"When there are many challenges because of past political blunders, the post-war government is concerned mainly about safeguarding the military victory gained resolutely in 2009 and the resultant popularity"
By Dr. S. Narapalasingam
According to recent media reports, the Indian Ministry of Home Affairs has sent alert messages to Indian security officials that the LTTE cadres in Tamil Nadu are conspiring to carry out attacks targeting VVIPs during the State election time. The Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of the ruling Congress Party and the present Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, M. Karunanidhi who is the leader of DMK were said to be the targets of the LTTE cadres.
Prime Minister D.M. Jayaratne participates in a religious event invoking blessings on the President, Government and the people at the Ruwanweli Seya, Anuradhapura - file pic-by daily news.lk
But the Tamil Nadu Director General of Police, Letika Saran has denied LTTE presence and has dismissed the warning as baseless. (Upul Joseph Fernando - ‘Prabha’s ghost haunts Tamil Nadu elections’ in the Daily Mirror 23 February 2011).
This sudden allegation is connected with the political situation there which is unfavourable for the DMK and Congress to win the forthcoming State election. Hence the need for tactical moves by concerned leaders to earn the sympathy of the Tamil Nadu voters. The opposition party ADMK led by J. Jayalalitha has accused the DMK leader of collaboration with New Delhi that helped the Sri Lanka Government to destroy the Tamil Tigers. Although the alleged LTTE threat is patchy in Tamil Nadu, it has become useful to the Sri Lankan government in executing its agenda.
Citing this ‘intelligence information’, Prime Minister D. M. Jayaratna told Parliament on March 9 that the LTTE was attempting to raise its head once again. He said that the LTTE is being trained to assassinate Tamil Nadu politicians and the LTTE activists V. Rudrakumaran in the US, Nediyawan in Norway and Vinayagam in India are involved in funding these operations. He warned that the Tigers may attempt to carry out small scale attacks in Sri Lanka as well. In the parliamentary debate in Sri Lanka, the opposition leader Ranil Wickramasinghe dismissed this warning which he said was aimed at giving a reason to extend the State of Emergency. He called on the government to remove the emergency regulations in the country.
Power politics in Sri Lanka
The recurrent contest for power in Sri Lanka has been mainly for the benefit of the victors and their associates. This has been the dominant game since independence. The losers were the ordinary people in all parts of the island, as successive contests failed to bring about tangible benefits to all the people and the country. The consolidation of diverse communities for national unity, promotion of national development exploiting the available resources in all parts of the island gainfully and the avoidance of causing damage to the territorial integrity of the island were not the main aims of the political leaders competing for power. Moreover, the myopic supporters also ignored the foul methods used to win power by the contestants. From the past experience, it is evident that the benefits from this regular contest for power have not been widespread regardless of its outcome.
The SLFP whose leader is President Rajapaksa is the dominant party in the present coalition government that has two-thirds majority in the Parliament. It has come up with the notion of a new opponent posing a threat to post-war recovery. At a press briefing on March 1, the SLFP alleged that in spite of the LTTE’s defeat in May 2009, those promoting separatist sentiments hadn’t given up their operations. The belief that the country could still be divided on ethnic lines has not vanished from the minds of some disgruntled members in the opposition. It was also alleged sections opposed to the post-war government are “acting at the behest of several countries”. (Source: Shamindra Ferdinando, 'The Island' 3 March 2011). Apparently, there is some apprehension that the political opponents are trying to snatch the power of the present regime by some means. This not only shows the paramount importance given to safeguarding the acquired power than to the needs of the people and the nation but also the reliance on the ethnic factor in the power struggle. There is no clear indication yet of the way government intends to prevent the division of the island along ethnic lines.
Who is playing politics at the expense of the country, which has been the acrimonious political game since the 1956 contest between the two main rival parties, the grand old UNP and the SLFP founded by the UNP dissident S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike? It is very astonishing for the government with two-thirds majority and the main opposition party in disarray due to internal power struggle to be concerned more about its hold on power than the basic issues that affect the living conditions of the suffering people and the future of the island nation. The fact that politics in Sri Lanka is focused mainly on power is very clear from recent contradictory moves. The contradictions are not confined to the anomalies between statements and actions or rather inaction. Some moves are momentary gestures intended to pacify powerful parties abroad urging the Sri Lankan government to settle the ethnic conflict soon by devolving governing powers to the provinces.
