Nurturing a spirit of reconciliation

Maithripala Sirisena was the surprise winner of last week's presidential election in Sri Lanka. He was swept to power on a platform of political reform and an end to corruption. Sirisena has promised to transfer many of the president's executive powers to parliament. Only days after his election, he took steps to increase press freedom. Roma Rajpal Weiss spoke to Basil Fernando, Sri Lankan activist and former director of the Asian Human Rights Commission, about the significance of Sirisena's victory

By Roma Rajpal Weiss

Mr Fernando, what does Sirisena's victory mean for Sri Lanka?

Basil Fernando: Firstly, it unfurls a period of rapid and important constitutional change towards democracy and the rule of law. The major promise on which Mr Sirisena contested the election was that within 100 days, some of the most obnoxious clauses of the existing constitution, which was made in 1978, would be abolished.

The old constitution gave enormous powers to one person called the executive president, and it was the abuse of this power that was the characteristic feature of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa's rule, during which the country's legal system completely broke down.

At the moment, there is widespread lawlessness in the country. This came about with the dismissal of the chief justice. He was simply dismissed without following any law or international norms regarding the dismissal of superior court judges. This created a big crisis in the judicial process. The former president began to appoint persons of his choice, thereby creating a big problem regarding the protection of the people.

The recent elections were the first where a candidate stood on a single promise of putting law and order and good governance in place. So I think it will be a very unusual period in Sri Lankan history. It will be exciting to watch in the coming 100 days. If the promises are kept, it is likely to resolve some of the acute problems that the country has been facing for quite some time.

Sri Lanka's former President Mahinda Rajapaksa casts his vote in the presidential election, 8 January 2015 (photo: Reuters/Dinuka Liyanawatte)
When President Mahinda Rajapaksa called a presidential election two years ahead of schedule, he was supremely confident that he would win a third six-year term. His shock defeat at the hands of his former health minister, Maithripala Sirisena, is viewed as a historic turning point for the post-civil war country. Rajapaksa had urged voters to back "the devil they know" rather than the "unknown angel" who promised to root out corruption and political decay

What are the immediate challenges that the president now faces?

Fernando: Well, the immediate problem really is the problem of the power that he has. He has enormous power, far beyond what a democratically elected president has in the United States, in France or any other country. Now it remains up to him to honour the agreements that he made with several political parties. At the moment, he has the complete support of the entire political spectrum to bring about the proposed constitutional changes. Everybody is looking up to him and hoping that he won't go back on his promises.

He also has other challenges, as the country is in a serious crisis governance crisis. He needs to urgently implement changes in the judicial sphere and get a grip on severe corruption. The challenge for him is to take the necessary legal steps for which he has the support of the parliament and the people at this moment.

Do you believe that the support he has will be enough to implement policy change?

Fernando: Yes absolutely. Almost all political parties are agreed that there was something wrong with the constitution and have agreed that there needs to be a change. If he keeps his promises, nobody will contest him. Back in 2001, there was a similar situation in the country when the entire parliament agreed on the 17th amendment to the constitution, which resulted in a number of commissions to control the police and other public services. It was nearly unanimous.

Former President Rajapaksa's family will not be able to offer much resistance because their own party has split up. His family reputation has been tarnished on the basis of corruption charges. It is quite likely that they may try to take refuge from the law and try to take all kinds of measures to safeguard themselves.

Basil Fernando (photo: picture-alliance/dpa/Ho)
Sri Lankan-born Basil Fernando, 69, was one of the winners of the 2014 Right Livelihood Award. He is a lawyer, human rights activist and former director of the Asian Human Rights Commission. Says Fernando: "The recent elections were the first where a candidate stood on a single promise of putting law and order and good governance in place. So I think it will be a very unusual period in Sri Lankan history"

What role did the Tamil and Muslim minorities play in the elections?

Fernando: The minorities overwhelmingly voted for the present president. That was because they suffered quite a lot under the previous regime. Some people have tried to use this support that the present president got from the minority to say that he will have to make a lot of concessions to minorities and that there will, therefore, be resistance from the majority. I don't think this will happen if it is properly handled and if the democratic system is restored, particularly if the judiciary is brought back to give greater protection to the minorities.

Sri Lanka has suffered a crisis of ethnic conflicts in past. What should be done to improve the situation?

Fernando: One of the greatest misunderstandings in the world is that Sri Lanka's major crisis was an ethnic crisis. In fact it was a constitutional crisis, which brought about an ethnic crisis. In 1978, the constitution was changed and the then president went out of his way to provoke minorities and to bring about a situation in which he could hold on to power when the country was in a crisis.

Many of those problems could have been avoided if the constitutional situation had been put right. I think the right background must be created in order to solve the ethnic crisis. The background is to solve the constitutional crisis. The major steps that the new government has promised are to strengthen democracy. This will help the minorities a great deal.

Interestingly, it has always been the minorities that have saved democracy in Sri Lanka. Now it is up to President Sirisena to grasp the opportunity and create an understanding among the majority that certain basic protections for minorities will be of no harm to them. And that spirit of reconciliation can be nurtured. The previous government deliberately did not nurture a spirit of reconciliation. Mr Sirisena can use this opportune situation to create an atmosphere of reconciliation.

Interview conducted by Roma Rajpal Weiss

© 2015