By Dr. S. Narapalasingam
The current moves of the powerful government in post-war Sri Lanka are mainly for sustaining the wartime military strength, preventing the resurrection of the smashed LTTE and developing the infrastructures, notably the roads and rail network, coal-fired power and hydro-power, the Hambantota harbour, second international airport in Hambantota district and rebuilding the war-torn areas with foreign assistance mostly from China and India have raised doubts about the future of Sri Lanka.
A school in Kilinochchi reopens in a war-damaged building ~ Pic: IRIN
Balanced economic development beneficial to all citizens is essential but this alone without real developments in other important fields will not create the congenial and hopeful Sri Lanka desired by the majority of citizens who have suffered immensely under decades of misrule and the gory war. In fact, sustained economic development beneficial to the people in all provinces is not feasible without significant changes to the distorted systems that no longer serve the people and the nation fairly. Even the current reconciliation process is not really aimed at building trust between communities and rebuilding Sri Lanka to be the shared home of all communities. The apparent emphasis solely on GDP (gross income) growth rates at the cost of democratic rights and freedoms has also become a matter of concern.
Is there real reconciliation process?
The earlier doubts about the final outcome of the reconciliation process initiated by the government via the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) still remain, despite some important findings discerned from the hearings held in the war-torn North and East. In this regard the observations of the Chief Minister of the Eastern Provincial Council, Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan also known as ‘Pillayan’, during his address to the LLRC on 20 October 2010 are significant. These clearly reveal the government’s lack of interest in the Provincial Council system set up under the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. In brief, there is no desire to devolve powers to the provinces and loosen the grip of the Centre that exists since the unitary structure was strengthened under the two Republican Constitutions.
He told the Commission: ““Government should allow (the Councils) to fully exercise the powers vested in the provincial councils, that is the only way we can win the hearts and minds of the people.” He also said that the mistakes made in the past by successive leaders had paved the way for the emergence of armed groups. “This is an appropriate time for the government to take correct action to safeguard the rights of the citizens of this country, as the government currently has a two-thirds majority in Parliament.” Many others too have said an opportunity for settling the ethnic problem politically as now never arose in the past, when the main opposition party habitually obstructed the positive moves of the government. The problems currently encountered by the Provincial Council can be attributed directly to the overriding powers of the Provincial Governor appointed constitutionally by the Executive President. This is only one of many weaknesses in the Provincial Council system.
For the country to prosper, it is the political leaders who should learn lessons from past blunders that deprived the unity, peace and progress achieved by other less developed countries after their independence from foreign colonial rule. Sadly, the craze for power has not diminished. The reluctance of the present government to take a joint holistic and lo0ng-sighted approach to post-war development which requires in the first instance the resolution of the political/ethnic problem that arose five decades ago because of the greed for power of the then narrow-minded political leaders is evident from the escapist stand. There was initially the pronouncement that there is no ethnic problem now in post-war Sri Lanka. Later it was proclaimed that there is no consensus amongst the Tamil parties on this matter. It is clear from the current moves that rebuilding the damaged nation is not free from political bias. There is also the feeling that the reward for the hard-earned victory that destroyed the Tiger terrorists/separatists must accrue first to the ruler. This explains the many surprising developments that occurred after May 2009
The Eastern Province Chief Minister has urged for more devolved powers to the Provincial Councils and non-interference of the respective Governors appointed by the Executive President in their assigned functions. But there is no clear sign of making the PC system meaningful by granting even the powers the Councils are entitled to under the present Constitution. In this regard, ‘The Deccan Herald’ on October 22, 2010 opined that President Mahinda Rajapaksa now seems to be averse to the devolution of power. The real objective of the reconciliation move has also been questioned.
New Delhi has been faulted for ignoring the understanding reached earlier with Colombo on the resolution of the Tamil issue in Sri Lanka. The concluding remarks are very strong and reflect the disappointment of concerned Indians. To quote: “Reconciliation will not be possible unless justice is done and a political solution found. Rajapaksa is dragging his feet on both fronts. He has the mandate and the support in parliament to resolve the ethnic conflict. His reluctance indicates the lack of political will. Rajapaksa is undeserving of the honour that India bestowed on him by inviting him as a guest of honour to the Commonwealth Games closing ceremony. In doing so, India has sent out a message that it has abandoned its long-standing commitment to a just settlement of the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka”. Ideally, the political reforms needed for lasting settlement of the nationally damaging ethnic conflict should be brought about by sincere desires of all sections of the plural society. Unfortunately, there are no moves to bring about this common interest.
