By Jehan Perera –
The situation in the country appears to be getting less hopeful by the day. The Galle Face protest site reflects this despondency. The material conditions of life are getting worse, not better. It is becoming harder for people to make the sacrifice for positive change that may not take place. The lines in front of petrol stations get longer. The number of them that have closed temporarily has increased. The prime minister is warning that there will be food scarcity in the next few months and people should be prepared to settle for two meals a day instead of the regular three. The Colombo mayor has announced that the municipality will set up “soup kitchens” to meet the needs of those who will soon have little or nothing to eat.
As a cost saving measure in these dire circumstances the government had decided to halt all development activities. A plan by the previous government to provide large sums of money to local government bodies to engage in development activities has been shelved. Now the government is also contemplating shortening the work week by a day to conserve fuel. State sector employees might soon be offered the option of staying at home one day of the week providing they engage in home garden cultivation to increase the food supply. But it is not every public servant who can engage in home gardening. The government is also proposing no-pay leave for public servants in order to be employed overseas.
On the other hand, a full sized government is in the process of being selected. This is in contradiction to the earlier pledge made by the president to appoint a small interim government of no more than 15 ministers till the crisis in the country is overcome. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said it had been decided not to pay ministerial salaries to the cabinet ministers of the new government to be appointed in the future. Accordingly, it is proposed that they will receive only the average salary of a Member of Parliament. The better model to follow may be that of Singapore which pays public officials very well but has a policy of zero tolerance for corruption.
Despite the lack of change, and due to it, new protest sites are coming into being in major urban centres though on a smaller scale in other parts of the country. These include Anuradhapura, Badulla, Galle, Matara, Kandy, Nuwara Eliya, Ratnapura and most recently, Jaela. One of the key slogans at the youth-led public protests taking place is that of systems change. Systems change needs to go beyond words and requires an understanding of systems thinking means. In simple terms it is an approach to problem solving by viewing “problems” as parts of an overall system, rather than reacting to specific parts. And examining the linkages and interactions between the elements that compose the entirety of the system. The proposed 21st Amendment is unlikely to bring about the desired system change and only consolidate the existing system as we see what is happening in parliament now.
The demand for systems change is accompanied by the demand that the president, prime minister, government and all 225 parliamentarians should resign. This is validated by the observation that little is changing. The more things change it seems the more they remain the same. This is based on the observation that the parliamentarians continue to give priority to their own wellbeing over that of the people they have been elected to represent. The priority given by the parliamentarians to provide new houses to parliamentarians and to compensate those who lost their properties to arson, in the millions and tens of millions against those who lost their crops last season or had lost their house and property owing to conflict, does not inspire confidence in their decision making at this time. The discrepancy becomes even more glaring in the context of the government’s offer to families of the missing persons that they would provide them with Rs 100,000 as compensation.
Not just parliamentarians, the homes of ordinary people and the commercial establishments they have owned have been subjected to arson, looting and destruction from the time of the first post-independence riots which usually took on communal overtones. This type of wanton destruction took place during the war as well. Innocent people who had done nothing to deserve the fate they were subjected to suffering as a result. The compensation they received was negligible (Rs 150,000 in 1990) in comparison to that being contemplated for the parliamentarians who have lost their properties, some of which were well beyond the extent of their known sources of income.
The main change in the system that is being currently envisaged is to reduce the power of the executive presidency that is responsible for much of the present ills in the country. The present formulation of the 21st Amendment seeks to create a stronger system of checks and balances, but without reducing the president’s power to appoint ministers. It seeks to establish a constitutional council that will ensure fairer and more non-partisan selection of those who will head state institutions which are part of the system of checks and balances. The 21st Amendment will ensure greater independence for those appointed to head the higher judiciary, the bribery commission, the election commission, the human rights commission, and the national audit and procurement committees. But the president will still be given the powers to pick the prime minister and the ministers.
Systems change also needs to be accompanied by people change to become real change. There is a need for individuals of integrity who can transcend systems that breed corruption, as is the case with the present system. The Human Rights Commission is an example. Under the 20th Amendment that is currently the law of the land, the president can appoint anyone he wants to high positions of state including the judiciary, the human rights commission, the bribery commission, the elections commission, the police commission, the public services commission and governors of the provinces, to name but a few. This is a system that can lead to deference to the president’s desires.
However, individuals of integrity can rise above the system that brought them to those positions. The recently appointed chairperson of the human rights commission, former justice Rohini Marasinghe has publicly contradicted government policy with regard to the Prevention of Terrorism Act and has questioned the police regarding their use of it. Under her leadership the human rights commission also called for an explanation from the government for the reasons for the declaration of a state of emergency when the protests at Galle Face in Colombo were largely peaceful adhering to police guidelines. Similarly, the recently appointed chairperson of the Office on Missing Persons, Mahesh Katulanda, has committed his office to ascertain the truth behind those who went missing, which is a break from the past.
The positive results obtained by these new appointments gives rise to the hope that a new generation of leaders are round the corner and the old must give way to the new. One of the justifications given for restricting the change under the 21st Amendment, and retaining the president’s powers to appoint ministers, is the composition of the present parliament which is dominated by those who will be more loyal to the former prime minister than to the present one. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe was selected on account of belief in his crisis management skills and international credibility in relation to others in the current parliament who might have held the position. But this can only be a first step. The way out of this dilemma is to dissolve this unsatisfactory parliament as soon as possible and hold general elections. Hopefully, the new parliament that is elected with new leaders will think anew and be able to give priority to the country’s needs including abolishing the executive presidency.