Photo courtesy World Snap
Faculty of Social Sciences
South Asian University
New Delhi – 110021
09th January 2015
His Excellency Maithripala Sirisena
The President of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka
The President’s Office
Best Wishes for Your Appointment as President
Greetings from South Asian University, New Delhi! Though a citizen of Sri Lanka, I am one of those people who did not vote for you in the presidential election concluded yesterday. Not that I was not interested, but as a person displaced from Sri Lanka as a necessary condition of my present employment in New Delhi, there are no facilities for people like me to vote in our elections despite the great technological advances that all of us routinely enjoy today. But this is a minor matter compared to the challenges you have to face in the immediate future as President and concerned citizen. Let me first of all congratulate you on your election and appointment. I am sure Your Excellency is more acutely aware than I am that the hardest work in your tenure is about to begin. I thought I should share some of my thoughts with you as a fellow citizen who shares with you and many others a great concern for Sri Lanka’s well-being.
The fact that Your Excellency agreed to be the common candidate for the united opposition gave Sri Lanka a much needed breathing space to try and reclaim its democratic practices and its civilizational heritage both of which had been seriously mauled in the previous decade. I am thankful to all the political leaders who made this possible. It made all of us aware that not all is lost, and that there is some room for hope. This reminds me of Reverend Desmond Tutu’s words that “hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.” Your Excellency’s victory, the cobbling together of the coalition which made that victory possible, the selfless, tireless and brave work of many ordinary but committed people from all walks of life against unthinkable odds to ensure that the transition Your Excellency personifies would become possible, point to the kind of hope that makes difficult things possible. These actions symbolize the light beyond the darkness that Reverend Tutu referred to. But Your Excellency, I am sure you agree with me that we cannot live on hope alone. We have to act in ways that make what we have hoped for materialize in our own life time.
This becomes all the more difficult considering the situation you find yourself in today. This path-breaking victory which is a watershed in recent Sri Lankan history was made possible by ideologically and politically disparate groups who have no real history of working together. They were brought together by the specific desire to defeat Mr. Rajapaksa while all of them agreed on the main issues focused on in Your Excellency’s campaign. What would happen in a situation when that much-aspired defeat has actually been achieved? Will they be able to compromise on some matters and agree on more crucial issues in order to move ahead as a country despite very obvious political differences? It remains to be seen if we as a country can move forward to a more secure future or if we might get bogged down in impenetrable political semantics. However, the mere fact that the disorganized opposition that has been in the political wilderness for nearly a decade could ensure your victory within such a short period of time suggests that this might be possible. I hope quite fervently that Your Excellency would be able to lead those around you to govern with wisdom as you step into the future so that what has been achieved in this election is not prematurely lost. I think it was the American political activist, Malcolm X who once said “the future belongs to those who prepare for it today”. So how would we imagine and prepare for our collective future?
According to Your Excellency’s own election manifesto you are expected to curb the powers of the executive presidency within the first one hundred days. This should be a goal that you should not deviate from like your predecessors. I hope this interest in curbing the powers of the executive is linked to curbing the ability of elected representatives crossing from one party to another for mere personal gain as we have seen time and again since the late 1970s. This needs to be changed so that if an individual truly wishes to change his allegiance for ideological, moral, ethical or any other reason, he should take this step by forfeiting his seat and facing a by-election that allows the electorate to decide again. That would be the democratic way of changing political allegiance rather than allowing crude market conditions to decide these matters. Added to this is the necessity to be very serious about not allowing criminal elements to enter politics at any level even though it is more difficult to implement at a practical level.
In the last ten years or so, the country’s armed forces and police became for all purposes an extension of the regime rather than unbiased professional entities of the state. More clearly, they became extensions of the ruling dynasty. This is typified by the rather bizarre admission of one of President Rajapaksa’s sons to the Navy and the very unprofessional relationships this admission created in that agency which once played a significant role in the defeat of the LTTE. I know that many officers and ordinary men and women in these services were very uncomfortable with this situation; yet they had no real choice. I hope Your Excellency would be able to take necessary measures to re-establish these institutions as agencies of the state under a rational command structure so that public confidence in them might be restored.