The ineffectiveness of the commissions and committees set up by governments to consider awkward issues is widely known now. The latest instance is the four-member committee including 3 ministers set up to have structured dialogue with the main Tamil political group, the TNA. Following the last-minute postponement of the February 28 scheduled meeting indefinitely, TNA has charged that the discussions were sham as the structured arrangement for dialogue was to pacify the international community, notably India. Jaffna district TNA MP, Suresh Premachandran also alleged that misleading statement had been made during the talks by the government delegation on the availability of the list of names of the detainees in camps located in various places. Distressed Tamils do not know whether their missing family members are dead or forcibly detained under special regulations.
On the contradiction between statements and actions, ‘The Island’ editorial (1March 2011) opined: “ President Mahinda Rajapaksa, in his Independence Day speech last month, stressed the need for creating a law abiding society to achieve national progress. He must practise what he preaches. The onus is on him to ensure that the UPFA thugs are kept on a tight leash, especially in Hambantota, where attacks on the JVP and other Opposition activists are on the rise” The uncontrolled escalation of violence is associated with the culture of impunity that grew in the recent past.
The undemocratic and unethical ways of acquiring the sovereign power of the people to govern the country on their behalf also damaged the honourable culture of the Sri Lankan society. The admirable ways of rendering selfless services to the people and thereby win their hearts and minds are alien to the country’s political culture. In fact, the despicable methods are contrary to the canons of all the four religions of the different communities in the island. Sadly, those who use Buddhism for gaining power, ignore the noble teachings of Lord Buddha when exercising the political power. The Daily Mirror reported on 8 March 2011 that at the news meeting addressed by the priests of the National Bhikku Front, they called for good governance and save the Rs. 2.9 billion being wasted annually because of corruption. This will enable the government to provide some relief to the suffering millions which in turn will commemorate the 2600th Sambuddha Jayanthiya fittingly. The National Bhikku Front Patron Ven. Attthagane Ratanapala Thera also said “those who advised the rulers of the country should provide effective guidelines for the government to run the nation in an exemplary manner. He explained that the government had failed to make use of the guidelines given in the Dhamma and the example set by the ancient rulers of the nation”.
Relativism instead of realism
The main parties in the contest sought the support of the members of ethnic majority that outnumbered those of the ethnic minorities in the entire island but not in all the provinces. In the North and East the demographic makeup is completely different. Political ideologies, social justice, democratic principles and values including equality of all citizens, regardless of their ethnic, regional and religious connections have been downplayed by the power seekers. The emphasis was solely on the size of the different communities in the various provinces. This in turn resulted in the misinterpretation of the ‘island nation’ as ‘Sinhala nation’, contrary to the traditional demographic and regional configuration of the island. Instead of accepting the settlement pattern well known to have existed for the past several centuries, some are focusing on the historical time it emerged! To them this is crucial for deciding the devolution issue! Had the developed countries distinguished between original and subsequent settlers, they would not be in their current stable and developed state.
Britain granted independence in 1948 on terms agreed by all the island’s ethnic communities. In fact, only after Britain captured the Kandyan Kingdom in 1815, the entire island came under one central rule. Yet the social division Kandyan Sinhalese and low-country Sinhalese continued. Since there was no linguistic or religious difference, their integration for centralized rule was not difficult. The 1956 ‘Sinhala Only Act’, the State sponsored colonization schemes and the media-wise standardisation of marks for university admissions did not affect the two Sinhala groups. More than religion, the two different native languages stood in the way for the integration of ethnic communities. The realistic way is to make suitable structural adjustments that eliminate the obstacles to unification.
