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Serious thought needs to be given to the issue of political power-sharing

Nov 28, 2010 6:49:34 PM- transcurrents.com

by Kalana Senaratne

The most significant political achievement of President Mahinda Rajapaksa during his tenure as President of Sri Lanka (since 2005) has been the indubitable and unprecedented leadership he gave to ensure the defeat of the LTTE terrorist group. It was a most significant and commendable achievement, and while there were many others who contributed to this in large measure, the armed conflict could not have been successfully concluded in the absence of President Rajapaksa’s leadership.

It is with reference to this fact that any assessment of President Rajapaksa should commence. In this regard, one has to agree with some of the views expressed by Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka, who argued that in evaluating President Rajapaksa factors such as the context in which he assumed power, the situation he inherited and how he improved that situation need to be taken into account: i.e. "an evaluation of a political leader needs to be historically concrete" (Has record of achievement of the Rajapaksa Presidency been in the main positive or negative? -www.transcurrents.com)

Yet, our assessment of President Rajapaksa is a continuing one. It is not only about what he did, but also about what he is doing and what he intends doing, too. The story of ‘President Rajapaksa’ began in 2005, but it did not end in May 2009; and in this regard it is a mistake to imagine, as some would claim, that the single most important mandate he received during his first term was to defeat the LTTE.

Even if one is to believe in that claim, it needs to be remembered that President Rajapaksa did not stop with the defeat of the LTTE. The story that the regime tries to narrate - that President Rajapaksa’s first term was dedicated to the defeat of the LTTE, and his second term will be dedicated towards development – can be a very misleading one. Because this seems to be a subtle attempt to erase off that crucial period between the end of the armed conflict (May 2009) and the beginning of the ‘new’ term (November 2010).

It is during this ‘interim’ period that one witnessed the hasty introduction of the 18th Amendment which showed that President Rajapaksa, sadly, had got his national priorities mixed up. The 18th Amendment did not simply remove the term-limit of a President; it also introduced provisions which went against the spirit of the 17th Amendment (ways of retaining the spirit of the 17th Amendment – i.e. the need to ensure greater independence - while modifying the workability of the 17th Amendment, was what should have taken place). This was not a simple amendment to the Constitution. It meant a lot for President Rajapaksa, and it expressed (constitutionally) his true intentions, reminding us of what he once told Al-Jazeera; that he was confident of winning again.

Hence, our assessment of President Rajapaksa ought to take note of not only the supreme role he played as the leader of the nation, but also his motives and moves concerning issues relating to governance and constitutional making. Once the above perspective is factored in, one is able to form a clearer image of where we are, as a nation, as a democracy; and where we are heading. And we would also be able to see what truly lies beneath the grand swearing-in ceremony; a ‘new’ symbolic beginning of an old term, which viewed from the perspective of the innocent citizens who supported him, began somewhere in January 2010. For the people, what matters is the re-election and what he does from that day, not what the Constitution says about the date on which that re-elected President’s second term begins. Therefore, it is necessary to remember that period, between May 2009 (or Jan. 2010) and November 2010, just as much as one remembers the period between November 2005 and May 2009.

What now? Much has been written about this question ever since the armed conflict came to an end. A reiteration is not necessary. Apart from the views expressed by President Rajapaksa in his important speech of 19 November 2010 (and the importance of ensuring development of the country), it is time for President Rajapaksa to take a more statesman-like approach to issues of nation building in this ‘post-war’ era. In this regard, there is one important aspect which will define the remainder of President Rajapaksa’s second term. That concerns the way in which President Rajapaksa, during this largely non-violent era, tolerates and accommodates the non-violent expression of views and dissent within the country.

President Rajapaksa stated, admirably, that: "We have the inherited wisdom to tolerate all opinion and take mature decisions. We have a tradition of understanding our problems and conflicts and finding solutions for them." It is precisely the true nature of this "inherited wisdom to tolerate opinion" and take decisions and provide solutions acceptable to all the people within the State that will be crucial for the progressive development of Sri Lanka. Will President Rajapaksa promote, or help build a nation which tolerates, "critical questioning over mindless submission"? (as pointed out by Sanjana Hattotuwa in an article titled ‘Nation Building ‘Post-War’, Groundviews).

This question becomes most critical when considering the views expressed by many on the issue of devolution and power-sharing, especially after May 2009. The debate on power-sharing is bound to re-emerge (if it has not, already) and the nature of this debate will test whether we are a people who could tolerate the views of those who hold such divergent and opposing views, on a controversial, delicate and emotive issue (an issue which should not be so, especially after the defeat of the separatist LTTE). Statements made by President Rajapaksa (i.e. his views on devolution, expressed during the interview with N. Ram of The Hindu), and by the Indian Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna (about the usefulness and necessity of devolution of powers for a lasting solution to the Sri Lankan problem) point out clearly that serious thought needs to be given to the issue of political power-sharing. One need not certainly rush; simply because the Indian Foreign Minister had issued a statement. But ‘devolution’ is matter which cannot be ignored.

President Rajapaksa is taking an extremely cautious approach. Yet, he does seem to accept that there needs to be a discussion on the broader topic of devolution; not only with the Tamil politicians but also the Tamil people. He has not totally rejected the relevance of devolution. That, one believes, is a positive sign. But President Rajapaksa would also realize that gauging the wishes of the people would necessary involve listening to their elected representatives. The views of those elected representatives of the people cannot be ignored.

The debate on devolution is an old debate. What is necessary is a new approach; a less antagonistic approach, and one which attempts to unite, and not divide, the people. And tolerance, here, would need to be shown by all parties; by those who do not support devolution, and those who do. That would be a hopeful beginning.

(The writer is a postgraduate research student at the University of Hong Kong)