By Dayan Jayatilleka –
[Pre-AGM address to the Citizens Movement for Good Governance-CIMOGG]
Let me venture a banal observation. Most of us in this room -and most people we know- would have been positively disposed about the decisive termination of the war in May 2009. Now the term “positively disposed” covers a continuum from ‘relieved’ to ‘glad’ to ‘happy’. But I also think that most of us in this room and most of the people we know have a sense of disquiet about the present. If we take our minds back to May 2009, I dare say that none of us really expected to be here in this mood 4 years down the road. That is not what we thought things would be like. That’s not what we thought we would feel 4 years later. So there has been an important gap between expectation and fulfillment.
This gap can be super-imposed on yet another gap, that between promise and fulfillment. Sri Lanka’s story or the story of Ceylon is probably that story; the story of the gap between our promise as a country, as a society and the actual outcomes, the actual performance.
Today, we are at a particular point of crisis. I certainly do not say that this is the worst crisis we have faced because we have faced far worse situations. Not only did we have three decades of war, at least two of which were punctuated by suicide terrorism every month, perhaps even every week, but we also had a situation in the late ‘80s where we faced triple challenges. We had the Southern insurrection, a Northern insurrection and an external military presence on our soil all at the same time, during the period ‘87-‘90. That is one of the worst situations that any society or State could be in.
So where we are now is not anywhere as bad as where we have been. But in a different sense and in a different dimension it is somewhat more disturbing. I would call this the human resource dimension. However bad things were in the ‘80s or the ‘90s, we could always count on human resources of a certain quality. We could think of certain entities or personalities who could turn things around. The system was not as depleted of quality human resources as it is now.
The human resources crisis is perhaps best dramatized by the phenomenon of the brain drain which has accelerated in the post-war period. Now that is an anomaly. The brain drain is something we have been discussing for decades, but we now have a situation where young people don’t even wait to finish their first degree. If they can leave during their first degree they’ll leave. So the brain drain is cutting deeper. Young professionals look for the first opportunity to get to the exit ramps. This is exactly the opposite of what any post-war society should look like; especially one in which the legitimate State won. We have contrary examples in Angola, in Ethiopia, even in Rwanda where the degree of recovery and development has been much faster. Here in Sri Lanka, not only are young people leaving and fewer coming back but the policy of the system seems to be at best ambivalent, at worse a conscious disincentive to such return. Take the issue of dual citizenship.
How prudent is it to force young people of Sri Lankan origin to actually have to choose between being citizens of the United States, Canada, or Australia – of any First World country–and citizens of Sri Lanka. Why do we wish them to make this choice? One may of course speculate about certain considerations which are said to be of a security nature but it really doesn’t make sense to me when you weigh the pluses and the minuses, because if we were to adopt a rational and open minded policy about dual citizenship, what we would immediately accomplish were we to fast-track dual citizenship or at least have maintained the old policy, is to make Sri Lanka share-holders in many societies and states of the world. If you give dual citizenship fairly freely then you are picking up shares in most of the Western societies from which the anti-Sri Lankan lobbying operate. When you fail to do so, you are myopically depriving yourself of a possible strategic advantage.
We are also placing ourselves in a social situation which is little short of tragic because those of you who have children and grandchildren would love to have them come back or come back more often. But if the doors are shut, if the attitude is one of a lack of welcome then it is we who will be the losers. Quite a few of us have children, grandchildren, nephews and nieces out there who may want to come back and work, who want to spend time here and be citizens of Sri Lanka as well. It is the Sri Lankan state which seems to be saying ‘no’ or ‘may be not’.
This goes in a completely opposite direction of the two miracles of the contemporary world: India and China, countries with very different systems but similar attitudes and policies in certain important respects. Both countries have over billion people. One would have thought that they would say ‘look we can afford not to have people coming back because we have such a large population with a large educated strata’. But you know that the overseas Chinese and the non resident Indians have been crucial players in catalyzing the economic revolutions of China and India. We are doing just the opposite!
