Connect with us

Opinion

Reaching out to unify the nation

Published

on

by Jehan Perera

Much is hoped for from the new government which triumphed with an unprecedented 2/3 majority. The fate of the country at this critical juncture depends on the government’s sagacity when the Covid virus continues its rampage throughout the world and the world economy is in decline. There was an expectation of new faces in the cabinet equal to this task and equipped with the professional orientation that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has brought to the fore. However, the exigencies of competitive politics, the need to reward loyalty and those who can bring in the votes appear to have prevailed over the demands of professional competence.

Most of the ministers selected are those from the past, including those accused of various offences and have cases in the courts against them. Particularly disappointing has been the failure to appoint women, with only one of the 27 cabinet ministers being a woman. The equal representation of women at all levels of society is a modern ideal. Those who seek international legitimacy, whatever other failings, would tend to improve the status of women. However, in a rather unfortunate turn of events, the subject minister of women’s affairs is a man, and one who is not known to be a specialist in the field of gender equity.

On the plus side, there are silver linings in the appointments of ministers. The main one has been the government’s discipline in keeping the number of cabinet ministers limited to 30 and under as mandated by the 19th Amendment. This is an act of restraint, as less restrained governments have reached the 50 mark in terms of cabinet ministers in the past. Another encouraging action has been the appointment of Mohamed Ali Sabry as Minister of Justice despite criticism that he has been President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s lawyer in a number of cases in the past few years and also on account of his community. By doing this the government has ensured that the cabinet will be multi ethnic and multi religious in its composition as befits a multi ethnic and multi religious polity.

FILLLING LACUNA

For the past six years at least since the anti-Muslim riots took place in Aluthgama, the Muslim community has been the target of a hate and vilification campaign by extremists mainly from the Sinhalese community. Anti-Muslim sentiment got a further boost after the Easter bombings by extremists from the Muslim community. The presidential election of November 2019 saw anti-Muslim sentiment being stoked to fever pitch by members of the current ruling party and its allies which resulted in the Muslim community voting in unison for the losing presidential candidate. In this context, the appointment of Ali Sabry as Minister of Justice can be considered as an act of political reconciliation which will perhaps give the Muslim community the expectation that they can engage constructively with the government.

There is a lacuna in today’s national politics with regard to national politicians who can reach out to the ethnic and religious minorities to make them feel included in the governance of the country and Sri Lankan in their identity. The recently held elections were notable for not having any of the major political parties proposing how they would bridge the ethnic and religious divides. The last of the champions of non-racist politics, former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, is now battling for his political life partly on account of having been identified with being over-sympathetic to the demands of the Tamil and Muslim minorities. Previous champions, such as former President Chandrika Kumaratunga and former Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera are presently out of the political centre stage.

The disintegration of the UNP which Ranil Wickremesinghe leads created a vacuum at the recently held general election which resulted in more than two million voters either not voting or spoiling their votes. There is a possibility of the ruling party claiming a part of these votes. This would require new strategies of reaching out to the minorities. The promise of economic development on an equitable basis and regardless of ethnicity or religion can be a powerful motivating factor at elections. Indeed, the recent elections saw a significant shift in the pattern of ethnic and religious minority votes in relation to the presidential election held nine months earlier. In both the North and East and in the central hills which have large populations of minority voters, the ruling party was able to make inroads both directly and through its political allies.

ENSURING BALANCE

The government’s relative success in wooing the minorities at this election is noteworthy as it has rejected the reconciliation process initiated by its predecessor as unsuitable to the country’s ethos and damaging to national sovereignty. However, the need for national reconciliation continues to remain. Despite the gains achieved electorally by the ruling party and its allies, the electoral map that emerged after the elections continues to show signs of this division. The big majority of seats in the Northern and Eastern provinces went to Tamil and Muslim parties in contrast to the voting pattern in the rest of the country. However, the victory of government allies who promised economic development in parts of the North and East suggests that the ethnic and religious minorities are no different from those in the majority community in seeking to improve their economic situation.

It is significant that several key institutions that were set up by the government as part of its national reconciliation process have been newly allocated to the Ministry of Justice. These are the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR), formerly headed by former President Chandrika Kumaratunga, the Office on Missing Persons (OMP), the Office for Reparations and the National Authority for the Protection of Victims of Crimes and Witnesses. Both ONUR and the OMP were engaging in pioneering work at the time that the government changed. ONUR had just embarked upon a mass programme of peace education at the community level and the OMP was beginning to find ways to ease the material sufferings of families of those who had gone missing during the war and its aftermath. These are both worthy causes that need to be supported and for which there was significant international goodwill and support.

