Sri Lanka at Crossroads: Struggle for Democracy is the Way Ahead
There are all indications that politics in Sri Lanka has come to a new stage; sort of cross roads or crisis. The government has terribly stumbled on several policy and political issues, leaving the impression that it has lost or is losing momentum and leadership. There is new polarization on the ethnic front simmering underneath or even on the surface.
The government was not following a proper democratic path from the beginning, and if that was understandable during the war time (2006-2009), it is not the case after the end of the war. Things have become much worse since then for no excuse. The 18th Amendment was a turning point.
After the war, reconciliation should have been the first priority. This is apart from economic targets or ‘Wonder of Asia.’ No one disagrees with having economic targets for development whether all are realistic or not.
But that is not a substitute for reconciliation or other political issues such as reinstating democracy after a long drawn out war. For reconciliation to begin there should be a political solution or even an arrangement. At least the elections should have been held for the Northern Provincial Council without delay. More you delay more you create problems. Proper negotiations should have been initiated with the TNA whatever the difficulties. That was not done.
The government first stumbled on the issue of the UNHRC resolution. The failure to understand the difference between 2009 and 2012 was the main reason. Immediately after the justified war in 2009, majority of the international community or the UNHRC was not ready to condemn Sri Lanka. In addition, the Ambassador in Geneva was highly skilled in bringing a broad coalition in support of the country. But no country believed that terrorism was the only problem behind the conflict in Sri Lanka. They only wanted to give Sri Lanka a chance for reconciliation and human rights. This does not necessarily mean that all countries vote purely considering human rights issues. There are other interests involved.
The situation in 2012 was different. It was not a failure of the new Ambassador in Geneva. She was only caught up in a bad strategy from Colombo. It may be correct to argue that the report of the LLRC was only out in November 2011. That was the subject of the resolution.
Therefore, you need more time. But the countries primarily voted at the UNHRC considering Sri Lanka’s performance since 2009 on reconciliation and human rights. Even those who voted against the resolution, in solidarity with Sri Lanka, emphasised the necessity for improvements.
Now after the resolution, the foreign policy or diplomacy has gone to the other extreme. The government has virtually sacked the Ambassador in Geneva as the scapegoat. Sending to diplomatic ‘Siberia’ is as good or bad as sacking. The Minister has presented an Action Plan for LLRC implementation to the US which is not presented in Parliament or to the people. It is argued that instead of ‘offensive diplomacy’ ‘defensive diplomacy’ should be the strategy.
There is no diplomacy called ‘offensive’ or ‘defensive.’ Diplomacy should be for national interests, at times ‘assertive’ and at times ‘compromising’ depending on the circumstances.
Apparently under international pressure, the jailed former army commander, Sarath Fonseka, is finally released. It is a good thing. He should not have been jailed in the first place. People in general were not sympathetic to his imprisonment and it undoubtedly created a dip in the regime’s popularity. He was charged not only once but several times. He was the bete-noir of the President. The release has created more political damage to the regime than his imprisonment. The political vindictiveness is exposed. The release is also seen as a growing weakness of the regime. The arbitrary imprisonment and equally arbitrary release of both Fonseka and Tissanayagam have raised questions about the rule of law, integrity of the President and independence of the judiciary.
Sri Lanka has again come to cross roads on the ethnic front as well. First it was Dilithura communal violence and then Dambulla mosque attack. There is no question that the keynote speech by R. Sampanthan at the ITAK congress has created new barriers to the reconciliation process. No one can ignore it. The Sinhala extremists are jubilant over his statement to prove their points. But he is not the only one who is trying to reinvent the ethnic conflict wheel again. Many statements by the Defence Secretary are clearly disturbing virtually dictating terms to the Tamil community. One wonders whether he has joined the JHU. More than his statements, what is happening on the ground in Jaffna and in other parts of the North according to credible reports are disturbing. The Tamil people are coerced on all fronts.
There are so much of other problems that perhaps skipped the minds of the general public particularly during the war. They are related to democracy, defined in its broadest sense of the term to include economic justice as well. After the war, people first wanted to enjoy the apparent ‘peace,’ gratify the government and give a chance for improvements. Now three years have elapsed.
