End of armed conflict yet to yield desired benefit to the country
The defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in May 2009 gave rise to hope that the country could traverse the road to peace and prosperity by creating national unity and strengthening the economy.
The past 14 years have unfortunately only seen the peoples’ hopes to go up in smoke, and today the country has even declared bankruptcy as a result of inept economic mismanagement over the past few years.
The end of the armed conflict was used as a means of achieving political goals rather than uniting the people and initiating a process of healing. Whether the different communities can live in harmony and dignity will depend on the path the country takes in the coming months and years.
Resolving the core issues of the Sri Lankan conflict is an ongoing process that will require sustained commitment from all stakeholders, including the Government, ethnic communities and civil society and inspired leadership at all levels.
When one talks of leadership, it is not only leadership at governmental level but at all levels of the political structure. Even political leaders outside of the Government must be big enough to resist the temptation of using the opportunity to score cheap brownie points with their respective communities or to use the solutions that are being discussed to create unrest among the people to catapult them to power.
Of course, this does not absolve leaders outside the Government of their responsibilities to point out any dangers with regard to any proposals that are being discussed. Balancing the need to be supportive of the process while being vigilant with regard to pitfalls in the trajectory the discussions take, will require a high level of political maturity and Statesmanship on the leaders’ part.
The tone of expression of any dissent will help to keep the discussions on track and not lead to a total breakdown of talks among the stakeholders. Every difference of opinion should not be seen as a betrayal or a sellout.
There are examples of mature leadership in Sri Lanka’s political history which the current political parties can take note of.
When the Sinhala only legislation was being enacted in 1956, the leaders of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) and the Communist Party did not hesitate to publicly go against the popular trend and point out what, in their opinion, were the dangers of following such policies.
“Even if we are thrown into the political wilderness, we will not give up our stand on parity of status for both Sinhala and Tamil people” thundered Dr. Colvin R. de Silva in Parliament, regardless of the negative fallout it would have on the LSSP’s political fortunes.
Another example lies in the actions of President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga during the Peace Process initiated following the signing of the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) of February 2002 by current President Ranil Wickremesinghe in his capacity as Prime Minister at that time.
Although President Kumaratunga had strong reservations with regard to the contents of the CFA and the direction the Peace Process was taking, she expressed her concerns in a restrained manner and made no attempt to engage in rabble rousing.
The Peace negotiations with the LTTE under the stewardship of Ranil Wickremesinghe proceeded with taking up the softer or smaller issues first, as part of a confidence building process, leading to a discussion of the core issues thereafter. Chandrika Bandaranaike’s view however was that the core issues should be taken up first.
This was merely a difference of opinion among the two leaders reflecting the view that there are more ways than one to skin a cat. However, these differences of opinion never resulted in Chandrika Bandaranaike calling Ranil Wickremesinghe a traitor merely because he had a different approach to the process.
In fact, despite these differences, on May 19, 2002, Chandrika Bandaranaike sent a proposal, drafted by a committee chaired by Lakshman Kadirgamar, offering to co-chair the Peace Process together with Ranil Wickremesinghe, to take the Peace Process forward.
During the Yahapalana Government several attempts were made to address the root causes of the conflict through constitutional reform. One significant initiative was the Constitutional Assembly, which was established in 2016 to draft a new constitution. The assembly comprised members of Parliament from different political parties and sought public input through consultations and submissions.
However, the process faced challenges and delays, and ultimately, the proposed constitutional reforms did not materialise as achieving consensus on the proposed reforms proved challenging, leading to their eventual stalling.
Despite the efforts of the Yahapalanaya Government not succeeding, the Constitutional Assembly succeeded in considerably narrowing the differences between the Government and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) leader R. Sampanthan with the latter agreeing to the Constitutional formulation of a united and undivided Sri Lanka.
This was reflected in the Report of the Steering Committee of the Constitutional Assembly as follows: “Unitary State means a State which is undivided and indivisible, and in which the power to amend the Constitution, or to repeal and replace the Constitution, shall remain with the Parliament and the People of Sri Lanka as provided in this Constitution.”
In his address to Parliament on February 18, this year, President Ranil Wickremesinghe has reiterated his commitment to devolution of power within a unitary State as a solution to Sri Lanka’s ethnic issue.
The President’s attempts to resolve the ethnic issue will prove a formidable challenge to him as he is at the same time called upon to also address the fallout of the economic crisis facing the country. Additionally, he is heading a government which is dependent on the very forces which have stood in the way of any attempts to resolve the issue in the past.
Since the abortive attempt to address the ethnic issue in 2002, the concerns of the Muslims have aggravated after the Islamophobic campaign since 2012 and the fallout of the 2019 Easter Sunday attacks which too will need to be addressed by the President. Overcoming these hurdles will test all the political acumen he has acquired over the years.
In his address to Parliament, President Ranil Wickremesinghe touched on a range of matters that have to be addressed to resolve the national question.
The President also spoke of plans to resolve issues pertaining to the upcountry Tamil community.
“The Plantation community, which has been struggling to feed the Sri Lankan economy for two centuries, should be integrated as a whole in the Sri Lankan community,” he said.
On issues faced by the Muslim community, President Wickremesinghe said: “When I was elected to the Parliament, my Cabinet minister was A.C.S. Hameed who made me aware of the unique situations faced by Sri Lankan Muslims. We know the Muslim community faces various problems from time to time and they have our full support.”
“The Sinhalese community is also facing issues of their own which require open discussion. We expect to recognise the communities that are marginalised in society especially due to caste discrimination. Considering all facts, we expect to devolve power within a unitary State. However, I wish to reiterate a fact that has been emphasised on many occasions. There will be no division of the country,” he said.
It is abundantly clear that unless the people and political parties unite, a resolution of the ethnic problems may continue to elude the country impacting not only the relationship between the communities but also on the country’s economy. (firstname.lastname@example.org)