What this tells me is that the main reason for the gap between promise and fulfillment has been in the realm of mentalities. There is something about the mentality of those who are making the decisions that reflects itself in the policy process, and those policies have blocked the transition from a successfully won war to a sustainable peace.
There was something we could always count on and that we do not have today. That is the balancing effect of an opposition. Whichever party we belonged to or didn’t, we could always count on the fact that the opposition in Parliament, at the elections, would act as a pressure group, as a competitor and therefore help correct the course of the country. Now we can’t count on that anymore. Why is this? A war changes history in a way that few things do. It is a landmark event, whichever society you are talking about or whichever time of history.
Wars define positions. Sri Lanka went through this massive experience of war. You don’t live down the position you took during the war. If you have been on the wrong side of the war, you really cannot be on the right side of an election. If the successful wartime leader also has personal appeal while his opponent has none, then no economic crisis is going to be able to change that sufficiently. Neither the personal popularity nor the ‘trust gap’ among the majority (and these merge and superimpose) can be bridged even with a spoiler third candidate.
So what we have today, for the first time in our lifetime, is a political system which is no longer competitive. It is uncompetitive not primarily because the President is coercively suppressing the main opposition (I do not see any members of the United National Party actually locked up), but simply because the opposition is in implosive collapse. If that is to change, the main democratic opposition has to dissociate itself from that particular period in its history, just as the Sri Lanka Freedom Party had to dissociate itself from the memories of economic hardships of ’70-’77 and substitute for Madam Sirimavo Bandaranaike, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga who had shifted the party’s stance on the economy to one of embracing the open economy. So long as the SLFP was seen as the party that might take us back to the dark era of shortages, there was no way it was going to win. It is even more so in a matter which is more emotive, such as the recently concluded Long War.
The government will always prefer a discredited and weak opposition. But society can make another choice. There are no coercive penalties for trying to change democratically the leadership of an opposition party and make it more competitive. I argue that the democratic deficit is not so much a question of a bad constitution but a political marketplace which is no longer competitive. Unless that is changed, we will not be able to restore something that is fundamental to any society; an equilibrium. Right now there is no equilibrium.
If one factored in that though the Sinhalese are 75%, there are other communities on this island then we would realize that we all have to live together, we have to cohabit– which requires mutual respect and accommodation. If one factored in that just across the water, we have Tamil Nadu with 70 million people of Tamil origin, that Tamil Nadu is no longer merely a kingdom as it was in ancient times but is part of the big power India, and that India’s main political formations will be bidding for Tamil Nadu’s support to form a stable government next year—a government in which would almost certainly be a coalition with regional parties–we would be more aware of the strategic vulnerabilities of this island and less cavalier in the kind of suggestions that I find in daily newspapers, emanating sometimes from the highest levels of officialdom.
We seem to have forgotten the bitter lessons of the past. We have forgotten what happened before the intrusive airdrop of 1987. Everybody knows about the airdrop but we forget what happened 24 hours before and I think it is almost paradigmatic. Because 24 hours before we were informed that there were supplies which Indian boats, flying the Red Cross flag wished to deliver to the suffering citizens of the North of Sri Lanka. Now, we had two options there. One was to receive those supplies and distribute them jointly. This was one thing we could have done but we did not do that. Instead, with a rather loud insistence on absolute national sovereignty and under the direct orders of the then Minister of National Security which was in direct contact with our Navy boats, we turned back the Indian boats with the Red Cross flag. For a few hours we were on Cloud 9, or in 7th heaven as they say. What happened next was that the President of Sri Lanka was quite literally woken from his slumber, and informed, politely but pointedly, that the same supplies would be delivered by Indian Air Force transport planes, which would be accompanied by Mirage 2000 interceptors and that any action against the transport plane would responded to by force.
In politics, especially in ethnic politics with an external dimension, you can do something like turning back the Indian boats in ’87 but you must also be able to understand that unilateral action has consequences— and we have to grasp the realities of the balance of power.