Sri Lanka adopted the British model ignoring the diverse languages, traditional settlements of different ethnic communities and their aspirations. The British and Lankan societies also differ in their outlooks. The myopic decision to abandon English completely and teach students all subjects exclusively in their mother tongues was a terrible mistake. The present leaders have belatedly realised the harm done five decades ago. The society’s narrow outlook is also related to the school curricula and teaching methods. Undue importance is given to legends and feudal disputes as if these have relevance in the modern world. Moreover, the segregated education system reinforced the ethnic division. Education is one among many sectors that need significant reforms for Sri Lanka’s rapid advancement in the modern world. Unlike in multi-ethnic liberal Britain, the highly centralized power structure in Sri Lanka has made democracy the same as majoritarianism (rule of the majority ethnic group). The majoritarian politics is based on relativism and not realism. Hence it is in conflict with the basic concept of equal rights and freedom in democratic plural societies.
Division based on elitism was exploited by the British rulers for facilitating their rule. The situation then was entirely different and the colonial rulers had no interest in building a robust unified nation. Paradoxically, the exploitation of the ethnic division by the power seekers in the sovereign island for realizing their political ambitions has prevented realizing unity in diversity. The common Ceylonese identity that prevailed at the time of independence waned rapidly after 1972. The discriminatory ways the Sinhala majority governments functioned caused the decline.
Consequences of ethnic and party politics
The dual nation concept gained strength because of the divisive politics pursued for gaining power. The exclusion of the Tamil ethnic minority that has been an important constituent of the island nation after independence from the decision-making process, particularly on matters relevant to their security, well-being and future instigated the idea of a distinct Tamil nation in the serene multi-ethnic island. A section of the Tamil separatists thought they could achieve their aim by furthering this division exploited by the power seekers. To the LTTE leadership and ardent followers, the end and not the means mattered. Those seeking power and glory thoughtlessly have a good lesson from this reckless approach. The means are equally important as the end sought, particularly when humans are involved. Also in the modern world, no country can prosper in isolation. Interdependence is intrinsic to the global economy.
Some are questioning the means and not the victory gained in the war against the LTTE separatists/terrorists. Anyway, the May 2009 military victory is being exploited to the maximum for narrow political gain. Besides the mismatch of the centralized decision-making system with the ground realities, the flawed structure was bent to facilitate the misuse of power. Many problems confronting the ordinary people and the nation are due to this distortion.
The myopically governed island damaged further by the ruthless war needs reforms in almost all fields of governance. The war was the pretext for abandoning some basic tenets of policing, rule of law, good governance and democracy but the extent of the violations was excessive beyond reasonable limits. The violations of human rights and international humanitarian law by the despotic LTTE were horrendous but these did not justify the democratically elected and internationally recognized bodies to act inhumanly. Although there are lessons to be learnt, the fundamental fact is the tragic events could have been avoided had the government and opposition leaders thoughtfully agreed to settle the issues instead of allowing them to damage national unity and endanger the territorial integrity of the sovereign State. In some instances the main opposition party obstructed the government’s move to settle issues through constitutional reforms. The August 2000 episode is a case in point. It is amazing after all the tragic experiences since 1958 when the first violent attack against the Tamils started in the post-independence island, the post-war government has no desire to settle politically these issues. Apparently, the military victory has given the confidence that these could be suppressed by other means.
When there are many challenges because of past political blunders, the post-war government is concerned mainly about safeguarding the military victory gained resolutely in 2009 and the resultant popularity. Even here the methods used are undemocratic and risky. The considered way through reforms of the present inefficient systems so as to make them accessible and beneficial to all citizens is not in sight.
Addressing a gathering at the Kurunegala District Secretariat’s auditorium organised by the Wayamba Province Sri Lanka Freedom Party Professionals with the intention of initiating a dialogue on the country’s current situation and the role of the professionals in the upcoming local elections, the External Affairs Minister, Prof. G.L.Peiris is reported to have said, “defending and safeguarding the victory achieved under the leadership of President Mahinda Rajapaksa (who is also the head of the SLFP), overcoming many obstacles, and confining the dark period which spanned across three decades to history, has become the major challenge we face today and that the government should not be left to overcome this challenge by itself and there is no better group to help this cause by creating the much needed and strong awareness of the people than the professionals of this society”.
The reason for seeking the assistance of the professionals is evident from the following statement. “...., even though the LTTE was defeated militarily, paving the way for a peaceful society, both local and foreign groups linked to the LTTE are trying to destroy the country’s economy and organise opposition to Sri Lanka, and it is the duty and responsibility of the professionals of our society to impart information about these threats in order to defeat them”. (The Nation 20 February 2011).