There is no doubt that the economy is still improving. As one Minister himself said, when there is the (Asian) tide, all boats are lifted. There is no particular magic about it although the economic management is not particularly bad in my opinion. What is bad is the waste and misuse of economic resources by the politicians. This is happening top to bottom, from national institutions to local government. There is favouritism and political restrictions on business. Not only politicians but some of their appointed bureaucrats are the culprits.
A recent example is the now aborted share deal between the National Savings Bank (NSB) and The Finance Company (TFC). When the market share was around Rs. 30, the NSB was ready to buy 13 per cent of equity for Rs. 50 per share from the TFC. Some politicians must be behind this deal. What was intended was to misuse the savings of the public. It is true that public enterprises are not sold under the present regime, but they are misused. Mihinlanka was one example. The culprits were not punished but rewarded.
There was a spate of price hikes recently. That was only a symptom. Although the overall per capita income is increasing, the benefits are not evenly distributed among the people. Some get more than the others. This is not only a problem of capitalism. In addition, measures are not taken for fair income redistribution. The welfare measures are only basic. Much could be improved if there is will. Priority is given for tamashas, but not for actual projects. What is necessary is not only to give jobs in the public sector, but to create opportunities and a climate for people to engage in their own productive enterprises and businesses. That is how the development could be sustained.
Most depressing is the apparent corruption going on at all levels. There are credible reports from the transparency international. On the corruption index, Sri Lanka is in the 86th position in 2011 out of 183 countries. It is bad as Panama or Bulgaria. Corruption in politics or at political level, what is most prevalent in Sri Lanka, is not properly counted in this index. Ordinary people are the most knowledgeable about this matter.
The political scene is steadily deteriorating. The antiques of Mervyn Silva are still going on with blessings from the highest authority. Otherwise he could not be a Minister or even a MP.
Instead of removal, he is the Minister for Public Relations! The murder of Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra reveals another aspect of the regime. Apart from external violence, there is internal violence. Within the broad UPFA coalition and even within the SLFP, the Rajapaska family and close associates control the reins of power. Any dissent is coerced through various means.
Although the security establishment is boasted as professional, there are so much of unresolved killings and disappearances. The killing of senior journalist Lasantha Wickrematunga is one. Some are not disappearances but day light abductions. The Defence Secretary’s recent explanations to the BBC or Sunday Leader are not satisfactory. There may be some inaccuracies or exaggerations, but most of the cases reported are real and disturbing. If not for the recent international pressure after the UNHRC resolution, the situation would have been much worse. However, the solution should be ‘home-grown.’
Democracy is an arena that unites the minority Tamils and the Muslims with the Sinhala majority. This is apart from specific grievances of the minorities. Democracy gives a common ground for broader coalition of all communities who are concerned about the issues of violence, corruption and communalism. Without broader democracy, minority rights cannot be achieved.
If the struggle against terrorism was the first phase of democratic struggle in the country, the second stage should be against the triple evils of violence, corruption and communalism.
Communalism may manifest as chauvinism on the Sinhala side and separatism or fundamentalism on the minority side. All are evils for democratisation and development. If democracy is not re-established properly soon, the development will suffer.
There is talk about regime change. Perhaps it may be necessary when the time
is ripe. But it should be through the democratic process whatever the existing weaknesses. But regime change per se is not a solution as Namini Wijedasa has effectively pointed out. There should be policy change and change of behaviour. There should be efforts to rebuild the independent institutions in the meanwhile. Many professional groups could contribute to this effort by resisting political interferences.
For parliamentary and presidential elections, there are some years to go. But some provincial council elections might come before. It is doubtful whether a breakthrough could be achieved at these elections. People may need more time.
Preferential vote is generally considered as a cause of violence and electoral corruption. But the people also can use the preferential vote to get rid of violent, corrupt and communal politicians of all sides and all parties. What might be necessary is some assistance to the general public to identify violent, corrupt and communal politicians. There may be some politicians who are not or less corrupt or violent. But they may be virulent communalists. All are evils of democracy and there is a need to get rid of them. Public education may be necessary on these issues.
- Asian Tribune –