This blog post is based on my recent contribution at a panel discussion organised by Sri Lanka Reconciliation Forum in Sydney.
The National Youth Policy of Sri Lanka defines youth as those between the age group of 15-29 (Page 11). Although I am not in that category any more, I would like to put few questions on the young people perceive the current context in Sri Lanka and what could be the possible scenarios that derive from that analysis. In that regard, the presentation will mainly discuss youth participation in the two elections, their perspectives on reconciliation, possible scenarios in post-elections Sri Lanka and how young people will embrace them.
Role of young people in the recent elections:
I wish to take the findings of National Human Development Report 2014 as the base of the discussion on this topic, considering the most recent evidence based findings on the subject could be located in them. The report under civic and political participation highlights some interesting discoveries.
The report tells us that 88% of the young people are interested in what is happening around them, which I personally consider as an extremely positive phenomenon. However, 72% of young people indicated their primary choice of political engagement was through voting. This reiterates what I have always been challenging or refusing to believe as a student of Political Science: electoral participation does not demonstrate or make a society democratic. Going further, the report also tells us that 89% of the young people have no trust in political parties signifying an enormous gap between 2014 and National Youth Survey 1999-2000 findings: 47%.
In this backdrop, it is inevitable that young people in Sri Lanka are interested in their electoral participation which was also clearly demonstrated in the two recent elections: both the Presidential and Parliamentary. The sea-change in these elections in fact was their participation was mainly demonstrated through social media. “This election saw an unprecedented use of social media in Sri Lanka,” says Ajith Perakum Jayasingha (@ajithperakum), a leading blogger, and political commentator. “Over 80% of our youth is computer literate – many have smartphones and regularly log in to social media. Political content they absorb from online sources spreads fast to (offline) communities in villages.” (Groundviews)
Who do these statistics indicate us? Did young people play a leading role in changing the power through elections? Do they still remain to be the key catalysts for change? What is that “Change” they demanded? Is it to end a corrupt government or to restore principles of good governance? These are some of the questions that are ahead us, which we need to seek answers for.
Understanding the “Change” demanded by young people:
Majority of us have been thinking that the young people in Sri Lanka expressed support and demanded a change of governance: good governance. I do not intend to take you through a deep theoretical discussion on good governance; however it is imperative to at least understand what the key elements of good governance are. It includes; accountability, transparency, responsiveness, equitability, effectiveness & efficiency, follows the rule of law, participatory approach and consensus oriented. Going beyond the conventional approach, I would further think the young people in post-war Sri Lanka would have also thought to have wanted a leader with a clear vision and do what is right than what is popular and promote inclusiveness and reconciliation together with the above elements of good governance.
Within this framework, 100 days program that was presented as the election mandate by Maithreepala Sirisena would have been more appealing to the young people of the country, particularly in comparison to the Mahinda Chinthana III that was proposing an extension of the existing system. In that regard, the key features of the 100 days program including 25 member cabinet, an all-party National Advisory Committee, amendments to the Standing Orders, abolishing the Executive Presidency & return to Parliamentary System, Code of Conduct to Members of Parliament, mixed Electoral System, independent commissions including one to investigate corruption, National Audit Bill & Right to Information Bill and National Drug policy to be implemented.
I would have loved to believe that young people thought strengthening legitimate institutions and governance to ensure human security and rule of law is critical in breaking cycles of violence and building sustainable peace. Yet, did these young people really vote to establish the principles of good governance? Were they merely responding to the mega corruption campaign? Hence did they only want to get rid of a corrupt leader and a corrupt government they believed to have robbed their money? Or are they really policy oriented? If so, will they settle for a short-term policy manifesto? How vibrant was the discussion on principles of good governance and future policy on social media? What is their reaction to non-implementation of a majority of the key elements of the 100 days program?
My reading on the context says that a majority of the young people in Sri Lanka were mere responding to the mega corruption campaign during the two elections. The presidential election campaign was heavily based on the assets and moneys of the former president, his family and other Members of Parliament who were in his support. While this continued up-to certain degrees till the General Election, the statement by the president and Thajudeen incident managed to keep the momentum going. Having said that, I also do not believe that corruption campaign was appealing to the young people from ethnic minority communities as same as for the majority. In the case of both Muslim and Tamil youth; there was a clear need to ensure human security. They were desperately seeking for an alternative to Sinhala nationalist Rajapaksa government who could assure some level of security.
Hence, they settled with the change of government instead of looking at the policies that the new government would follow. Interestingly, not only their focus on policy was minimal but also they paid almost no attention to the discourse on post-war reconciliation.
