Regaining national unity five years on by Jehan Perera
The government has made plans to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the end of the war with a “Victory Day” celebration in Matara in the Southern Province. But at the opposite side of the country there will be no such celebration. The government has prohibited any public commemoration of the war’s end in the Northern Province.
Speaking on behalf of the government, the military spokesperson has said that “Individuals may have religious services to commemorate their loved ones killed in the fighting, but there cannot be any public events.” The government has been concerned that public events could be used to praise the LTTE in the guise of remembering the war dead.
While the government’s concerns may be real, the contrasting manner in which the May 18 events will be remembered in the two extremes of the country will highlight the polarization that continues to exist in post-war Sri Lanka. It is likely that only the government and its political allies will be present at the Victory Day celebrations, which include a victory parade by the military in Matara. The rest of Sri Lanka’s political plural and multi-ethnic polity will be missing. The failure of national reconciliation will be manifest in the government’s celebration and victory parade. It makes it seem as if five years after the war, the war victory over the LTTE was the only real thing that happened.
The disparity between the government’s treatment of the North and South shows that the ethnic and political conflict remains, despite the end of the war. The country is geographically and administratively unified but remains politically and ethnically divided and in a state of conflict. In recent weeks there also appears to be some signs of opposition appearing from within the ranks of the government itself. This might be seen as signs of a coming implosion, which is a scenario that has been speculated upon for several years, due to the increasing concentration of power within the government. The danger for the government is that there will come a point where the forces of fragmentation, which is indicated by the growing internal opposition, will grow too strong to keep the government coalition together.
With presidential elections widely anticipated by early next year, both the government and opposition are trying to attract support to themselves from as wide a constituency as possible. The war victory celebration in Matara could be seen as an effort to remind the people of the government’s most important achievement, and consolidate their support for the electoral challenges that lie ahead. However, an overemphasis on the nationalism of one ethnic community can prove to be a double edged sword. An important constituency that the government seems to have lost in recent times is the Muslim community. The attacks on them by Sinhalese nationalist groups, such as the BBS, have alienated them from the government.
There is a perception that these Sinhalese groups are supported by sections within the government. It would be in the interests of the government to distance itself from these attacks in a manner that would restore the balance. In a noteworthy development Minister Rishard Bathiudeen has filed action in the courts against one of these groups. He has taken this action when the entire Muslim community feels helpless and vulnerable in the face of anti-Muslim sentiment which is being spread by these groups, and even against the violence perpetrated against the community. Members of the BBS not only entered his ministry premises by force, they have also denounced him for allegedly resettling Muslims who were displaced during the war in an illegal manner in the Wilpattu wildlife park. Minister Bathiudeen has rejected these allegations and has demanded either an apology or a legal judgment in his favour.
There is no doubt that Minister Bathiudeen’s actions will obtain for him the support of many within the Muslim community. This could have positive results to him and his political party which is a coalition partner of the government. However, his implicit critique of the government’s inaction in regard to the attacks on the Muslim population is likely to be undermined by what is happening on the ground. In Aluthgama a Muslim shop was torched by a mob, the latest in a series of attacks against the Muslims. At the same time, the concerns of the Sinhalese nationalist groups which have been targeted against the Muslims are also matters of concern to the larger Sinhalese population. Many Sinhalese who do not support the methods and actions of the Sinhalese nationalist groups, nevertheless share their concerns.
The problem facing the government is the opposite of what is facing the opposition. If the government is perceived to be too much of a monolith, and too centralized, it can risk losing support from sections of the population who are not in favour with some parts of current government policy. This can range from its policy on casinos to its attitude to the rise in anti-minority activities. The drastic reduction in the ethnic and religious minority vote going to the government at the provincial council elections held in March has been a matter of concern to the government. It cannot risk losing the minority vote in a similar manner at a presidential election, in which every vote will count.
The government needs to maintain a social and political balance without going to one extreme. The present weakness in the opposition parties provides the possibility for the government to indeed go to the extreme. There are countervailing forces within the government itself are serving to keep its tendency to go to the extreme in check. In the absence of a strong opposition those countervailing forces within the government will tend to remain with the government rather than spin off to the opposition. This suggests that those who seek policy change in the government at this time could do more to work with sympathetic and like-minded government members to ensure constructive change from within.
It is easy to get disheartened by the continuing emphasis on the divisions that exist within Sri Lankan society instead of on factors that could genuinely unify the polity. It was all of Sri Lanka that went through a thirty year war that saw large scale civilian casualties through military offensives, bomb attacks and assassinations. There is a need to remember all who died in the hope that this bloodletting will never occur again. This indeed is the message and recommendation of the Lessons Learn and Reconciliation Commission appointed by the President, which is yet to be implemented in full. Hopefully, the South African initiative at promoting reconciliation within the country at the invitation of the government will soon bear fruit. At the present time, the actions of the government and of its nationalist allies on the ground defy hope.