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Politicians must not repeat mistakes of the first half century after independence

Nov 9, 2010 9:07:02 PM- transcurrents.com

By Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha, MP

In looking at the question of national integration, which should be our principal goal now that we have eliminated terrorism from at least Sri Lankan shores, we need to begin by considering the factors that so nearly caused disintegration.

Firstly there was the sustained neglect of areas in which minorities lived. This was not particularly targeted at the minorities, since Sri Lanka suffered for more than 50 years after independence from development without equity. This has resulted in the Western Province hogging the lion’s share of per capita income, which is why many areas in the country still suffer from high levels of poverty even though the country as a whole has now moved to middle income level.

Secondly, there were measures which in intention as well as in effect were clearly discriminatory. The most upsetting in this regard was language policy, not only the constitutional measure declaring Sinhala the only official language after an electoral campaign in which both major parties seemed to think being negative about Tamil was the key to electoral success, but also the educational system that straitjacketed many children in monolingualism. Another upsetting measure, still remembered with bitterness as I found last week in dialogue with Tamil members of the diaspora in London, was discrimination with regard to University admission. This is all the more significant in that Mr Prabhakaran’s was the first school cohort affected by the new system, even though in its overtly racist form it was only formulated in 1978.

Both these areas pertain to political decisions, and should have been resolved through political means. However with the advent to power of J R Jayewardene the situation changed, and systematic violence against Tamils gave rise not only to lasting bitterness but also to recourse to violence that now had more supporters. Unfortunately the Cold War adventurism of the government also led to a forceful Indian reaction, which helped to bring terrorism to centre stage, a position it continued to occupy for a quarter of a century.

It should be noted that, with the exception of the Tigers, other former terrorist groups abandoned militancy with the Indo-Lankan Accord of 1987. Though I believe there is no excuse for terrorism, there was no longer any pretext even for the Tiger continuation of intransigent violence, given that there has been no repetition after 1983 of the type of ethnic violence the Jayewardene government seemed to countenance. Sadly, given the indulgence the Tigers received, briefly from successive Sri Lankan governments, and also from some elements in the West – though never thankfully by India again – they were able to grow from strength to strength, until they over-reached themselves spectacularly, refused all compromise and negotiation, and ended up defeated.

If then the third reason for ethnic tensions, violence encouraged if not supported by the state, was a thing of the past, the other two however still remained. Though Tamil had been made an Official Language in terms of the Indo-Lankan Accord, implementation of this was slow. Most students were still essentially stuck in one language or the other, and it was generally impossible for Tamils to deal in their own language with public servants. This also continued to affect recruitment to the public service, with Tamils and minorities generally having far fewer representatives than their numbers warranted.

However the government of President Kumaratunga began a policy of ensuring that children would also learn the second official language in schools. She also permitted English medium classes in the state system, which should lead in time to more children of different language groups being able to learn together. President Rajapakse’s government more recently took even more effective measures in this regard in making it compulsory for new recruits to the public service to learn the other official language. Existing employees are also encouraged to learn this, and steps are being taken to increase minority representation in the public service. This is happening apace in the police, which could otherwise seem an alien force to many Tamils and, with security concerns less pressing, the policy can be extended to the armed forces too.

With regard to education, one of the most important innovations planned by government is the introduction of private education at tertiary level. Previously, given the state monopoly, there had been no alternatives for those minority students who suffer because of the current policy of positive discrimination. At the same time it is important to ensure even more radical reform of the education system so as to ensure that talents, in particular in socially deprived areas, are not suppressed.

This holds true for other aspects of social policy that will promote national integration. Though what has happened thus far suggests a commitment to more equitable policies, these should be fast forwarded with the cooperation of all stakeholders, and in particular private investors. Higher quality vocational training programmes, greater effort with regard to soft skills and other qualifications for employment, stress on confidence and social awareness and personality skills, are all essential, and need to be pursued with vigour.

