President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s pledge to resolve the country’s long standing ethnic conflict by Independence Day on February 4 can be the optimistic base on which other positive developments can be built. This is a hope that needs to be translated into reality. The past history of efforts to politically resolve the ethnic conflict do not present an optimistic picture. The list of Sri Lankan leaders who have sought to resolve this conflict but failed starts with the illustrious SWRD Bandaranaike up to the present president Ranil Wickremesinghe. In his previous leadership roles as prime minister, the president too failed. The political and mass opposition that was ignited to the prospect of a compromise that met the other community’s demands half way was too strong for those leaders to overcome.
On this occasion, however, there are four reasons why the ethnic conflict might prove to be resolvable unlike in the past. The first reason, and most important, is the leadership that President Wickremesinghe can bring to the negotiating table. As executive president after being a five-time prime minister he wields the full panoply of powers that led his uncle, who was the architect of the executive presidency, to say that the only power he did not have was to turn a man into a woman and vice versa. The 21st Amendment to the constitution that was passed late last year to restrict the presidential powers is still to be operationalised. The lack of unity amongst the next level of politicians who are unable to agree by themselves regarding which of them should be appointed to the institutions set up under it is an indicator of the importance of leadership at the current juncture.
The second factor is the erosion of the legitimacy of parliament to be an effective mobiliser of public opinion. The protest movement that brought down the former government, together with the former president, has called for accountability, systems change and elections. This has served to disrupt the longer term plans of ruling party members in parliament, to the extent that they do not wish to face general elections any time soon. The present indications are that they do not want local government elections either. In this context it is likely that ruling party members will not wish to oppose the president on whose beneficent attitude they depend to escape the wrath of the general population at an early general election. It is worth noting that within three months, the president will obtain the constitutional power to dissolve the parliament and to call for fresh elections.
The third factor is that most of the opposition parties in parliament are agreeable to resolving the ethnic conflict. The main ones in opposition paid the price for not espousing the cause of narrow ethnic nationalism at the last presidential and general elections. They campaigned on other issues and not ethnic related ones. This indicates that they have the capacity and track record to break with the pernicious tradition of the past in which political parties in opposition invariably opposed initiatives to resolve the ethnic conflict taken by the government. The opposition parties are also unlikely to engage in narrow ethnic nationalism because they do not need to. The economic collapse and difficulties that people are facing are the issues they are likely to canvass at this time.
The fourth reason has to do with the changing nature of political opinion in the country. There is a sense among the general population that the country needs fundamental reform in the aftermath of the economic collapse that took place last year. This sentiment was captured by the slogan of “system change” that was popular during the period of the protest movement. Among the slogans of the protest movement was the demand for accountability, that those who had stolen from the state should be found, convicted and punished and their assets confiscated. Another was the zeroing in on the 74 years of malpractices and poor governance which took cover under ethnic and religious nationalism and brought the country to its present plight. Also among those slogans was the acceptance of equal citizenship of all ethnic and religious communities and denunciation of those who had divided the people on primordial lines.
The importance of finding a political solution to the ethnic conflict is not only to enable the people of the country to live together without conflict. It is also to put to rest the political instability and violence that have been the result of this long unsettled problem. Instability and violence have been major deterrents to economic investments in the country. The change of government in 1977 and the change economic policy towards a free market oriented one was accompanied by massive international assistance, including the Mahaweli river diversion project with the Victoria Dam being fully gifted to Sri Lanka by the British people. But the ethnic riots and pogrom that took place in July 1983 destroyed the prospects of an economic take off with international investments.
At this time Sri Lanka is still awaiting the IMF’s support which is essential to build investor confidence in the national economy. However, this support is getting delayed due to China’s apparent unwillingness to accept a proportional reduction in its loan repayments from Sri Lanka. As this is a reasonable request for a bankrupt country to make of an economic powerhouse, there may be other geopolitical and strategic reasons why China is being uncooperative. It is generally believed that China is concerned that if they give Sri Lanka the break it needs, there will be scores of other countries, most of them poorer than Sri Lanka, which may make similar requests, having fallen into similar debt traps from which they cannot extricate themselves.
In this context, Sri Lanka requires international support from other sources. The good news about a settlement of Sri Lanka’s long standing ethnic conflict can lead to a positive international image for Sri Lanka, as it enjoyed decades ago through its social welfare schemes that were considered a model for poorer countries. Countries such as India, Japan, Norway, UK, the USA and the EU, which have at various times tried to offer their services to facilitate peace and reconciliation may be induced to rise to the task of supporting Sri Lanka again, this time when it is in desperate economic straits. The Tamil Diaspora in those countries can be a formidable force to lobby on behalf of Sri Lanka, especially to develop the more neglected parts of the north and east of the country.
However, the missing dimension in the government’s efforts to reach a political solution to the ethnic conflict is accountability for the serious human rights violations and war crimes that took place. The same lacuna is to be found in the government’s efforts to rebuild the economy. The issue of accountability for economic crimes is being put aside within the country, even though the UN Human Rights Council made economic crimes a part of their latest resolution on Sri Lanka. Where the issue of war crimes is concerned, it can be said they are in the past without new ones being generated in the present. The government is also proposing a truth commission to go into the past. But with regard to economic crimes, the past is being repeated in the present reportedly on a mega scale which is unacceptable. If national reconciliation and development are to become realities, the president and his government must put a stop to corrupt practices from now on and be sincere to the people’s interest.
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