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The challenge of devolving power to Tamils within a unitary state

Nov 4, 2010 9:23:10 PM- transcurrents.com

By Prof. John Richardson

In an ambitious pre-election manifesto, the Mahinda Chintana, President Rajapaksa outlined very specific and concrete goals touching on many aspects of Sri Lanka’s political economy and society – subjects included “a land of plenty,” “a disciplined and law-abiding society,” “clean water as Sri Lanka’s heritage,” “houses for all,” “electricity for everybody,” “a clean, green environment” and much more (p. 6). states in the Mahinda Chintana, “is to break the fundamentalist concepts of a traditional homeland and a separate stand and empower the citizens of this country to arrive at a peaceful political solution which would devolve power to all its citizens.”(p. 52) “For every failure we found a solution” – Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa

Devolving some power to the Sri Lankan Tamil community, within the context of a unitary state deeply imbued with the symbolism Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese monarchy, is a challenge that President Rajapaksa’s predecessors as President and Prime Minister have faced and been unable to resolve. How might this be accomplished?

Perhaps a clue to the government’s strategy may be found in a recent interview for the Indian defense review, entitled “Nine Key Decisions that Helped Lanka Beat the LTTE,” given by Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Rajapaksa emphasized that as the first key decision, “The government took a careful review of all previous war operations and drew conclusions from them. For every failure we found a solution.”

Given this experience, it would not at all surprise me to learn that Sri Lanka’s new government, perhaps led by Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa are reviewing previous failed attempts to simultaneously achieve three overarching goals spelled out in the Mahinda Chintana: first a strong unitary state “according Buddhism primacy of place as the state religion”, second a state that empowers “entrepreneurs with strength to conquer the world” and third a state that empowers Sri Lanka’s citizens “to arrive at a peaceful political solution which would devolve power to all of its citizens”.

It is in this spirit of drawing lessons from previous failures and finding solutions, emphasized so strongly by Defense Secretary Rajapaksa as key to the military victory, that I offer observations on possible lessons of relevance from Sri Lanka’s post independence history and from Singapores development experience.

Does Sri Lanka’s history offer lessons that might be applicable to present circumstances?

President Rajapaksa has an overwhelming mandate. The opposition is likely to remain splintered and ineffective for the foreseeable future.

Also, it seems, despite Sri Lanka’s complex proportional representation system, that President Rajapaksa’s United People’s Freedom Alliance will be able to command the 2/3 parliamentary majority necessary to pass constitutional amendments. How the government might use this opportunity to consolidate and perpetuate its power, in order to accelerate development, is an open topic of discussion.

There is also a real possibility that overwhelming presidential and parliamentary election wins, might represent the zenith of a UPFA government’s popularity. While there is optimism about Sri Lanka’s economic future, there are also vulnerabilities, most notably high government deficits, high inflation, the burdens of heavy defense expenditures and the possibility of international sanctions against Sri Lanka, affecting trade, foreign investment and the flow of funds from international donors. There are questions about how the government might deal with rising discontent produced by deteriorating economic conditions.

Facing these circumstances, the question becomes “how might President Rajapaksa escape the pitfalls to which predecessors fell prey?” How might he, in contrast to President Jayewardene’s self-acknowledged shortcomings, exercise “courage,” “foresight” and “intelligence” during his second term? In offering my reflections, I recognize for quite understandable reasons, there has been little receptivity on the part of Sri Lanka’s top leadership circle to recommendations from western scholars what should be done.

I acknowledge that my views about the likelihood that Sri Lanka’s army could defeat the LTTE were wrong. Nonetheless, I believe my views on development and reconciliation in Sri Lanka, based on more that two decades of study, may yet have something to offer. I have spent considerable time studying the Mahinda Chintana, which I see as a forward-looking, even visionary document. It provides a detailed, comprehensive cataloguing of the challenges Sri Lanka faces as well as concrete, specific goals. It recognizes that details must be fleshed in, over time and in consultation with various stakeholders in Sri Lankan society. What priorities should be emphasized in moving forward on this ambitious agenda?

Reconciliation should be acknowledged as a requisite of economic development.

First, I believe President Rajapaksa should continue his public acknowledgement that for Sri Lanka’s economic development to reach its full potential, communal reconciliation is essential. The greater the success in reconciling Sri Lanka’s majority Sinhalese and minority Sri Lanka Tamil communities the greater the probability that polices intended to develop Sri Lanka will succeed. Sri Lanka must, indeed, become “a united motherland – one nation with one vision.” To me this sounds very much like the agenda Lee Kuan Yew’s People’s Action Party proposed to Singapores diverse peoples as the new nation faced the challenges of survival, post independence.

At three previous junctures cited in this talk, Sri Lankan political leaders made political calculations that acceding to or encouraging communally divisive voices would best serve Sri Lanka. The temptation to use communalism as a basis for political mobilization, in order to secure or retain power, is always present. A quarter-century of protracted conflict, due in large part to decisions of leaders who could have chosen otherwise, should provide enough evidence that the short term political gains such tactics provide do not justify the long term, invariably damaging, consequences. To acknowledge this reality is not, for a single moment, to excuse or justify terrorism. Like many Sri Lankans, I have lost friends and mentors to the bullets and bombs of LTTE assassins.

There may be no developing country that, for its size, has a greater reservoir of professional talent among its Diaspora communities, both Sinhalese and Tamil. I believe Sri Lankans would return home, in large numbers, if they believed that economic opportunities in a secure, inclusive society focused on clear development goals awaited them. President Rajapaksa can provide leadership that creates such opportunities. For evidence, one need only consider China and India’s experience, where books such as Kishore Mahbubani’s The New Asian Hemisphere (2008) document the degree to which bright young men and women are returning home to fuel economic development.

(John Richardson is author of Paradise Poisoned: Learning about Conflict, Terrorism and Development from Sri Lanka’s Civil Wars and Professor of International Development, School of International Service, American University, Washington, D.C.)