This is the more important in view of the comparative success of the government programme of infrastructure development. In addition to ensuring basic facilities, extending to fully functional schools, for those who had been displaced by the conflict, most of whom have now been returned to their places of residence, government has laid stress on better communications, through electronic connectivity as well as roads. Irrigation facilities which had lain disused for years are being restored, and efforts are being made to train farmers in processing while ensuring better methods of distribution.

Investment is being encouraged, the plan being to turn an area which only saw subsistence agriculture into one in which the producers are economically active. But all these will need as much concentration on human resource development as on the development of the physical infrastructure. Of course this is an area in which the rest of the country too needs support, in terms of the massive changes with regard to infrastructural development taking place elsewhere too. We have already seen the increased prosperity in the East, given the developments that had been introduced even while the war in the North was being concluded. However, given the much longer period of suffering endured by the people of the North, clearly there is need for intense and concerted efforts in all the areas I have outlined above, and more.

I have not thus far talked about what is described as a political settlement, a consummation that figures largely in the discourse of agencies in Sri Lanka, and indeed elsewhere, concerned with conflict resolution. The reason is that I feel that consensus in the past was prevented by excessive concern with forms and structures, without adequate attention to the other factors that politics necessarily involves. After all the claim for self determination was put forward in the seventies not as an end in itself, but rather as a means towards focusing attention on problems of the sort I have described above. It was only subsequently that it turned into an end in itself, a goal that grew in the imagination until it culminated in the intransigence of the LTTE, unwilling to settle for anything except a separate state.

I feel the more qualified to discuss this issue, because it was only the Liberal Party that in the eighties argued for devolution, but on the basis that that was the best way of empowering individuals in units that were otherwise neglected. In short our argument was based on the principle of subsidiarity, ie the idea that decisions should be made by the smallest possible unit of relevance, personal questions by individuals, community problems by the community and so on. What we did not want was the majoritarianism of one unit, the country, being replaced by another sort of majoritarianism.

I have not thus far talked about what is described as a political settlement, a consummation that figures largely in the discourse of agencies in Sri Lanka, and indeed elsewhere, concerned with conflict resolution. The reason is that I feel that consensus in the past was prevented by excessive concern with forms and structures, without adequate attention to the other factors that politics necessarily involves. After all the claim for self determination was put forward in the seventies not as an end in itself, but rather as a means towards focusing attention on problems of the sort I have described above. It was only subsequently that it turned into an end in itself, a goal that grew in the imagination until it culminated in the intransigence of the LTTE, unwilling to settle for anything except a separate state.

I feel the more qualified to discuss this issue, because it was only the Liberal Party that in the eighties argued for devolution, but on the basis that that was the best way of empowering individuals in units that were otherwise neglected. In short our argument was based on the principle of subsidiarity, ie the idea that decisions should be made by the smallest possible unit of relevance, personal questions by individuals, community problems by the community and so on. What we did not want was the majoritarianism of one unit, the country, being replaced by another sort of majoritarianism. That is why indeed for a long time we were favourably inclined to the District as the unit of devolution, though the games the Jayewardene government played with the District Development Councils made us realize that the sense of disappointment felt by the Tamils could only be assuaged by Provincial Councils.

However we were totally opposed to the merger of the North and East, because that introduced a completely different dimension to the whole question. It was based on the concept of a homeland and, whilst initially we could sympathize with a unit for Tamil speaking people in a context in which the national language policy was discriminatory, later it became obvious that to treat Tamils and Muslims as a single entity on this basis was inappropriate. The establishment of Tamil as an official language in 1987 reduced the need for a different sort of unit based on language, and already tensions between Tamils and Muslims had begun, culminating in the expulsion of the Muslims by the LTTE in 1990, making clear the dangers of an exclusivist majoritarianism such as we had feared for any unit in which power is exercised. We must after all be wary of what Prof Pratap Mehta described recently as the ‘tyranny of compulsory identity’,

Incidentally I should note that all Sri Lankan Tamils I think believe that that expulsion was wrong. At a meeting in Norway, I was intrigued by the fact that the only defence of this was offered by the Indian politician Mr Vaiko, who claimed that the Muslims had acted as traitors. This was in contrast to the attitude of the Sri Lankans, those opposed to the LTTE roundly condemning the action, whilst the supporters of the LTTE claimed that Mr Prabhakaran had acknowledged his mistake.