Your Excellency, your campaign focused a great deal of attention on the extensive corruption that had developed in all sectors of our society over the last decade. During the campaign, in addition to you, members of the Janata Vimukti Peramuna, the Jatika Hela Urumaya and the United National Party articulated quite convincingly the extensive level of this corruption. Much of the evidence presented is still in the public domain. The Mongolian politician Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj has noted that “corruption is a true enemy to development.” This is because corruption adds to the costs of development activities and becomes a long-term burden for the people. We have set in place some of the most vulgar systems of crony capitalism in South Asia. We as a collective of people prefer not to know how some of our top politicians have become so visibly rich in alarmingly short periods of time, owning incalculable properties both locally and abroad. In this context, the only way in which we can address corruption in the long run is to establish beyond any doubt that corruption does not pay. This means that corruption in ministries, government departments, armed forces, universities, among powerful families and wherever else, must be investigated. And corruption is not only about kickbacks and the misuse of funds, but also about the abuse of power. Consequent to legally and ethically constituted investigations, the culprits must be punished irrespective of their positions in society and wherever in the world they might be at present. But I would emphasize that this must only be done as matter of law following due process, and not as a matter of vengeance and an exercise of the law of the jungle. The country has suffered enough already under such a dispensation. But this is a policy that must be relentlessly pursued to its logical conclusion. I hope Your Excellency’s administration is up to this task.
My next concern is the extremely politicized public sector, civil service and the foreign service. While the politicization of Sri Lanka’s civil service began when Mr. J. R. Jayawardena appointed an ex-army officer as the Government Agent for Gampaha in the late 1970s, it became much worse under Mr. Rajapaksa’s tenure when his own brother was appointed as the Secretary of Defense. In addition, many unqualified people with no semblance of ethics or morals were put in charge of public sector entities including Sri Lankan Airlines, and they were allowed to relentlessly plunder public assets as if it were their birthright. Our embassies were staffed with completely incompetent political appointees with no foreign policy or public service experience. As a result, competent and well-trained career officers were sidelined and their chances of heading missions overseas or making meaningful contributions to foreign policy formation became marginal. The blunders we have made in diplomacy and our isolation in the world of nations, the unhealthy over-dependence on China to deal with thorny world affairs as well as for local development projects clearly indicate this state of affairs. I hope Your Excellency and your administration would take urgent steps as a matter of priority to depoliticize these institutions and services and reestablish their sense of professionalism and self-worth which has been mercilessly dismantled in recent times.
Similarly, universities in our country have been so extremely politicized that they fail to function effectively as centers of excellence they once were and as the conscience of the nation. It is in this context that Professor Gananath Obeyesekere wrote to President Rajapaksa in 2012 and noted that “there is another challenge for a wise leader, and that is to bring back the universities to their early glory by supporting them at every level because a world bereft of intellectual life will end up as a dreary world.” But when we take stock of the rather obvious lack of intellectual caliber among the Vice Chancellors recently appointed to our universities, the actions of the chairperson of the University Grants Commission and the public utterances of the Minister of Higher Education, it is quite clear that neither Mr. Rajapaksa nor his government had the slightest idea as to what higher education was all about. This is even clearer when we juxtapose their collective attitude against the very reasonable demands presented by university teachers in recent protests and negotiations. For Mr. Rajapaksa’s government, universities were merely something that needed to be curbed and controlled. Given the fact that many of my former colleagues selflessly supported Your Excellency’s campaign thinking only that it is the right thing to do for the betterment of the country and not of any personal perks for themselves, my hope is that you would help deliver our universities from the present quagmire they are entrapped in. I hope Your Excellency’s government would exhibit the necessary wisdom to establish a practice of appointing university Vice Chancellors through a system delinked from narrow party politics and government interference.