Columnist, Shakunthala Perera in the Daily Mirror 2 March 2011 has also warned of the global games of the Tamil Diaspora’. She has indirectly reprimanded Sri Lanka’s foreign Embassies and High Commissions in the West for ignoring the anti-national activities of some Tamils in the Diaspora. To quote: “The continued activism of the Tamil Diaspora in certain key western destinations should warn us against the danger of the lukewarm attitude our own foreign service has allowed for”. She seems to be surprised that effective bans against the LTTE as a terror group have not discouraged some groups in the Diaspora to continue advocating the separatist agenda. The LTTE was banned because of their terror campaign and not for demanding a separate self-governing State. If the Sri Lankan government puts forward an alternative political structure that empowers the powerless ethnic minorities, it will inevitably end the irksome campaign of the few stubborn separatists in the Diaspora.
When there are many challenges to overcome determinedly in post-war Sri Lanka, the focus of some Sinhala ‘patriots’ is mainly on the separatist challenge, which like many others is the legacy of the neglect and ethnically discriminatory actions of past governments. The many challenges confronting the island nation cannot be overcome by overplaying the separatist challenge which as stated earlier is linked to the inapt political system that denies any meaningful role for the ethnic minorities in governance and not to any ideology per se. The biased system is also very weak without the usual separation of powers of the legislature, executive and the judiciary, checks and balances, mechanisms to ensure the independence of the executive and judicial branches, free and fair elections, the observance of human rights, the rule of law, good governance, accountability of ministers and senior executives in the public sector and prevent bribery and corruption and the abuse of administrative powers for personal or some other improper purpose. These characteristics are fundamental to a functioning democracy.
Ad hoc development under strengthened centralized regime is not the way to lasting peace and socio-economic advancement.
The fact that the weaknesses in the present system harm all regardless of their ethnicity is reiterated by the Sunday Times columnist KIshali Pinto Jayawardene, who is also an attorney in her article titled ‘Pressing for improved democracy in Sri Lanka’ in the March 6 issue of the paper. To quote: “the defects in Sri Lanka’s justice systems are not limited in their reach to the minorities or to a particular administration. Instead, these defects are historic, endemic and systemic and have resulted in grievous wrongs to both the majority and the minorities”. The judicial system also needs suitable changes for efficient dispensation of justice without undue delay and cost to the victims, which is the case now.
People are fully aware of the need for permanent peace, good governance, continued impartial enforcement of law and order, justice, observance of human rights and media freedom, individual and collective security and social welfare. It is the self-centred politicians who mislead and deceive the society for their own benefits. From the long-term perspective the military victory is best safeguarded by reforming the corrupt system structurally and functionally to serve all the people efficiently not only with regard to their present needs but also in fulfilling their justifiable aspirations.
The dependence on the military for governing is visible more in the Northern and Eastern provinces than in other parts of the island, where the military is performing civil duties. Although the armed LTTE have been annihilated, the victors seem to be in need of a substitute to justify the continuation of the military might and the high-handed methods used during the war. This approach is dangerous as evident from the recent disturbances in several authoritarian regimes. Conviction, determination and courage are needed to achieve significant progress in all fields vital for steady human and economic development and lasting unity and peace.
Voice of rational Sri Lankans
Rational Sri Lankans have suggested the realistic ways of overcoming the many challenges confronting the island nation. The way forward suggested by two eminent Sri Lankans has been praised by many discerning persons. The views of former Foreign Secretary and later Head of SL Permanent Mission to the United Nations H. M. G. S. Palihakkara, who is now a member of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) were expressed in his J. E. Jayasuriya memorial lecture on ‘The Post Conflict Foreign Policy Challenges for Sri Lanka’ delivered on the 14th of February. The other diplomat, Jayantha Dhanapala in his public lecture early February sponsored by the Citizen’s Movement for Good Governance (CIMOGG) explained how an energised civil society could promote good governance. The citations of their statements here are from the newspaper articles of Shanie in ‘The Island’ of 12 and 10 February and of former Sri Lankan Ambassador K. Godage in the ‘Daily Mirror’ of 3 March 2011.