Be that as it may, the merger was an unnecessary flaw in the Accord, and it was shown as totally unnecessary by the split within the LTTE in 2004, when the Tamils of the East indicated that they too had a distinct identity. It is sad therefore that there are still some politicians in Sri Lanka, and others still influenced by them abroad, who hanker after the merger. Any efforts to resurrect that will rouse further suspicions about the rationale behind excessively strong and distinct units.

For we must also recognize that the structures we are talking of are now interpreted differently from the way they were a quarter of a century ago. The Liberal Party then did not think the debate over the term Federalism of any great consequence, what we were looking for was structures by whatever name that ensured local empowerment. In those days Federalism was seen as a mechanism that provided such empowerment whilst ensuring the unity of a country made up of different units, as is the case with India or the United States of America.

However the 90s saw the concept of Federalism used to divide up countries. There was the example of the Soviet Union, and even more dramatically Yugoslavia, where precipitate recognition of a unit that was not homogeneous led to a bitter backlash – as had indeed been predicted by the British Liberals who tried to slow down the German Liberals in their enthusiasm for a separate Croatian state.

The rest is history, culminating in the cynical breach of promises by international decision makers after Serbia permitted an international presence in Kosovo. Autonomy might have been necessary there, given recent history, but the insistence on independence contrary to assurances made it clear that, in the context of federal structures, might will trump morality as well as any doctrine of state sovereignty.

I am sorry then to still hear clarion calls about Federalism, since these will only rouse fears of the incrementalism so cleverly played out by the LTTE. On the contrary, we should concern ourselves with practical measures that will ensure the power to decide for themselves in matters that concern them for the inhabitatants of all our regions, together with a voice in decisions that concern the country as a whole. After all there must be certain areas reserved for a Central Government, and we need to ensure that the views of all parts of the country are taken into account in making decisions in such areas.

How is this done in other countries where there are different regions with different concerns? One is by ensuring the full participation in politics at the Centre by politicians of all regions. In this respect indeed it should be noted that the distinctive concern with rural development under this government may be connected with the fact that the current President is the first elected leader of Sri Lanka from outside the Western Province. Sadly, whilst the Muslims played their part in all cabinets after independence, Tamil politicians from the North withdrew after the divisive games played by their Sinhala brethren in 1956, and we did not have them, until the advent of Douglas Devananda, contribute to cabinet decisions. This we hope will change, with Tamil politicians from the North exercising influence on the lines of our two Foreign Ministers from the minorities, Mr Hameed from an area far from Colombo, and the brilliant Lakshman Kadirgamar who was from the capital’s multi-racial elite.

Secondly, many states have second chambers with weightage towards units at the periphery. The President has proposed such a Senate in his manifesto, but sadly the main Tamil party does not seem interested in this at all. While it is all very well for them to say that they want other matters settled, the impression created is that they see no role for themselves or those they represent at the Centre. This is a dangerous attitude.

In fact it was extremely sad that the main Tamil opposition party, instead of entering into discussions with the government in the period immediately after the LTTE was eliminated, engaged in adventurism with regard to the candidature of Sarath Fonseka for the Presidency. The impression created was of a wholesale cynicism based on hostility to the incumbent President. When they indicated that they were interested enough in national politics to want the abolition of the Executive Presidency, it seemed rather that they were more interested still in destabilizing Sri Lanka rather than developing a consensus as to reforms. Those who claim then that the government should take steps to win the confidence of this group should bear in mind the dogged destructiveness of their approach initially.

The same indeed goes for the proposals of the All Party Representatives Conference, which was tasked to work out suggestions as to the further sharing of power. Instead of dwelling on the relatively sensible proposals that had been put forward in this area, together with suggestions as to a Senate, and a new electoral system, its votaries made much of the need to abolish the Executive Presidency while reactivating the 17th amendment to the Constitution. Since the electorate had decisively rejected the Presidential candidate who made these the principal reason to vote for him – apart from summary punishment for his opponents – it showed a complete lack of understanding of current trends in the country.

