by Jehan Perera
In his address to the nation a year after winning the presidential election, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa said, “After I came into power, I appointed suitable officials in charge of the security apparatus of the country and gave them the required authority to carry out their responsibilities without any compromise. The intelligence services that had collapsed in the past were restructured and revitalized. Accordingly, we have managed to control the possibility of a resurgence of extremism in any form. A very effective and robust programme has been implemented to control the drug menace. There is no room anymore to engage in drug trafficking or operate the underworld from inside of prison cells as in the past. People of this country no longer have reasons to live in fear of underworld gangs, extortionists and racketeers.”
The budget debate taking place at this time is when the country has suffered a setback in its efforts to keep the Covid pandemic at bay. There is increasing criticism being voiced especially in the social media and civil society at the government’s utilization of the military at the expense of civilian leadership in meeting this health challenge. The increase in the military budget and the diminished health budget in the context of the enormous increase in the budget deficit is indicative of the government’s priorities. The military is playing an increased role in civilian affairs, not only leading the battle against the coronavirus but also in terms of administrative presence in the government bureaucracy, with retired military personnel being deployed to positions of leadership. This seems to reflect the President’s personal faith in the military forces he served both as a combat officer and later as Defence Secretary.
The increasing criticism of the government in the social media which is outside of government control indicates disillusionment of sections of the intelligentsia who utilize the social media. There are criticisms from both extremes, which suggests that the government is not being sufficiently Sinhala Buddhist in its orientation to some sections while being too much identified with one community to the exclusion of those of other communities. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has answered these criticisms in his recent address to the nation. He stated that “The best yardstick of the success or failure of mine is the public opinion and not the organized propaganda spread by political opponents on social media platforms.” Anecdotal evidence suggests that the president’s popularity continues to be high at the community level in the Sinhala Buddhist heartland and possibly elsewhere as well.
This past weekend while the budget was being debated in Parliament there was a meeting on peacebuilding in Kandy organised by the Association of War Affected Women (AWAW) with the participation of civil society representatives and university academics. The main theme of discussion was to assess the peace processes of the past and to generate ideas that would support a nationally-driven reconciliation process. One of the significant proposals to arise out of the meeting was for the participants to make a joint submission to the Expert Committee on Constitutional Reform appointed by the government. The importance of a new constitution in the post-war context is that it will define the powers of government at the national and sub-national levels which is important to mitigate the long standing conflicts and tensions between the different ethnic and religious communities.
During the breaks for lunch and tea at the meeting on peacebuilding in Kandy some of the participants discussed the situation in the surrounding villages with the hotel staff who said that their villages continued to support the government strongly. They said that the President was popular and their hope was strong that he would make a difference where other leaders had failed. They also spoke positively of the role of the military and especially of the Army Commander General Shavendra Silva and the leadership they saw him giving to the Covid containment drive and the news briefings he gave. This positive impression of the role played by the military and the popular Army Commander may aid the government to make the military more representative of Sri Lanka’s ethnic and religious diversity by recruitment of more minorities.
On the way back to Colombo we stopped at a dilapidated roadside shop to buy fruit especially the pink jambola that is difficult to find in Colombo. While making our purchases we asked the shop owner what he thought of the current situation. He said that business was down as few passing vehicles stopped to buy anything as they used to in the past due to the Covid threat. When I asked him what he thought of the government, he said that he had confidence in the President. The other politicians I specifically asked him about did not seem to command his confidence in the manner the President did. When I asked him about the role played by the military his face lit up and he said he believed in General Shavendra Silva. He said that if the previous government had been in power, there would be tens of thousands of Covid deaths by now. These may not be factual statements as leaders of the opposition parties urged a lockdown even before the government implemented one. But such statements indicate the state of mind of the people at the present time.
Not wanting to lose this opportunity to tap into local knowledge, I asked my discussant whether he feared the white vans that abducted people in the past would make their reappearance. He did not seem to grasp the significance of the white van to those who showed political opposition to the government or to those who had become its victims. He said he had no such fears as the government was catching all the criminals and drug pushers and putting them into jail. He compared this to the situation under the previous government, and said that they had used the criminals and drug pushers to do their dirty work and let them roam about freely. This is anecdotal evidence of continuing strong support for the President’s policies and belief in his sincerity.
One of the positive features of the past year, since the election of President Rajapaksa, has been the reduction if not absence of any anti-minority riot and the diminished hate speech against minorities in the media. This has come as a relief to those who are ethnic and religious minorities. Both the presidential and general elections were polarizing ones in which primeval ethnic and religious fears were mobilized by the contesting politicians with backing from sections of civil society, professionals and the media. Interestingly those who were at the forefront of the ruling party’s nationalist campaign during the elections, which benefited both the president and the government, are now much less visible. Indeed they seem to be subdued and there are rumours that due to their disenchantment they may be considering new political alliances.