Jayantha Dhanapala gave several reasons for the Sri Lankan civil society not being more effective in ensuring good governance in the country. One was “the heavy politicization of society over six decades of the practice of partisan politics that every participant in public life and every opinion expressed is viewed through the prism of party politics. We no longer appreciate the fact that honest men and women can disagree and that dissent is a necessary feature in democratic society. Successive governments have adopted the posture that If you are not for us; you are against us".
The reason behind this is the confiscation of the responsibility of civil and religious leaders by avaricious politicians, who wished to portray themselves as the guides and guardians of the people. Moreover, the direct involvement of some Buddhist priests in competitive power politics did not help to separate the political and general social responsibilities.
The post-independence school curriculum did not induce awareness amongst students of the duties and responsibilities of civil society in democratic governance. In fact the secondary school students are not taught ethics and social responsibilities. Recognition of the rights and duties of citizens in democratic societies is closely related to the understanding of the basic principles of true democracy which is not simple majority rule. The concept of civil society as one entity with common interests did not gain strength because of the inaction to forge a durable relationship between communities based on equal rights and justice.
The main political parties competing for governing power had no genuine interest in promoting and protecting civil liberties. All the main players preferred the people to be ignorant of their democratic rights and duties. This enabled them to make drastic changes to the Constitution that gave carte blanche to the rulers. The civil society had no role in making these changes that weakened democracy in Sri Lanka after independence. This process accelerated after the creation of the powerful Executive Presidency.
K. Godage in his acclaim of aforementioned Palihakkara’s lecture cited the lecturer’s remark: “When domestic processes, fail to find solutions to domestic problems, external prescriptions become inevitable. You create space for external forces to advocate and even impose solutions for the latter’s political or strategic convenience, be it from a regional power or from extra regional powers”. This has been the case during the past several decades when successive governments failed to seek a political settlement to the ethnic problem created by political leaders anxious about their political than the nation’s future. Furthermore, Palihakkara’s observation that “the first contributor is a consistent pattern of leadership failures in Sri Lanka for which all successive governments and all democratic political parties since independence must bear responsibility” is definitely as Godage has said, “a thought provoking, unambiguous recognition of realities and failures of our leaders and policy makers”.
It is a shame the dishonest and irresponsible ways the leaders functioned corrupted the minds of Sri Lankan youths. The damage done to the traditional culture of both the Sinhalese and Tamil societies can also be attributed to the recourse to violence and coercion by politicians and of course terrorism of the rebels. The nexus of some politicians to the underworld is well known. The post 1983 terrorism that destroyed many innocent lives and properties did not erupt suddenly in a calm and friendly environment. No sensible person will deny its connection to the series of past violent events which occurred with the patronage of powerful politicians.
Ambassador Palihakkara’s suggestions on the ways of overcoming the challenges confronting post-war Sri Lanka which are due to the blunders of the national leadership and the lack of will of the successors to correct past mistakes are definitely unbiased and sensible without any narrow political motive. The practice of seizing anything hastily without forethought for short-term political gain must cease now, if Sri Lanka is to emerge soon as a tranquil and promising island. Now the mood of triumphalism that prevailed in the months after the May 2009 military victory in the war against the LTTE has diminished, the present leadership is looking for an effective substitute that is politically useful. New threats to Sri Lanka are perceived from the dismayed Tamil Diaspora and others critical of the government. They can be silenced by improving the efficacy of the political system in a way acceptable to all the communities in plural Sri Lanka.
Instead of looking for exploitable entities, as is sadly the case now bold moves with foresight are needed for transforming Sri Lanka as a truly democratic socialist State, amiable for all residents. The post-war political situation has given the singular opportunity to act in the interest of the future well-being of the people and the country. On the contrary, the post-war happenings are creating a politically hostile environment favourable for resuming the usual confrontational politics. On the issue of the Tamil Diaspora, Palihakkara has suggested the speedy implementation of projects to address the grievances and the real concerns of the ethnic minorities. “When local actions progressively become responsive and relevant to minority grievances, the hostile Diaspora will become gradually irrelevant”. The reluctance to settle the ethnic issue is clearly politically motivated risking the internal unity and the country’s future which also depends on Sri Lanka’s international standing. Foreign aid and trade will remain crucial for the well-being of the island nation.
