Addressing the nation and the international community on Independence Day President Mahinda Rajapaksa made many inspirational statements. These could be regarded as statements of government policy that will charter the future course of the country. The President’s speech was also finely tuned to appeal to the nationalism of the masses of people and their sense of patriotism. Making reference to the economic crisis that country was experiencing and which is eroding their standards of living he said that "We would be able to exist as an independent, sovereign state only if we strengthen our economy. We have to get together and work just as we got together and worked with dedication to defeat terrorism."
The President’s promise with regard to economic prosperity was important the context of the pessimism that has set in on account of balance of payments difficulties. For months, in the face of governmental denials, independent economists have been warning that the country’s economy is imbalanced with imports far exceeding exports. The economic success has led to huge imports and the country's trade deficit touched a record USD 9 billion in the first 11 months of last year, shrinking its foreign currency reserves to USD 6 billion by January 2012. Foreign reserves stood at USD 8 billion in July 2011. Now the Central Bank has announced a devaluation of the rupee which will have adverse consequences on the cost of living to the masses of people.
At the Independence Day celebrations the President made it evident that he saw a foreign hand attempting to destabilise the government and deny the country its hard won gains. He said “Conspiracies and propaganda of terrorists based overseas have not abated still. When such things happen abroad some people here do various things to destabilize the Motherland.” He also paid his government a big compliment by saying that it had achieved more in terms of development in three years than had taken place in the previous fifty years. This was clearly an inspirational assertion on the part of the President who was certainly pointing to the foundations that his government was laying for the future development of the country.
It is unlikely that in making his overstatement on development that the President was seeking to downplay the achievements of the past by his illustrious predecessors in the governance of the country. In the 1950s there was the Gal Oya development scheme that opened up the vast territories of thick jungle land in the east to agriculture that turned it into a rice bowl and provided land for the landless peasants in other parts of the country. This was followed by the Mahaweli River diversion scheme that commenced in the late 1970s that irrigated vast extents of the central and north central parts of the country, the opening up of the economy and investment in Free Trade Zones that brought in foreign investment in the form of the garment factories in the 1980s and the million houses project of the early 1990s.
It would appear that the President was envisaging the development that could take place in the country after the major economic projects completed in the past three years started to yield their full potential. For instance the great port at Hambantota that is anticipated to bring the world’s shipping fleets to Sri Lanka has yet to become serviceable on account of a large rock that has still to be removed from the entrance to the harbour. Another major development project, the huge coal fired power station at Norochcholai, has also to become fully functional on account of frequent fire outbreaks in its teething period. But like the road network that is being built, epitomised by the Southern Expressway, and the beautification programme in Colombo, once these glitches are rectified there is no doubt that the economy will receive the turbo-boost that the President has seen in the achievement of the last three years.
The challenge for the government will not be in convincing the Sri Lankan people who are ready to believe in the President’s promises. The people will surely look to the future with optimism due to their faith in the government’s ability to deliver on what it promises, as it did in defeating the LTTE. The government also had to deal with international pressures upon it. The most serious pressure comes from the vexed issue of human rights violations that took place in the course of the last phase of the war. Once again the government has to face the international human rights community at the Geneva sessions of the UN’s Human Rights Council in March this year. On several occasions the government promised the international community that the report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission would take care of this problem.
The LLRC made a large number of recommendations based on its findings which were far reaching and extensive. These included investigating specific incidents of human rights violations, including the authenticity of the Channel 4 video broadcast in the UK which showed scenes of battlefield executions. The recommendations also include instituting reforms in governance such as ensuring that the police and public service become independent of political interference and that a political solution is found to Tamil grievances. The LLRC even gave the broad contours of this political solution through the improvement of the existing Provincial Council system of devolution, and supplementing it with power sharing at the centre and more grassroots level decentralization.
The LLRC also has recommendations that are simple and easy to implement if the government has the political will to do so. These include having the national anthem sung in both Sinhala and Tamil languages and remembering all victims of the war at national events. In Recommendation 9.277 the LLRC stated that “the practice of the National Anthem being sung simultaneously in two languages to the same tune must be maintained and supported.” In its final Recommendation 9.285 it stated that it “strongly recommends that a separate event be set apart on the National Day to express solidarity and empathy with all victims of the tragic conflict and pledge our collective commitment to ensure that there should never be such bloodletting in the country again.”
The ideal occasion for the government to have shown its intention of implementing the LLRC recommendations would have been at the Independence Day celebration itself. There was a giant audience of both Sri Lankans and diplomats from around the world watching the event live on their television sets and in person at the site of the event itself. The government could have got the national anthem to be sung in both the Sinhala and Tamil languages. This would have sent a very positive message to the Tamil speaking people of Sri Lanka who amount to about a quarter of its population that they were being treated equally and with respect on Independence Day. The government could also have made a gesture of remembering all victims of the war on that occasion and eased their sorrow even as they watched the nation rise again.
In his Independence Day speech President Rajapaksa made reference to the LLRC report when he said, that the “Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission has stated that all are responsible for this problem. All those who act according to their conscience should take heed of this statement. Therefore, we have already started implementing what was in the Commission. The report was tabled in Parliament on December 17. Since then we have done a lot.”
However, despite the President’s commitment to the LLRC report the national anthem was sung in Sinhala only as it has on previous occasions. The language issue which commenced with the implementation of the Sinhala-only Act of 1956 divided the Sinhala speaking and Tamil speaking people as no other issue has. Despite the President’s resolve to reach for reconciliation, there was no break with the past in the actual practice of the government. When the President did refer to those who had lost their lives in the three decade war, he remembered only the patriots who sacrificed their lives, not all the victims of the tragic conflict as recommended by the LLRC.
It is unfortunate that the President failed to take the opportunity presented by Independence Day to show the nation and the international community that it had already begun to implement the LLRC recommendations, and make a break with the past. The LLRC itself thought fit to mention in its final report that its interim recommendations made about a year earlier had yet to be implemented. Another opportunity must be found sooner rather than later to demonstrate to the nation and to the international community that deeds will follow words. The hopes of the vast multitudes who believe in the President’s promises must not prove to be in vain.