The prevailing conditions do not allow non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to play a positive role in creating a climate conducive for settling the ethnic problem early. The latter is essential for lasting peace, uninterrupted development and well-being of all ethnic communities. It is important to convince all that it is desirable to promote secure living conditions for all citizens regardless of their ethnicity and traditional habitation. Sincere implementation of the 13th Amendment will definitely help reconciliation, besides strengthening further the close ties with India. It is recalled President Rajapaksa himself wanted this during the APRC process. Consequently, t he APRC Chairman Minister (Prof.) Tissa Vitharana submitted an interim report recommending the implementation of the 13th Amendment. The President himself had said earlier that 13A would be the basis for a final settlement.
Library before it was rebuilt
According to BBC and other sources, the rebuilt Jaffna public library was vandalised by a large group of Sinhalese visitors to the district in late October, nearly 17 months after the war ended. Following this atrocious incident, the library has been closed to foreign and Sri Lankan tourists since 30 October. There is also some discontent over the settlement of outsider in Vanni and Jaffna. In this setting, how can one believe there is a real national reconciliation process in post-war Sri Lanka?
There are many areas that require strengthening, which have been pointed out by open-minded and foresighted Sri Lankans. The reconciliation process will not succeed unless the damages from past discriminatory acts and inactions are rectified. The latter the non-implementation of the provisions in the Constitution intended to ease the grievances of the Tamil speaking people. Reconciliation needs justice and a reasonable political settlement of the problem that led to the violent revolt. A triumphalist mindset will not help to unite the post-war society divided along ethnic lines because of past discriminatory policies of successive governments.
The continuing obstacle
There are no external threats to the security of the State and the imagined internal one is linked solely to the failures to evolve systems suitable for uniting permanently the diverse ethnic groups and developing the entire island impartially for the wellbeing of all citizens. The reluctance to adopt a well balanced system suitable for preserving Sri Lanka as a congenial home of all citizens in the ethnic majority and minority communities itself is due to the perceived suspicion. With such a mindset, it is impossible to achieve unity and lasting peace. This also explains the reason for the lack of collective national interest. This is the fundamental cause of many problems that denied political, social and economic progress, permanent peace and general well-being. There seems to be a political need to sustain the imagined threat and not resolve the protracted ethnic tension. The latter had overshadowed the socio-economic problems.
Because of the lack of forward-thinking of the leaders of the main political parties, successive governments since independence have increasingly contributed to the waning of the concepts of democracy, national unity and national development. The ethnic division and infused misgiving about the internal threat to the future of the Sinhalese were exploited by the rival political parties competing recklessly for the power to rule for their narrow short-term gains. This damaging practice was encouraged by the inapt system that ignored the legitimate rights of the ethnic minorities. There are some extremists who believe the entire island is exclusively the native land of the Sinhalese and others are the descendants of foreign immigrants. Hence, the latter should not expect equal rights.
Had this attitude prevailed in other multi-cultural countries that are well developed, robust and prosperous, they would not have risen to the current status as developed countries with high per capita incomes. The reluctance of the top leaders to accept the ground realities in the island is the cause of the national problem that intensified because of the acts of commission and omission depriving Sri Lanka the successes achieved by other less developed countries. All governments made no serious effort towards nation building because of the hesitation in accepting the concept of nation consistent with ground realities. The ‘Sinhala nation’ concept was allowed to gain strength, disregarding the consequences.
In the real world, ‘nation building’ is vital for the future well-being of all citizens, in the same way the sturdy home is for all residents. If part of the home is neglected because it is occupied by a different clan, this intentional and prolonged neglect not only causes ill-feeling between the residents occupying two adjoining parts of the same building but also damages its entire structure. Even the foundation gets weakened sooner or later depending on the extent of the neglect. The destruction gets aggravated when there are internal violent revolts. This is exactly what happened during and after the July 1983 pogrom.