The government has indicated that its approach to national reconciliation will lie through economic development which requires both political stability and assurance that those who invest will be protected by the law. Apart from the reconciliation mechanisms set up by the previous government, the Ministry of Justice will be responsible for overlooking the Attorney General’s Department and other institutions which play key roles in ensuring the rule of law. Ensuring a balance between the imperatives of justice, rule of law and national reconciliation are the prerequisites for economic development if Sri Lanka is to live up to its potential in a way that it never did in the past.

 



Continue Reading
Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Opinion

Building trust, a better investment

Published

on

The government has allowed private companies to import chemical fertilisers. The farmers had been holding many a street protest against the government’s blatantly unwise policy of shifting to organic farming overnight, but to no avail. The Minister concerned and others repeatedly said that they would not change the government’s decision as it had been made for the good of all the people. The farmers had no problem with organic farming but insisted that the transition had to be phased out to avoid serious adverse effects. But no! The government never relented and tried to show that the street protests were instigated by interested parties including chemical fertiliser companies, to make the government unpopular. The government insisted that chemical fertilisers have caused many ailments including the dreaded kidney disease and turned a deaf ear to the farmers’ grievances.

However, hot on the heels of Mr. Modi’s U-turn last week, the Minister has changed track and tells us that the government, being one which is always ‘sensitive to people’s concerns’, has decided to make chemical fertilizers available through private imports, but would not import them on its own or change its policy of going fully organic. Questioned by journalists, another ruling party spokesperson quipped that the government’s decision came about neither due to the Indian PM’s ‘example’ nor in response to the loud protests. It is a result of the discussions held within the party, he assured.

However, it is unfortunate that the government had to wait for more than seven months to be ‘sensitive to peoples’ concerns’. If the ruling party members had only taken a few minutes to watch TV news headlines, they would have proved their ‘sensitivity’ months earlier, not waiting for Mr. Modi to steal a march on them, so to speak. To any reasonable person, the government obviously has responded to the rampant protests that were actually the climax of a prolonged process, which began with pleading, explaining their predicament, reasoning, chest thumping, expressing disbelief, which gradually culminated in loud protests, burning of effigies and threatening to come to Colombo in numbers. Surely, Mr. Modi didn’t make it any easier for the government to justify its ‘sensitivity’ to farmers’ grievances!

Thus, to any reasonable person, the government had actually responded to the unbridled anger of the helpless farmers, not to their grievances. What’s more, looking at how the government had handled the previous issues of a controversial nature, it is hard to recall any instance where it promptly responded to people’s concerns; it was always a case of responding to people vehemently protesting as a last resort- be it the Port City issue, Eastern Terminal, Teachers’ salary or Yugadanavi Power Plant issue, not to mention the pathetic state of innocent villagers being perpetually traumatized by wild elephant attacks often taking their lives wantonly. In each of these cases, the government, wittingly or unwittingly, seemed to regard the voices of concern, not as appeals worthy of serious attention, but as attempts at disruption or politically motivated interventions. This, surely, does not augur well for the government or support its claim to ‘sensitivity’ as regards people’s concerns.

The government’s decision to compromise on its strict chemical fertiliser ban, which has come soon after Mr. Modi’s reversal of sorts, allows room for the discerning public to make obvious inferences, despite the government’s claim about its decision not being influenced by that of the Indian PM. In fact, the government reps have nothing to gain by pretending to blush when journalists suggest that they perhaps took a leaf from their neighbour. Even at this juncture, people’s representatives seem reluctant to prefer sincerity to affectation; hence the government’s growing aloofness, which is causing a “severe trust deficit”- to borrow a pithy phrase from The Island editorial of November 19.

As the representatives of the public, what any government needs to foster are sincerity and empathy. It is this tacit bond between the people and the government, which will consolidate trust in the long term. Being the party that holds power, the onus is on the rulers to secure people’s faith. Instead, every party that has come to power since Independence has always helped the Opposition to make a five yearly ‘ritual cleansing’ in the eyes of the people. So, the wheel turns.

Susantha Hewa

Continue Reading

Opinion

Don’t harass whistle-blower

Published

on

Thushan Gunawardena, who alerted the authorities and the media to a serious fraud taking at Sathosa should not be harassed by the Police as it is clear that he has no political motives and has acted in the public interest.

The Cabinet minister concerned is attempting to show a conspiracy against him when he has failed to prevent such frauds at Sathosa and let it continue as there were benefits flowing to him in addition to his being able to employ family members and manipulate the system for personal profit.

