by Manjula Fernando
The aftermath of the local government election has been fraught with political tension and the uncertainties of coalition politics.Leading civil society activist and Secretary of the Consultative Task Force on Reconciliation mechanisms, Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu says these confusions must not be allowed to overshadow the 2015 mandate for democratic and constitutional reforms.“The country hasn’t given up on the reforms agenda-nor should the government,” Dr. Saravanamuttu said in an interview with the Sunday Observer.
The excerpts of the interview:
Q: After the recent local government election, the government functions seem to have come to a standstill. In this backdrop how do you engage with the government and push the reform agenda forward?
Yes, there is a sense of things having come to a standstill. The President appeared to be shopping around for another Prime Minister on the basis of the local government election results and as a consequence government seemed to be in limbo and lost in action. Governmental paralysis was self-inflicted – an encore to the backbiting that marked the government’s election campaign.
The need of the hour is for the key constituent elements of the government to agree on a plan of action for the remainder of the government’s term, announce it to the country and get on with implementing it. They cannot forget or be allowed to forget that the mandate for the reform agenda still stands. What they received from the country at large was a rebuke and not repudiation. The country has not given up on the reform agenda; nor should the government. The sharp, stinging rebuke was with regard to the lack of delivery on hopes raised, promises and commitments made and the woeful failure to communicate what was being done and why, as well as what was not done and why.
Q: Do you think it is better to wait till this cycle of political uncertainty is over to pick up where civil society left off in terms of reforms?
No. Civil society which defined and defended the reform agenda over decades and in the most inhospitable circumstances, cannot give up on it. I would argue that since we have ownership and a stake in it we must ensure that it is not abandoned but fulfilled if not in full, in as substantive a measure as possible. Allowing things to drift without a sense of purpose and direction will only compound the uncertainty. The country cannot be in limbo or await the inevitability of a new dispensation or return to the future. There is nothing inevitable about the results of future electoral contests, unless defeat is conceded in advance and resistance abandoned. Whatever the political balance of power, civil society committed to reform cannot rest. Democracy, as we have been warned time and time again, is ultimately protected and strengthened by the vigilance and vision of citizens.
Q: Some members of the civil society have begun criticizing the government openly for their delay in delivering on the promises of good governance. Is it correct to say that the civil society has completely lost hope ?
Given the role of sections of civil society in defining and defending the reform agenda, once a government came into office committed to that agenda, civil society would always have to engage with it both, critically and constructively. That continues to be the case and should be the case. There may well be those who have lost hope for the moment, but I am sure this is momentary and that once the disappointment recedes they will return to the fray. I do not think that all hope is lost. All of us need to recommit to what we believe to be important and valuable in making this country the best place for all of its peoples. And yes, we have and must criticize and constructively; likewise resist the trend of populist authoritarianism.
Q: The commissioners to the Office of Missing Persons were appointed this week by the President fulfilling one of the undertakings to the UNHCR. As the Secretary of the Consultation Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanisms, what is your take on this development? What are the other outstanding issues on the reconciliation front?
One of the mechanisms is the Office on Missing Persons (OMP) which has now taken over a year to be established. I welcome its establishment and hope that it will be given the space and resources to do its job. This is pivotal for reconciliation and unity – disappearances being one of the nastiest atrocities. It should be pointed out that the government promised three other mechanisms and these too were incorporated into Resolution 30/1 at the UN Human Rights Council, which the government co-sponsored.
The other mechanisms were an Office of Reparations, a Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission as well as an accountability mechanism comprising a special court and special counsel. Indeed, the attitude of the government has been in the main to capitulate to the gross distortion of the opposition that transitional justice is the process by which war heroes will be turned into war criminals. Furthermore, when the mechanisms were announced they were announced as a coherent package; they were not to be sequenced. Doing so does not make sense. Currently, it would seem that there is the possibility of an Office on Reparations.
A Truth Commission looks like a stretch and a special court way into the future if at all. This is a tragedy and I hope the government will have the courage and the imagination to take reconciliation as seriously and as sincerely as it warrants in the context of moving from a post-war Sri Lanka to a post-conflict Sri Lanka in which the roots of conflict, hurt, harm and hate are addressed.
Apart from the mechanisms, there is a lot the government can do. There are citizens of this country on the street demonstrating for over a year to get their land back; who want to know what happened to their loved ones and where they might be. There is the horrendous PTA which should be repealed and replaced. The military should be taken out of civilian life. Those that have not been charged should be released and those responsible for religious intolerance and violence should be dealt with firmly and swiftly under the law of the land without fear or favour. The pillar of transitional justice and reconciliation referred to as non-recurrence should be addressed through constitutional reform and a political settlement of the National Question.
Q: Do you think this government has failed civil society and those millions of people who backed the rainbow revolution? The next parliamentary election is less than 24 months away. Can they still make a difference?
