Dr. Jehan Perera delineates the hardware and software of reconciliation

President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s presidency has been marked by challenges ranging from economic crises to ethnic issues. While his decisive actions have been praised, there remains a need for greater inclusivity, and trust and consensus building, to address the country’s deep-rooted divisions.

Only through genuine efforts towards reconciliation and national unity can Sri Lanka overcome these challenges, and build a brighter future for its people.

Meanwhile, the president has been praised for his decisive actions in addressing the shortage of forex and imports, restoring order following street protests and managing geopolitical rivalries.

But reconciliation is a key challenge that also needs to be addressed because otherwise, efforts to develop the economy will be hindered by the continuation of ethnic disputes. Both the hardware and software of reconciliation are needed for success.

The hardware of reconciliation consists of institutions and mechanisms such as the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR) and the Office on Missing Persons (OMP), and constitutional provisions regarding equality and freedom of religious worship.

While there have been efforts to address issues through mechanisms such as ONUR and OMP, there remains a dire need for building trust among communities.

This trust, which is often described as the ‘software of reconciliation,’ is critical for the success of any efforts. Building trust requires not only delivering on promises but demonstrating respect for the rule of law and institutions too.

Despite promises to resolve issues such as land disputes, the persistence of these problems undermines confidence in the government’s ability to uphold the law. Furthermore, there’s a need for consensus among political leaders on resolving these problems, and protecting democratic values and human rights.

People in the Northern Province are growing increasingly concerned about the proliferation of new Buddhist structures and shrines in the north. Hindus constitute the largest religious demographic in this province, followed by Christians and Muslims.

In the east similarly, a place of worship in Mavadivembu is facing restrictions after being designated as an archaeological site. This has led to a legal dispute.

There is apprehension that these developments may be part of a strategy to introduce Sinhalese settlers into these areas, and they could later create issues by asserting land ownership claims. Law enforcement and state authorities need to grasp the broader context of these initiatives, rather than prioritising the perspectives of their own communities.

The economic crisis has also highlighted the importance of unity and inclusivity in addressing challenges. Shared suffering caused by the economic collapse has brought communities closer together; and it has shifted the focus from ethnic divisions to economic concerns.

Wickremesinghe’s commitment to inclusivity, particularly with marginalised communities, reflects a recognition of the need for national unity. However, achieving national unity requires more than economic reforms and inclusivity.

Symbolic gestures such as singing the national anthem in multiple languages can also play a role in fostering a sense of belonging among different communities. While previous attempts to introduce bilingual renditions of the anthem faced criticism, the president’s revival of this practice signifies a commitment to reconciliation and inclusivity.

As the polity gears up for elections, political manoeuvres – including those by the president and Tamil political parties – are influenced by this impending reality. Wickremesinghe has historically garnered credibility with ethnic and religious minorities due to his longstanding advocacy of liberal policies over nationalist agendas.

Notably, he supported the adoption of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in 1987 as an instrument of resolution to decentralise power to the provinces. Upon assuming presidential office in 2022, he impressed the Tamil community by reaffirming his commitment to implement the 13th Amendment – including the devolution of land and police powers to the provincial councils.

Despite these efforts, progress on constitutional reforms to address ethnic issues has been slow. Though Wickremesinghe has promised to resolve the ‘ethnic conflict’ and reach a political settlement, little progress has been made in this regard.

The failure to pass new laws addressing these problems could be due to a lack of support from the parliamentary majority.

Recent reports of unsuccessful discussions between the president and the ruling party leadership regarding the next presiden­tial election highlight the challenges of forging political partnerships based on inclusion.

Moving forward, there is a need for a new political partnership that prioritises national unity and inclusivity over exclusionary politics.