By Jehan Perera –
Sri Lanka has a new government that has come to power with heightened popular expectation of reform that would take it in the direction of rapid development and a modern state. This is a throwback to the expectations that accompanied the election of the previous government in 2015. At the base of popular expectations was that the new government would root out corruption that they had come to believe had grown to horrendous proportions. There is a similar expectation on this occasion too, which has grown with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s declaration in both the Sinhala and English languages, when he took his oaths that he will not permit corruption which has become the bane of politics and the economy, sucking the wealth out of the people. Whether or not people voted for him, they all anticipate change that is positive.
The sight of old faces among the 15 ministers appointed, several of them with tarnished reputations may be charitably seen as a necessary price to be paid in the run up to general elections at which their campaigning skills and other resources will be necessary. Despite this disappointment the president has won public commendation for the many positive actions he has been taking to streamline governance which are a break from the past. The most significant reform is to restrict the size of the cabinet to fifteen ministries which would have been a difficult task in a polity where the expectation is a minimum of thirty to forty cabinet ministers. Other reforms include reducing the staff assigned to his office and continuing to live in his home and not in the presidential residence. These can be seen as steps to take governance away from feudal trappings and as part of the movement intended to give Sri Lanka an efficient and cost effective modern state.
The president’s latest directive that the chairpersons and board members of state corporations should be chosen on the basis of their qualifications is another positive indication of the movement towards a meritocracy which is an indicator of a modern state. The president’s directive that his portrait should not be on government buildings like his predecessors have done, and only the state symbol should be placed there, is another indication of a desire to take the country in the direction of a modern state. In drawing this distinction between the state and the government, President Rajapaksa is following the spirit of the advice given by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission appointed by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2011, which addressed the issues of the three decade long civil war, and stated that the rule of law ought to prevail over the rule of men.
The reforms that President Rajapaksa is currently putting in place and noted above are popular ones that are also good for the country. On the other hand, there could also be other reforms that are popular, and have the support of the majority of people, but which may be more problematic. There will need to be caution in moving forward on them. The support of the majority of people may be a necessary condition for successful reform but it is not a sufficient reason. One such reform being proposed is to abolish the provincial council system in which the central feature is the devolution of power to enable power sharing by the ethnic minority communities who are the majority in two of the country’s nine provinces.
The provincial council system came into being in November 1987 as a result of the 13th Amendment to the constitution which was itself an outcome of the Indo Lanka Peace Accord of July 1987. The signing of the Peace Accord was accompanied by the entry into Sri Lanka of the Indian army, known as the Indian Peacekeeping Force. This was one part of the agreement by which India pledged to disarm the LTTE while Sri Lanka pledged to provide a limited amount of democratic self-rule to the Tamil majority provinces of the North and East. The unfolding of events was tragic and unexpected, in that neither did the Indian army succeed in disarming the LTTE nor did the Sri Lankan government properly devolve the promised powers.
Today, more than three decades after their establishment, the provincial councils are criticized by most of the Sri Lankan people as being white elephants, wasteful of financial resources and inefficient. There is dissatisfaction within the Tamil polity that they are not given the full powers envisaged in the 13th Amendment. They are seen by the Sinhalese majority as being a potential line of division of the country into two or more separate states and therefore as a potential security threat. However, over the years there have been many proposals, including by the newly appointed cabinet minister Douglas Devananda from the North, as to how their workings can be improved to make them an asset rather than a burden to the country.
There is much that is deficient in the workings of the provincial councils. Even politicians who contested provincial council elections and had become chief ministers of provinces have complained about the shortcomings in its implementation. Despite these deficiencies, it is important to keep in mind that the provincial council system is an outcome of an agreement with India. It is also a concession to the longstanding demand of the Tamil people of the North and East for some extent of self-rule. Therefore, it is best that any reform or abolition of the provincial councils should be done in consultation with India and with the political parties that represent the Tamil and Muslim people of the North and East.
President Rajapaksa’s visit later this week to India where he will be meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi could set the stage for such a change. It is important that the Tamil polity too should downscale its expectation from the maximalist demands it placed before the presidential candidates as a condition for their support. The 13 point demand added to the immediacy of the Sinhalese nationalist response that gave President Rajapaksa his victory. These demands included evolving a political solution through a federal arrangement, with a recognition of a right to self-determination and conducting an international probe into war crimes.
One of the stark features of the recently concluded presidential election was the polarization in votes between the North and East of Sri Lanka, in which the ethnic and religious minorities predominate, and the rest of the country. This is a line of division that needs to be healed early, so that Sri Lanka can take the leap to the next level of development as a polity that is united in heart and mind. At the present time, Sri Lanka’s economic growth is at the bottom of South Asia, only above war-torn Afghanistan. If Sri Lanka is to benefit maximally from the modernizing vision of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa it needs to be united internally and it also needs the internationally supportive environment that India can help to provide.