Sri Lanka: A Protest March With High Stakes
COLOMBO: The determination with which the opposition parties pursued their protest march was not an indication of their strength. The march seemed to make little sense even as it wended its way down the hills from Kandy, the last kingdom of the Sinhalese to Colombo, the present capital of Sri Lanka. The symbolism was apposite for one of the main slogans of the protest marchers was the betrayal of the country to foreign forces.
There were many onlookers though relatively few of them joined in the march. Usually such a bid to generate spontaneous public protest would come towards the end of a government’s term of office when it has over-extended its stay in power and the people are dying for a change. But a mere year and a half of a government which has four more years to go is too soon to evoke a people’s movement to overthrow, or even to destabilize, the government.
The main slogans of the protest marchers related to the economic hardships faced by the people and to warnings about the threat to national sovereignty posed by the government’s constitutional reforms and war crimes trials against the security forces. The slogans regarding the economic hardships, and the much resented Value Added Tax would have evoked an empathetic feeling amongst the bystanders. But these are not issues that could move people to seek a change of government that is yet finding its feet, and has only been in power for a relatively short period of time. It is not as if the people are unaware of how the cost of living was going up during the period of the previous government. It is also much more widely known that government contracts now require more time, as they have to go through established processes, and are not granted at the discretion of those in positions of power.
On the other hand, the other main issue that the protest marchers sought to highlight, the so-called constitutional trap and sending war heroes off to international criminal courts to face trial, are too remote to be matters of public agitation at this time. The draft constitution is still far from being finalized. The opposition tried to spread the rumour that the new constitution would reduce the position of Buddhism. The government was able to explain that it has yet to receive even a first draft of the constitutional proposals.
What exists at the present time is the report of the Public Representations Committee, a consultative body that was appointed by the government to obtain the views of the people on constitutional reform. This committee did not make recommendations of its own. Instead it summarized the different views and opinions that were placed before it along with the preferred choices of its individual members.
Even as the Joint Opposition protest marchers were wending their way down from Kandy, Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera was briefing civil society and media on the government’s roadmap for implementing the promises it made to the international community in Geneva at the last two sessions of the UN Human Rights Council. It is a pity that instead of engaging constructively and critically with the government on issues such as VAT, constitutional reform and the reconciliation mechanisms, the Joint Opposition is going on to protest mode and trying to discredit what the government is doing. What the Joint Opposition is doing is to no avail, as the general public is unlikely to be impressed by their antics. The sight of leaders of the protest march dancing on the highways was neither edifying nor educative.
At the briefing, Minister Samaraweera explained how in September 2015 the government promised the UN Human Rights Council to set up four mechanisms to deal with post-war transitional justice. This was in place of the international inquiry into war crimes that the UN had been pressing for in the previous five years. The government’s alternative solution has been a truth commission, an accountability mechanism, an office of missing persons and an office of reparations. The legislation for the office of missing persons has been approved by the cabinet and is pending before parliament. If the opposition had engaged with the government on the issues of transitional justice and the reconciliation mechanisms that are being designed, such as the Office of Missing Persons, it might have been able to improve the legislation and claim the credit for it.
The Office of Missing Persons is for all people, not only for the Tamil people, but also for the Sinhalese and Muslim people who have also had their relatives and loved ones go missing. There is no time frame for this proposed institution which will be a permanent one, and not one with a short or temporary life span. Therefore the 35,000 people who went missing during the second JVP insurrection, and whose relatives or loved ones came before previous commissions to register their names, could take the matter up again with the Office of Missing Persons. So could the families of soldiers and police personnel who went missing during the war. There were also several misconceptions about the office of missing persons that were dispelled in the dialogue with the Foreign Minister. These include the confidentiality clause and the powers of the OMP to visit places of suspected detention.
In the meantime the Consultation Task Force set up by the government to ascertain the views of the general public on these reconciliation mechanisms has commenced its work and is conducting consultations with the people. The legislation for the truth commission is being finalized and is expected by September this year. The most controversial of the mechanisms, the special court for accountability, will probably be prepared by March next year, when the deadline for Sri Lanka’s commitment to the UNHRC will be up. These mechanisms will be finalized after the consultations with the general public on them have taken place. Apart from this, the government has been returning land taken over by the military, reducing the role of the military in the former war zones, and has restored law and order so that acts of impunity are much less in the past.
One of the key factors that kept alive the hope of a quick regime change was the two year alliance of the SLFP with the UNP which would end next year. There was a hope in the supporters of the former president that with the end of the two year period the UNP and SLFP would part ways, opening the door to former President Mahinda Rajapaksa to stake his claim to form an SLFP headed government headed by himself. It is ironic that the joint opposition’s premature bid to get rid of the government has consolidated the government alliance at a time it is addressing the most controversial issues. The opposition’s success in retaining the support of a significant proportion of SLFP parliamentarians seems to have convinced President Maithripala Sirisena that he had to do something to strengthen himself and his grip over the SLFP which he heads.
However, the decision of President Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to lengthen the period of their alliance from two years to five years has dealt a blow to the hopes of the former president and his supporters of a quick return to power. They need to come back soon to power if only to stall the ongoing investigations into the allegations financial corruption and abuse of power that took place during their period of rule. With the police and court system enjoying greater independence from the political authorities under the 19th Amendment enacted by the present government, these investigations will go on. The only way these investigations can now be stopped is through a political decision at the highest level to reverse the policies of good governance and accountability. This can only happen by a re-take of the government, which is the reason so much was at stake in the protest march.