It is patently clear that he is trying to take the investigation in a different direction and prevent changes that would clean up the mess that is contributing to the massive losses at Sathosa.

Mahinda Gunasekera

Continue Reading

Opinion

Stanley (Sam) Samarasinghe

Published

on

A TRIBUTE TO A PATRIOT

Even with the prior knowledge that the end was near, when the news of the passing away of Sam on the 23rd of November 2021 was conveyed to me, it was difficult to bear. Though living the better part of his adult life in the United States, to those with whom he had regular contact and dialogue, he was ever present. He succumbed to an illness that he bore with courage and fortitude for several years. In that time his enthusiasm to live his life to the full did not diminish. Except family and close friends none had even the slightest inkling that he was battling an invasive enemy within.

I have described Sam as a Patriot, if its definition is “one that loves his country and zealously maintains its interests”, then it fits him well, as he did that in full measure.

Having schooled in Kandy at Dharmarajah College, Sam completed a special degree in economics at the Peradeniya University where his father worked. Having being accepted by both Oxford and Cambridge Universities, he turned to his mentor, Professor H. A. de S. Gunasekera, who had advised him to take Cambridge. He went there with his wife Vidyamali, whom he had met at Peradeniya and obtained his Ph.D. in Economics. They both returned to Peradeniya and Sam became a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Economics. He taught there until 1989, when he left for the United States with his wife and two sons, Mevan and Ranmal. He was appointed Professor of the Development Studies Programme at the USAID, a position he held for many years in Washington. But what is remarkable, is that he continued his abiding interest in the many facets of Sri Lankan life, especially in education and politics and of course, Kandy. He returned to Sri Lanka at least twice a year. While others would spend such breaks as a let up from work, Sam vigorously involved himself in many spheres of activity.

Along with Prof. Kingsley de Silva, he created the only intellectual hub outside of the Peradeniya University in Kandy at the International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES). As Director, he secured funding for many academic projects that the Centre did. Sam was instrumental in the ICES buying its own place and then constructing a tarred road leading to the Center. The way he set about it will give the reader an idea of the man Sam was. The road served at least 12 houses. He arranged a meeting of all the householders and sold them a deal that none could refuse. Each household was asked to pay proportionately to the distance from the main Peradeniya Road to their house. At the end of the exercise. Sam refunded the excess in that same proportion!!

Sam was an academic, researching and writing extensively, sometimes collaborating with other academics such as Prof. Kingsley de Silva and Prof. G.H. (Gerry) Peiris. On several occasions, he brought out his post graduate students from the Tulane University, New Orleans (where he was Visiting Professor of Economics) to Sri Lanka and to Kandy, arranged field trips and had them interact with academics and professionals.

His particular interest in Kandy made him do a study of its traffic congestion and organised a public seminar with other experts on the subject. As the President of the Senkadagala Lions Club, Sam obtained funding for many of its projects. In fact, Sam had a penchant for writing up project proposals, an expertise he ungrudgingly shared with anyone who asked for it. He started a monthly local newspaper in 1994, the “Kandy News”, becoming its Chief Editor and its main sponsor. The last issue was a special supplement done in the run-up to the Kandy Municipal Council election in 2018.

When the tsunami stuck the country in 2004, Sam was the lead Consultant of a World Vision programme designed to make a qualitative assessment of tsunami and non-tsunami villages from Kalutara in the Western Province to Kilinochchi in the Northern Province. A task he successfully completed with his team under the aegis of the ICES.

He was an advocate for cooperation and harmony among the races. His involvement in the post tsunami work in Jaffna and Trincomalee with the Lions Club is proof of that, as much as it was when he asked the guests to the nuptial reception of his son Mevan, not to give presents but to contribute towards the project initiated by Mevan and himself in giving school books and equipment to the Tamil Primary School at the Gomorra Estate in Panwila.

My own association with Sam goes back to the time I ran for office as Mayor in 1997. He threw his weight behind me helping out in ways too numerous to mention. That friendship grew and grew and it embraced my family as well. He would ask me to criticise his writing especially on politics. He was a stickler for accuracy and uncompromising on facts. His opinions were rational, practical and unbiased. A bubbly personality, he was always a believer that there are better times ahead. His enthusiasm was infectious. His criticism of events and people were never personal. There is much to take from the life and times of Sam Samarasinghe.

We share his loss with his wife, the two boys of whom he was justly very proud of and his siblings whose welfare he always had. The country is poorer for his passing.

May he find peace in Nibbana!

Harindra Dunuwille

Continue Reading

Trending