they have long fought for and lost would soon be vindicated following the election result. The victory of President Sirisena at the presidential election was only made possible by the joining together of a rainbow coalition of opposition parties representing different political ideologies and ethnicities. But this has not reduced the power of narrow ethnic nationalism in the country. It continues to exist on all sides and will continue to be a potent force until supplanted by a broader Sri Lankan nationalism, as evidenced by the Tamil leaders who chose to attend the Independence Day celebrations.