The International Crisis Group in a report titled ‘Sri Lanka’s Transition to Nowhere’ released on 16 May 2017, in Brussels, says that this year is another decisive one in Sri Lanka’s political history. If current dynamics continue, the country will likely lose a real opportunity to address the roots of its decades of political turmoil. The chances of an eventual return to violence would then grow considerably.
To prevent this, the president, prime minister and leaders in both unity-government parties will need to jointly take up the challenge of persuading their colleagues and the public that a more equal and inclusive Sri Lanka is possible and the best way of insuring prosperity and peace for all.
Two years into President Maithripala Sirisena’s term, Sri Lanka’s fragile hopes for lasting peace and cooperation across party and ethnic lines are imperilled. Despite significant achievements in the coalition government’s first nine months, progress on most of its reform agenda has slowed to a crawl or been reversed. As social tensions rise and the coalition slowly fractures, it is unclear whether it can push its signature new constitution through parliament and to a national referendum. Neither the president nor prime minister has made a serious attempt to win support for a more inclusive polity or to reform the national security state to tackle the institutionalised impunity that has fed ethnic unrest and harmed all communities.
To protect democratic gains, enable lasting reforms and reduce risks of social and political conflict, the “unity government” should put aside short-term party and individual political calculations and return to a politics of reform and openness.
Ambitious promises to improve the economy, eliminate corruption, restore rule of law, address the legacy of war and write a new constitution remain largely unrealised. Confidence in the government’s reform will has been dented by lack of prosecutions in alleged corruption and political murder cases in the time of ex-President Mahinda Rajapaksa and by allegations of major corruption on its own watch.
As the government struggles with large budget deficits and dangerously high debt, hopes for improved living standards have been frustrated, further eroding trust in it and strengthening the appeal of the Rajapaksa-led opposition.
Sirisena is locked in a battle with Rajapaksa for control of their Sri Lankan Freedom Party (SLFP) and hemmed in by the party’s traditional nationalism. SLFP ministers were never enthusiastic about being the junior partner in a unity government with their long-time rival, the United National Party (UNP), and are unhappy with what many see as UNP arrogance and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s less-than consultative style. Afraid of being outflanked by Rajapaksa’s nationalism, the Sirisena SLFP wing resists key governance and reconciliation promises, even as this weakens support from constituencies that brought Sirisena to power: Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese dismayed by corruption, abuse of power and high cost of living under Rajapaksa.
Preoccupied with appearing patriotic and worried about dissent and Rajapaksa loyalists in uniform, the government has done little to reform the national security state or reduce the military’s considerable autonomy. It continues to drag its feet on impunity for human rights violations and abuses of power. Torture of detainees remains routine, and the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act has yet to be replaced, as promised. Tamils in the north and east were assured of confidence building measures that require major changes in the security forces’ role. Yet, the military resists returning additional occupied land to its owners in these areas and continues to run shops and hotels and build Buddha statues in Tamil and Muslim communities. Failure to reduce the military footprint has led to a campaign of protests by Tamils in the north that is weakening support for the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the main Tamil party cooperating closely with the ruling coalition.
Government plans for transitional justice have largely not materialised. President Sirisena has prevented the Office on Missing Persons from operating since parliament approved it in August 2016. Mechanisms promised in 2015 are also increasingly in doubt, though the UN Human Rights Council has given the government two more years to make good on commitments. Due to the government’s failure to explain the connection between transitional justice and rule-of-law reforms, many Sinhalese view justice for war-era abuses as a pro-Tamil, anti-military demand, rather than part of a program to protect all communities’ rights.
The government’s fate thus increasingly depends on that of the new constitution. The drafting process, which until late 2016 had been proceeding quietly, now hangs in the balance. Pro-Sirisena SLFP ministers oppose any changes requiring a referendum, which would rule out key reforms, including compromises reached with the Tamil National Alliance to strengthen provincial devolution instead of the federalism they had favoured.
With no sustained narrative from the president or prime minister in favour of devolution, politics has been dominated by Rajapaksa-aligned Sinhala nationalists, who present even modest changes as existential threats to the nation’s Sinhala and Buddhist character. The government is on the defensive, denying that it is weakening Buddhism and supporting separatism.
To salvage the chance to address fundamental sources of conflict and instability, the government needs to return to its original good governance and reconciliation agenda. Sirisena and Wickremesinghe must reach workable compromises on key issues: economic reform that shares the pain of change equitably and renewed anticorruption, anti-impunity drives that prioritise a limited number of significant criminal cases implicating both major parties. To achieve a deal on the constitution that includes strengthened devolution, Sirisena must speak forcefully and lead a campaign that explains the reform package’s benefits for all communities.
Renewing transitional justice hopes requires rapid launch of the Office on Missing Persons and faster progress on reducing the military footprint in the north and east. Packaged as part of rule-of-law reforms that include prosecuting alleged corruption and political crimes under the Rajapaksas, transitional justice could yet gain support across communities. But time is running out. Leaders in both parties should not discount a Rajapaksa return. For their own survival and to deliver on at least some of their big promises, they should reject chauvinistic politics and daily bickering and invest their political capital in promoting an inclusive vision and more accountable polity that can mitigate the risk of new conflict.