Sri Lankan Government Makes Effort to Be Inclusive
Sri Lanka's President Maithripala Sirisena with Pope Francis last month
COLOMBO: The government appears to be making a greater effort than previous ones to be inclusive in its approach to governance. This inclusive orientation is a heritage of the election campaign that saw the ouster of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. It was the rallying round of virtually the entire opposition, and a section of the ruling party itself, around a common candidate that could withstand the power and resources of the Rajapaksa government. Although these political parties had different political ideologies and ethnic affiliations, they were able to pool their combined strength to win the election by a narrow margin. One of the promises of their election platform was to hold general elections after implementing their 100 day plan. This has kept the alliance together.
Perhaps it is the positive feeling of working together that motivated Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to affirm that he hoped to form a government of the entire parliament rather than govern the country through a single party or coalition of parties. There is a precedent for this model of government in the Donoughmore constitution of 1931 during the British colonial period. The salient feature of this constitution was the assignment of every legislator to a committee, which was headed by a minister. The minister and the legislators assigned to that committee decided on government policy together. The process of decision making was slow but it obtained the participation of all.
Sri Lanka has paid a heavy price since is independence for its failure to ensure that all sections of the polity feel a sense of participation in the governance of the country. This failure led to the alienation of the ethnic minorities, in particular the Tamils, from governance of the country as a whole. The two republican constitutions of 1972 and 1978 which were home-grown failed to ensure that governmental decisions would be taken by the ethnic minorities together with the ethnic majority. It was for this reason that the mainstream Tamil political leaders boycotted the Independence Day celebrations of successive governments from 1972 onwards. These celebrations this year were unique in obtaining the participation of the leaders of the TNA which is the main Tamil political party.
Leader of the TNA, R Sampanthan and its deputy secretary M A Sumanthiran who participated in the Independence Day celebrations took a political risk because they were breaking ranks with their more conservative colleague who took the position that it was too early to celebrate. Despite the Tamils and Muslims voting in vast majorities for the new President and ensuring his victory, there is still a strong sense of alienation in the Tamil polity which wants their long festering problems to be speedily resolved. The government has already announced that it will return a considerable proportion of the land taken over by the previous government for use of the military. It is also finalizing a package of constitutional reforms. But these still have to bear concrete fruit.
The impatience of the northern Tamil polity has now manifested itself in the form of a resolution passed by the Northern Provincial Council which has urged the UN to release its report on war crimes immediately, and further to investigate genocide that it accuses successive Sri Lankan governments of having practiced against the Tamils for the past sixty years. The resolution would come as a blow to the new government. Just when it seemed that relations between the government and the Tamil polity were improving this strongly worded and lengthy (11 page) resolution would be to the disadvantage of the government, in particular the call for the early release of the UN report, which is what the government is trying to have postponed. This would strengthen the hand of the opposition at the forthcoming general elections. It would also send a message to the rest of the polity that the Northern population continues to see itself in an antagonistic and confrontational posture vis-à-vis them.
It is likely that the Northern Provincial Council’s resolution reflects the sense of frustration within it at being marginalized in the decision making relating to Tamil affairs in the country. Those who lead the provincial council have found that even within the TNA their views are being disregarded as they are provincial rather than national actors. The open disagreement within the TNA on the issue of its Colombo-based leadership participating in the Independence Day celebrations would be an example. This sense of frustration is compounded by the actions of the ruling party, the UNP, in favouring its own representatives in the North over the TNA when it comes to providing government patronage to the people.
Making Sri Lanka a more inclusive country in which all people, irrespective of ethnic or religious community, can feel a sense of belonging in a motherland of all is Sri Lanka’s biggest challenge. This is a challenge that needs to be taken up at every level, including civil society. Last week two separate events took place to celebrate two members of Sri Lanka’s public administrative service whose qualities have sustained the spirit of democracy and good governance in the country even when its practice waned. One was a felicitation of Election Commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya whose deft handling of the multiple pressures upon him during the election period ensured that the people’s will would ultimately prevail. The other was the launch of a book on the challenges in the public service by a senior public officer, W A S Perera, who held senior positions in a number of important government departments, including the health, defence, ports and shipping ministries and also in the Public Enterprises Reforms Commission.
Both of these events were very well attended by many others from the same public service. At both events there was also evidence of the soul searching that is taking place within the country regarding what took it near to the abyss of absolute power that corrupts absolutely. The Venerable Athureliye Rathana Thero, whose moral leadership to those who chose to break away from the government of former President Rajapaksa was the defining element of the presidential election campaign gave evidence of this soul searching at the book launch ceremony where he spoke. He reflected that in Western countries religion was not taught in the schools, but was embedded in the values that guided social life, whereas in Sri Lanka the opposite prevailed, and despite this moral and ethical values are seriously eroded in the country. It is this erosion in moral values that may explain the difficulties the country has been experiencing.
However, even at these high minded events there was a need to foster more inclusiveness. Although the two public officials whose life’s work was being celebrated are truly national figures, in that they served the entire country and not just a section of it, the events that celebrated them were conducted entirely in the Sinhala language. This was because the mother tongue of the two officials who were being felicitated was Sinhala and the books that were released on the occasion were also in Sinhala. But this meant that Tamil speakers could not participate as fully as they ought to have, and would have wished to. This divide took place due to the downgrading of the English language in the public service that took place in the early 1960s and continued until the end of the 1990s. Actions consciously taken at multiple levels, that include joint decision making at the national level, power sharing at the provincial level, and ensuring multi-lingual events at all levels are key to Sri Lanka’s future.