In 2015, for the first time in our history, the two main parties of government went into government together, voluntarily. They won on a platform of reform and defeated an incumbent who was seeking an unprecedented third presidential term. If one was to summarize the political mood, I would say that accountability was the buzz word in the Presidential election and it meant south of Vavuniya accountability in the main for financial corruption and north of Vavuniya for egregious human rights violations. Much has to be done in respect of all of this. The tragedy of this government is that it has not communicated effectively what it has done and as a consequence fallen victim to the greater freedom it has provided for criticism and dissent – a not inconsiderable achievement given the era of white vans which, is fast being forgotten. The regime change of 2015 created the conditions for greater democracy and governance and peace and unity in this country. The government has not lived up to expectations. It has lost the moral high ground on corruption and risks losing international goodwill and the prospects for true reconciliation and unity with its tardiness on transitional justice and the reversal of the culture of impunity. Its wounds in the main are self-inflicted. It provides a salutary lesson that a reform agenda at an election may well be presented in broad brushstrokes, but that in government it needs consensus on much more and communication, above all else.
Reform cannot be effected without this in a functioning democracy. The Opposition cannot be allowed to get away with the gross distortions that have become its stock in trade and government leaders have to rise above deeply rooted and petty priorities. There has to be vision, and it has to be communicated. The greatest tragedy of this government would be measured in the loss of faith in the institutions of democracy on the part of the population as a whole. This would pave the way for populist authoritarianism, state capture and even fascism. It is a tragedy that the 20-40 demographic – the social media generation who took so active a part in the regime change of 2015 are now so despairing and even angry. They have to be won back; they cannot be taken for granted.
Q: Over the past three years, Sri Lanka went from leadership by an authoritarian strongman leader, to a return to democratic governance. Coalition politics has been a tricky road, and democracy has shown itself to be flawed – with unending protests and a lack of firm policy. Do you think this situation has made a section of the citizenry clamour for a return of the strongman politician, or given rise to the perception that democratic governance is weak governance?
Yes, a section of civil society may well be in agreement with this. However, democracy per se should not be blamed for protests and the lack of a firm policy. Protests are a democratic right; clear and cogent policy, an expectation of any government. The issue to me in this regard is that of command, control and communication. Any coalition government will have these problems but one that is committed to reform must overcome them or at least manage them in a way that does not undermine the overall strategic objective. Most important of all is communication. You cannot effect major reform in a democratic context without effective, constant and consistent communication of the whys and wherefores of policy, on what is being done and why certain things are not being done or taking time to be done.
It is also worth noting that democratic governance entails a concerted effort to transform the political culture away from its authoritarian orientation. Effective communication by the team that constitutes government can go far in effecting this change.
Q:Undoubtedly civil society pinned serious hopes on this Government and were true stakeholders in its victory in 2015. As a leading civil society representative, you were Secretary of the Consultations Task Force. But, in the end the CTF report was barely acknowledged and the Government now shows signs of growing increasingly uneasy about civil society’s voice in the affairs of governance. Under the circumstances, is there any regret on your part or on the part of other colleagues and fellow travellers, about that decision to engage?
The CTF report was not openly endorsed by the government because of our recommendation of a hybrid court with at least one international judge. This was based on the submissions made to us – over 7,300 of them. Underpinning this recommendation – one of over 40- is the lack of trust and confidence in the existing judiciary as far as sections of our citizens are concerned. The point was made to us that if the judiciary and the agents of law and order acted as they were supposed to, this issue would not arise.
We therefore recommended that the international element be phased out once trust and confidence in the local judiciary was restored. Government leaders unfortunately decided to pacify the right wing of the majority community. The attempt on the part of the government to placate the Opposition and even the delusional notion that by acting tough on this they could win some of these votes proved to be a gross miscalculation and at the sacrifice of the votes that brought it to power in 2015 as attested to in the local government elections. The government should have taken on the Opposition charge about turning war heroes into war criminals head on and shown this up to be the irresponsible and inflammatory falsehood that it is. With regard to the rest of your question let me speak for myself. I have no fellow travellers either.
Civil society actors who defined and defended the reform agenda in the most inhospitable circumstances have a duty to see that it is fulfilled. It may not be fulfilled in fullest measure and in the way one would like, but realizing it even in modest measure is surely a duty of reform minded civil society actors. While there may not be 100 % satisfaction with government, the overarching objective of reform requires that we continue to critically and constructively engage government – work with it as opposed to for it, to realize the common objective of reform. Government may not take criticism kindly and would often be irritated by it. They must realize though that this is part and parcel of democratic governance, however irritating.
Yes, things could have been and could be better. They certainly are when compared to the dynastic rule and state capture of the populist authoritarianism of yore. The challenge and the commitment are to make things better through realizing the mandate of 2015.