One of the main priorities Your Excellency’s administration needs to pay attention to is the way in which we as a society and the state deal with ethno-religious minorities. Ayn Rand has quite correctly noted that “individual rights are not subject to a public vote” in the context of which “a majority has no right to vote away the rights of a minority; the political function of rights is precisely to protect minorities from oppression by majorities.” I think this a very basic principle that any sane society should be able to live with and cherish. Despite the rhetoric and irrespective of our very long and exemplary history of accommodating different people, many of us today seem to consider minority groups as a problem. It is precisely that kind of fundamentally faulty attitude that created the Tamil militancy in the first place. Already, many people are equating the voting pattern of Tamil citizens in the northeast in the recently concluded election with the map of Elam. It is indeed quite saddening that even after coming out of a very destructive and painful war which consumed and scarred all of us, many of our people are still incapable of thinking beyond parochial ethno-religious lines, and imagine a polity and a collective future as an inclusive nation. I find it quite intriguing and hopeful that such a mandate for you came from these people without any preconditions in exchange for their support. This is particularly so in a context where Your Excellency’s own campaign hardly focused on the northeast as a region and crucial issues of security and personal anxieties which particularly Muslims and Tamils in the country feel at present. Much of the anxieties felt by minority groups has come about as a result of the activities of fascist groups such as the Bodu Bala Sena which your predecessor encouraged almost as part of domestic political policy augmented by the silence of large sections of ordinary Buddhists, and also as a result of the wholly security-centered postwar internal policy in the northeast. It must be one of Your Excellency’s priorities to ensure that the present mandate you have very clearly received does not become yet another missed opportunity. We can, after all ensure the security of the northeast in particular and the country in general, and also ensure minorities becoming an integral part of our society. If we are welcoming and inclusive in our economic, educational, language and cultural policies, their own exclusivist tendencies that sometimes manifest would simply become irrelevant. But I personally feel that this kind of overarching tolerance and compassion which both Your Excellency and I receive from our own religious background in Buddhism, must legally and institutionally be preceded by a specific kind of intolerance. That is, the intolerance of any kind of intolerance. This means that legally and institutionally, any organization that promotes sectarianism and violence, however powerful they might be, should not be allowed to have any legitimate existence in our society.
Your Excellency’s campaign endured not only enormous financial onslaught from Mr. Rajapaksa’s campaign but also the unethical use of state resources and relentless violence. But you prevailed. Why the election was not as bloody as many predicted it would be was mostly due to the credit of the restraint that your own campaign very clearly exhibited. It also helped that the Commissioner of Elections, the Inspector General of Police and the Commander of the Army exhibited much needed qualities of leadership at this crucial moment. Needless to say, such exemplary behavior which we had once expected from public officials have been forgotten about in recent times. I hope this positive experience of which you are already a part would be the basis upon which a tolerant, enlightened, and sensible political culture could be established in our country.
Let me end my rather long letter with a personal note. I came to South Asian University which was collectively established by the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation in 2011 because I strongly believed in the idea of the university as a centre of excellence for young people from the region. It is the result of the thinking of some very sensible people in our region. Even though my initial idea was to come and help set up this institution and go back to Sri Lanka, I had to resign from my position at the University of Colombo as I could not get the required long-term leave I needed due to systemic failures and also due to a lack of institutional support; however, I don’t wish to dwell on this point. Even though Sri Lankan taxpayers as well as taxpayers in other South Asian countries help maintain the South Asian University, only the government of India seems to pay some attention to it. What is the status of our citizens in the university, how are public funds sent from Sri Lanka for the university’s upkeep utilized and what are Sri Lankan students’ experiences about the place, is the sense of collective South Asian sensibility that is a stated priority for the university being created? I often wonder if anyone in the Ministry of Higher Education or the University Grants Commission in Colombo ever thought of these questions. In this context, I hope Your Excellency’s administration would take a keen interest in the functioning of the university and help towards its development. By this however, I do not mean political interference in the day-to-day running of the university which has ruined once-reputed universities in Sri Lanka and elsewhere in South Asia.
Despite the difficult path ahead, I hope the democratic and civilizational space Your Excellency, Hon. Prime Minster, Ranil Wickramasinghe, your colleagues and many concerned citizens have opened up in our country would prevail. It is the Buddha who said long time ago, “there are only two mistakes one can make along the road to the truth; not going all the way, and not starting.” These are two mistakes neither Your Excellency nor your coalition partners can afford to make. These are also mistakes that no other Sri Lankan citizens can afford to make as well.
I wish Your Excellency the best of luck and the blessings of the Triple Gem.
Professor and Dean
Faculty of Social Sciences