Cross­roads

Fault lines have emerged in Sri Lankan so­ci­ety which can only be mended through re­spon­si­ble gov­er­nance that ad­dresses all re­li­gions and eth­nic­i­ties.

Southasia - - FRONT PAGE - By Ma­lik Muham­mad Ashraf The writer is a free­lance colum­nist.

The Sri Lankan rul­ing party UNP has ef­fec­tively blocked the way of for­mer Pres­i­dent Ra­japaksa to stage a come­back by win­ning the gen­eral elec­tions held on Au­gust 17. The party won 106 seats of the leg­is­la­ture as against 95 seats won by the al­liance led by Ra­japaksa’s Sri Lanka Free­dom Party (SLFP). Though the UNP has fallen short of 7 seats to gain a ma­jor­ity, it is be­lieved that the Sri Lankan Prime Min­is­ter Ranil Wick­remesinghe would still be able to form a sta­ble gov­ern­ment.

The elec­tions were viewed as an epic strug­gle be­tween demo­cratic forces rep­re­sented by the UNP and anti-demo­cratic forces led by the SLFP. Po­lit­i­cal an­a­lysts be­lieve that a vic­tory for the UNP would pro­vide a life-time op­por­tu­nity for the Sri Lankans to re­solve some of the fault lines that had made their way in Sri Lanka’s con­flic­trid­den so­ci­ety, whereas a tri­umph for the SLFP would main­tain the sta­tus quo. How­ever opin­ion polls had al­ready put the UNP ahead of its

ri­val. The re­sults vin­di­cated the pre­elec­tion pre­dic­tions.

To un­der­stand the sig­nif­i­cance of the elec­tions in their true per­spec­tive, it is per­haps es­sen­tial to get a brief in­sight into the po­lit­i­cal land­scape of Sri Lanka and why it finds it­self at a cross-roads even af­ter more than six decades of in­de­pen­dence in 1948.

Sri Lanka is a re­li­giously, eth­ni­cally and lin­guis­ti­cally di­verse coun­try. More than 70% of its pop­u­la­tion sub­scribes to Bud­dhism, 12.58% to Hin­duism and 9.66% be­long to Is­lam, while Chris­tians con­sti­tute 7.62%. Eth­nic­ity-wise, the ma­jor­ity of the Sin­halese are Bud­dhists, Tamils are Hin­dus and the Moors are Mus­lims. The po­lit­i­cal land­scape of the coun­try has been dom­i­nated by two par­ties - the Sri Lankan Free­dom party (SLFP) and United Na­tional Party (UNP). They have ruled Sri Lanka by form­ing al­liances with other smaller par­ties thus giv­ing Sri Lanka a cul­ture of coali­tion pol­i­tics. Nev­er­the­less the power dy­nam­ics in the coun­try have been es­sen­tially char­ac­ter­ized by eth­nic con­sid­er­a­tions, a legacy of the colo­nial era. Af­ter in­de­pen­dence, the elite that dom­i­nated the po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic arena dur­ing colo­nial rule con­tin­ued to en­joy the same sta­tus. The politi­ciza­tion of the eth­nic iden­tity led to a pre­dom­i­nance of the Sin­halese, giv­ing birth to a sys­tem which failed to pro­tect mi­nor­ity rights and deep­en­ing of a sense of de­pri­va­tion among the mi­nor­ity com­mu­ni­ties as well as erup­tion of armed strug­gles against the Sin­halese-dom­i­nated gov­ern­ments.

The foun­da­tion for in­sur­gen­cies was laid with the lim­it­ing of cit­i­zen­ship rights of the plan­ta­tion com­mu­nity of the Tamils in 1948, pas­sage of ‘The Sin­hala Only Act’ which de­clared Sin­hala as the sole of­fi­cial lan­guage re­plac­ing English and univer­sity ad­mis­sion re­forms which put the Jaf­fana Tamils at a dis­ad­van­ta­geous po­si­tion by block­ing ac­cess of the mi­nor­ity com­mu­ni­ties to state em­ploy­ment. The was fol­lowed by grant­ing of a spe­cial place in the con­sti­tu­tion to Bud­dhism. All these fac­tors con­trib­uted to the widen­ing of fis­sures in Sri Lanka’s multi-cul­tural and multi-eth­nic so­ci­ety. The SLFP and UNP which are both Sin­halese-dom­i­nated po­lit­i­cal out­fits have ac­tu­ally played a cen­tral role in per­pet­u­at­ing the eth­nic con­flict. They have both regularly used the ter­ror­ism of Tamils as a strat­egy to win votes at elec­tions, fur­ther di­vid­ing the na­tion on eth­nic lines.

