Written by Mario Gomez.
Seventy years on and Sri Lanka has much to be proud of. It also has much to be ashamed about. Sri Lanka can be proud of its achievements in health care and education. It can be proud of its literacy levels, the eradication of malaria, its low infant mortality rates and low maternal mortality. It can be proud of the drop in poverty levels. It can be proud of its natural beauty, the diversity of its people and its inherent hospitality. Its conservation efforts, monuments, art, music, prose and poetry are cause for celebration. The ending of the debilitating war and the progress in sport are to be applauded. It can be proud of the solidarity across ethnic and religious lines generated by the 2004 tsunami. Sustaining constitutional democracy in difficult political and social circumstances is a major accomplishment. The adoption of a right to information law is a first step in creating a culture of transparency.
There has been a significant loss of momentum since the transition of 2015. The expectations generated by the transition of 2015 have all but evaporated as political actors have failed to exhibit the leadership necessary for far-reaching social transformation.
On the flip side, there is a lot to be ashamed of. The prejudice that ignited the horrific ethnic and religious violence has left scars that will not heal easily. Thousands of disappearances and illegal executions remain unresolved. Violence against women, children, gays, disabled persons, members of lower castes and informal workers is rampant. Eradicating social and economic equality remains a major challenge. Victims of its multiple conflicts pine to memorialize and remember the dead and missing. Its immature and violent political culture makes us cringe. The inability of the political leadership to forge a consensus on economic and political fundamentals is appalling. The prejudice of religious leaders and other public figures continues to challenge and haunt us. The summary eviction of slum communities from their homes of many years and their exclusion from policy remains a blot.
The two elections of 2015 re-established faith in the country’s democratic processes to enable peaceful political change within the framework of the constitution and the law. This peaceful transition occurred despite 26 years of violent conflict, a progressive decay and state capture of almost all public institutions, the absence of a free media, and several years of constitutional dictatorship.
Seventy years since independence, the country faces many challenges. Among them are the challenge to ensure that the benefits of economic and technological growth percolate to all social segments across all geographical regions; to ensure that Sri Lanka does not once more descend into a culture of violence, whether ethnic, religious or politically motivated; to preserve the space for dissent and free expression; and the challenge of nourishing and sustaining constitutional democracy.
With the end of the war comes the challenge of winning the peace, investing in pride and reducing prejudice. Winning the peace and investing in pride would mean that impunity is eliminated. Political actors, clergy, corporate leaders, law enforcement and military officers and others should be subject to the rule of law and the processes of justice.
Winning the peace would require that the prejudices that ignited the war are not re-kindled. Winning the peace would require that the diversity of its people is celebrated and fostered rather than trampled upon.
Winning the peace would mean that all people, poor and rich, urban and rural, low and high caste, coastal and farming communities, women, men and young people, disabled persons, ex-combatants, women heads of household, and plantation communities, have access to dignified and decent work and secure livelihoods.
Winning the peace would mean that the country’s past is dealt with. Winning the peace would mean that answers are provided to families of the disappeared, families are permitted to mourn and memorialize the dead, that accountability and truth are zealously pursued, and reparations provided to victims of human rights violations.
Winning the peace would mean that the voices of marginalized communities including the urban and rural poor, coastal and plantation communities are listened to and taken into consideration when policy is framed. It would mean that due process is followed when people are evicted from their homes.
Winning the peace would require far-reaching constitutional reform that is based on power sharing, a comprehensive bill of rights, judicial review of legislation, a second chamber, and a better balance among the three organs of government.
Investing in pride would require that land is returned to owners and compensation provided for illegal occupation. It would mean that military surveillance be reduced, intimidation eliminated and military involvement in commercial activities be decreased.
Investing in pride would mean that religious violence is not fomented. Nor should police or other state agencies watch while the fires burn. It would mean that religious tensions and conflicts are negotiated through dialogue and not through violence or selective prosecution.
Investing in pride would mean that Sri Lanka invests in democracy. That it strengthens democratic institutions including the courts, the public service, law enforcement agencies, the independent institutions and the Central Bank, and allows robustness and independence to take root in these places. Investing in pride would require magnanimity from political leadership and the capacity to reach out to the other to forge consensus on difficult social and political issues.
Investing in pride and reducing prejudice would require that moderates speak out. It would mean understanding that ‘silence is political’ and that the space occupied by the bystander is not a neutral space. Investing in pride would mean that growth is sustainable and inclusive and reduces inequalities across regions, between peoples and among genders.
Investing in pride would mean that the benefits of technology are available to all social segments and that digital platforms do not become instruments of harassment. Investing in pride would mean that gay people are permitted to express their sexuality without fear of harassment. Investing in pride would mean that disability is celebrated, and that violence against disabled persons and disabling environments eliminated.
In 2015, the country has embarked on an ambitious programme of reform straddling the economy, transitional justice, good and transparent governance and constitutional reform. The political challenges of implementing such a massive programme of reform are considerable given the capacity of spoilers to mobilize ethno-nationalist sentiment, capture the mainstream media, and trigger violence.
There has been a significant loss of momentum since the transition of 2015. The expectations generated by the transition of 2015 have all but evaporated as political actors have failed to exhibit the leadership necessary for far-reaching social transformation. Despite this, a nascent political culture provides hope of a new environment where dissent and vigorous public debate could flourish and where civil society could continue to work on promoting human rights, pursuing justice and building social equity.
Sri Lanka is, and will continue to remain, a ‘deeply divided society’. It remains divided on constitutional and institutional reform; divided on responding to its complicated past; divided on how to address the root causes of the conflict; divided on how to celebrate and preserve diversity; divided on social exclusion; divided on equality, gender and sexual orientation; and on how to respond to previous abuses of state power. This is unsurprising and a feature of many societies that have been previously been rooted in violence and dictatorship.
For those in civil society who believe in a plural and democratic vision of Sri Lanka, where ethnic, religious, linguistic, social, gender and sexual diversity is to be celebrated, the path is clear. They will need to work within these social and political divisions and strive to preserve the right to dissent and constitutional democracy. Civil society will need to strive harder to ensure that violence does not engulf the country once more. It will have to push political leadership to ensure that the country’s complicated past is dealt with. It will have to strive for an end to impunity and work towards social equity. If pride is to grow and prejudice to end, civil society will have to generate a capacity to manoeuvre within these divisions and stay true to what it believes in. Doing the right thing is not always easy.