Government’s winning formula for several elections.

China catch me if you canFrom ethno-nationalism to good governance
By Jehan Perera

The decision of the EU Court of Justice to remove the ban on the LTTE on technical grounds has come as the government and political parties are mobilizing for snap presidential elections likely to take place in January. The immediate response of the government to the EU decision has been to describe opposition politicians and civil society activists who travelled to the West in recent times as traitors who contributed to the decision to lift the ban on the LTTE. This message is being repeatedly taken to the people by the State media. While the decision is a legal one taken by the Court, and not a political decision by European Governments, this is unlikely to impress most Sri Lankans who will tend to see the relationship between law and politics through their own local experience which is not at all positive.

The timing of the European Court’s verdict comes even as the government continues to be investigated for war crimes at the behest of the UN Human Rights Council. The EU legal decision in favour of the LTTE is likely to further strengthen the government’s case to the people in Sri Lanka that the war crimes investigation into it is biased and a threat to national security. The UN investigation into war crimes is described by the government as an international conspiracy to punish the country’s leaders who defeated the LTTE and is to eventually seek the division of the country. This has evoked sympathy and outrage amongst the majority of Sri Lankans. The timing of the EU verdict is fortuitous for the government. It will enable the government to mobilize the nationalism of the people to its advantage.

With it the main government theme of the forthcoming presidential election is becoming clear. It is to highlight the need to preserve the unity of the country by continuing to vest the leadership of the country in proven and trusted hands. The government’s decision to prohibit foreigners from travelling to the North without permission of the Ministry of Defense is being justified by the government as a measure to prevent foreign parties from stirring up communal discord. The ban on free movement of foreigners applies to tourists as well as to those who wish to travel there to engage in economic projects. It creates the impression that there is a major crisis brewing in the North which requires a strong government to deal with it.

Shifting emphasis
If it was hoped that five years after the end of the war the focus of national politics would shift away from past war-related issues to matters of peacetime governance, the EU decision will work to shift the political debate back to the issue of national security and to the LTTE. The question once again, as it has been in all of the post-war elections, is whether nationalism will take priority over those other issues, such as over-centralization, Rule of Law and corruption, at which the government is at a disadvantage. Although the masses of people are finding the cost of living unbearable and have little hope of its reduction, the government’s calculation is that when the people go to the polls they will tend to give priority to national security rather than to economic well-being.

The voting electorate outside the North is being given the message that there is a renewed threat of a slide back to war due to the international support for the revival of the LTTE and the non-cooperation of the TNA in the North. This has been the government’s winning formula for several elections. But this time around there seems to be cracks appearing in the government coalition. Ironically, the first blow against the government strategy of making the ethnic conflict and national sovereignty the main issue has been struck by one of the key leaders of the government coalition’s nationalist parties. This occurred last week when Venerable Athuraliye Rathana Thera, a government parliamentarian and the convener of the Pivithuru Hetak (Pure Tomorrow) National Movement, said that he would do everything to defeat incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa if he tried to hold Presidential election without amending the Constitution.

Ven. Rathana Thera, a member of the government coalition party Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) said that it was a mistake of his party to vote for the 18th Amendment to the Constitution which paved way for third term election of a President and also abolished the independent commissions introduced by the 17th Amendment to the Constitution and which were meant to guarantee non-politicization of key State institutions, such as the police, judiciary and public service. In its place Ven. Rathana proposed a 19th Amendment to the Constitution which calls for fundamental reforms to the presidency and other key institutions of governance, and which he insisted should be implemented prior to holding an election.

The meeting at which this announcement was made was attended by several hundred Buddhist monks and also by senior government and opposition members, including the Leader of the Opposition Ranil Wickremesinghe and Economic Development Minister, Basil Rajapaksa. What was most significant about the meeting, and the speeches made, was that the focus was entirely on issues of governance and not on the ethnic conflict or nationalism. At the national convention of the JHU that followed a few days later the party leadership reiterated the Ven. Rathana’s stand.

New discourse
The JHU of which Ven. Rathana is a leading member is a political party that has espoused the cause of Sinhalese nationalism and the special place of Buddhism in the country’s history and ethos. As such it has been a strong supporter of the government in the past, and to date, in opposing demands by the ethnic minorities, which it sees as injurious to the country’s sovereignty and unity. At the party convention, the JHU called on the government to pass a constitutional amendment that made the Presidency accountable to Parliament and to the Judiciary, to limit the number of Cabinet Ministers to a maximum of 30 (as against nearly 60 as at present) and to depoliticize State institutions. Significantly, it did not call for the abolition of the Provincial Council system of devolved government, but limited the demand for repeal of land and police powers to them.

Post war reality in Sri Lanka is still connected deeply to the war period, with the large scale presence of the security forces in the North and East and surveillance machinery continuing to have a negative impact on life in all parts of the country. Governance and respect for human rights are arguably the weakest areas of the government. Its main strength in the minds of the general public continue to be the war victory that ended the terror of the LTTE and highly visible economic infrastructure projects in the form of excellent roads, rebuilt railway and the construction of ports and airports, even though these latter are yet to show economic viability.

The question whether the issues of governance can override those of nationalism will depend on the extent to which the Ven. Rathana’s views are taken to the masses of the people. The government continues to have an advantage in this regard as it has control over the powerful State media that reaches every part of the country, and can put forward only the government view, unlike the private media which is weaker in this regard due to commercial considerations. The government’s effort continues to be one of bringing up issues of post-war national security and possible revival of the LTTE, which remains a significant fear amongst the Sinhalese population. But the issues of governance that the Ven. Rathana articulated are those that are now an increasing part of the private discourse within the country’s intelligentsia, although still not so widely debated in the media or in public due to fear of the consequences.