Danger of space for dissent being captured by nationalists

BY Jehan Perera


The rise in public manifestation of ethnic nationalism in the North was evident at this year’s commemoration ceremonies of the last phase of the war at Mullivaikkal of May 18, 2009. Several thousands of people attended the ceremony of remembrance held there at the monument erected in memory of the civilians killed in the war. This is the first time since the end of the war that a political event took place on May 18. Politicians from the moderate TNA who attended the event were not permitted to speak and instead university students and nationalist members of civil society groups took the centre stage. Although it was the Northern Provincial Council that had resolved to remember the Tamil civilians who died in the war, it was reported that even the Chairman of the Northern Provincial Council was physically stopped from entering the podium.

The only politician who addressed the gathering was Northern Chief Minister C V Wigneswaran, who has fallen out of favour with his party hierarchy. The TNA has made every effort to be moderate and to cooperate with the government to find a mutually acceptable solution to the ethnic conflict and to resolve the outstanding issues of the Tamil people. However, basic issues remain unresolved, including the quantum of devolution and power sharing and dealing with the consequences of the war. The Chief Minister moved a six-point resolution. These included declaring every May 18 in the coming years as “Tamil Genocide Day,” the international community to set up an international mechanism to ensure justice for the people affected, ensure a sustainable political settlement based on Tamil sovereignty, homeland and individuality and identify their suffering as a mass disaster situation and arrange the necessary infrastructure to rehabilitate the people directly, and withdrawal of the armed forces from the Tamil areas of traditional habitation.

The resolution proposed by the Chief Minister summarises the concerns of the people of the North. The danger inherent in the Chief Minister’s approach is that it is confrontational and if taken forward can only lead to a breaking of relations with the government and the larger society. The Chief Minister, although not supported by his party, also wields influence over youthful minds which are prone to extremism born of idealism. The manifestation of extreme sentiment in the North will surely strengthen the forces of extremist nationalism in the South. The space for democratic action can expand, as it has under the present government. But it can also contract as was the case under the former government which did not permit any form of public commemoration of the last days of the war.


From a reconciliation perspective the greater significance of this year’s commemoration of the end of the war is that the government did not attempt to block the public and political events organized by citizens and political parties in the North. While commemorating the security forces who lost their lives, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said that all civilians who lost their lives from the day the war began should also be remembered during that day. He said “Today is an important day for Sri Lanka as the country is commemorating the end of the war and the emergence of peace. We will also remember the security forces personnel who sacrificed their lives and the civilians who died during the armed conflict.”

This statement of the Prime Minister reflected the government’s acknowledgement that this issue continues to be a burning one for the people of the North. The government’s position on the commemoration of the war in the North was defended by government spokesperson Rajitha Senaratne. He compared the commemoration of the northern dead to the commemoration of the southern dead in the JVP insurrections of the past which have been taking place regularly in the South. The government and Minister Senaratne in particular have been denounced by opposition politicians for having permitted the northern commemoration to take place and for justifying the right of the Tamil people to commemorate those who died that day and in the course of the war.

The former government saw the end of the war as the end of the ethnic conflict. Even today many of its top leaders will continue to say that there is no more ethnic conflict, only a problem of politics and of economic development. It required a change of government, which took place in 2015, for the government to adopt a more conciliatory approach to dealing with the Northern people’s desire to commemorate May 18 as their day of mourning and sorrow for the loss of their loved ones. But it was not until this May 18 that the government gave the green light for the public and political commemoration of the dead. In the period 2015-17 they only permitted religious observances which were done in public with large numbers of the public in attendance.

While the government’s reform process is going slower than was expected it is ongoing. There was the passage of the amendments to the judicature act that will set up anti-corruption courts that will sit continuously to expedite cases. There are amendments forthcoming that will strengthen anti-corruption laws. The office of missing persons was established and has started to do public activities. The office of reparations is about to be put before parliament. This suggests that there will be more truth seeking, more reparations and more reform of laws that strengthen the protection of human rights.  The government needs to do this because of international pressure, to win Tamil votes in the future and to establish a just and healed society for all.


Those who seek to promote reconciliation and healing through a more even handed approach are vulnerable to attack. At the present time government leaders are being assailed in the South of the country as traitors who are negating the sacrifices of the military and legitimizing those who engaged in warfare and terrorism to divide the country. The strength of the opposition is that they are united in their ethnic nationalism. The weakness of the government is that the government is not of one mind. It is composed of two parties with two leaders, the President and Prime Minister, who are equals with neither being subordinate to the other. They each have their own separate powers. One cannot overwhelm or command the other. The problem is that they have not reached formal agreement about the division of authority.

In his speech at the commencement of the new term of parliament on May 8, President Maithripala Sirisena admitted as much when he said that the change that he sought to give leadership to in 2015, has not been completed. He said “Certain incidents that took place in the past three years have proven that we have been unable to develop the socio-political maturity required to move forward with a national government system. The consensual and dialogue democracy is the governing structure of most of the democratic countries in the world today, but it is still an alien concept for us.” The President also identified the key challenges. “First among them was to restore democracy and rule of law. Second was to ensure trust and promote peace among the communities. Third was to build the economy of the country tied to a huge debt. Fourth was to win the international arena which was lost.”

The problem for the government is that they have been more successful in meeting the first of the challenges, that of restoring democracy and the rule of law, than at meeting the challenges posed by the other priorities identified by the President. As a result there has been an opening of democratic space that is used by political opponents of the government to attack and discredit it. This is the case both in the North and South. If this destructive cycle is to change the government needs to act in a unified manner without one branch of government countermanding the other. This requires that the President and Prime Minister decide on policies together and identify those who will implement them and support the speeding up of the process.

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