by Asia Foundation, San Francisco, March 2016
Sri Lanka underwent a major political transition in 2015 with the election of President Maithripala Sirisena and the establishment of a new coalition government between the United Front for Good Governance (UNFGG) and one faction of the United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA). The Sri Lanka Strategic Assessment analyses six spheres of contestation within Sri Lanka’s current political context, and assesses their impact in terms of securing peace and accelerating inclusive growth in the future. These spheres of contestation have been identified and classified along two axes: horizontal contestation and vertical contestation. The former deals with contestation within and between communities, while the latter deals with contestation between the Sri Lankan state and citizens.
‘North-South’ or Sinhala-Tamil contestation has remained unresolved, as a political resolution to the ethnic conflict has yet to materialise. The change in government has improved prospects for its resolution: there is now an ‘alliance of moderates’ embodied in the Sinhalese and Tamil political leadership currently in key positions of political power. However, while contestation between the Sinhalese and Tamil political spheres has moderated, contestation within them has sharpened. The prevailing moderate consensus is subject to two key vulnerabilities: (i) mutual incompatibility, where the strengthening of moderates on one side of the ethnic divide undermines the other; and (ii) perverse political incentives for both Sinhalese and Tamil moderates to defect to more radical positions. Such incentives are especially high given the absence of a wider public consensus on reconciliation to sustain the current elite-level moderate consensus.
Religious violence has been a persistent problem that political transitions alone are unlikely to address. This Assessment focused on violence between Buddhists and religious minorities, particularly Christians and Muslims. Two types of religious violence have manifested: (i) persistent, low-intensity chronic violence, and (ii) sporadic episodes of high-intensity acute violence. Religious violence is further driven by two factors emanating from the state: (a) political patronage granted to groups propagating hate speech and violence against religious minorities, which in turn undermines law enforcement efforts to prevent religious violence; and (b) discriminatory policies and administrative practices. The escalation of chronic violence to acute violence, often through ‘trigger events’, represents the most immediate challenge to peace building.
Tamil-Muslim contestation has been a persistent feature in the North and East, prior to and throughout the war. While violent confrontations between Tamils and Muslims have ceased post-war, Tamils and Muslims in the East continue to compete for the benefits of ethnicised political patronage in accessing the state, such as in securing land, jobs or basic local services. Tamil-Muslim contestation is thus firmly rooted in their relationship with the structure of the state and the administration of local-level services. While this contestation remains regional, it has a direct impact on how both communities view devolution, particularly on the issue of re-merger of the Northern and Eastern Provinces where strong resistance from the Muslims is expected. 1
State vs. Citizen Contestation
The interplay between political resolve for policies and public resistance to them can form a basis for contestation between citizens and the state. Given the competition within the ‘two-headed’ government, the current political equilibrium is marked by a tendency for weak political resolve, particularly in the face of public resistance. The intensity of resistance is based on the anticipated and actual outcomes of economic policies in terms of economic growth and a sense of economic justice. State-citizen contestation is highest when economic growth is low, coupled with a high sense of inequality or unfairness. This Assessment accordingly considers economic policies that can exacerbate the state-citizen contestation in relation to the following spheres of contestation:
Trade union activism is currently the most visible form of contestation in the policy sphere. A trust deficit has developed between the several unions that initially supported Maithripala Sirisena’s presidential campaign and the government. Unions are strongly opposed to proposed pension reforms, in anticipation of mismanagement of the funds by the government, and consequently, injustice to workers. Unions have also mobilised in opposition to the proposed Economic and Technical Cooperation Agreement (ETCA) with India. There are also areas in which trade unions have mobilised against industry and not just the government, stemming from the perception that the interests of industry have taken precedence over those of labour. Low job security, shortage in earnings, and inadequate access to social protection can point to a three-way contestation between labour unions, the government and industry.
Youth discontent stems from the mismatch between youth aspirations and availability of economic opportunities, coupled with a sense of injustice around the perceived lack of a fair playing field. Youth unemployment in Sri Lanka is high, including among graduates. State university students represent the most organised youth movement, and their perception of injustice and inequality is a key driver of student mobilisation. While they have become relatively less powerful as drivers of contestation over recent years, youth movements have been able to mobilise professional bodies over areas of shared interest, such as opposition to private higher education. This solidarity strengthens public resistance and can escalate the contestation against policies that have high political resolve in the government.
Marginalisation of domestic industry groups, specifically sectors such as agriculture and small and medium enterprises (SMEs,), which depend entirely or mainly on the domestic market, is another source of contestation. The movement towards economic liberalisation and expansion of trade with India has created a growing sense of injustice as well as fears that the new government is unfairly pitting the local entrepreneurs with foreign competitors. Domestic industry groups are highly influential and well-organised, and have proven able to mobilise alongside other groups with shared interests, such as trade unions. The interests of local industry groups can also interact with other drivers of contestation, such as Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism or fears of foreign intervention, with knock-on effects of also marginalising ethnic minority businesses…
The following programmatic priorities and approaches with regard to peace-building and inclusive growth may be considered:
▪ Enhancing the viability of moderates in both the Sinhalese and Tamil political spheres by promoting rights and justice.
▪ Preventing acute religious violence, particularly escalation from chronic to acute violence, by ending impunity for violating hate speech laws and by ensuring law enforcement responds effectively.
▪ Focusing on the re-emergence of Tamil-Muslim tensions, particularly with regard to a merger of the Northern and Eastern Provinces, and mitigating risks of heightened religious and racial tensions by strengthening service delivery and ensuring equitable access to state resources.
▪ Facilitating constructive dialogue between the state and trade unions, youth and domestic industry groups by creating peaceful platforms for these actors to advocate for policy change.
It is noted that while the interests of trade unions, youth and domestic industry must be incorporated into the socioeconomic policy agenda, a strong coalition government could threaten the interests of these actors. Yet a strong coalition government is essential to dealing with some of the spheres of communal contestation outlined above. Thus, considering Sri Lanka’s political economy over the next five years, priorities of peace-building between communities on the one hand, and inclusive growth on the other, could be at odds with one another. Accordingly, TAF and other development and peace-building actors, together with the donor community, must mitigate the effects of coalition politics on the various spheres of contestation. They must accordingly design interventions that create and maintain an environment in which violence is contained and contestation is constructive.