By Jehan Perera –
The new government under President Gotabaya Rajapaksa can be seen to be doing many new things. These can contribute to the betterment of the country and the people. Most recently the president paid a surprise visit to the Department of Motor Vehicles. This is a government agency where delays and corrupt practices can occur as indeed they do in other government institutions. During the course of his visit the president stressed on the need to provide prompt and accurate service to the public. He said “It is very important that institutions such as the Department of Motor Traffic, which serves a large number of people in the country, set an example to others. When delivering their service all the officials should firmly resolve themselves to prevent any fraud or corruption.”
This most recent foray into the way government is conducted follows other positive actions, such as issuing the directive not to put his photograph in government offices, which is a symbolic affirmation of the importance of institutions as against the individuals who temporarily manage and guide them. He has also made an effort to ensure that top management positions in state institutions are occupied by those who have the requisite skills and qualifications. By such actions which show his interest in the day to day problems of people, the president is demonstrating that he is committed to the development of the country and is determined to transform the government service into one that serves the needs of people.
Although the World Bank has categorized Sri Lanka as an upper middle income country, this is hardly a cause for satisfaction for the vast majority of people who do not enjoy such a lifestyle. The bandwidth of upper middle income countries is a per capita income of USD 4000 to 12000 per year and Sri Lanka is at the 4000 level. Satisfaction about the country’s economic performance is also mitigated by the high income inequalities that make most people observers as against being consumers of the fruits of development. The new shopping mall, One Galle Face, will be comparable to similar malls in South East Asian countries, except that most of those who currently throng it are sightseeing for the most part rather than shoppers.
In this context, much hope will be pinned on President Rajapaksa that he will be a leader who, with his military background and administrative experience, will give rational leadership in the South East Asian tradition to bring development and prosperity to the nation. It is important to note that most of these countries also have ethnically mixed populations which they needed to weld together for developmental purposes. In countries like Malaysia and Indonesia there were civil wars in which tens of thousands perished. In Singapore, the political leadership took and continues to take exemplary action to ensure that no community feels discriminated against and feel included in sharing the fruits of development in an equitable manner. Sri Lanka also requires such strong and rational leaders.
Ten years ago, Sri Lanka was able to end its civil war with the present president as one of the chief architects of that success. It is said that the worst peace is better than the best war as in war killing is legitimized and therefore containing excess becomes much more difficult than in a time of peace where killing is not legitimate. It is important therefore that the wounds of war should heal in an environment in which the causes of war are being dealt with through rational government policies. Unfortunately, the two issues of language and devolution of power, which fed into the mindset of grievance and division are coming to the fore again. In particular there is a need for the continuation of the policy on the national anthem set in 2016 that the national anthem would be sung in both Sinhala and Tamil languages in keeping with the earliest post-independence practice in 1949 at the inauguration of the Independence Memorial Building at Torrington Square of singing of national songs in both languages.
As the country heads to a new year the hope would be that the new government that came to power after the Presidential Elections of November 16 will continue to govern the country in a manner that meets the hopes and aspirations of Sri Lanka’s multi ethnic and multi religious population. President Rajapaksa’s pledge on taking the oath of office where he said he would be the president of all Sri Lankans, and not only of those who voted for him is too valuable to lose. However, his repeated statements that development would be prioritized in resolving the ethnic conflict and that strengthening the system of devolution of power is not going to be the answer is a matter of concern. The assertion by government leaders that the national anthem will not be sung in Tamil at the forthcoming Independence Day celebrations has also caused concern, though this is now being reconsidered.
The new government has presented itself as having a vision that will strengthen national unity and protect the country’s sovereignty in a manner that would speed up the development process. The vast majority of people would applaud such sentiments as development would give them a better standard of living and quality of life. However, it is also important to note that development does not need to be viewed as being in opposition to devolution of power and to language rights. Both devolution and language need to be harnessed so that they contribute to development. Development is an overarching concept. Giving priority to development would mean that any decisions taken with respect to political, economic or social action should be with the purpose of speeding up the development process.
There is no doubt that if Sri Lanka did not experience the internal conflicts, the riots, insurrections, wars and terrorism it did during the past six decades we would have been in a different place in terms of development. Leonard Wolfe, the British civil servant who wrote the classic “Village in the Jungle” and who loved the country envisaged Sri Lanka to be the “Switzerland of the East” at the time of Independence. Therefore, national reconciliation needs to be a priority along with development. In fact, development can be the great unifier as it is meant for the good of the people. Development can be used as a tool for reconciliation by using the institutions that currently exist, including provincial councils to identify the specific priority needs and aspirations of the people in the different provinces.
The challenge for the government is not to see development as being in opposition to the devolution of power which is an important value to the ethnic minorities. The president has said that the issue of devolution has been debated for seventy years without a positive outcome and that he is not prepared to go beyond what the Sinhalese ethnic majority feels comfortable with. The challenge would then be to begin to identify those aspects of devolution of power that the Sinhalese people find acceptable for their own lives at the community level and which also contribute to development. These are matters that need to be discussed with the political parties and representatives of the ethnic and religious communities, in keeping with the plural nature of Sri Lankan society, prior to concretising them as policy decisions.