By Austin I Pullé –
The proposed “National Reconciliation” project is foolhardy and ill-advised for many compelling reasons. First, the current social and economic crisis requires attending to the needs of the population in terms of cost of living, hunger and malnutrition alleviation and revenue generation as the topmost priorities displacing all other matters to the back burners. Second, there were and are a few persons who could pull off the major changes demanded by a comprehensive national reconciliation project. The President is manifestly not one of them. Third, hostility to some key components of the project would ensure its defeat. Fourth, the project assumes that throwing more politicians at a problem is the method of solving it. The fatuity of this uncovered assumption speaks for itself. A more productive alternative is a general overhaul of the system that presently unsettles ethnic and religious minorities and which also contain some features designed to prevent repeats of outrages that prompt political systemic changes.
Millions go hungry and the country is so poor that not a day goes by without a news item about some foreign agency, government, or foreign charity making a donation of some sort or another to the country. Beggars cannot be choosers least of all choose a project that diverts much needed resources into a Mickey Mouse adventure. An analogy would be a family whose house is on fire planning a vacation at a 7 star resort in the Maldives instead of dousing the fire and saving their dwelling. A less propitious moment for healing the wounds inflicted on the national psyche by the Battle of Vijithapura, BCE 161, can hardly be imagined.
In every society, only a leader who is trusted by key segments not to sell out the country can effect the necessary outreach that others cannot. The breakthrough relations with China from the US could not have been done by an LBJ or a Jimmy Carter. But Richard Nixon could and did with Kissinger at his side. In Sri Lanka, an ambitious restructuring that reconciliation supporters desire could have been done only by the husband and wife prime ministers and the first President Rajapaksa. The Oxford educated husband caved into the demands of a set of protesting monks outside his residence. He tore up a pact, the BC pact, showing how much worth was the promise of a Prime Minister who instituted Sinhala Only but could not dissuade a group of monks from demanding that he break his promise. He could have applied his oratorical skills in a bully pulpit address to the nation to explain his deal but failed to do so. His wife, as prime minister, flanked by the sinister NQ Dias and the meritocracy – phobic Badi-ud-din Mahmud were more interested in destroying Catholic schools, imposing standardization, and marginalizing Christians and Tamils. During her tenure, the embers of the brutal civil war began to ignite. The first President Rajapaksa, on the other hand, did make the right conciliatory statements but perhaps believed he had to be faithful to his core constituency addicted to hating the minorities, even going to the foolish extent of ignoring the praiseworthy recommendations of his own Lessons Learned Reconciliation Committee. The current President, who in earlier roles downplayed the barbarity of 1983 by saying it was not as harmful as the damage done to the Sinhala industrial class and who has opposition leader tore up a draft constitution that involved devolution proposals, is still unlikely to be trusted by the majority community to not give away the country. After having been spurned by his electorate, his legitimacy for the position is as brittle as a dried twig. Absent a credible sponsor of an ambitious national reconciliation project, it will be a reckless waste of energy and resources that will likely inflame anti-minority embers. Moreover, the Northern politicians will be justly blamed for putting their interests ahead of national interests by extracting concessions during a time of societal collapse. The South will see them as some type of Dravidian Shylocks and racial strife rather than national reconciliation will be the result.
A fractured society where a sizable number writhe in anguish if a few stanzas of the national anthem are sung in Tamil during National Day celebrations and have a contingent march in the major Colombo perahera, attended by the President, bearing aloft the national flag with the two strips signifying the minorities removed, does not possess the essential conditions for the inauguration of far reaching political reforms inherent in the present national reconciliation agenda. Add to that the incandescent fury of youth who see their leaders detained by the manifestly abusive use of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, and the combined opposition by these groups to the project is well-nigh insurmountable.
