With the debate over the 19th Amendment to the constitution entering its final phase this week, the country is entering a decisive phase. The passage of this constitutional amendment will set in motion a process whereby Sri Lanka will become subject to the Rule of Law and not the rule of men as was advocated by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission in its report after having consulted a wide swath of the country’s intellectuals, decision makers and community leaders. The presidential system in Sri Lanka was flawed at its very inception, as it did not provide for an adequate system of checks and balances found in democratic countries with successful presidential systems. The 19th Amendment will go a significant part of the way to create conditions for better governance in the country.
The abolishing of the presidential system has been part of the election manifesto of previous presidents. But it has been President Maithripala Sirisena who has been most committed to shedding his powers. He has had to endure barbs that he is not a strong leader. But he has shown strength in being committed to reform the presidency as he promised during the presidential election campaign. While most other political leaders will fight for their own powers, he is being true to the Buddhist ethos of his upbringing to transcend that fight in which he prevailed for a higher purpose. The President’s efforts to push through a constitutional amendment that will reduce his own power is a rare example of statesmanship, not only in Sri Lanka but worldwide.
There is a great deal of international expectations about progress in Sri Lanka. The visit of US Secretary of State John Kerry will be taking place the following week. Sri Lanka is able to position itself as a post-war country with a message to other countries that are struggling to come out of their own conflicts. The Sri Lankan model of changing governments, even very powerful and seemingly entrenched ones, through the democratic process is one that the international community would wish to support in other parts of the world where change of governments are necessary. The Sri Lankan model of a president from one major party running a government with a prime minister from a rival major party, and a government that has almost all parties in Parliament represented in it is unique.
The new spirit of goodwill and openness to the world, which President Maithripala Sirisena spoke of in his address to the nation last week on the occasion of the 100 day anniversary of his government is also present in civil society. This was evident at an international conference on religious tolerance and harmony that took place at the Buddhist and Pali University last week. The university is meant primarily for the tertiary education of Buddhist monks. Therefore it has the potential to have a major impact on the leadership role of the Buddhist religious clergy. Most often those from the religious community who have taken to politics do so in a parochial spirit. However, there is an ethos of universality in the Buddhist teachings which is too often not manifested by politically motivated sections of the community. The international conference organised by the Buddhist and Pali University represented the universal and wholesome approach.
The conference attracted participation from different parts of the world, including India, Myanmar, Maldives, Norway and the United States. From within Sri Lanka there was participation from several universities, most notably Jaffna University which had a contingent of students and lecturers. At the conclusion of the conference, those who had come from outside, and been guests of the Buddhist and Pali University were full of praise for the organisers of the conference. The participants from Jaffna were also moved to defend the organisers who had come in for criticism from outside. There was negative commentary in a section of the media that the conference organisers had accepted financial support from the US embassy for the conference. There was also criticism that the Buddhist flag was not put up at the conference venue. The conference showed that when Buddhist monks are given the space and support, they will act in a universal manner as befits the leadership of any religion.
Until last week it seemed that nationalism was on the rise again. The impunity with which the Sinhalese nationalist supporters of the former government waved distorted national flags, from which the two strips that represent the Tamil and Muslim communities were removed, was reflective of the rawness of their nationalism. The rambunctious rallies organised by those who advocate the return of defeated former President Mahinda Rajapaksa to the centre of politics were also based on the mobilisation of ethnic nationalism. Defeated at the presidential election on the main ground of corruption, they have been seeking to steer the political debate back to raw nationalism. Their nationalism was given a boost by the resolution of the Northern Provincial Council which accused successive Sri Lankan governments of having practised genocide against the Tamils from the time of Independence.
Since the last week the government seems to be more confident. Twenty six persons, including leaders of the pro-Rajapaksa group of parliamentarians who defied a judicial order preventing them from staging a protest in front of the Bribery Commission office, have been summoned by the police. They not only defied the judicial order, but also waved the distorted national flags. In many countries, desecrating the national flag is regarded as a punishable offence. In addition, the arrest of former minister Basil Rajapaksa for financial misappropriation of government funds belonging to his ministry would have come as a shock to those who believed in the continuing power and influence of the former government leaders. The public protest has been muted. It appears that people accept the Rule of Law, even as they acquiesce in the abuse of power by politicians.
Due to the three decades of violence and conflict in the country and the propaganda of the rival nationalist camps many Sri Lankan people at this point of time seem to be confused about the way forward. The government has done nothing that is anti-national. But the opposition claims it is, even though the Tamil people in the North especially complain that normalcy in their lives, and justice, has yet to come to them. At the same time there is a deep underlying social and cultural unity in the country, which was pointed out by one of the international participants at the conference organised by the Buddhist and Pali University. This unity manifests itself effortlessly when there is goodwill and hospitality, which the Sri Lankan people are capable of displaying from the heart. This unity makes the challenge of healing and reconciliation possible, rather than impossible. The freedom and space to meet, to dialogue and to get to know each other are important to protect.
In his televised address to the people on the occasion of the 100th day anniversary, President Maithripala Sirisena said that eliminating the culture of fear was one of the achievements of this period. It has taken away the fear that shackled the creativity and confidence of the people. However, in the North of the country, the full enjoyment of the right to be free from fear is yet to be realised. According to participants who came to the conference from Jaffna, the military presence continues to be oppressive. The military is less directive than it was in the past. There is no need to get permission to conduct events. But the military will come and ask questions and take photographs. This intimidates the people as they are fearful as to what use will be made of this evidence in the future. They too look to the president with hope, even as he fights for constitutional reform and power-sharing as no one else has, and to create a new polity in which the deep cultural and social unity in the country and amongst its different communities manifests itself as political unity also.