The call for a fresh approach to national reconciliation – Dr. Jehan Perera

In times of crisis and economic scarcity, it’s easy to scapegoat and target minorities, which can turn into violence. There’s been hate news focussing on ethnic and religious minorities accusing the government of not doing enough to put them in their place.

Following the Easter Sunday attacks in 2019, and continuing to the presidential and general elections, members of the present regime attacked their opponents for failing to ensure national security and being single-minded in decisions.

They pledged to ensure national security and secure the position of the majority, whose vote they campaigned for and secured in large numbers. Today, they’re blamed for not being nationalistic enough.

There is also criticism especially on social media and in civil society over the government’s utilisation of the military at the expense of civilian leadership in meeting the health challenges posed by COVID-19. The higher military budget and diminished allocation for health in the context of a huge increase in the budget deficit indicates the administration’s priorities.

The military is playing an increased role in civilian affairs, leading the battle against the coronavirus and in terms of administrative presence in the state bureaucracy with retired personnel from the forces deployed to positions of leadership.

So the question is how the government will seek to ensure the continuing confidence of the people in its governance and the decisions it takes. Given that the 20th Amendment was passed into law, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is best positioned to make the decisions that call for sacrifice but are fair by all.

The virulent coronavirus is not the only destructive problem the country faces. There’s also the deeply felt disaffection of the Muslim community and sections of the Christian community at the practice of compulsory cremation of COVID-19 victims. This is contrary to the WHO’s guidelines and has brought a black mark to the country internationally.

At the outset of the pandemic, the administration took the position that COVID-19 burial is not permissible due to the threat to the health and safety of the larger population as it leads to the possibility of groundwater contamination.

If there is no evidence for or against such contamination, the prevailing law and practices relating to burial should continue as the course of justice; if proven otherwise, the rationale would be to mitigate this in the larger interest of society.

By disregarding the strongly felt sentiments of a major section of the population, the government is risking non-cooperation with it and a buildup of conflict in the future.

There is a need for community support for the state’s efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19. If any community is alienated and does not cooperate, this will pose a danger to all. Where there is community spread, the problem cannot be solved by decisions made at the top without reference to what is happening at the ground level.

Sociology Professor Kalinga Tudor Silva has stated that “to address these challenges effectively, we need to have broader community participation at all levels, inclusive decision making and a two-way flow of information in place of a purely top-down communication pattern.”

The failure in knowledge gathering and sharing could have been avoided if there
was more participation from those outside the government including the opposition, independent professional associations and civil society organisations with experience in working with communities at the grassroots level.

Apart from those in the central government, subsidiary layers of devolved administration – such as local government authorities –  could have been utilised too so that the war against the coronavirus becomes a major national effort conducted at all levels.

Rajapaksa is reported to have said if this was a real war such as the one he fought against the LTTE, he’d know what to do. Dealing with today’s problems calls for a different approach that is more inclusive and participatory than that of the military, which is usually exclusive and top-down.

Noting that wisdom comes late in the day, too late to make a new beginning, the philosopher Hegel said: “The Owl of Minerva sets flight when the shades of twilight are already falling.”

But it is human ingenuity and leadership that dares to rectify the mistakes made by learning from the past and not repeating them. This applies as much to resolving peacetime problems as to wartime issues.