02/15/2018, 19.18
SRI LANKA
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Colombo: Preventing Rajapaksa’s return to avoid another civil war

by Jehan Perera*

Local elections results could reverse the process of national reconciliation. Under President Sirisena, relations between the government and ethnic minorities has improved. Now “The danger is [. . .] a vicious cycle in which Sinhalese nationalism in the South feeds and sustains the rise of Tamil nationalism in the North.”

Colombo (AsiaNews) – Results from Sri Lanka’s local elections, which saw former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s party win big, will jeopardise the process of reforms and national reconciliation undertaken by the current government with great effort after the end of the civil war.

The victory of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (Sri Lanka People's Front, SLPP) took everyone by surprise. Opposition leaders are now saying President Maithripala Sirisena’s popular mandate is at an end.

The situation is critical. The performance of the ruling United People's Freedom Alliance headed by Sirisena's Sri Lanka Freedom Party raises questions about the process of national reconciliation that began with his 2015 presidential election.

Prior to the change of government, relations with ethnic minorities and the international community were in a state of acute deterioration.  This situation was largely reversed by the present government.

In the past three years the relationship between the government and ethnic communities improved in a significant manner.  Ethnic minority parties became partners of the government either by joining it or by having understanding relationships.

The main frame of the reconciliation process that the government has provided is a combination of constitutional reform and transitional justice.  

This has enabled a greater measure of power sharing on the one hand, and the delivery of the commitments made to the UN Human Rights Council on the other hand.  

With regard to the latter, the government continues to return land taken over by the military during the civil war, and to amend laws relating to terrorism and enforced disappearances.  It also set in place the law for an Office of Missing Persons.

The government was proceeding along these two tracks prior to the announcement of local government elections, albeit slowly.  [...] [T]he slow pace of reform resulted in disillusionment to the Tamil people who were the main victims of the war in its last phase. This disillusionment has found its political expression in the political rise at these elections of the Tamil Congress in the North [. . .].

There was hope that once the local government elections were concluded the government would restart the reconciliation process that had been put on hold during the campaign period.  However, the results of the election put this recommencement into jeopardy.  

The opposition SLPP led by former president Mahinda Rajapaksa campaigned on the theme of the government’s betrayal of the national interest to LTTE proxies and to the international community.  

This touched a responsive chord in the majority ethnic Sinhalese electorate which turned out in larger numbers to vote for the SLPP.  The danger now is that this could set off a vicious cycle in which Sinhalese nationalism in the South feeds and sustains the rise of Tamil nationalism in the North. 

Irrespective of changes in the government and opposition, it is in the national interest that the reconciliation process should continue. [. . .] [T]he past three years the government’s relationship with the ethnic minorities and with the international community has improved greatly. 

In the context of failed reconciliation processes elsewhere in the world, Sri Lanka came to be seen as a model of post-war reconciliation to be strengthened and emulated.

The situation should not be permitted to regress into what it was during the period of the previous government when Sri Lanka was at the receiving end of international condemnation and economic sanctions.  

Internally, ethnic minorities saw the government as an oppressor and not as a protector. Avoiding a slide towards a vicious cycle requires that the reconciliation process continue without reversal.

In the present post-election circumstances, in which the government’s very survival is at stake, it will be difficult for the government to continue with its present reconciliation process if there is opposition to it.

The landslide victories that the SLPP scored in predominantly Sinhalese areas shows that it is too powerful a political force to be kept out of national decision-making on issues as sensitive and controversial as the ethnic conflict.  

This suggests that even as the government struggles for its political survival in the remaining two years of its term of office, it needs to constructively engage with the SLPP on the future of the reconciliation process.  

As a first step the government needs to identify and engage with the moderates in the SLPP.

*Christian activist and executive director of the National Peace Council (NPC) of Sri Lanka

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