In short, we are still dealing with a formalistic mindset, amongst the vast majority of those who theorize about politics, which harks back to the ideals of the nineties. It is true that Mrs Kumaratunga brought forward in 2000 proposals for constitutional change that went far towards empowering those Tamil politicians who were working together with the LTTE at the time. But they rejected the proposals as being inadequate, doubtless on the instructions of the LTTE, while the main opposition party rejected them for racist reasons. And it is precisely those two groups, and these two alone, which hark back to those proposals. Why they should suppose the rest of the country, having decisively rejected them in the polls, should now adopt their ideas baffles me.

On the contrary, if they really were concerned about the Tamil people, all of them, including those who support other political parties, they should work on the lines the President has sketched out to improve the provisions of the 13th amendment. He had consistently said that he would like a political dispensation based on 13 plus, but this has received no positive response from his erstwhile and continuing critics in Sri Lanka. As noted above, they pretend they have no real interest in a Senate, even while agitating for a change of government at the Centre and the abolition of the Executive Presidency.

My own view is that they should start, basing themselves on the proposals of the APRC, by looking carefully into the powers currently conferred by the 13th amendment on the various layers of government, and attempt to remove all ambiguities and encourage positive usage of the powers that already exist. There is for instance a concurrent list, which currently it seems Provinces do not work on at all. It would not take much discussion to extract from this areas in which the Province should have priority, and transfer these to the Provincial list. Similarly, in areas in which unforeseen complications have arisen, such as with regard to police powers – where in fact the 17th amendment seriously affected the powers of the Province, with no objection at the time from anyone – it should not be difficult to reach consensus so as to ensure that the policing of communities comes under provinces whereas matters pertaining to national security remain with the centre.

I hasten to add that these are simply my own suggestions, and I am sure all stakeholders will have different priorities. But instead of serious discussion about practicalities that will make life easier for the people in the North, we are still debating theoretical issues on lines laid down one and two decades back.

It should also be recognized that, if the current pace of development is to continue, there is need for leadership from the government. With regard for instance to issues discussed at the recent India-Sri Lanka Dialogue organized by the Asian Institute for Transport Development, taking things forward with regard to cooperation as to transport and energy, and encouraging better trade relations, requires central government action. I cannot understand then why we are not also working on ensuring better representation for the regions in decision making at the centre, whilst also tightening up the provisions of the 13th amendment so as to ensure a better deal for the regions in areas in which decisions are obviously better made locally.

In this respect it should be noted however that our decision making mechanisms require considerable improvement. Whilst it has been heartening to see the manner in which senior administrators in the North are taking a lead in rehabilitation and reconstruction, junior officials require much more training and confidence building to contribute actively to development. In a sense this is true of the country at large, where the Administrative Service suffers from a lack of soft skills and training in problem solving and decision making, but the situation is worse in the areas in which the LTTE prevented any initiatives that did not lead to their own idiosyncratic goals. Hence indeed the absurdity of one Foreign Head of an NGO, when asked what were the capacities they had developed through the enormous funds devoted to that purpose (since it seemed that there was little to show for this, and much had been absorbed by the LTTE’s war budget), replying that they had taught the villagers to boil water before drinking it.

In short, my stress on Human Resources Development extends also to the public service. Unless and until we develop capacity there, it will not make sense to speak of devolution at an enhanced level. In encouraging relevant officials then to use the powers the Constitution already bestows, we must bear in mind the need to train them in taking initiatives, based on clear goals and measurable targets.

I would therefore urge all those who have the interests of the Sri Lankan people at heart to think in terms of holistic solutions, and not dwell only on constructs that are based on ancient and no longer always relevant foundations. The people of the areas concerned should be our priority, and we need therefore to promote prosperity for them as well as the capacity to participate fully in the economic and political life of the country. They should be empowered to take advantage of the new opportunities peace brings, and also to contribute to creating new opportunities themselves. In the process they will be the best check on the excesses of politicians, local as well as national, who must be prevented from repeating the mistakes of the first half century after independence.