Any superficial and piecemeal repairs like repairing the leaking roof or fixing the broken doors and windows and giving a new coat of paint will not help anyone who wants his or her children and grandchildren to live securely in the home shared by all Lankans. The crucial distinction between house and home is emphasized here. It is also pertinent to mention that the ethnic minority Tamils and Muslims are not living in annexe or in the servant quarters of the house belonging to the Sinhalese. They are sharing a portion of the Sri Lankan home. They have the right to decide jointly in consultation with other members how the large home, especially the portion that has distinct demographic features such as spoken language, social customs and customary laws since ancient time should be managed and improved for the comfort of the residents. The neglect of the portion where the occupants were mainly members of the ethnic minority groups (Tamils and Muslims) for centuries has also caused severe damage to the entire home.
The need for the marginalised group in the Sri Lankan plural society to campaign for the right to self-determination will not arise, if the mismatched political system (very centralised and majoritarian) is suitably adjusted so as to bring this lot in to the relevant decision-making and execution processes. This is crucial for nation building and is also the sensible and sure way of ensuring the territorial integrity of the island nation. Given the long-established settlement pattern of different ethnic communities in the island, it is unreasonable to impose Sinhala majority rule throughout the island ignoring real structure of the island nation.
Current ad hoc approach to development
Sadly, the current approach to national reconciliation and development is very much like the momentary repairs being done to the structurally weak building that is in need of thorough restructuring. Given the gravity of the damage, there is the need for urgent actions such as resettlement, rehabilitation and vocational training for misled ex-militants and young war widows, which are happening but these are not substitutes for the reforms needed to make Sri Lanka the comfortable and safe home for all residents to prosper according to their abilities. Even in the resettlement of displaced persons, some have alleged discrimination. The displaced Muslims in the North continue to remain far away from their own habitats. The intrusion of politics in social and economic matters has been the curse of many national problems. Politics in Sri Lanka is not the theory and practice intended for the advancement of the welfare of the entire society and the State. The current ad hoc approach to development seems to be considered as the panacea for all national ills. Delaying the reconciliation process and devolution even under the existing 13th Amendment suggests the dependence on the restricted development strategy.
A sound national development plan must focus on both economic and social development. Regional development must also be inclusive taking into consideration the economic and social needs of the people in the different provinces.
Poverty reduction or alleviation vital for social advancement has not been an integral part of a development programme. Productive natural resources available in the North and East were not utilized for national development for political expediency. There are many useful lessons to be learnt from past blunders but there seems to be no such desire among the politicians, the majority of them are in politics mainly because of their thirst for power that can be exploited for their own benefit. With the collapse of the rule of law, independent judiciary, good governance and absolute accountability of all serving the public and the State, the opportunities for exploiting the political power for personal benefits have risen remarkably.
High GDP/economic growth rates need not mean reduction in the inequality in income distribution. In fact these are neither equitable nor sustainable at present in Sri Lanka for various reasons. For equitable growth, the people in low income groups must also benefit significantly from the rise in the national income. Excessive disparities in income distribution do not augur well for the future of nations. With suitable fiscal and investment policies and efficient management of public funds, it is possible to contain the inequality in income distribution within reasonable limit.
Like the GDP growth rate, the high level of foreign exchange reserves is also misleading. On the rise in the level of Sri Lanka’s foreign exchange reserves to more than US$ 7 billion, ‘The Sunday Times’ Economic Analyst on 31 October 2010 observed: “They (the official foreign reserves) were certainly not the result of trade surpluses. Capital inflows as remittances, portfolio investment, foreign aid and grants are among the contributors. However the most important and largest component of the recent build up of reserves has been through foreign borrowing at commercial rates of interest. The accumulation of foreign reserves has gone in tandem with an increase in foreign debt to a very high level. With both the foreign debt and the domestic debt escalating, the increase in the total public debt is massive. The consequent increase in debt servicing costs is a huge burden on the public finances of the country. Foreign debt is at a historic height and debt servicing costs continue to increase as the government resorts to further foreign borrowing. The debt servicing costs are larger than the country’s revenue.”