Liberal intellectuals and professionals for reforms
Although late, formation of the ‘National Intellectuals and Professionals Organization’ is very valuable. The organization’s objectives were explained by the speakers at the inaugural convention held on 26 February 2011 at the New Town Hall in Colombo.
Counsel Karunaratne Herath, who chaired the meeting said: “There are intellectuals and professionals in all parts of the island. However, they do not play any role in the social structure. Instead, politicians, who do not have any education have wriggled into the social structure and are demolishing it. These politicians have been able to cast aside intellectuals and professionals. As such, there is no law in the country today. The law of the country now is the jungle law as those responsible for the judicial matters in the country do not carry out their task honestly. Sri Lanka is the only country that violates and makes mockery of the Constitution. Hence, the ‘National Intellectuals and Professionals Organization’ has something more to fulfil than mere amassing intellectuals and professionals. They should break loose from being regressive and act to commence the process of changing this society.”
In his keynote address, Prof. Kumar David said: “National Intellectuals and Professionals Organization should become the vanguard to overcome challenges and change the society”. He hoped the Organization would break the silence of the society in Sri Lanka. The Organization’s new President Dr. J.D. Dias, specialist eye surgeon said, “the task of the intellectuals and professionals should be to emancipate the masses from their distressed state”. The elected Secretary, senior lecturer Dr. Rohan Fernando in his speech said: “Working individually or separately would not have any benefits to the society. Despite seeking solutions for issues they have not been successful”. He also said: “We should attempt to find solutions for issues as intellectuals and professionals by joining our forces, experiences and abilities. Hence, the step we are taking today is a very important one and one with a strong will. What commences today is the process of changing the society with the mediation of intellectuals and professionals.”
The other office-bearers are: Treasurer - Chartered Accountant Sunil Gamage; Vice President - Geologist Jayakody; Asst. Secretary- Ayurveda Dr. Ms. H.S. Shantahilatha; and National Organizer - Dr. Susil Ranasinghe of Anuradhapura General Hospital. It will be useful if the liberal intellectuals and professionals in the Diaspora too join in this restructuring process. The citizenry has been used as a mere tool by the crafty politicians for achieving their narrow aims denying the liberal intellectuals and professionals not involved in party politics any useful role in the national integration and development processes. Development here includes all fields that improve the present living conditions and the prospect for peaceful and prosperous future for the younger generation
The quandary now is because of the lack of interest of the government in settling many outstanding issues, contrary to the common desire of the anxious Sri Lankans tired of living in a hopeless state because of the lack of unity, real peace and significant socio-economic development. It is a mystery that the leadership is going mainly for infrastructural development with the intent to attract foreign tourists, ignoring other problems that continue to affect the living conditions of the vast majority citizens including those living outside the former war zone. There is definitely an urgent need for all similar non-governmental organizations functioning separately to join as partners in the move to bring about the changes vital for the removal of the man-made constraints that obstructed unity, peace, good governance, social justice and meaningful regional and national development.
The importance of creating and sustaining the basic conditions for ensuring the benefits of development are long-lasting and the need for the society to be pro-active has also been emphasized by Dr Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, Executive Director -Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA). In his speech accepting the ‘first Citizens Peace Award’, 28 February 2011 he cited the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Professor Amartya Sen’s reflection on real development revealed by him recently at a conference in New Delhi. “Development without a firm base within a rights perspective and paradigm is inherently risky and inherently dangerous”. Prof. Sen also made the point that the ability of all citizens to discuss the public interest, the public good and public policy is fundamental to a functioning democracy. This raises another vital question which has been overlooked by those concerned about the isolation of the civil society in the affairs of the State. What kind of democracy the people want? Is it the presently distorted one? Hopefully, this confusion will also be cleared sooner than later.
Let me conclude this article reminding Dr. Saravanamuttu’s call for the action of all sensible citizens as one society. To quote: “When we look at what is happening in this country, we really do need to remind ourselves that unless we as a society and we as citizens recommit ourselves to saving what is precious and valuable and worthwhile in this country, we have no right to talk in terms of patriotism, national interest or public interest. We need to act”. (Ref. TransCurrents 9 March 2011).