By Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka
Was the war worth fighting to a finish? Was it a good thing that a crushing defeat was imposed on the LTTE? Is Mahinda Rajapakse’s leadership preferable to that of the available alternative, Opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe? Are the country and the bulk of its citizenry better off under Mahinda Rajapakse’s presidency than they were before it? Is the 13th amendment better than zero-devolution or federalism? My answer to all of the above has consistently been and remains an unambiguous ‘yes’. All other questions, however important, are supplementary and secondary.
The realm of Sri Lankan ideas has witnessed two recent and rather different interventions, which if synthesised, constitute a charter for a better future. One ideational intervention was by Sri Lanka’s new Cardinal, Malcolm Ranjith, whose intellect was commended in conversation with me, by Archbishop Silvano Tomassi, the Vatican’s respected top diplomat to the UN in Geneva, a PhD in Sociology from Fordham. A home grown whizz-kid in the oldest universalist institution and one of two Asians at the top levels of that global formation, proficient in ten languages, Bishop at 43, Archbishop at 53, the Vatican’s diplomat in Indonesia and Timor Leste at 57, and Cardinal on the cusp of 63, Malcolm Ranjith was picked out and promoted by two very different Pontiffs, the history making John Paul II (the only man Fidel seemed even slightly in awe of, according to award winning author-reporter Anna Guillermoprieto) and the master theologian, Benedict XVI. On the eve of becoming Cardinal, he delivered at my old high school, Aquinas, retrospective remarks on Sri Lanka’s discontents and recommendations for their prudential resolution.
A parallel intervention was by Prof GL Peiris, Rhodes Scholar and Visiting Fellow of All Souls (Oxford), Corpus Christi (Cambridge) and the University of London, in confident expositions at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, London and the RK Mishra memorial lecture in Delhi. While the RK Mishra lecture was ‘thicker’ on public policy issues and dilemmas, Prof Peiris’ message at the IISS was on a continuum with those at the Asia Society, New York, and the Institute of International Affairs, Beijing: the secessionist-terrorist war had been the abiding obstacle to sustained high growth; with its overcoming, post war Sri Lanka is a land of opportunity and promise, deserving of time and space; there must be due appreciation of national specificities and sequencing, processes and priorities; the future of Sri Lanka will be decided by a broad consensus among its citizens and not dictated by unaccountable overseas pressure groups.
If the two perspectives of the Professor and the Cardinal, the former optimistic and the latter critically reflective, interface in “an atmosphere of mutual listening, give and take and harmony between these” (to borrow a phrase of the Cardinal’s) Sri Lanka may yet heal and proceed to perform with something of the promise it showed at Independence.
It is said, or should I say, alleged, that there is a perspective of turning Sri Lanka into an East Asia which entails trading off democracy or its expansion, in exchange for stability in the interests of development; and that this is a recipe not so much for East Asian prosperity but for Mussolini-like corporatism. I haven’t read anyone actually express the doctrine, so I must assume that the oppositional commentators are not simply hallucinating but either reading between the lines of the dominant discourse or plotting an inevitable trajectory of a presumed establishment endgame.
Having spent what has turned out to be a sabbatical year in East Asia and heard leaders list the policy paradigm and practices that enabled the region’s take-off into the stratosphere, I can only regard with grim humour the debate over whether or not Sri Lanka can, with “a little bit of authoritarianism” (to quote the late FDB) emulate East Asia.
Having watched the hubristic pursuit of the mirage of ‘dictatorship for development’ (almost exclusively by UNP administrations) run into geopolitical parameters and disintegrate in the sands of Sri Lankan social reality; having witnessed the irreducible democratic propensity and individualism of the Sri Lankan people (mainly the Sinhalese) eventually shrug off or burst through every effort at systemic straitjacketing, I tend not to lose much sleep over such delusions and anxieties.
The intellectual or theoretical argument has already been won and lost, with Nobel Prize winning economist and thinker (of South Asian provenance) Amartya Sen, empirically disproving the notion that development and democracy have a negative relationship and establishing instead that democracy has a directly salutary relationship with development.
Democracy assists development (providing feedback loops); development stimulates pressures for democratisation; underdevelopment or mal-development generates resistance to closed regimes.
A parallel debate is the devolution vs. development one, with some arguing that development not devolution is the panacea and prerequisite, others, the exact opposite. If there is a negative correlation between development and power-sharing, Brazil and India could not be among the world’s top performing economies nor Brazil the society in which poverty reduction goals have been most successfully met (endowing outgoing President Lula with an approval rating of 80%). If the counterargument is Sri Lanka’s small size, the answer is SWRD’s favourite model for ethnically diverse Ceylon: Switzerland.
The core issue is what degree of devolution will deliver the optimum combination of public goods: ending or preventing the repetition of the cycle of ethnic disaffection and restiveness, while ensuring strong centre which can enhance the centripetal, counteract the centrifugal and the irredentist, and safeguard Sri Lanka’s hard won territorial unity, integrity, sovereignty and security. Development will be crippled with an excess of devolution which weakens the strong state and its delivery potential, while an insufficiency of devolution will not accommodate and meliorate diverse ethnic identities to the point of permitting economic take-off and sustainability.
The name of the game is neither cosmopolitan shopping for models of devolution in a global supermarket, nor a mono-cultural monologue. As Prof Peiris said in his RK Mishra lecture, "there is both an external and an internal dimension". To a significant degree the dynamics will be determined neither by external pressure nor domestic insularity but by the inexorable dialectical interaction of internal–external realities.
It is important to avoid economic strategies that generate perceptions of the deliberate underdevelopment of the North, or a development model that may be perceived by the people of the area as top-down, outside-in, and the thin invasive edge of extractive exploitation or demographic/cultural incursion. Conversely there must be no room for an equivalent misperception of a North subsidised at the expense of the South or especially and excessively linked to external economies and power centres.
The answer is to design an economic strategy and model that does not foster Northern dependency on the South or its own North (across the waters) or the Western donors, but consciously fosters North-South economic integration on the basis of interlock and interdependence, not dependence. If all provinces of the country are tied up in mutual economic partnerships; if the Sinhalese and Tamils begin to see each other as economic partners; if the welfare of each community and province depends on the other; if all communities and provinces are stakeholders in the wellbeing of the other; if rising living standards are palpably the fruit of co-existence and cooperation, then post-war will be anchored in shared prosperity, then Sri Lanka, which has moved from war to post-war, will have made the transition from post-war to post–(ethnic) conflict, and from the absence of war to the preservation of the presence of peace. The conversation between Sinhala based and Tamil based democratic parties and leaders, must be a search for a Middle Path, eschewing antipodal alternatives.