In a critical analysis of ‘pro-poor growth and economic growth in Sri Lanka’, Vidya Abhayagunawardena has also drawn attention to the anomaly between poverty reduction and high economic growth. The article posted by TransCurrents on October 15, 2010 contains very useful suggestions for linking economic development with social development and making development growth equitable. Although there are no firm estimate of the poor in the North and East, the number must now be relatively high because of the tragic consequences of the war. Many projects in the public sector are launched without proper cost-benefit analysis. Moreover the final costs far exceed the estimated initial costs. The lack of financial discipline in the public sector is one major reason for doubting the sustainability of high development growth.
The following are some of Vidya’s observations and recommendations:
(i) The current population in Sri Lanka is little over twenty million. Rural population accounts for over seventeen million and out of this over thirteen million people are poor according to rural poverty portal, 2008. The Department of Census and Statistics (DCS) has reckoned Sri Lanka’s Official Poverty Line (OPL) to be Rs.3111 in August 2010. Households, whose real monthly per capita total consumption expenditure is below Rs.3111, are considered poor. Low income families with many children and/or other dependants are likely to be below the poverty line.
(ii) Without a sufficient social security net, there are many consequences of persistence poverty including children out of school, insufficient food, social exclusion, youth unrest and violence, drug abuse etc. Studies have revealed that today’s global poverty exists mainly in war- torn and post–conflict countries. Accelerating the rate of income growth of the poor is vital for poverty reduction in countries that cannot afford to continue giving financial assistance to all the very poor. In Sri Lanka’s case there is room for finding extra money by cutting down waste but extensive development, which is essential for rebuilding the damaged nation, requires considerable funds for investment.
(iii) Accelerating the rate of Pro-Poor Growth (PPG) will require not only faster economic growth, but also efforts to enhance the capabilities of poor households to take advantage of the opportunities growth generates.
(iv) Today there are 1.6 million “Samurdhi” beneficiaries in Sri Lanka. The need for such programmes will remain, if development is not targeted to increase the employment opportunities for the poor.
(v) Uneven economic growth in the past has left many provinces (except the Western Province) lagging behind. High growth rate is only in the Western province and it accounts for 50% of the GDP. This reflects the uneven distribution of employment and income.
Apparently, there is 35 per cent malnutrition in this country. Some 40% of the people live on less than two dollars a day. According to the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Affairs there are now about 89,000 war widows in the North and East, aged below 40, most of them with minimum three children. But none of them have any form of income. Not only war widows, there are women, who got permanently or partially disabled, mentally traumatized due to the war. In post-war economy, there is the urgent need to address multifaceted socioeconomic issues concerning all affected by the war.
Vidya Abhayagunawardena has recommended a holistic approach to empower women. The analyst has also drawn attention to many Sri Lankan women and girls from poor families seeking employment in the Middle East as housemaids and the need to discourage this practice. The harsh and risky conditions in some work places came to light after 49 years old Mrs. L.T. Ariyawathi, mother of three children returned home recently with several nails hammered into her body and young Rizana Nafeek sentenced to death for the death of an infant under her care. The offender was only 17 when this happened in 2005 and she had no prior training or experience in child minding. Her father is a woodcutter and she went abroad to earn money for improving the living conditions of the poor family. She was also concerned about the education of her siblings.
KIshali Pinto Jayawardene in her weekly column ‘Focus on Rights’ in The Sunday Times 31 October 2010 has said: “Rizana’s execution has been ordered even though the circumstances are unequivocally to the effect that this was an unintentional mistake by an untrained teenager who should never have been given the task of baby sitting in the first instance. Undoubtedly this case should serve as a wake-up call for the Sri Lankan government”. She has also drawn attention to earlier executions of Sri Lankan migrant workers. To quote: “For this is not the first time that executions of Sri Lankans have been announced in Saudi Arabia though Rizana’s case is marked for the immediate and horrified empathy that it evokes. In 2005 for example, three Sri Lankan migrant workers in Saudi Arabia were executed after being charged and found guilty of theft. One of those executed had been only given a sentence of fifteen years and his execution was, in any event, not in accordance with the domestic processes of justice in Saudi Arabia, even granted the fact that these processes are highly inadequate in themselves.