The first steps to national reconciliation must be baby steps. They certainly don’t include throwing in more politicians at the problem. America has a total land area of 3,717,792 square miles, a population of over 300 million, and is represented by 435 congresspersons with the right to vote. Sri Lanka has a land area of 25,332 square miles, a population of over 23 million, and 225 MPs. This outlandish disproportionate representation could only be justified if it can be shown that these representatives on a cost-benefit analysis have yielded good outcomes to the people. But time and time again, these representatives show that their concern is with their own perks and privileges rather than the interests of the community that elected them. Duty free cars, security detail, housing with not pushback for non-payment of utility bills, pensions, and the power to recommend persons to be in charge of police stations are but a few of the outlandish perks and incentives. Take the case of the Eastern Province MPs, who should have been confined to their day jobs in an abattoir. They rushed to support the draconian 20th Amendment vesting vast powers in a President who appointed a rabid Muslim basher as the head of a One Country One Law reform commission, decreed that Muslim dead could not be buried but must be cremated, and was the patron saint of the BBS. They also reinforced the stereotype of the community held by others that members of their community lack all ethical and moral standards and would sup with the devil to harm the country if they personally benefit.
So what have these 225 worthies produce? Let us count the ways. At independence, our colonial master bequeathed to us a society that only ranked below Japan in terms of wealth, institutions, and education. Today we have a corrupt, politicized, and discredited military and police. The country largely consists of a parasitic class that consumes subsidies but is unable to create and produce. The erosion of meritocracy and competence in the universities has been accompanied by brutal ragging practices that the government cannot stop. A tiny but powerful group of activist monks exercise more leverage and influence than highly educated professionals. Their nonsensical justification that they are just continuing the practice of their forbears advising kings is undercut by the fact that at present there is a democracy and there is no need for an intermediary class to communicate the needs of the ruled to the ruler. Their incompetence, arrogance and ignorance have led to the catastrophic overnight switch to organic fertilizer, the appropriation of public spaces to erect statues, and their hysterical opposition to any demands by minorities for equal treatment.
So an ambitious national reconciliation program is the last thing that the comatose nation needs. What is needed is a set of reforms, which as the Chinese saying goes, will be a rising tide that lifts all boats and will benefit all communities. Specific reforms that address minority grievances must be rooted in fairness. Reforms built around the following will garner more support than all the grandstanding of a vanity project committees initiated by a publicity hungry president.
First, the rampaging white elephants known as provincial councils must be abolished. Several immediate benefits will be realized. These councils are a waste of precious funds, add another level of opportunity for corruption and extortion, as demonstrated by the conviction of a cabinet minister for his extortion when he was a chief minister, and absorbs unqualified persons into positions based on patronage. In the North, these unqualified persons will most likely not be Christians or those of the so-called lower castes. More importantly, elimination of these provincial councils will assuage the concerns of the paranoid South who believe that these are nothing but Trojan horses for eventual separation. This is a good trade-off.
Second, it is beyond cavil that discriminatory and arbitrary action in the North East has advanced a Sinhala supremacist agenda that has discriminated and harmed people who have lived in the area for generations. European company law has a two tier system of governance and the higher tier, the Supervisory Board, plays an important role in corporate governance. Borrowing this concept, Sri Lanka could do well with a specialist oversight board consisting of distinguished professionals representing the various communities who will be charged with various important functions. This will be an ombudsman type outfit but with powers to stop and rectify wrongdoing. The most important of these will be mandating the return of unnecessary acquisitions of land by the military to their original owners, the prevention of unauthorized structures such as temples, kovils, and mosques, and the interdiction of government sponsored re-settlement schemes. Everyone must be free to live anywhere in Sri Lanka but if persons move to the North and East they must show that they are bona fide purchasers who actually own their funds.
Third, as an important step in the reconciliation process, there must be established a reparations board that will compensate the victims of the state sponsored Aluthgama and Digana riots and the 1983 pogrom. No compensation should be given to owners of property destroyed this year because the damage was not caused by state sponsored agents. Insurance companies and/or individual’s personal finances should be used for re-building such destroyed properties.
Finally, there must be established an office of special counsel, independent, properly funded, and comprising a reputable lawyer heading a cadre of qualified lawyers. The office of the special counsel must be charged with the job of bringing actions which the craven Attorney General has declined. The remit of the office would be to challenge human rights violations, suing law enforcement, like the police, for damages when they trample upon rights guaranteed by the constitution, challenge abusive detentions under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, and engage in public interest litigation.
A combination of reforms that benefit all of Sri Lankan society as well as address the legitimate grievances of minorities that would be recognized by reasonable persons are steps that would win widespread support. Rome was not built in a day. Festina Lente!