The United Peo­ple’s Free­dom Al­liance (UPFA) un­der for­mer Pres­i­dent Ra­japaksa, which ruled Sri Lanka be­tween 2005 and Jan­uary 2015, won a mil­i­tary vic­tory against the In­dian backed Lib­er­a­tion Tigers of Tamil Ee­lam (LTTE) in 2009, cour­tesy mil­i­tary as­sis­tance from China and Pak­istan. Rid­ing on the pop­u­lar­ity wave due to this vic­tory, the UPFA also won the 2010 elec­tions and Ra­japaksa was elected for the sec­ond term. Dur­ing the Ra­japaksa regime, Sri Lanka took dis­cernible strides in the eco­nomic arena. Ra­japaksa, who felt on top of the world due to his vic­tory against the LTTE and the per­for­mance of the econ­omy, wanted to win another term as Pres­i­dent but that was not fea­si­ble un­der the con­sti­tu­tion which al­lowed only two stints to an in­di­vid­ual.

To have his way, Ra­japaksa first had the Chief Jus­tice of Sri Lanka re­moved by the par­lia­ment and in­stalled a per­son of his own choice as the Chief Jus­tice who, in re­sponse to a ref­er­ence made by Ra­japaksa, ruled that he could run for the third term. Ra­japaksa an­nounced pres­i­den­tial elec­tions two years ear­lier than the com­ple­tion of his six-year term think­ing it was the right time to cap­i­tal­ize on the pop­u­lar­ity wave. But he prob­a­bly mis­cal­cu­lated the whole thing and could not make a proper as­sess­ment of the im­pact that his poli­cies of deny­ing le­git­i­mate rights to the Tamils, at­tacks on Mus­lims, plun­der­ing of state re­sources through cor­rup­tion, dis­ap­pear­ance of jour­nal­ists and po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents, his au­thor­i­tar­ian rule and mis­treat­ment of his po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents had cre­ated to erode his po­lit­i­cal cre­den­tials. As soon as he an­nounced elec­tions, the United Na­tional Party (UNP) which seemed in com­plete dis­ar­ray, sud­denly re­grouped and Maithri­pala Sirisena de­fected to it. He was elected Pres­i­dent in Jan­uary 2015.

Sirisena, in his elec­tion cam­paign against Ra­japaksa, promised re­forms and build­ing Sri Lanka as a state be­long­ing to all cul­tural and eth­nic en­ti­ties and grant­ing rights to the Tamils, the con­di­tions on which he was sup­ported by the civil and po­lit­i­cal or­ga­ni­za­tions. The de­feat of Ra­japaksa in Jan­uary paved the way for open po­lit­i­cal ex­pres­sion and the re­moval of an at­mos­phere of fear. Sirisena, in an at­tempt to ful­fill his elec­tion prom­ises, had the nine­teenth con­sti­tu­tional Amend­ment passed by the par­lia­ment, re­duc­ing the term of the res­i­dent and par­lia­ment from six to five years, re-in­tro­duc­tion of the two-term limit that a per­son can have as pres­i­dent, re­vival of Con­sti­tu­tional Coun­cil and es­tab­lish­ment of in­de­pen­dent com­mis­sions. How­ever, he found the par­lia­ment dom­i­nated by UPFA which was re­sis­tant to other en­vis­aged re­forms. This forced him to dis­solve the par­lia­ment and call for fresh elec­tions.

The Sri Lankan Prime Min­is­ter Ranil Wick­remesinghe, af­ter the vic­tory called on all the stake­hold­ers to join hands in de­vel­op­ing a civ­i­lized so­ci­ety, for­ma­tion of a con­sen­sus gov­ern­ment and build­ing a new coun­try. Whether the UNP would be able to muster enough sup­port for its promised re­forms only time will tell, as Rjapaksa is still a po­lit­i­cal force to be reck­oned with. The task seems quite ar­du­ous. How­ever, the fact re­mains that Sri Lanka can­not af­ford to fail in im­ple­ment­ing the promised agenda of re­forms.

Observers be­lieve that de­feat for Ra­japaksa would keep Sri Lanka on a non-aligned course and loosen ties with China who pumped bil­lions of dol­lars in try­ing to con­vert Sri Lanka into a mar­itime out­post, due to the fact that the in­cum­bent Pres­i­dent is a known pro-US leader and might show a tilt to­ward the US. By do­ing so he will not only be jeop­ar­diz­ing Sri Lanka’s cre­den­tials as a non-aligned coun­try but will also harm long-term geo-strate­gic in­ter­ests of the coun­try. Build­ing re­la­tions with the US at the cost of a re­gional power like China would be a big mis­take. It is bet­ter if he stays away from the US-China tus­sle in the re­gion and fo­cuses more on his re­form agenda, ad­dress­ing the de­bil­i­tat­ing fault lines that have emerged in the Sri Lankan so­ci­ety.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Pakistan

© PressReader. All rights reserved.