Yet government ministers only said that compensation would be given to the family but that Sri Lankans must abide by the domestic laws of Saudi Arabia. Such statements are to shrug off the definitive responsibility that attaches to a government to look after the interests of its citizens when they work as migrant labour overseas”. Given the need for Sri Lanka to maintain good relationship with wealthy Saudi Arabia, the Sri Lankan government seems to be very much concerned about the proposed ban by the Saudi authorities on the recruitment of Sri Lankan workers.
Successive Sri Lankan governments were not unaware of the harsh conditions and the problems encountered by poor Sri Lankan workers in the Middle East. Since the country depends heavily on their inward remittances for the much needed foreign exchange these were overlooked. Many are young women from the poor families in the rural areas. There was a time when the poor from south India migrated to Sri Lanka in search of menial jobs. With the relative improvement in the living conditions there, the poor are not that desperate as before when they came illicitly to Ceylon seeking odd jobs. Unlike Sri Lanka, development in India was well planned ahead, taking into consideration the development programmes of all states. Sri Lanka has not given the same importance to development planning.
Besides the plight of poor Sri Lankan migrant workers, one in four Sri Lankans are said to suffer from mental illness. There is no breakdown of this national estimate. Obviously, the ratio will be high in the case of war victims. The number committing suicide in Sri Lanka has also increased. The Sunday Times 10 October 2010 reported, at least three children are raped in Sri Lanka each day, indicating that the incidence of sexual assault of minors is escalating. Ratnapura district had the country’s highest number of child rape cases – 79 in 2009, and 47 in the first six months of this year.
The Sunday Island 10 October 2010 in its editorial stated: “Economic growth we may have achieved to some degree, but what should be of concern is whether we are advancing on the road to development. The two are not synonymous and we could very well have growth without development and the latter is generally achieved when economic growth is combined with equity. That is, when redistributive justice accompanies the generation of material wealth”.
The thought provoking editorial has also emphasized the need to reconsider the present one-track approach for improving the living conditions of the residents in the entire island. To quote: “In these post-war times, it is particularly important that Sri Lanka reassess its priorities and sets its sights on the correct goals. The war played no small part in propelling Sri Lanka into a top position in the Asiatic mental illness league. The task before the state, currently, is to heal the wounds of war and bring reconciliation to its communities. The years of death, destruction and bloodshed produced tens of thousands of destitutes, war widows, orphans and disabled persons, besides contributing substantially to the vast numbers badly in need of emotional support”.
Relatively rich getting richer
In the recent past, those who have gone quickly up the income ladder include the rulers and their associates. The former governor of Central Bank, A. S. Jayewardene is reported (LBO October 16, 2010) to have said at a recent meeting of Sri Lanka Economics Association (SLEA): “Sri Lanka's rulers, in the form of members of parliament in power and in the opposition, now get many discriminatory legal privileges including tax free cars. Lifetime pensions are available to rulers and a few of their cronies after working just five years. Many ministers make their wives their private secretaries to get the pension benefit. The pensions are also tax free. Rulers also get subsidized food at the parliament cafeteria, while basic foods including rice, wheat and tinned fish are taxed heavily and their prices kept up artificially”. He also drew attention to the provision in authorised parliamentary expenses that allows “each member of parliament, to spend as he wishes - a form of pocket money - this on top of the greatly enhanced emoluments and free perks." This affluent class emerged after J.R. Jayewardene became the first Executive President with the five-sixth majority his party gained in the 1977 general election. Not surprisingly, the lot wanting to be rich quickly resort to all kinds of tactics to get into parliament under the pretext of serving the people and the country. Currently, it is not the very poor who abduct affluent persons for ransom or misappropriate public funds but the relatively well-off who want to accumulate more wealth by intimidation or in dishonest ways.