It is noteworthy that in his speeches President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has frequently reiterated that he will ensure justice and equal treatment to all sections of the people while reiterating the reality that his victory at the presidential election was due to the votes of the Sinhala Buddhist ethnic and religious majority. However, he has been taking pains to correct any adverse fallout of his statements that affirm that he is concerned and taking actions to support one set of communal interests at the expense of equity and fairplay to citizens. In his address to the nation last week the President said that “An administration that protects the rights of all citizens regardless of racial or religious differences will be established during my tenure.”
One of the key proposals made at the meeting in Kandy was to establish a Pluralism and Diversity Commission on the lines of the independent commissions that were established under the 17th and 19th Amendments to the constitution but with more powers to ensure that all communities and all religious were treated equitably so that they would not feel alienated. This was an idea that had been broached at a national inter-religious conference organised by the National Peace Council (NPC) in 2018 at which a Pluralism Charter was developed and ratified by the participants. This charter was the outcome of three years of consultations with multi religious and multi ethnic communities mobilized through work at the ground level. It reflected the need for a shift in thinking to one in which equal rights, equal opportunities and equal protection become the norm for each and every citizen. This is a proposal that will be made to the Expert Committee on Constitutional Reform whose deadline is November 30.
Govt.’s choice is dialogue over confrontation
By Jehan Perera
Preparing for the forthcoming UN Human Rights Council cannot be easy for a government elected on a nationalist platform that was very critical of international intervention. When the government declared its intention to withdraw from Sri Lanka’s co-sponsorship of the October 2015 resolution No. 30/1 last February, it may have been hoping that this would be the end of the matter. However, this is not to be. The UN Human Rights High Commissioner’s report that will be taken up at the forthcoming UNHRC session in March contains a slate of proposals that are severely punitive in nature and will need to be mitigated. These include targeted economic sanctions, travel bans and even the involvement of the International Criminal Court.
Since UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s visit in May 2009 just a few days after the three-decade long war came to its bloody termination, Sri Lanka has been a regular part of the UNHRC’s formal discussion and sometimes even taking the centre stage. Three resolutions were passed on Sri Lanka under acrimonious circumstances, with Sri Lanka winning the very first one, but losing the next two. As the country became internationally known for its opposition to revisiting the past, sanctions and hostile propaganda against it began to mount. It was only after the then Sri Lankan government in 2015 agreed to co-sponsor a fresh resolution did the clouds begin to dispel.
Clearly in preparation for the forthcoming UNHRC session in Geneva in March, the government has finally delivered on a promise it made a year ago at the same venue. In February 2020 Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena sought to prepare the ground for Sri Lanka’s withdrawal from co-sponsorship of UN Human Rights Council resolution No 30/1 of 2015. His speech in Geneva highlighted two important issues. The first, and most important to Sri Lanka’s future, was that the government did not wish to break its relationships with the UN system and its mechanisms. He said, “Sri Lanka will continue to remain engaged with, and seek as required, the assistance of the UN and its agencies including the regular human rights mandates/bodies and mechanisms in capacity building and technical assistance, in keeping with domestic priorities and policies.”
Second, the Foreign Minister concluding his speech at the UNHRC session in Geneva saying “No one has the well-being of the multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-religious and multi-cultural people of Sri Lanka closer to their heart, than the Government of Sri Lanka. It is this motivation that guides our commitment and resolve to move towards comprehensive reconciliation and an era of stable peace and prosperity for our people.” On that occasion the government pledged to set up a commission of inquiry to inquire into the findings of previous commissions of inquiry. The government’s action of appointing a sitting Supreme Court judge as the chairperson of a three-member presidential commission of inquiry into the findings and recommendations of earlier commissions and official bodies can be seen as the start point of its response to the UNHRC.
The government’s setting up of a Commission of Inquiry has yet to find a positive response from the international and national human rights community and may not find it at all. The national legal commentator Kishali Pinto Jayawardene has written that “the tasks encompassed within its mandate have already been performed by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC, 2011) under the term of this President’s brother, himself the country’s Executive President at the time, Mahinda Rajapaksa.” Amnesty International has stated that “Sri Lanka has a litany of such failed COIs that Amnesty International has extensively documented.” It goes on to quote from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights that “Domestic processes have consistently failed to deliver accountability in the past and I am not convinced the appointment of yet another Commission of Inquiry will advance this agenda. As a result, victims remain denied justice and Sri Lankans from all communities have no guarantee that past patterns of human rights violations will not recur.”
It appears that the government intends its appointment of the COI to meet the demand for accountability in regard to past human rights violations. Its mandate includes to “Find out whether preceding Commissions of Inquiry and Committees which have been appointed to investigate into human rights violations, have revealed any human rights violations, serious violations of the international humanitarian law and other such serious offences.” In the past the government has not been prepared to accept that such violations took place in a way that is deserving of so much of international scrutiny. Time and again the point has been made in Sri Lanka that there are no clean wars fought anywhere in the world.
