Most Sri Lankans believe it is possible to get the country back on track under the Unity National Government. For people elected them in January 2015, it was the second time, the opportunity was placed on the lap of the Head of State to restore democracy. The first time people gave such an opportunity was in 1978, to the first Executive President, to restore all the benefits of a just society; then there were resistances and the opportunity was missed out and the rest is history. Will Sri Lankan be lucky second time with the current President to restore democracy and the rule of law, transparency, accountability and other virtues of a just society or continue to be hostages of their own making?
Today, there are positives and negatives on the extent to which the present Unity National Government has progressed to achieve their objects to restore democracy in the country. True, the progress has been slow, because the state capacity for accommodation has been poor from the day of independence, making it harder to build necessary credible political institutions. Unfortunately, these conditions still persists, for among others, the anticipated foundation for an effective conflict prevention mechanisms and infrastructures to resolve grievances and sustain peace has not fully materialised in the past two years. The task made even more difficult for the President as his men, as it took most of the two years to sort the mess left behind by the previous power-craze ruler, who led the country to the mouth of the Chinese dragon. If that was not enough, the President was having to face the consequences of many fraudulent practices of those connected with people in power, as prevailed they had enjoyed and carried over from the previous regime; resulted in him having to dismiss some ministers from their duties. On the other hand in 1978, the first Executive President, a western oriented gentleman (WOG); whose political journey began before the country gained independence in 1948; who with his intuition blending perfectly with luck succeeded in opening the economy and make country self-sufficient in paddy, by constructing larger reservoirs through the Accelerated Mahaweli Project. For then President had little constraints on his power and surrounded him with remarkably experienced ‘yes-men’; who performed without him having to make any extra effort to order them twice. Once as the Executive President said, he had powers to do anything, except to make a man from a woman or vice versa. True to his words, he did do many things and are all now buried into history. Yet, it must be said considering many things he did in his time as President, he failed miserably to solve the ethnic problem, which he could have been nipped it in the bud, for as a WOG with ego, he never exhibited the capacity for accommodation like Buddha nor a saint. Bitter Truth is without necessary credible political institutions in place, which may have marred his decisions; from the days he entered politics with his contemporaries in power only facilitated to brew the ethnic conflict; consequently prevented country to get back on track.
There are some important factors, which indicate why the situation is favourable with the current President to succeed in solving the ethnic problem this time round. First Executive President was unable to carry out political campaign in the Tamil- speaking areas and therefore wanted to eliminate the freedom struggle under the pretext to maintain unity and stability and there came a period of battles. Whereas, the current president has not restricted those who struggled for freedom from participating in elections and there is peace and all political parties are able to carry out political campaign in the Tamil- speaking areas. Then President, justified his position at the Commonwealth Heads of States Conference in 1983, fearing India would invade and that the fifteen million people will die unconquered, if invaded reacted and accordingly by getting his army to supress his own people in the north, that drove communities apart; then was forced by circumstances to be a party to the ill prepared Indo-Lanka Peace Accord that was to solve the ethnic problem by devolution of power to the provinces, but that was never implemented properly. Whereas, Sri Lanka cosponsored the UNHRC resolution in 2015, under the leadership of the current president, to help bring the communities back together. In 1987 the army started the military operation under the first executive president rule, wanted a military solution to the northeastern crisis; the plan was to fight until Jaffna was freed. Then the president feared that a coup was imminent, if he was not going to continue the war in north to an end. But it only cleared the way for an Indian invasion, because India did not want the freedom struggle in Jaffna to get defeated, all done for India’s benefit. Then the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord was signed, yet a fact not known to the people at that time, that both countries never wanted a merged North-East; still Sri Lanka is being intimidated over this matter by India. Yet, irrespective of these setbacks, then President kept the fight on and the rest is history. On the contrary, today in spite of all the provocation from his extreme opponents, from south who have failed to learn from their mistakes of not accepting the full scope of their demographic diversity and from the north with prejudices inherent in their blood to see every move with a suspicious eye; the current President is working towards an all-inclusive and stable country by providing them with a new constitution.
Globalization and technological have only contributed to inequality and instability and there is a growing and deepening divide among people, who are also hostages to innumerable ethnic forces that are pulling them in all directions; as well as between the people and the political parties that represent them. Though at the time independence was negotiated from the British, properly developed constitution was given to our elite leaders, which took into consideration the needs of the minority communities; political decay setting in with the upsurge of Sinhala Buddhist Nationalism and the prejudices against the minority Tamil communities ended all chances of having a proper system of democracy in operation. The failure was mainly due to the implementation of the universal suffrage, before any serious political reforms were put in place in the country that resulted in the state failing to accommodate the full scope of the demographic diversity of the country. The political gap widen further with the ruling United National Party (UNP) splitting to form the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the rest is history.
Today, though these two major parties are working together, considered itself a major achievement though there are many disputes and divisions, threats and wheels within deals. This government is regularly and publicly criticised by some ministers, it was unimaginable during the former regime. A more integrated approach to foster resilient society calls for effective and inclusive democratic governance with respect for human rights and the rule of law. The most notable achievement was the 19th Constitutional Amendment whereby the President, a simple man with rural background and a firm believer of Buddha Dharma and not a WOG, who willingly and voluntarily gave up most of his executive powers while overturning the dictatorial 18th Amendment. The Right to Information (RTI) Law introduced, was another important factor, with the RTI Commission doing an excellent job in ensuring the people’s right to the freedom of information. The right to media freedom and the right to protest have also been restored to a large extent though unfortunately some groups with vested interests are often seen abusing this freedom even today. President has declared that the National Government will go ahead with its strategic, eco-friendly development plan to build a peaceful, just and all inclusive society. In the vital area of reconciliation, a major step was taken with the implementation of the Office of Missing Persons Act and the independent OMP is expected to inquire into petitions relating to thousands of people, who disappeared and give these families at least the consolation of knowing what has happened or not happened to their loved ones.
In this connection, it is worth to recall how Republic of Singapore, a country that was more than half a century ago motivated by Sri Lanka (then a Paradise Island called Ceylon), overcoming many difficult challenges over the years progressed together with its own half a century old “nobler dream” persevering it as a multi-racial, multi-religious nation. The story is one of hope and opportunity, for no matter where one begins with hard work, there are ample chances to do well in life in Singapore. Perhaps Sri Lankans who wish to live in a complete nation could now be motivated to become another Singapore.
President, who holds the highest office in the land and is due to address in the UN today (Tuesday, 19 September) must be non-partisan and get above the political fracas to represent all Sri Lankans; should be the unifying figure and continue to work closely with the government, for the mechanism to function properly and pledge everybody would have his place in the country as an equal, regardless of language, culture, religion. President should put in place more effective checks and balances among the four main democratic institutions: Executive, Legislature, Judiciary and Media as needed. Because Sri Lankans, have a long, long way to go to reach that vision of philosopher Aristotle, who said “Democracy is when the needy and not the rich people are the rulers”. To this end, it has become all the more urgent to resist the tide of ethnic nationalism rising for extremism sows distrust and fear, while exclusivist ideologies deepen communal and religious fault lines. Here, the majority community should make extra efforts to ensure that minorities enjoy equal rights that is special, precious and fragile. That was the reason the Government was compelled to go for the New Constitution that should help all Sri Lankans regardless of race, language, religion or gender to unify all to strengthen the sense of nationhood.