Long-term costs of present moves
The subjective decisions of past governments have not served the interests of all sections of the Sri Lankan society. The beneficiaries were mainly those wielding power. The manifest deterioration in the executive, judicial and legislative branches affected greatly the welfare of the people and the country. Ignoring the adverse long-term consequences of subjective political decisions for short-term gains has been integral part of the corrupt political culture. The main reason for the civil disturbances in the past and the present muddled state is the failure of successive governments to consider the consequences of their politically advantageous decisions to the unity and future well-being of the entire society.
Sadly, this pattern of decision-making has not changed, despite the opportunities that emerged after the war to introduce the much needed reforms. On the contrary the military victory is viewed as an opportunity to implement speedily the government’s own political agenda. In fact, it is a matter of concern now to fair-minded persons, since the funds available not only for financing the future capital expenditures, including loan repayments but also essential recurrent expenditures will be insufficient. This is one important reason for some economists to opine that the present high growth rate is not sustainable. It was seen earlier in this analysis to be inequitable too.
The Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) in its latest report on the state of Sri Lanka’s economy has warned of the risk in depending too much on foreign borrowings to fuel economic growth. The IPS has stated "A growth boom fuelled by an infrastructure-led investment drive that relies heavily on foreign borrowing can run up against problems." (LBO Economic challenges 1 November 2010). Foreign direct investment in post-war Sri Lanka has not increased and the Sri Lankan government has not produced the conditions needed to attract foreign investment. Attention has also been drawn to the absence of clear medium term policy goals that connect with long term post-conflict economic development. There is the imperative need for a transformative process of economic reforms aimed towards sustained long term growth beneficial to the future well-being of all sections of the society. The main beneficiaries should be the disadvantaged families neglected because of the preoccupation of past governments on other matters. The war was of course a legitimate excuse.
The government hopes to double the per capita income in real terms by 2015 that is in 5 years time. Given the constraints of low domestic savings and direct foreign investment, it seems difficult even to sustain a real annual growth rate of 7 to 8 per cent in the medium term. It is obvious the annual growth rates have to be much higher to double the real per capita income for the entire country within 5 years. Without a resolute move to increase savings by eliminating wasteful expenditures and a comprehensive development plan such attractive targets have little weight. Above all, the long overdue political reform process that results in the direct involvement of civil society in development at the regional and national levels is vital for sustainable long-term growth needed for improving the living conditions of the poor.
The ongoing debate on rebuilding Sri Lanka have overlooked many fundamental weaknesses in the various distorted systems functioning in the island that obstruct the building of a unified stable nation vital for the present and future generations to reap the full benefits of development. The distortions in the sub-systems are linked to the flawed political system that is not serving the vast majority of the people and the nation. The many weaknesses are well known but there is no desire or the will to strengthen the system that had been manipulated after the adoption of the first ‘home grown’ constitution in 1972 by political parties for their own advantage.
From the above analysis, it is apparent high economic growth rates per se do not satisfy all the basic needs of the people. Despite China’s remarkable growth rates in recent years, there is a growing demand for democracy and freedom. In this regard Rajan Philips’ informative article, ‘Democracy Vs Meritocracy in China: Lessons for Sri Lanka’ (The Sunday Island’ 24 October 2010) is very timely. There seems to be the view that Sri Lanka has opted to follow China’s model that gives top priority to development. Rajan Philips has described the unique way the one-party State is functioning at the central and local levels in the People’s Republic of China. “Besides being the world’s most populated country and an emerging economic power house, the People’s Republic of China also has a unique political system. The system rests on three pillars – the Communist Party, the State and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). At the national level, the Party and the State are unified with the State subordinate to the Party. The army is also effectively under the Central Committee of the Party through the powerful Central Military Committee. At the sub-national level, the Party and the State are organizationally separated but share power in decision making and execution”.
Past and present Sri Lankan political leaders have announced publicly that they want Sri Lanka to be prosperous like Singapore. There was a time when Singaporeans wanted to adopt the Ceylon (not Sri Lanka) model. The success story of Singapore has been told by many knowledgeable persons. It is not sustained high economic growth alone that contributed to the success.
The confidence of the people in the development programmes will be high, if the objectives are truly national, farsighted and apolitical, not imposed denying even their existing freedoms.
[The writer is Former Additional Deputy Secretary to the Treasury, Sri Lanka and UN Advisor, Development Economics/Planning]