Buddhist monks in a divided society

By Taylor Dibbert

Jehan Perera is the Executive Director of the National Peace Council, a nongovernmental organization based in Colombo.

We’ve witnessed significant political volatility since the local government elections in February. Where do things stand at the moment? Will the power-sharing arrangement between the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the United National Party (UNP) continue until national elections are held in 2020?

Buddhist monks are a reflection of the divisions in a divided society. They are not the only ones objecting. Due to their position, their voices get amplified. The question is whether we should discredit them or try to engage with them. Those who are most vociferous against the abolition of the executive presidency give expression to their fears of the division of the country. As Sri Lanka experienced three decades of civil war to prevent separation, people tend to give priority to national security.

How would you describe the relationship between President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe?

It is a relationship between two persons who hold positions of institutional power that make them equals. They each have their own separate powers. One cannot overwhelm or command the other. The problem is that they have not reached formal agreement about the division of authority. Therefore, each has been trying to outmanoeuver the other. This is not a healthy relationship. But it can be improved, because both need each other.

The reform agenda appears to be in shambles. Would you agree? What reforms do you expect to be implemented in the next year or so?

It is going slower than was expected. But it is ongoing. There was the passage of the amendments to the Judicature Act that will set up anti-corruption courts that will sit continuously to expedite cases. There are amendments forthcoming that will strengthen anti-corruption laws. The Office of Missing Persons was established and has started to do public activities. The Office of Reparations is about to be put before parliament.

What do you expect to happen on the transitional justice front?

There will be more truth-seeking, more reparations and more reform of laws that strengthen the protection of human rights. The government needs to do this because of international pressure and also the need to win Tamil votes in the future. The change will be visible in the case of setting up of new institutions, such as the Office of Missing Persons and Office of Reparations. It will be incremental in other areas, such as the giving back of land and legal cases against those who committed human rights violations.

What about the possibility of a new constitution?

The main purpose of having a new constitution is to ensure a lasting political solution to the ethnic conflict. But this is a difficult problem to resolve. It has not been resolved in seventy years since the country obtained its independence. It is unlikely to be dealt with in the run-up to national elections due in 18 months. It is not a priority any more in the run-up to elections. But there may be constitutional reform with regard to the issue of the executive presidency. A new constitution will be post-election.

Will this government ever address corruption (from the Rajapaksa era and within its own ranks) in a meaningful way?

The government is instituting new procedures whereby courts will be able to sit continuously to try corruption cases. It is possible that members of the former government will be targeted to prevent them from effectively contesting the coming national elections. Those in power at this time are unlikely to target themselves. The development of strong institutions that will carry out their mandates regardless of political backing is still in the future.

Do you think that those responsible for the recent spate of coordinated, anti-Muslim violence will eventually be held accountable?

Even now over thirty of those who have been directly accused of the violence are behind bars. The masterminds are still out but I believe that some of them will be roped in.

Will provincial council elections be held this year?

I believe they will. Despite the disagreements between the president and prime minister and their respective parties, they are discussing a joint effort unlike when they contested separately and did poorly (at the local government elections in February).

Taylor Dibbert (@taylordibbert) is a writer and consultant based in the Washington, D.C. area