Wijith DeChickera takes a leaf out of the Foreign Minister’s book and finds that Sri Lanka is running into a few obstacles on the way forward

In global politics, good speeches often unlock international goodwill. Good press about political presentations at high-level forums brings praise, support and admiration from friends and neutrals. Judging by the plaudits Sri Lanka received courtesy its Foreign Minister (FM), Geneva (and by extension, the planet’s civilised hemisphere) approves.

The commitment of our once-embattled island-republic to its national reconciliation process appears destined to win us friends in high places.

But the world is not enough. The stakeholders on what has been blithely described as ‘both sides of the ethnic divide’ must meet each other halfway if – as Mangala Samaraweera’s UN speech maintained – Sri Lanka is to “go the distance.”

The war may be over but the government remains beleaguered by many battles to be fought and won on sundry fronts. And in several disconcerting arenas, ground gained is being lost through backsliding bureaucracy, institutional apathy, corruption or allegations thereof, realpolitik and the great divide of competing nationalisms on home soil.

That our nation-state remains in crisis mode despite many transformational gains goes without saying. It is a growing cause for concern that the best seem to lack all conviction – except while representing the sunny side of a sunshine story overseas – while the worst (ultra-nationalists on both sides or many fronts) are full of passionate intensity.

There is deep but silent (save for disgruntled chit-chat in cafe society or on the cocktail circuit) disgruntlement with the setbacks – or rather, the lack of progress; or relatively slow pace of reforms.

The transitional justice process has floundered between the Scylla of stubborn Sinhalese-Buddhism reluctant to engage with the grievances of those aggrieved by war as well as insidious ethno-nationalism and the Charybdis of aggressive Tamil nationalism raising its head in the north. It has yet to founder on the rocks of realpolitik.

But spoils and stratagems abound on and off-stage – and reported assassination attempts of moderate politicians driving a reconciliation-oriented self-determination agenda have added a volatile element to an already flammable mix of passions, principles and personalities.

There is a sense that present concerns may cloud or overshadow persistent questions about what has been called the ‘national issue.’

In the press of coalition politics, it could become increasingly convenient for players (the same ones who could make the difference every true patriot desires) to focus on survival between elections and beyond. Ergo, the voters’ rubber-stamping of a round robin between rival parties are not dissimilar as far as personal ambitions and political cultures go.

And in the cut and thrust of parliamentary bickering, relieved only by polished speeches at international forums, we (politicians as much as the polities that repeatedly prop up political inanity by not holding elected representatives accountable in-between polls) can all forget that we’ve not forged a truly independent nation since that faraway dawn of freedom.

Maybe the Foreign Minister’s language offers valuable insights into the metaphor of Sri Lanka’s journey…

Addressing the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) at the end of February,  Samaraweera stated: “In the face of roadblocks in the day-to-day world of realpolitik, there may be detours from time to time; but the destination and our resolve to walk the distance remain unchanged.”

On the side of the angels, much head-nodding remains to be seen even months after what one would-be detractor – a diasporic Tamil nationalist – called “yet another splendid speech.”

But more pertinent are those who are causing damage by not limiting their critique to playing devil’s advocate – rather, voicing vicious and vindictive opposition in vitriolic terms (the all-too familiar label of ‘traitors’) that are never helpful to the cause of transitional justice when they resonate with the psyche of a nation unsure of its identity let alone destiny.

Perhaps the government – serious as it sounds and significant as its commitment to transitional justice seems – would do well to enrol more right-thinking citizens to its cause that’s a just cause every citizen would embrace if the administration’s rationale were to be expounded and explained more engagingly.

Part of the problem may be that “as we move forward on this journey,” in the FM’s words, not everyone is willing to move… let alone forward. Extremists and ethnic chauvinists aside, the nation remains largely unconvinced about the government’s goodwill and ability when it comes to more mundane matters such as domestic economics.

If the government wants to convince citizens that a radically different country is being rebuilt through new social contracts such as inclusive constitutions, and tried and tested instruments like ‘truth and reconciliation commissions,’ it must prove its bona fides in many other respects first.

It needs a change of heart, a new ethos, unity in its ranks, working in concert at the top and austerity measures for parasitic fat-cats propping up coalition politics.

Stern would-be formal mechanisms mooted (indeed, those already drafted and legislated like the Right to Information and Office of Missing Persons Acts) may not succeed in shaping a new national identity if the government’s substandard approach to politics prevails while it preaches lofty ideals to competing nationalisms at home, and speaks with spit and polish abroad.