Featured image courtesy Youtube
On January 8, 2015, thousands flocked to Independence Square to watch Maithripala Sirisena take his Presidential vows. With his promise to promote yahapaalanaya or ‘good governance’ the atmosphere was one of hope.
Looking back on the past year, Groundviews spoke to several people from different sectors on what they felt about Sirisena’s inaugural year of Presidency.
There has been a vast improvement in terms of security, safety and the ability to dissent. There is a lot of space for civil society to do our work. The government supports our work and legitimises our work and events. The challenge though, would be to keep alive the ideals that they campaigned for at the election. Those good governance ideals have to be kept alive. It’s easy to adopt a live and let live attitude. There has been a lax and lenient attitude towards corruption, nepotism and abuse of power in the past. The ideas that inspired this movement have to be implemented. Overall though, I think the country is better than it was a year ago. There are still a lot of allegations against Cabinet Ministers that money is being made. That has to be dealt with. The Central Bank bond issue scam is unresolved. There are still instances of nepotism, though it has not been institutionalised in the same way the previous government is. The Government also has to show more solicitude for the plight of poor people, and the budget certainly didn’t – it put more burdens of the poor out of most of the 16 areas that were revised. There should be more projects and programmes directed towards feeding the masses.
Gemunu Wijeratne, Chairman, Lanka Private Bus Owners Association
There has been no change in the transport sector. For the most part, transport is regulated at provincial council level. The Minister of Transport is Nimal Siripala, but apart from that [the structure is the same]. Transport in Sri Lanka is poor. In one year of yahapaalanaya, nothing much has happened.”
It was a lot of big talk, with little achievement. There was a liberal democratic critique on the then SLFP governance, saying that democracy, human rights, transparency and those kind of tools should be applied to the governing process. This formed the good governance argument, which was taken up by Maithripala Sirisena. Then the liberal democrats had a good talk, but implementation and ground changes have not materialised. Prices are going up, infrastructure development has been paralysed. The talking will continue in the future as well.
The suspension of active state suppression of democratic space and dissent is a marked improvement resulting from the Presidential election. But the lack of pro-active commitment to the ‘yahapaalanaya’ promises is disappointing. Key promises in the original 100 day plan including the ethical code of conduct for MPs and amending standing orders to improve parliamentary practices have largely been forgotten.
Cartoon by Awantha Artigala, published in Daily Mirror on September 21, 2015
While this year was perceived as a revolution, it was more a reconfiguration, following up from the Parliamentary election and the nomination of parties pre the August elections. The positives over the past year include the introduction of independent commissions, following the guarantees made in the 19th amendment. While the culture of self censorship can’t be rid of immediately, there is a sense of freedom in the media, which is a positive. We can’t give the Government too much credit for this, but it does seem that they are more open and consultative. When you look at the initial draft of the RTI Bill and the final draft, the Cabinet does seem to have taken suggestions from civil society. This fact can only be recognised and celebrated after the Bill passes, however. In terms of negatives, it seems that the rules of the game for Parliamentarians hasn’t changed. The 100 day programme included amendments to Standing Orders in Parliament, and talked of a code of conduct as well as asset declarations for Parliament, which has falled by the wayside. The President also had a manifesto for women, which has been forgotten, and what is more disturbing is that neither the male nor female Parliamentatians seem to care about it. That’s a serious concern. There are underlying issues pointing to a lack of rigour in policy for electoral reform. Is there really appreciation for technical expertise under Maithripala Sirisena? Has Parliament evolved as an institution for informed policy debate, and become more consultative and evolved? No. They are still absorbed in parochial issues. The rules haven’t changes. Despite the fact there has been a strengthening of democracy, it is still unclear whether they will deliver on the aspirations of the next generation. They have yet to prove themselves.
We had high hopes when President Sirisena took office but in the year he has been in power, there has been no sign that he is interested in LGBTIQ rights, let alone working towards it. I found particularly alarming the comments he made after the Enrique Inglesias concert, which reeked of conservatism. We hope his Cabinet, led by Ranil Wickremesinghe will have the farsightedness to make some changes for the LGBT community in Sri Lanka.
Last September 2015, President Maithripala Sirisena attended the 70th General Debate of the UNGA, at which he made a pledge to promote gender equality. We can take that as a positive reponse. I think we can expect that he would fulfil the commitment he undertook. There’s a better environment for those who have been accused of Gender based violence and rape. Some cases have been filed and the perpetrators brought to justice. The Prevention of Violence Against Women Taskforce is developing on their mandate, and we can expect further commitment to that taskforce. The Ministry of Women’s Affairs is also looking to finalise a Women’s Commission, which we expect to be set up.
