Dr. Jehan Perera stresses the need to act on the pledge for a new direction

The significance of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s speech at the UN General Assembly in New York City was his use of the allocated time to outline the government’s policies towards the challenges besetting the country.

He covered the main issues confronting the world with a focus on Sri Lanka – including measures to contain the pandemic, the economic crisis, environmental degradation and violence.

In the last segment of his speech, the president went into some depth about the government’s approach to national reconciliation. However, the response in the country has been muted. Those who voted for this administration on a platform emphasising ethnic majority nationalism and anti-international sentiments seem to be at a loss.

The challenge for the government is representing the interests of all communities and not only the majority who voted it into power. The problem is that its mandate by and large comes from the vote of the ethnic and religious majority – this, in a country that has been polarised along ethnic and religious lines for many decades.

In the prisons today are a few hundred Tamils and Muslims for periods ranging from a few months to many years without trial. They are being held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), ostensibly until the security forces collect adequate evidence to bring them before the courts of law, contradicting the rule of law and presumption that we are innocent until proven guilty.

In June, the European Parliament passed a resolution that Sri Lanka’s GSP+ privileges should be withdrawn unless the government fulfils its obligations in upholding human rights. It expresses “deep concern over Sri Lanka’s alarming path towards the recurrence of grave human rights violations” and makes specific reference to the use of the PTA.

The resolution notes the “continuing discrimination” against – and violence towards – religious and ethnic minorities, while voicing “serious concern” about the 20th Amendment and the “resulting decline in judiciary independence, the reduction of parliamentary control and the excessive accumulation of power with the presidency.”

Moreover, it highlights the “accelerating militarisation” of civilian government functions.

In his speech, the president showed signs of diverging from the politics of the past. He said: “Fostering greater accountability, restorative justice and meaningful reconciliation through domestic institutions are essential to achieve lasting peace. So too is ensuring more equitable participation in the fruits of economic development.”

“It is my government’s firm intention to build a prosperous, stable and secure future for all Sri Lankans regardless of ethnicity, religion or gender. We are ready to engage with all domestic stakeholders, and to obtain the support of our international partners and the United Nations, in this process,” Rajapaksa assured.

However, his speech continues to be at odds with the ground realities and general manner of governance since
he took office.

So far, the pledge of a new direction has been articulated in words but not actions. The time for the government to turn the president’s words into realty is now. This will help overcome the deep and dark cynicism that has enveloped the country regarding politicians’ promises.

In recent weeks, the newly appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs Prof. G. L. Peiris has met with foreign embassies in Sri Lanka to explain the government’s position on issues of interest and its plan for the way forward.

As an expert in international and constitutional law, Peiris will be able to present the best possible case from the government’s perspective. However, he needs to be supported by positive changes on the ground. If this is not forthcoming, it will seem like the Sri Lankan batters are batting on a bad wicket and will be bowled out quickly.

The declaration of emergency law, appointment of military officers to oversee food and fuel distribution, and continuing detentions without trial under the PTA will queer the pitch for champions of Sri Lanka’s democracy and human rights.

In particular, the issue of the emergency law must be reconsidered. Good intentions are important; but it’s also important to see the optics of the situation and how others might perceive it.

The government’s failure to control the price of rice and remove it from middlemen stores suggests that this law isn’t the way to solve the problem. It needs to be withdrawn as soon as possible, and other democratic and problem solving methods used to tackle food and other crises.