The government’s inability to obtain the support of the ethnic and religious minorities was visible in the outcome of the presidential election. The popular vote in the districts in which the minority communities predominated went overwhelmingly to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s main challenger, Opposition leader Sajith Premadasa. At his swearing-in ceremony, President Rajapaksa was straightforward enough to acknowledge this reality. He said he had been elected president on the votes of the ethnic majority. But in a statesmanlike manner, he promised to govern as the president of all Sri Lankans. This is a pledge that the president has repeated on other important occasions, most recently on Independence Day.
In his Independence Day speech, the president said, “I have the vision that I must serve as the leader of the country looking after all citizens rather than serve as a political leader concerned only about a particular community. As the President today, I represent the entire Sri Lankan nation irrespective of ethnicity, religion, party affiliation or other differences.” These words of the president make him a leader in the mode of Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, who was no-nonsense and firm when it came to dealing with political opponents, but scrupulously mindful in treating all communities in his country alike and ensuring that they mixed together in the areas in which they lived.
The statesmanlike words of President Rajapaksa, to be the president of all Sri Lankans and to treat all communities without discrimination needs to be respected. This will facilitate a Sri Lankan nationalism to germinate on the fertile soil of the motherland so as to yield a bountiful harvest as stated in the national anthem. Sri Lanka has so far been unfortunate not to have a national leader of the calibre of Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela or Jawaharlal Nehru who is able to convince the entire nation, in its multi-ethnic and multi-religious diversity that they are all children of one mother as so meaningfully proclaimed in the anthem.
The Government is Falling Short
However, despite the president’s statesmanlike words, the government is continuing to fall short in its efforts to realize the president’s vision of being the president of all Sri Lankans. The failure of the government to have the national anthem sung at the Independence Day celebrations in both official languages of the country, in Sinhala and Tamil, was a setback to the dream of having a Sri Lankan leader with the depth and capacity to rise to the pantheon of great national unifiers. This failure came as a great disappointment to those who expected the government to be responsive to the sentiments of the ethnic and religious minorities to feel a sense of belonging to the country.
Today, President Rajapaksa has an unparalleled opportunity to become a truly national leader. The war is over more than ten years and there is no uncooperative entity such as the LTTE with the power to wreck a unifying initiative. During her period of office, President Chandrika Kumaratunga displayed both the intellectual qualities and the political will to reach out to the ethnic and religious minorities, but her aspirations were undermined by the actions of the LTTE over which she had no influence. This was also an opportunity that President Rajapaksa’s elder brother Mahinda had when he became president for a second term after having defeated the LTTE in battle, but failed to take.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government was elected to power in 2010 with a large majority and high expectations. But the opportunity to include the ethnic and religious minorities was not taken as the government preferred to traverse the path of ethnic majoritarian dominance which effectively excluded the minorities. This alienated the minorities who felt that they had become the main victims of impunity by government and paramilitary actors. In addition, the international community began to put pressure on the government for its reluctance to put forward a viable roadmap to reconciliation. They began to put economic sanctions, including the withdrawal of the GSP Plus tax concession which undermined the prospects for rapid economic development with foreign participation.
With the general elections going to be held in April this year, the government would need to pay attention to the possibility of a similar set of negative factors to converge on it at the present time. As in the period 2010—15 the government is moving in the direction of conflict with the international community led by the United States. The travel ban imposed on the Sri Lankan army commander and also his entire family has evoked widespread condemnation within the country especially for the inclusion of family members. This is a continuation of a regime of international sanctions against Sri Lanka on the grounds of its unwillingness to deal with unresolved issues of the last phase of the war, including those of missing persons and accountability for human rights violations.
Unfortunately, the government’s immediate response was to announce it would be pulling out of Sri Lanka’s co-sponsorship of UNHRC resolution 30/1. This resolution set up a roadmap to reconciliation that had the support of the international community. In terms of reaching to the ethnic and religious minorities, there is a need for the government to minimize their sense of being targeted for hostile action. The sudden revival of security checkpoints in the north and east would be affecting mostly ethnic and religious minority populations, as they are predominant in those areas. At the present time both those who travel in public buses and private vehicles are being compelled to get down at security barriers even in the middle of the night and personally carry their baggage to the checkpoints. Even very elderly people, in their eighties, have been subjected to this treatment.
If the government hopes to dispel the sense that it is opposed to ethnic and religious minorities and obtain their support at the forthcoming general election it will need to make positive gestures to them, such as finding ways to minimize the inconvenience to travellers. Another concern is the checking of meetings and discussions in the north and east especially but also elsewhere by state intelligence agencies. This is done politely for the most part without any element of a direct threat. However, this is still worrying to people who have a memory of events not so long ago when they were similarly questioned though in different circumstances. Such questioning today sends a message to those being questioned that they are not trusted. Any leader who wishes to be a statesman would wish to build trust with the people as a first step, regardless of their ethnicity or religion, by making them feel safe.
Dr. Jehan Perera is the Executive Director of the National Peace Council