There is much more to do, however, to stop violence against women. An independent police commission has been set up, and we hope that any issues with regards to violence against women will be swiftly and promptly addressed. Some steps have been taken, and there are a lot of expectations. We are watching and will support any measures to strengthen or work towards gender based equality. For instance, when it comes to land rights, state lands are still given to the eldest male child. This should be changed. Judicial practise should fast track cases of sexual violence and assault, for women and particularly children. We hope to see these promises carried through.
Sri Lanka has seen remarkably positive change over the past year. Sirisena’s election and actions of the initial months of the coalition government halted, and on some fronts begun to reverse, Sri Lanka’s slide into authoritarianism and family rule. But making further progress on the long and difficult road to sustainable peace will require addressing Sri Lanka’s two long-standing crises of governance: the collapse of the rule of law and institutionalised impunity for human rights violations, corruption and abuses of state power; and the so-called “national question” concerning the marginalisation of Tamils and – and in different ways, Muslims – from a fair share of political power. Some steps have taken place to address both these issues, but the progress has been slower than many of the ruling coalition’s key constituencies wish and its commitment to lasting and deep governance reforms remains in doubt among too many. While the government has so far expanded the centre ground and isolated hardline nationalists for now, keeping this space open will require progress on at least the following key issues:
- greater transparency in policy making and clearer lines of authority: Confusion and doubt have been sown by the government’s many ad hoc and overlapping institutions and personalities, and the lack clarity about who is in charge and can be held accountable when promises are not met.
- a stronger and sustained public relations strategy is needed to inform the public about the governments’ various initiatives and articulate its positive vision of reform, the linkage between its different aspects, and the benefits all communities will gain.
- to the Sinhala public, the government needs to make clear why major reforms – new laws, expanded devolution of power, and the package of transitional justice reforms agreed to at the Human Rights Council – are needed to address the legacy of the war and the ethnic conflict and achieve reconciliation. The government should consciously frame its proposed transitional justice measures, particularly the truth commission and special court, as necessary parts of its larger “good governance” agenda, which has widespread support among Sinhalese. The “northern” and “southern” reform agendas need to be brought explicitly together.
- this needs to be backed up by increased and stronger action on corruption and rule of law, which remain key issues for many Sinhala voters: in particular the government needs to accelerate meaningful corruption and criminal cases against key officials of the former regime and ruling family.
- faster and effective action on detainees, land, the missing, militarisation, and ongoing abuses are also urgently needed to re-build confidence among Tamil communities in the north and east. Equally important, however, policies on land and detainees and demilitarisation need to be clearly communicated to the affected communities, with timetables and an explanation of principles on which the policies are made.
- Much clearer messages are also needed for the military and national security state. The government must make it a priority to reduce the power of, and to make accountable, the national security state – military and anti-terrorism police and intelligence agencies – built up over decades of war. This is crucial to ending impunity and making lasting progress towards guaranteeing non-recurrence of large-scale rights violations.
- The absence of a clear determination to end the anti-democratic activities of the “security” state in the north and east is threatening the possibilities of sustainable peace and reform. It is angering many Tamils and damaging their limited trust in the government.
While there is some cautious optimism, it’s clear that most felt there was a lot of room for improvement. This sense of disillusion is easily apparent on social media too.
A look at the use of #yahapaalanaya has seen people lampooning the President on topics ranging from accusations of nepotism to powercuts:
— Thusi (@thusinutz) December 11, 2015
— Malintha (@DemonKnightRAS) August 23, 2015
This feeling of ennui can be seen on Facebook too:
The annual democracy survey conducted by CPA showed that almost 88% were aware of the 100 day programme and its promises – and 40% felt the Government wasn’t doing enough to combat corruption:
There has been a sea change in the space of a year, as a surge of optimism was met with the realities of navigating the murky sea that is Sri Lankan politics. Sirisena’s campaign hinged on promoting an era of transparency, good governance and accountability, as people are all to apt to remind him with a single snide hashtag. In the social media era, people are less willing to allow nepotism and corruption to continue without commentary – commentary that can be shared with thousands of people in a matter of seconds.
In a sense, many feel that President Sirisena has a lot to prove, going forward. Will he take up the challenge and reverse flagging public opinion? Perhaps that’s a question that can be answered on January 8, 2017.