Need for reconciliation among young people:
Talking about young people and prospects for reconciliation, one need to understand that making the transition from war to peace is a complex understanding for any society and particularly for young people. While I am not a young person who falls under the above definition, we have grown up over a 30 years of war and have been experiencing a life without war for the first time. Hence it is inevitable that today’s young generation has been exposed to ideological teachings such as suspicion, fear and mistrust. This protracted civil war has also left us with immense polarisation as a society with a strong consciousness on ethnicity than nationalism. Going back to the section on social integration in the National Human Development Report, it is alarming to see how 46% of the young people have indicated that, their sense of belonging to their ethnicity intensified after the war.
Within this backdrop, I am struggling to understand whether they really believe in a need for reconciliation. Unfortunately there is no evidence to clear this out for me, but is a good area for research in the future.
The best possible way to have some kind of an understanding of young people and their prospects for reconciliation as I realize is via examining their response to the recent progressive developments to promote reconciliation. I appreciate and consider the following steps taken by the government of Sri Lanka between the two elections as the most significant policy changes towards assuring reconciliation.
• Special statement of peace at the Independence Day celebrations
• Protocol on the singing of the National Anthem of Sri Lanka
• Strengthening the laws related to hate
• Freedom of speech and liberty
• 19th amendment to the constitution, establishing the independent commissions
• Release of land in the North and the East
• Recommencing the dialogue with the Tamil Diaspora
• National Day of Remembrance and Unity
• Office of National Unity
How did young people perceive these initiatives towards bringing that “change” we aspired for? What was the reaction of the young people from the Sinhala Majority on these initiatives? I recall clarifying my friends and followers on Facebook that the Government did not introduce a new anthem in Tamil and it was merely an implementation of an existing law and the anthem in Tamil always existed. Nevertheless, the comments on social media against this initiative was extreme and the sad truth was a majority who had their posts demanding for “change” did never thought twice to upload these racist comments against the government’s new policy directive.
One may think, this is a problem with the Sinhala majority! No, I will not be coming to that conclusion too soon. How did young people perceive Hon Sampanthan’s presence at the recent Independence Day? Was it any different to the behaviour of the young people from the South?
This clearly indicates us there is a significant investment to be made towards reconciling the hearts and minds of the young people. For me personally, this is the biggest task in the presence of Sri Lankan state irrespective of who is in power. If reconciliation on the ground means promoting a sense of belongingness, respect and responsibility how do we ensure that we replace deep rooted suspicion, fear and mistrust by these.
Post-elections scenario in Sri Lanka: Prospects for reconciliation and young people
Looking at post-elections scenario in Sri Lanka, I personally believe that the present government headed by Hon Sirisena is in the best position to strengthen legitimate institutions and governance to ensure human security and rule of law that is crucial in breaking cycles of violence and building sustainable peace. They probably have the best opportunity to reconcile the hearts and minds of the people.
I tend to believe this because they came into power to end corruption and restore principles of good governance, to ensure freedom and democracy reinstated in the country, with the support of the USA led Western Nations and India and currently holds the support of the majority of Sri Lankans in and out of the country. In another words, they currently hold the support of all the key stakeholders to work towards reconciliation in Sri Lanka.
Looking ahead of possible scenarios for Sri Lanka 2020, I have few major concerns on some key areas including; vision, efficiency and approach to reconciliation. As mentioned previously, Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of Singapore believes leadership should be guided by a clear vision and do what is right than what is popular. Inevitably, a clear vision is utmost importance to governance a country to its end goal. In fact, what is the Vision for Sri Lanka by 2020? Whilst a majority of the voters did not know what it is, I assumed the leadership to be aware of the vision for the country that they rule and this is what Hon President mentioned at the inaugural sitting of the Parliament after the general elections.
“My manifesto for the last Presidential Election, approved by the majority of people in Sri Lanka will form the foundation of the agenda for the new consociation government. Further, the manifestos of political parties represented in this parliament, namely, the “Panchavida Kriyavaliya” (Five-fold Plan) by United National Front for Good Governance, “Anagathayata Sahathikayak’ (Certificate Guaranteed for the Future) by United People’s Freedom Alliance and the “Harda Sakshiye Sammuthiya” (Agreement of Consciousness) by Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, and the election manifesto of Tamil National Alliance, have been subjected to a comparative study in terms of the principles of good governance presented in my manifesto; ‘A Compassionate Maithri Governance – A Stable Country’. Accordingly, I will take action to establish policies of the new consociation government by incorporating the policies of other parties into the vision for the future outlined in my manifesto.” – Policy Statement of the President addressing the 8th Parliament
How realistic is it to rule a country based on a consolidated version presented by the political parties driven by parallel ideologies? The best example in light of reconciliation highlights one party’s position on devolution beyond 13th amendment and granting self-determination to ethnic minority Tamil while the other is vehemently opposing the same. I fail to understand the government’s inability to realise the importance of a vision to guide the country. On a broader context if the government continues to be on a mission to promote good governance and end nepotism how could they justify their moves to bring the losers back to parliament via the national list or Dhaham Sirisena’s presence at the UN General Assembly? What were the responses from the young generation on these moves? Do they feel cheated by their rulers? Are they continuing to hold faith on them?
