Image: Same wine in a new bottle?
Carrots tossed by President Ranil Wickremesinghe in the form of release of a few Prevention of Terrorism (PTA) political prisoners and return of lands to displaced owners in the North and East have given rise to unseemly jubilation on the part of Sri Lanka’s Tamil political leadership or what passes as the ‘leadership’ today.
Are these ‘gains’ worthy of mention?
To be clear, one is not being facetious in saying this. On the contrary, it beggars belief as to how the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) can cheerfully parade such trifles let alone to hold forth on the same to the national media with disconcerting ease. To put it bluntly, out of the mountainous promise of a roundtable on the ‘ethnic problem’ initiated by the President, we have the mouse of potential release of fourteen PTA prisoners being ‘discussed.
We are informed with suitable grandeur that this is to coincide with Sri Lanka’s soon approaching 75th Independence Day Celebration early next year. Alongside, the President has ‘requested’ all political parties to come to a ‘common agreement’ to provide a solution to the ethnic problem by that time. The grand irony of all of this is, of course, profound at many levels. Not the least of this is the reference to a ‘solution’ to the ‘ethnic problem’ in a magical period of less than two months. To be kind, this is a frivolous approach to the existential dilemma of the Sri Lanka State which has paralyzed this nation for much of its post-independence years.
This ‘ethnic problem’ which the Government treats as casually as tying its collective shoelaces has, we must not forget, led to thousands of lives lost from the majority community as well as the minorities, fractured societies leading to deep mistrust fostered by racist political ideologues and hopelessly perverted the Rule of Law. That perversion was contributory to the acute economic crisis that the country faces today. The election of unfit rulers to the seat of the Presidency was brought about by this pervasive racist political agenda.
What is there to celebrate?
Ideally we should not ‘celebrate’ the Independence anniversary at all if common sense ruled the day. Christmas celebrations may well take place at Colombo’s hotels but the message of peace and compassion that was the core of the teachings of Jesus Christ is notably absent. Sri Lanka’s society grows more brutalized day by day as bestiality reigns and human being are strangled, shot at and down in broad daylight with state mechanisms either ineffective or part of the process of non-accountability.
Indeed, the President’s communications team (if not the President) should have been more alive to the idiocy in even framing such an outcome along the lines of an ‘Independence Day Celebration.’ One wonders as to the target audience of such rhetoric, it is hard to believe that even newly come observers of the country’s complex political dynamic, with all possible good intentions, will uncritically fall for this tripe. Certainly the mass citizenry, battered to near extinction by endemic gross corruption which still runs unchecked despite the collapse of the economy, with worse beckoning in 2023, will only be scornful.
While the Government’s antics are understandable, it is far less easy to understand asinine chortling from Tamil political parties over release of a meagre amount of PTA prisoners. Apparently, these are convicted prisoners whose releases are being ‘considered’ by the (in principle, problematic) device of Presidential pardons. But if ever we talk about bandaids not sufficing to cure a prolonged and systemic cancer of the Lankan governance system, this must be it. To parade these as democratic ‘gains’ makes a mockery, to put it mildly of sustained struggles to mitigate the more formidably cruel aspects of the PTA.
Focus on substantive issues needed
The PTA is now being utilised with force and effect against student protestors who spearheaded the ‘Aragalaya’ bringing into sharp relief, the response of the Government to any form of activist dissent, North or South. In the meantime, families of the disappeared and journalists in the North and East are still being surveilled by the military, called to account for even the slightest attempt to criticise state actions. Against this backdrop, Tamil political parties should abstain from trumpeting about the release of PTA prisoners by presidential pardons, holding these out to be great achievements.
Instead, they are better advised to focus attention on ensuring that their unfortunate constituencies are not terrorised by rogue military officers and on insisting that the PTA is replaced by a well adjusted Counter Terrorism Act. This should not reflect the agonizing draft CTA proposed by the Wickremesinghe government during the’ yahapalanaya’ period replete with vague definitions and obsolete offences though peddled by some of Wickremsinghe’s enthusiastic supporters at the time as ‘progressive.’
As we must recall, this draft CTA was withdrawn in the face of public outrage following its contents being leaked to the public domain. Later, an adverse court ruling followed at the time. Recently the Government has announced that a further revised CTA would be placed before the public early next year but what its contents are, remain a mystery. This is not the way to go on a matter as divisive as a proposed CTA. The public must be taken into confidence on its contents, these are not laws that should be drafted secretively.
Show committed governance reform first
To do so is to invite unhappy public reactions from both sides of the nationalistic ethnic divide. We have learnt this to our cost only too well. Even so, that same modus operandi is followed, inviting the same consequences perchance. Meanwhile talks on the ‘constitutional issues’ are ongoing. Perhaps it is only in Sri Lanka that such ‘talks’ can be taken seriously when there is little evidence on the ground that existing constitutional safeguards are being implemented with any sign of seriousness.
High on that list comes the wearisome affair of the Constitutional Council under the 21st Amendment, which was welcomed by some as a start to rejuvenating shattered governance institutions. The quality and calibre of (political) appointees to the Council inspire little confidence in the body while the (non-political) nominees are yet to be finalised. Meanwhile an unseemly squabble has arisen over the ‘ethnic character’ of the representative of the ‘minority parties’ with Tamil parties insisting that this should be a ‘Tamil representative.’
Other opposition parties have put forward their ‘Sinhala’ representative in counter. Novel solutions are being proposed for this conundrum, including one suggestion that each of the two representatives may ‘divide’ the time to be served between them. This would be hilarious if it was not such an acute pointer to the breakdown of parliamentary consensus on which the very working of the Council is premised. If consensus cannot be reached on a candidate to serve on the Council, what hope does achieving a ‘solution’ for the ‘ethnic problem’ in two months have, we may well ask?
‘National reconciliation’ for whom?
Moreover, the larger point is as to how ‘national reconciliation’ can even be conceptualized at this point when the political leadership has shown no signs of reform, no indication that it seriously takes the task of governance reform, including putting a credible Constitutional Council into place. Is that fundamental paradox between reality and rhetoric so difficult to grasp? Should spokespersons for minority parties make themselves a laughing stock by parroting on ‘progress being made’ when the contrary stares us in the face?
Two weeks ago, a question was raised in these column spaces as to whether this talk of ‘national reconciliation’ amounts to just ‘horse trading with minority parties’ amidst bargaining for power with no national gain?
That question must be repeated with force.