By Jehan Perera –
The more positive way to view the year 2016 that comes to a close this week is that it was about the government preparing for the changes to come in 2017. This period of preparation must necessarily change into one of materializing of plans if the support of those who voted to bring the government to power is to be sustained. Apart from the lifting of the thrall of fear, everything else appears to be in a preparatory stage instead of being susceptible to speedy implementation. This is leading to erosion in public confidence in the government although there is no indication as yet that the political opposition is getting substantially stronger. In the coming period there will be three areas of governance in which the government will need to show evidence of results that are tangible. These would be in the areas of corruption, economic development and political reforms that address the ethnic conflict.
The government’s greatest accomplishment came within weeks of taking office in January 2015. The release from fear of a state that gave priority to impunity above the rule of law was immediate. The sense of relief was greatest in the North and East which had been the primary theatre of the three decade long war. But even in the rest of the country the relaxation in the level of tension came as a relief to those who felt that they were not part of the majority, in whatever way it was defined. The main other accomplishment has been to stay on in power as a national government in which the two main parties are in alliance. It is not that nothing has happened in the three areas of corruption, economic development and political reforms. The problem is that what is happening is slow and is not benefiting the people directly.
The area in which the government’s credibility has suffered the most would be in terms of its failure to deal with the issue of corruption. Only in the North and East of the country would the priorities be different. The government’s credibility is suffering there mostly on account of its failure to address problems that are specific to the ethnic and religious minorities. They have a sense of injustice in which the focus is on the government’s failure to correct the wrongs of the past. A group of youth from the North who recently visited Colombo expressed as their priority concern the use of Buddhist symbols, and the building of Buddhist religious sites in the North and East. They saw this as symbolic of the government’s neglect of the interests of the ethnic and religious minorities. They said that this problem had arisen during the period of the previous government but even the present government had failed to act convincingly on it even though its leaders speak words against invasive actions.
During the run up to the elections of 2015 and in the months that followed the change of government there were many allegations of corruption on a vast scale that was leveled against members of the previous government. However, the legal action that has taken place after the allegations were leveled has been far from satisfactory. There have been investigations, but no legal or punitive actions that have a long term consequence. Instead the legal actions that have been taken are about short term and temporary punishments. Those taken in for questioning have been put into remand custody until they are bailed out. Thereafter they are seen to be behaving as if their arrests are part of a political drama rather than having real life consequences for them. Making matters worse, and casting doubt on the possibilities of further legal action, is the corruption that is widely believed to have taken place and which is continuing unpunished under the present government.
From the perspective of the general population, the situation with regard to economic development has been to focus on the negative. The only large scale investments that the general public appears to know about, and be interested in, are the Chinese investments. In Hambantota they have yielded poor results so far, as neither the international airport nor port are even semi operational. The previous government put the country into huge debt to create these presently unproductive assets. The present government has been forced to find answers to problems that were created by the former government. The government’s proposal to bring in Chinese investments by granting 99 year leases on these assets and offering some 15,000 acres of land, are said to have the potential to bring in several hundreds of thousands of jobs. This is not the experience worldwide where Chinese labour has been utilized rather than local labour.
Therefore the situation with regard to economic development of the country that benefits the majority of people continues to remain bleak. Unless the new projects are started and bring improvement to the lives of the masses of people, there will be dissatisfaction. This accounts for the reluctance of the government to hold local government elections, which have been postponed for about two years now.
There are many projects that are reported to be in the pipeline and about to he started. There are also many plans being announced that give an impression of being game changers. There appears to be a visionary understanding of Sri Lanka’s strategic geographical location that feeds into the interests of countries with giant economies such as China, India and Japan and the European Union. But at this time these visions only remain visions, as they will need to more time to be materialized into the realm of visible reality. The challenge will be to make them happen in 2017.
In the North and East of the country the people’s concerns would extend beyond the domain of corruption and economic development issues on which the rest of the country is focusing upon. Their concerns would be related to the failure of the government to adequately address the issue of human rights violations that occurred during the past three decades of war. These include the return of land taken over by the security forces during the war, the tens of thousands who went missing during the war, the release of more than one hundred persons accused of having had links with the LTTE and the demilitarization of the North and East. In all these areas there has been some progress, but it is still too slow to be convincing to the people of the North and East that justice will be done by them. The passage of the law setting up an Office of Missing Persons over three months ago, but with no follow up action adds to these doubts.
It is likely that the coming year will be decisive in respect of dealing with the past. The report on public consultations on mechanisms for accountability, truth, reparations and non-recurrence in Sri Lanka conducted by the Consultation Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanisms is to be submitted to the government on 3 January 2017. The voluminous 639-page report with an executive summary and recommendation to the Government would be seriously considered for implementation. Backed by the 11-member task force, the task force conducted a survey in addition to 15 public sittings in 15 zones at which 7,000 people spoke. It is likely that the government will proceed to implement its reconciliation programme on the strength of this report with the result that the Office of Missing Persons, as well as other envisaged institutions, such as the Truth Seeking Commission and Office of Reparations will be set in motion soon on the ground.
The other major issue that the government will need to face up to is with regard to constitutional reform. The preparatory process for these reforms is now nearly over. A draft of a new constitution is reported to be near completion. The question is whether the government will choose to make the constitutional reforms far reaching enough to require a referendum. This is a challenge that the government may not be willing to take up, with implications for the depth of constitutional reforms. The recent international experience of referendums has not been positive for governments. Defeat at a referendum will erode the political credibility of the government. Those who lead the government may take the position that it is better to be safe rather than sorry. While there is a need for the year 2017 to be a year of implementation, a hitherto unwitnessed bold and decisive political leadership will be necessary.