Efficiency of the present government to deliver what they promise is the second area of concern. While I am hopeful that they have the support of all stakeholders towards reconciling the hearts and minds of the people, how efficiently can government deliver what they promise? Establishing a domestic mechanism on the human rights violations that are suspected to have taken place during the last phase of the war is one of the key commitments of the government in power.
Bhavani Fonseka on her recent analysis on “Revisiting Transitional Justice in Sri Lanka” clearly highlights the inefficiencies of the government with regard to the most crucial initiative: domestic investigation on human rights violations as recommended by LLRC.
o “President Sirisena Assures Domestic Mechanism”-13 February 2015;
o “Government keen on initiating a credible domestic inquiry”- 20 February 2015;
o “We are ready for domestic probe mechanism” – Mangala- 3 March 2015;
o “Sirisena rejects UN probe, insists on domestic mechanism”- 12 March 2015;
o “Mangala assures domestic probe before UNHRC sessions”- 8 May 2015;
o “Domestic mechanism to probe right violations to be finalised in July”- 19 June 2015;
o “Probe on alleged war crimes: Domestic mechanism being finalized, says Acting FM”- 21 June 2015;
One can also argue that government is neither efficient nor it has the political will to implement them hence the delay. Either way, it is crystal clear that work towards reconciliation has been heavily neglected by the government. They have managed to approve the critical policy initiatives that were pending at the Cabinet of Minister’s level for few years and bring all parties together against the common enemy. However that does not in any means demonstrate their efficiency or will to work towards reconciliation.
In contrary, for the Government of Sri Lanka working towards reconciliation is limited to pleasing the United Nations Human Rights Council. I strongly feel, maximum the government would deliver with regard to reconciliation may include;
1. Domestic Inquiry on the HR Violations
2. State sponsored arbitration process to award compensations to the families of the missing, issue birth certificates and welfare
3. Truth Commission and Amnesty Laws
4. Other: Implementation of the language policy and Chapter IV of the constitution, Equal Opportunities Bill and other mechanisms to ensure balance of power etc.
These initiatives assure the three main aspects of post-war reconciliation as spelled in theory: political reconciliation, psycho-social reconciliation and victim perpetrated reconciliation are looked into at a surface level to please the international community politically. This exercise of ticking boxes, will that promote belongingness-respect and responsibility that society needs? Will that replace the existing ideologies among the communities: suspicion, mistrust and fear?
My narrative on prospects for reconciliation and young people in this post-elections context therefore articulates the present government is the most capable to invest in positive peace for the next generation of Sri Lankans. However due to lack of a vision, slow deliverables and nearly to no initiatives at ground level to promote reconciliation among the communities, I am questioning government’s will to work towards reconciliation.
If government considers reconciliation as a national priority; I strongly feel government need to take few essential and urgent steps.
1. Government to demonstrate a clear will and genuine commitment to principles of good governance to ensure human security and rule of law towards assuring the foundation for reconciliation
2. Government to present a clear vision and a road map for the next five years
3. Government to launch a campaign to ensure that young people feel the need for reconciliation and to promote belongingness-respect-responsibility
4. Values of mutual respect, belongingness and appreciation of diversity to become everyday experiences of Sri Lankan youth
5. Basic institutions: education, public administration, law enforcement and justice system to foster values of reconciliation and social integration particularly, social justice, equity, non-discrimination and respect for the rule of law
Due to heavy political influence in our conflict, every golden opportunity to turn the violent conflict towards peace has been wasted in the past. There are few generations who have paid from their lives for those mistakes made by their elders. I sincerely hope, this national unity government will stick to their pledges and deliver the best for the future.
To end my presentation I would like to share one of my recent posts on social media with you.
“We tried everything to transform our conflict while simultaneously trying to end the war through a CFA and did not realise that we unwittingly sowed the seeds for a military end to the war. While we will be happy to see these commitments towards reconciliation will be genuinely implemented, we need to learn our lessons from the past to eliminate them leading to more chaos”