Reconciliation will ensure a prosperous Lanka

Last Thursday, after a lapse of perhaps nearly three decades, Sri Lanka celebrated Independence as one, free nation. It was also fitting that the celebrations returned to the hill capital, Kandy, the country’s last capital before ceding power to the British.

The solemn occasion was all the more significant because it came only a few days after a keenly-and often bitterly-contested presidential election, where incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa staved off a challenge from his one-time Army Commander, General Sarath Fonseka.
The aftermath of the election was not entirely pleasant, with the collective Opposition making allegations of a flawed poll and tampered results, and counter allegations from the ruling party of an attempted coup to overthrow the Government.

But, above all this rhetoric of parochial politics, there was one consideration that would have weighed on the minds of all Sri Lankans on Thursday: This was the first Independence Day that was being commemorated after the defeat of terrorism spawned by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
If ever a reminder was needed, the venue for the celebration would have provided it: It was, literally, a stone’s throw away from the site where the LTTE staged their most sacrilegious attack, that on the historic Dalada Maligawa, housing the sacred tooth relic.

If we care to reflect on our 62-years of Independence, we realise that, half of that time was spent under a Westminster-style of government, while the other half has seen presidential rule, a bone of contention at the recently concluded election.

Almost coincidentally, the first half of our post-Independent history has been peaceful, while the latter has been bloodied by the blows of terrorism, that has cost the country many lives, limbs and resources. It also saw Sri Lanka, once hailed as a surging economy in the late ’70s, stagnate in its development.
We have now seen off the threat of terrorism and, at least for the moment, agreed that the presidential system of government, with all its seemingly absolute powers, is best. This then is the moment in history to embark on a new beginning.

These were the sentiments echoed by President Rajapaksa in his address to the nation. The President called for national unity and reconciliation-and also pledged to make the effort to propel Sri Lanka towards the developed world.
There were other events that followed, some of them disconcerting; others encouraging. On the one hand, the European Union decided to suspend Sri Lanka’s preferential trade status. This would mean it would lose the Generalised System of Preferences Plus (GSP+) concession in six months’ time.
On the political front though, the Government invited the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) to work together for the upcoming general election. Considering the fact that the TNA helped rout President Rajapaksa at least in the North and East, it is a welcome reconciliatory move.

These two developments, in a sense, embody the challenges that the Government and the country at large face in the coming years: The political need to forge a broad consensus, and the need to face adversities in an economically hostile world, which is anyway facing the brunt of a recession.

Clearly, a political consensus, especially on the question of resolving ethnic grievances of all communities, is of paramount importance. It will be the single factor that will bring about lasting peace and stability to a country that has seen the ravages of civil war for three decades.
Such an agreement will, of course, have to await the conclusion of the general election. But that is due in a few weeks, and it is important that definitive political measures to reconcile all communities are taken soon afterwards.

Any delays, the kind of which we experienced with the All Party Representative Committee (APRC), which was formed after the last presidential election over four years ago, will only lead to an erosion of confidence in the political process, and fresh allegations that the Government is dragging its feet.
In the process, it will be the unenviable task of the President to rally all communities around him to forge a consensus of opinion, and that will not be easy. But then, as long as the process is democratic and the aspirations of those participating in it are noble, we have reason to be optimistic.

If this can be achieved, economic dividends will surely come. But it would be prudent for the Government to engage with the international community in a conciliatory manner, although it must be said that the world at large too should realise that Sri Lanka bashing will only lead to nowhere now.

Just as much the nation heaves a heavy sigh of relief on this Independence Day, we must be equally hopeful that there would be more cause for celebration when the country observes independence next. A peaceful and prosperous Sri Lanka is no longer a distant dream, if we, as a nation, dare to work towards it.