When statements are made context matters. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe on Tuesday delivered a symbolic but important apology for the burning of the Jaffna Library, asking for forgiveness during a debate in Parliament and calling for members of the Joint Opposition to also make amends.
His statement made in Parliament, in the midst of a fiery debate on a project to build 65,000 houses in the north by ArcelorMittal, received mixed reactions from political analysts and civil society. Some were appreciative of the statement while others pointed out that the apology took ten seconds and such a weighty issue deserved a well-crafted and premeditated response from Government to be referred to as a proper apology.
The admission that a Sinhalese-led Government committed a wrongful act is unprecedented. Since the end of the war, reconciliation has worn a multitude of faces. At one point it was the All Party Representatives Committee (APRC), at one point 13 Plus, and now a new Constitution. But never during this long and thorny journey has one party, especially a representative holding as high a post as Prime Minister come forward to tender an apology, even in passing.
The statement came during a heated hour-long debate on the steel houses, which gave rise to interventions from members of the Joint Opposition that were shot down by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe who promised to bring both the TNA and the Resettlement Minister to the table for discussions about the proposed housing project.
The ArcelorMittal housing project has been boiling for the better part of 18 months with grave concerns over transparency. Several organsiations had slammed the move early last year and the TNA had come forward with a plan to build the same number of houses at a lower cost with the same amenities. Yet the estimated $ 1 billion project has languished indecisively, despite its importance to restoring normalcy in the north and providing an essential component for reconciliation.
In fact, it can be argued that the Government, once dedicated to fostering progressive policies for reconciliation at multiple levels, of late seems to have put all its eggs in one basket and focused almost exclusively on the new Constitution to address ethnic concerns. The promised Office for Missing Persons and the much touted truth and reconciliation mechanism has failed to appear and the Government is in danger of rushing the process to meet its commitments before the UNHRC sessions in March 2017.
Marketing for the new Constitution among the Sinhalese-Buddhists in the south is also remarkably lackadaisical, leaving the space dangerously open for nationalists to present interpretations to the public, which at times can be unsubstantiated. Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa recently released a statement criticising the equal status given to the Tamil language in the new Constitution even though it already enjoys that position in the existing Constitution.
Such misinformation can be dangerous and the Government may well find that, once formed, opinions are hard to change. If nationalists manage to carve out their messages first and it is promoted by fear-mongering organisations headed by controversial Buddhist monks such as the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), which of late have been gaining credibility even from the heads of the present Government, then the stage begins to look worryingly shady.
It is imperative that the Government returns to the helm of its own reconciliation agenda, armed with empathy and transparency to provide the answers it so readily promised and the public has not forgotten.