By Jehan Perera –
The war ended nine years ago but the country has still to address issues of healing and transition meaningfully or effectively. This may be disappointing but it is not too surprising. Dealing with the past is never easy. In Colombia, where a peace accord between the government and rebels was signed in 2016, and ended a five decade long civil war which had led to more than 200,000 deaths, a presidential election was held last month. The government candidate from the party of the president who had signed the peace accord lost and the opposition candidate from the party of a hardline president who fought the war against the rebels won. This has thrown the internationally backed peace process into doubt even though the former president and rebel leader were awarded the Nobel peace prize.
To meet international commitments, the Sri Lankan government has formulated a post-war reconciliation process with international support. While the government is progressing with technical details of mechanisms it hopes to introduce, much of the task of building public consensus to support such mechanisms and the process itself is being left to civil society organisations. However, civil society has neither the resources nor the media coverage to work on a national scale in the absence of governmental leadership. There needs to be governmental leadership.
At the present time the government is giving space to civil society, and also space to nationalist groups, to carry out their activities, but the government leadership itself is restrained in taking the message to the people or giving public leadership to the campaign for reform. The challenge today is to communicate to the people and explain to them what needs to be done. At the present time the public has little knowledge of the process, or opportunity to participate in debate, and therefore there is no real acceptance of the process. The failure to communicate on the part of the government is partly due to the disunity within the government which is composed of two formerly rival political parties.
Like in Colombia, the opposition is utilizing the democratic space that the government provides to widen the pre-existing rifts between the religious and ethnic communities by stoking up nationalist fears. The government’s main achievements are in the realm of an improved framework of good governance and human rights. This has obtained appreciation by the international community. The European Union, during the third meeting of the Working Group on Governance, Rule of Law and Human Rights under the European Union-Sri Lanka Joint Commission in May this year, commended efforts by the Sri Lankan government for its progress in protecting and enhancing human rights.
The political problem for the government, however, is that progress in setting up a system of good governance are no readily visible or understood as such by the general population. Mass sentiment is more easily swayed by nationalist rhetoric that points to the dangers of compromising on national security. The general population is also desirous of material development that is visible such as highways or punitive actions whereby prominent political leaders are sent to prison for corruption. Therefore, there is a need for a strong communication strategy which includes counter messaging campaigns.
The government’s approach to governance so far has been to take a more hands-off than hands-on approach. The government has been commended by the EU for setting the framework for good governance by passing new laws. However, the problem with this approach is that it does not take into account the Sri Lankan political ethos of demonstrating an ethos of care and political patronage. People want to feel that their leaders care for them and therefor expect to see them come to them and solve their problems. President Ranasinghe Premadasa understood this well when he commenced the Gam Udawa village reawakening scheme and went and personally spent days with the people in their localities. He also gave emphasis to the problem-solving mechanism of the mobile presidential secretariat that gave on-the-spot solutions to the problems of the people.
The need to demonstrate an ethos of care and political patronage at the local level is well known by politicians who campaign for the votes of the people and who cannot rely on their reputations alone to bring in the votes. It is often the case that though local level politicians do not have much in the way of their education level or integrity they are nevertheless capable of winning the hearts and minds of their local electorates. This is in contrast to those who have much better education and integrity, but who fail to go to the people to directly engage with them and help them to deal with their problems instead preferring to remain in the decision-making centres of the capital.
Cognisant of the need to provide the people with tangible benefits in the run up to the national elections that are falling due within the next 18 months, and mindful of the electoral debacle at the local government elections held in February this year, the government has recently started implementing three major accelerated development projects. They have been called Enterprise Sri Lanka, Gamperaliya and Grama Shakthi and are meants to develop rural infrastructure, give soft loans to small and medium businesses in the rural areas and commence 15 large development projects to develop both urban and rural communities.
It is important that the government leadership itself gets involved in the process of implementing these activities and engage directly with the people whom it is intended to benefit, rather than leave it to lower level politicians and government officials alone to undertake those tasks.
Recently the National Peace Council intervened to secure a pipe borne water supply to a Tamil community located in a tea plantation area in the Southern Province. This was done with the participation of Buddhist and other religious clergy of the area who have formed an inter religious committee through which they foster positive relationships between themselves and with the multi ethnic and multi religious communities amongst whom they live. The reason for their intervention in this particular case was the failure of the state to provide an impoverished Tamil community with their basic needs.
A Buddhist nun who was part of the group said that her concern was the wellbeing of the people amongst whom she lived. It mattered to her that the local community did not have access to motorable roads and to clean water supply. She said that the former president had promised this to the people. She said the government had made plans to provide this to the people but before they could deliver on their promise the former president lost the presidential elections and lost the power to govern. With that loss, the plans of the government were not implemented, and she was sad about that. The new government has brought in new laws, political freedom and a new framework of governance that provides for better governance, but the good nun’s heart lay with the previous government leaders who were going to do something for the people amongst whom she lived.
I was in Brussels last week and met with EU officials among others. One of them recounted how Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had visited Brussels during the time of the campaign to get back the GSP+ tariff concession that the previous government had lost due to their violations of internationals covenants and human rights. The EU official said that it was not easy for any country to get back GSP+ once they lost it. But Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s competent and comprehensive understanding of governance issues and human rights and what needed to be done had won for him the admiration and trust of the EU parliamentarians and officials with whom he engaged with. This ability to inspire trust and confidence needs to be taken from the international and capital city realm of high finance and cosmopolitan life to the grassroots of Sri Lanka by the government.