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Are the Communities of Sri Lanka More United and Reconciled Than They Were in May 2009?

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Eran Wickramaratne M.P.

For a country to progress socially, economically and be at peace within her borders, democracy, justice and good governance needs to flourish. On the threshold of independence in 1948 Sri Lanka held much promise compared to her neighbor in the Indian Ocean.

Eran Wickramaratne during UNP Membership drive in Colombo East-Mar 2013-pic: facebook.com/Eran.Wickramaratne

While most countries in the region have struggled from autocracy to democracy – Bhutan, Maldives and Nepal being the most recent examples – Sri Lanka has become more autocratic.

Jawaharlal Nehru’s lasting legacy is that he neutralized the forces of communalism and extremism guiding India into a secular democracy. Nehru consolidated the secular state by institutionalizing democracy. Don Stephen Senanayake’s untimely death did not permit him to lead Sri Lanka into a strong pluralistic and secular future. The rise of narrow nationalism over patriotism was inevitable in the given historical context. The newly emerging country’s future was to be influenced more by charismatic leadership than by the institutionalization of democracy.

Post-War decline

It is nearly four years since the end of the armed conflict. ‘Are the communities of Sri Lanka more united and reconciled than they were in May 2009?’ is a question that most of us need to ask ourselves. In 2009 across the ethnic and religious divide there was a sense that terrorism and armed rebellion against the state was unacceptable irrespective of the cause. Images of helpless women and children wading across the waters to get to safer ground caused a wave of national empathy, and a sense that when the chips are down – and people are fighting for their right to live – ethnicity, religion and cultural differences matter little and it’s our common humanity that binds us together.

Today we are fighting with our backs to the wall a global community who favours us implementing the recommendations of our own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Committee (LLRC). Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe delivered a speech directed at the domestic audience rather than one which sought to address the concerns of the global community. Samarasinghe reminded the global community that Sri Lanka with its long history does not need to be lectured on its duties and obligations to its own citizens, while he missed the point that it is to our own recommendations put together by an eminent group of Sri Lankans that he objects.

The Government’s responsibility is not primarily to New York or Geneva; it is to the citizens of this country. As I have previously said in Parliament, the Government should be providing Parliament with a regular report on the progress of the implementation of the LLRC report, the National Action Plan and the Human Rights action plan. The vote in Geneva was not a defeat of Sri Lanka, but the defeat of the Government of Sri Lanka’s policy. The Government’s failure to adhere to the domestic political demands is increasingly opening the country to interference from external sources.

It would appear to outside observers that the Government is being sabotaged from within. To add to our external worries the unjust and illegal impeachment of the Chief Justice Dr. Shiranee Bandaranayake and the orchestrated anti-Muslim sentiments created will invite increasing international attention. The removal of a Chief Justice on flimsy grounds, where the standard of proof had not been established, a one-sided Parliamentary Select Committee, the speed of ‘conviction’ and the gross violation of the principles of natural justice are seen far and wide as an imposition of a political process on what should be judicial. The ongoing witch-hunt of subjecting an already ‘impeached’ Justice to the Anti-Bribery and Corruption Commission is a continuation of an irrational journey.

The last thing we needed on the heels of the UNHRC sessions in Geneva was the buildup of an anti-Muslim sentiment in the country. It is self-evident that the Halal logo is more the brand than the heart of the issue. The increase of the Muslim population and the economic ascendancy of the Muslim community, whether factual or perceived, appear to be the issue generating much heat. The Government has permitted these anti-Muslim sentiments to grow for reasons best known to it. The recent endorsement of extremist groups confirms the view in the minds of the Muslim community that the Government has an instrumental role in the environment that has been created. In our blind allegiance to a contrived national interest, we sacrificed more than US$ 1.5 billion on GSP.

For a country that desperately needs its foreign remittances in excess of US $ 6 billion per annum, we must not put the livelihood of our workers in the Middle East at risk. At a time we need the support of Middle Eastern countries economically and politically we appear to be alienating the remaining few international allies. It certainly appears that the Government is being sabotaged from within. President Rajapaksa not only needs to review his self-destructive foreign policy but also now needs a new team to steer his sinking ship.

Social Democracy

The two key elements of democracy are the guarantee of rights of all citizens, and enabling the participation of citizens in the governance. A future Sri Lanka government must not only guarantee political and civil rights, but also economic, social and cultural rights of all its citizens. The rights of individuals are not devisable and do not depend on the decisions of the majority. These rights are inalienable. The recognition and guarantee by the state of these rights will be the foundation of a new Sri Lanka. Our primary identity as Sri Lankan rather than Sinhala, Tamil, Moor or Burgher will then emerge.

The protection of political and civil liberties, the space for truth to emerge and justice to be done will lead to reconciliation between communities and aggrieved parties. A new government will lay emphasis on economic, social and cultural rights. An economic policy with safety nets for the poor and vulnerable and capital grants tied to economic outcomes for the disadvantaged will be the cornerstone of the emerging social economy.

In the recent years there has been a lack of good governance, but the country needs to move beyond even good governance to democratic and just governance. Democratic and just governance will require wider participation of women in political governance. While women in Sri Lanka have made big strides in literacy, education and in many other fields, their representation in Parliament and local government bodies are a lowly five and two per cent respectively. A future government must ensure that women have equal access to the exercise of political power and representation. Legislation will be initiated to ensure democratic and just rights for women in the new social democracy.

Independent Institutions

If not just and democratic governance, good governance requires that political power between the Executive, the Legislature and Judiciary be in proper balance, where the Legislature and Judiciary will be independent of the Executive. The inbuilt tendency of the Executive to increase power at the expense of the Legislature and Judiciary must always be kept in check. The tyranny of the Legislature and Judiciary is less harmful than the tyranny of the Executive. In October 2001 with a two-third majority in Parliament a de-politicization process commenced with the introduction of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution.

The Amendment created a Constitutional Council comprising the representatives of the President, Speaker, Leader of the Opposition, and smaller political parties in Parliament. The Constitutional Council in turn appointed the members of the various commissions for Elections, Human Rights, Judicial Service, Public Service, Police, Finance and Anti-Bribery and Corruption. The Constitutional mechanism was never fully implemented, thus depriving the country of its many benefits. The 2002-2004 Wickremesinghe administration, though criticized for the lack of social benevolence, took meaningful steps to improve governance including fiscal responsibility. The 18th Amendment introduced on September 8, 2010 negated the 17th Amendment, while concentrating power in the Executive President to make appointments to various branches of government as sole appointing authority.

These are issues that the incumbent President should consider as he contemplates his legacy. He has the majority required to make such changes and will be supported by the Opposition. The Judiciary’s independence must be safeguarded even if the President is the appointing authority. Parliament must directly or through committee be able to veto the President’s nominee if Parliament determines the nominee unsuitable.

Furthermore the perquisites and benefits of the Judiciary must flow from Parliament. The promise of present or future benefits, appointments and privileges to judges, their spouses or children must be prohibited by law. Dr. Ambedkar and the writer of the Indian Constitution enshrined the separation of the Executive, Legislature and Judiciary in the Indian Constitution.

Lasting legacies are built less on what we do than on what we did not do. The ageing Nelson Mandela will always be remembered for reconciling the communities of a divided nation and being the epitome of democracy. The roads and edifices we build today will be replaced with better and bigger edifices by leaders who will succeed the present leaders. But the values, institutions and quality of society you leave behind will be remembered to your credit or discredit. Working towards institutionalizing democracy will provide a better foundation than any other for remembering the incumbent President’s legacy. The motto of a leading school in Colombo is worth mentioning here – ‘Learn or depart’

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