Colombo, Constitutional Reform, End of war special edition, Identity, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Post-War

Sri Lanka after war: Where to now and how?

Great Expectations
The greatest challenge facing Sri Lanka is the quest for a just reconciliation to the ethnic issue through a democratic process coupled with a well planned economic strategy which will promote rapid development and equitably shared prosperity. The nation has stagnated in all respects as a consequence of the thirty year old ethnic conflict and now we need to fast track development. However, the negative trend of governance and increasingly adverse international reaction to it leaves little room for optimism in overcoming the numerous obstacles and challenges faced. Despite this, we need to keep hope alive to fulfill our dreams for a better Sri Lanka.

Loss of International Credibility
Can the victory over the LTTE be considered a genuine triumph? Certainly not, if one sees it as the decimation of a misguided group of frustrated Tamil youth in whose hearts hatred was sown through decades of marginalization and discrimination as a minority. On the contrary, it reflects a monumental defeat in terms of good governance and political will  to seek a negotiated solution in addressing minority rights. Additionally, the war was conducted behind a wall of secrecy by preventing ‘on site’ media reporting during and after the war. Consequently, it is not surprising that suspicions of war crimes and human rights violations have surfaced. To make matters worse, no genuine attempt has been made by the state to address accusations in a transparent and accountable manner except for repeated stubborn denial and obvious cover ups. Their confrontational stance has cost the state its credibility for good governance and also resulted in cancellation of trade benefits subject to principles of good governance as well as the possibility of economic sanctions. The regime has heightened the problem by aligning with like minded authoritarian regimes having poor human rights records and non respecters of international laws.

Bad Governance
The most serious obstacle to a better Sri Lanka is the caliber and integrity of governance. The democratic process is under serious threat on account of an increasingly authoritarian leadership, nepotism and politicization, corruption and media control. The government’s war victory resulted in a clear electoral victory giving them a carte blanche to govern with minimum opposition which has further strengthened their authoritarian stance. The insidious breakdown of the system of checks and balances between the executive, legislature and judiciary which is the seminal feature of the democratic process is cause for alarm. The most glaring example being the indifference shown  in restoring  the Constitutional Council which acts as  a check on partiality by the executive in key public sector appointments. This failure alone is testimony to the government’s insincerity in abiding by democratic principles of governance.

Corruption and Nepotism
The abovementioned lack of accountability and control mechanisms in the public sector gives rise to further abuses such as misuse of state resources for personal gain and perpetuation of power evidenced in the last presidential and parliamentary elections. Once a gain, the government failed to take responsibility. Increasing corruption in the economic sphere through the execution of low priority prestige projects resulting in the misallocation of scarce financial resources is also extensive. A classic example being the fast track construction of phase 1 of the Hambantota harbor and  international airport, contracted on commercial rate borrowings and foreign labour, notwithstanding the currently low capacity utilization of the Colombo harbor(also under expansion) and  international airport at Katunayake(recently upgraded). Nepotism is at its zenith with the governing family in exclusive control of the finances and economic development of the country. Additionally, the grooming of the next generation of the ruling family to carry on power is openly displayed by utilizing all available resources and opportunities.

Neglect of IDP’s
International attention has also been drawn to the appalling  negligence of several thousands of IDP’s who continue to languish in camps with minimum facilities as resettlement is slow and accorded low priority. Due to the politicization of the judiciary, decisive judgments have been stalled on illegal detention of suspected terrorists and the dismantling of high security zones in favour of resettlement. In fact, the government has ordered the establishing of more terrorist detention centers within army camps indicating a dangerous trend towards extrajudicial action against suspected traitors and terrorists.

Resurgence of Violence
By deliberately neglecting IDP’s and consequent Tamil rights and aspirations, there is potential for deep under currants of frustration and anger to build up among the Tamils which may lead to the re-emergence of ethnic violence. In fear of further economic sanctions, the government has set up a Truth and Reconciliation commission based on the South African model. It appears that the commission’s major thrust is to suppress terrorism rather than address the causes. A positive outcome in terms of ‘truth and reconciliation’ is doubtful in view of the failure of a similar attempt made by the Human Rights Commission to address violations impartially in keeping with international laws.

Suppression of Press Freedom
The unrelentless suppression of press freedom in Sri Lanka through intimidation, violence and even murder in order to curb dissent is causing alarm not only in the democratic world but also in the United Nations which is the supreme authority responsible for ensuring democratic governance, globally. Let there not be a repetition of the despicably unjust conviction of journalist Tissanayagam as a traitor for which a presidential pardon was mandatory in order to salvage the country’s honour or suspect political murders remaining deliberately unresolved such as that of internationally eminent investigative journalist Wickrematunge and political analyst  Sivaram  and the continuous brazen abductions of dissenting journalists like Eknaligoda . Such a policy will only spell impending doom.

The Right to Protect
The concept of the ‘Right to Protect’ is receiving prominence in the UN with the proliferation of dictatorial regimes using brutal and predatory tactics to harass and eliminate vulnerable groups of citizens seen as prejudicial to their interests. In response, the UN is increasingly assertive of its right to intervene in the interests of the victimized. Consequently, it is vital for the regime to treat the Tamil polity, particularly war victims, with genuine concern and compassion and respect their human, political and economic rights as citizens.

Economic Rights
If we are to achieve economic prosperity as a nation, then we need to consider the importance of economic rights of citizens in addition to political and human rights. The universal importance of economic rights as a complement to political rights was stated most eloquently and succinctly by U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) in his state of the union address as far back as 1944. It epitomizes what any citizen, particularly Sri Lankans, would wish to hear from their leadership.

In summary, he contended that the state cannot be content even if a fraction of citizens are is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed, and insecure. The nation’s strength is based on the protection of certain inalienable political rights—among them the right of free speech, free press, free worship, trial by jury, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures. However, it is evident that these political rights have proved inadequate to assure equality in the pursuit of happiness. True individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. He stated that “Necessitous men are not free men.” People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made. It is self evident that a new basis of security and prosperity must be established for all—regardless of station, race, or creed which include the right to a useful education, the right to a satisfying and remunerative job adequate to cover basic needs and aspirations, the right to a home which meets basic comforts, the right to adequate medical care and facilities to achieve and enjoy good health and the right to social security benefits and old age care.

The universal applicability of such cherished ideals of economic freedom, particularly to our nation and the developing world, is patently clear in the address of the US President although it targeted the American people of a bygone era.

The Challenge of Good Governance
Sri Lanka has the resources necessary to provide every citizen with basic political and economic rights. However, it has failed to do so essentially due to poor governance, insincerity and lack of strong political will despite being governed by democratically elected governments since achieving independence sixty two years ago. Consequently, the country’s growth has been severely stunted resulting in endemic rural poverty and underdevelopment. The state coffers would be empty if not for ‘ blood money’ derived from foreign exchange earnings mainly through the exploitation of cheap female labour  by exporting  housemaids for menial work overseas as well as through  low value adding garment industries.

The challenge of good governance is to implement a economically viable and environmentally sustainable development strategy which genuinely meets the growing aspirations and increasing standards of living of the people while maintaining political and social stability through just, ethical and democratic principles.

Assertive Civil Society
Sri Lanka needs a strong civil society leadership capable of challenging the government in committing to good governance and also motivating and enlightening citizens to be assertive of their rights and thereby to proactively participate in building the economy. This may prove to be the only way forward for us to prevail over our self imposed subjugation to an autocracy.