By Taylor Dibbert
Javid Yusuf is an attorney. He previously served as Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Senior Advisor to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Secretary General of the Peace Secretariat for Muslims, and former Commissioner of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka. This interview has been edited lightly.
Q: Since Maithripala Sirisena became President in January 2015, how much has changed?
A: 8 January 2015 was not meant to be a regime change only. All those who worked for and supported such change had hope and expectations that a regime change would result in system change as well. One cannot deny that there has been considerable progress in that direction, although there is great disappointment that the pace of change has been slower than expected.
The main positive change ushered in by the post-January 2015 Government is the restoration of democratic freedoms and the removal of the shackles on freedom of speech. The media is enjoying so much freedom that much of its space is devoted to criticisms of the Government in general, and the President and Prime Minister in particular, without attracting any reprisals.
In addition, presidential powers have been considerably reduced and the term of office of the President has been reduced from six years to five years. The independent commissions are up and running and the judiciary is functioning independently with several judgements being given against the Government whenever the courts deem it necessary.
The Right to Information law has been passed and the public is gradually beginning to use this tool of transparent government to access information relating to governance. The minorities are breathing more freely after the traumatic post-war period although the ghosts of the past spring up on and off to haunt them as witnessed by the attacks against the Muslims in the Kandy District in the Central Province a few months back. The law enforcement authorities who were initially slow to act later moved into action following instructions from the Government and brought the incidents under control. The fact that the police have now arrested and produced in court over 300 persons allegedly involved in the attacks stands in contrast to the handful arrested after the incidents in Aluthgama under the previous Government. This highlights the clear difference in approach of the present and previous Government in ensuring the protection to the minorities.
In the conflict areas of the North, large extents of private lands acquired by the Army during the war have been returned to the owners and the Government is pumping in large amounts of money to rescue indebted people who have been exploited by unscrupulous microfinance companies.
Saddled with the huge debts incurred by the previous Government, the current Government is seeking to bring some order into the economy by addressing macroeconomic issues which, however, do not directly impact the day-to-day lives of the citizenry. However, there are some areas the Government has been successful in providing benefits to the people, like the reduction in the prices of medicines and drugs and an ambitious medical insurance scheme for all school-going children.
The Government’s slowness to act in bringing to book those who are accused of corruption during the previous regime has also disappointed many of its supporters. In a strange irony, the Government seems to have worked faster in the case of those accused of corruption under the present dispensation than those who were similarly accused under the previous Government.
Q: What do you see happening in terms of Constitution-building? Is it realistic to believe that the executive presidency might finally be abolished?
A: Constitution-building is another area where the Government has not been able to speed up the process. The Government, through the device of a Constitutional Assembly, has adopted a collective approach to draft a Constitution. The goal is not only to strengthen democracy but, through the Constitution, provide a power-sharing mechanism that will help to resolve the long-standing grievances of the minorities while simultaneously not causing any injustice to the majority community.
However, such an approach – where the entire Parliament works collectively in search of a consensual Constitution –is fine when all parties are genuinely committed to the task.Unfortunately, the Joint Opposition is more interested in using the constitutional reform process to raise issues that create insecurities in the people with a view to capturing power. The Government has not been able to overcome these obstacles created by the Joint Opposition and, consequently, the whole constitutional reform process has gotten bogged down.
Both previous Constitutions adopted by Sri Lanka were enacted within the first two years of a new government coming to power. The first Republican Constitution was adopted in 1972 by the Government which assumed office in 1970. The Constitution of 1978 was enacted by the Government which came to power in 1977. In contrast, the attempts at constitutional reform by the Government that assumed office in 1994 took six years to produce a draft to Parliament after extensive discussion across the country and with political parties. By such time, the space for such reform had closed and the incumbency factor had set in with the Government grappling with other issues. As a result, despite the draft Constitution of 2000 having many positive features, it could not receive the approval of Parliament and the process was aborted.
The abolition of the Executive Presidency still remains a paramount need of the country and the current initiative of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) in presenting the 20th Amendment is encouraging, with wide sections of the people seeing it as a must to ensure democratic governance. However, the success of such an effort will depend on several factors which have nothing to do with the merits or otherwise of the 20th Amendment itself, but rather with other issues which influence the political situation in the country.
Q: In terms of deeper devolution, what might a lasting political solution to the country’s longstanding ethnic conflict look like?
A: The issue of devolution has not been the subject of a rational discourse in the country – with all sides often approaching the issue from an emotional standpoint because of political benefits. Devolution, as a means of doing justice to the different communities in the country and as a mechanism for strengthening democracy by bringing government closer to the people, is often looked at with suspicion as a result of historical and political factors. A successful and sustainable devolution package will require a visionary leadership that is able to steer the debate to the satisfaction of the stakeholders while addressing their genuine fears and aspirations.
Q: What is the principal issue facing the Muslim community?
A: The Muslim community’s main concern in recent times has been its safety and security, and its ability to maintain its religious and cultural identity. While Muslims have lagged behind socially and educationally for historical reasons, all focus on such issues has receded to the background in face of the attempts to demonise the Muslims by creating unfounded fears in the minds of the majority community. The Muslims have lived harmoniously with Sinhalese and Tamils for centuries and therefore, the attacks on their religious and business places (which started in the years after the end of the armed conflict) came out of the blue.
These attempts at religious disharmony are unfortunate because historically, Sri Lanka has been a great model of coexistence and communal harmony. We hope that Sri Lanka will be able to return to that state where all communities enjoy a sense of dignity and equality.
Q: Have Muslim issues and perspectives been sidelined when it comes to debates surrounding Constitution-building and transitional justice? If so, how much of the blame falls on politicians from the Muslim community?
A: One glaring instance of Muslim issues being sidelined is the case of the forcibly evicted Muslims who were driven out by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 1990. These Muslims feel they have been short-changed by successive governments as criteria different to other displaced persons have been applied to them. It has been nearly 28 years since this eviction took place, but a resolution of this problem is nowhere in sight. Another example is the failure of the authorities to have the lands belonging to Muslims which were taken over by the LTTE returned to them.
Much of the blame for the problems faced by the Muslims not getting the attention they deserve rests on the Muslim politicians. Tamil politicians refrain from accepting government positions, thus giving them the freedom to raise their concerns without fear or favour. In contrast, Muslim politicians seem bent on securing positions of power even if it means neglecting the needs of the people they have been elected to represent.
Q: What do the words ‘transitional justice’ mean to you?
A: Transitional justice would primarily mean addressing the issues arising from the transition from an armed conflict to democracy. In the Sri Lankan context, there are many such issues, including rebuilding relations between the communities, truth searching, accountability, reparations, missing persons, and so on.
Q: What would constitute a realistic, credible and comprehensive transitional justice plan for Sri Lanka?
A: The state must give leadership and drive the process that produces such a plan as well as the implementation of such a plan. Such a plan should encompass programs aimed at restoring dignity, creating shared narratives, healing, building collaborative capacities of communities and creating positive attitudinal changes that create mutual respect. Some initiatives have already been taken by the Government, such as adoption of the National Policy on Reconciliation and Co-existence, setting up the Office of Missing Persons, setting up the Reparations Office, as well as embarking on a process of constitutional reform.
Taylor Dibbert (@taylordibbert) is a writer and consultant based in the Washington,