International organisations that stands for the principles of international human rights will necessarily be acting according to their mandates. These include seeking the intervention of international judicial mechanisms or seeking to promote hybrid international and national joint mechanisms within countries in which the legal structures have not been successful in ensuring justice. The latter was on the cards in regard to Resolution 30/1 from which the government withdrew its co-sponsorship. The previous government leaders who agreed to this resolution had to publicly deny any such intention in view of overwhelming political and public opposition to such a hybrid mechanism. The present government has made it clear that it will not accept international or hybrid mechanisms.
In the preamble to the establishment of the COI the government has made some very constructive statements that open up the space for dialogue on issues of accountability, human rights and reconciliation. It states that “the policy of the Government of Sri Lanka is to continue to work with the United Nations and its Agencies to achieve accountability and human resource development for achieving sustainable peace and reconciliation, even though Sri Lanka withdrew from the co-sponsorship of the aforesaid resolutions” and further goes on to say that “the Government of Sri Lanka is committed to ensure that, other issues remain to be resolved through democratic and legal processes and to make institutional reforms where necessary to ensure justice and reconciliation.”
As the representative of a sovereign state, the government cannot be compelled to either accept international mechanisms or to prosecute those it does not wish to prosecute. At the same time its willingness to discuss the issues of accountability, justice and reconciliation as outlined in the preamble can be considered positively. The concept of transitional justice on which Resolution No 30/1 was built consists of the four pillars of truth, accountability, reparations and institutional reform. There is international debate on whether these four pillars should be implemented simultaneously or whether it is acceptable that they be implemented sequentially depending on the country context.
The government has already commenced the reparations process by establishing the Office for Reparations and to allocate a monthly sum of Rs 6000 to all those who have obtained Certificates of Absence (of their relatives) from the Office of Missing Persons. This process of compensation can be speeded up, widened and improved. It is also reported that the government is willing to consider the plight of suspected members of the LTTE who have been in detention without trial, and in some cases without even being indicted, for more than 10 years. The sooner action is taken the better. The government can also seek the assistance of the international community, and India in particular, to develop the war affected parts of the country on the lines of the Marshall Plan that the United States utilized to rebuild war destroyed parts of Europe. Member countries of the UNHRC need to be convinced that the government’s actions will take forward the national reconciliation process to vote to close the chapter on UNHRC resolution 30/1 in March 2021.
Album to celebrate 30 years
Rajiv Sebastian had mega plans to celebrate 30 years, in showbiz, and the plans included concerts, both local and foreign. But, with the pandemic, the singer had to put everything on hold.
However, in order to remember this great occasion, the singer has done an album, made up of 12 songs, featuring several well known artistes, including Sunil of the Gypsies.
All the songs have been composed, very specially for this album.
Among the highlights will be a duet, featuring Rajiv and the Derena DreamStar winner, Andrea Fallen.
Andrea, I’m told, will also be featured, doing a solo spot, on the album.
Rajiv and his band The Clan handle the Friday night scene at The Cinnamon Grand Breeze Bar, from 07.30 pm, onwards.
LET’S DO IT … in the new normal
The local showbiz scene is certainly brightening up – of course, in the ‘new normal’ format (and we hope so!)
Going back to the old format would be disastrous, especially as the country is experiencing a surge in Covid-19 cases, and the Western Province is said to be high on the list of new cases.
But…life has to go on, and with the necessary precautions taken, we can certainly enjoy what the ‘new normal’ has to offer us…by way of entertainment.
Bassist Benjy, who leads the band Aquarius, is happy that is hard work is finally bringing the band the desired results – where work is concerned.
Although new to the entertainment scene, Aquarius had lots of good things coming their way, but the pandemic ruined it all – not only for Aquarius but also for everyone connected with showbiz.
However, there are positive signs, on the horizon, and Benjy indicated to us that he is enthusiastically looking forward to making it a happening scene – wherever they perform.
And, this Friday night (January 29th), Aquarius will be doing their thing at The Show By O, Mount Lavinia – a beach front venue.
Benjy says he is planning out something extra special for this particular night.
“This is our very first outing, as a band, at The Show By O, so we want to make it memorable for all those who turn up this Friday.”
The legendary bassist, who lights up the stage, whenever he booms into action, is looking forward to seeing music lovers, and all those who missed out on being entertained for quite a while, at the Mount Lavinia venue, this Friday.
“I assure you, it will be a night to be remembered.”
Benjy and Aquarius will also be doing their thing, every Saturday evening, at the Darley rd. Pub & Restaurant, Colombo 10.
In fact, they were featured at this particular venue, late last year, but the second wave of Covid-19 ended their gigs.
Also new to the scene – very new, I would say – is Ishini and her band, The Branch.
Of course, Ishini is a singer of repute, having performed with Mirage, but as Ishini and The Branch, they are brand new!
Nevertheless, they were featured at certain five-star venues, during the past few weeks…of their existence.
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