By Kusal Perera –
There’s plenty good things told to the local media by this new government and its ardent fans on a daily basis on Constitutional Reforms, Electoral changes, Right to Information Act and also on “Yahapalanaya” (good governance). The fad now is to say, “But, there is freedom and a change for the better”. Yes, with Rajapaksas out of power, there certainly is a sense of relief. A carefree feeling blowing around, more in Colombo. There are things happening on reforms, whatever “yahapalanaya” is meant to be. What’s amiss though are PEOPLE, in all these rough and rushed efforts to keep pace with the much delayed 100 D programme of the new rule.
In Sri Lankan context, why people are the most important factor in democratic processes has two major reasons. It is now an internationally accepted norm and practise in the democratic world for any constitutional and State reform to ensure vibrant “citizen participation”. It’s not just the end product that is important, but the process as well through which changes are affected. People have to feel they were part of the reform process that decided change and own what’s done. Therefore, all reforms this government proposes, first have to be in public domain to fit in with democratic processes. Most unfortunately, what we see are drafts and discussion documents circulating in private circles and clearly labelled as “private” or “unofficial”. That too, only in English language.
The other is an added and a serious reason why we have to have people actively involved in deciding all reforms, before they go to this parliament and into effective implementation. This parliament is no legitimate body to represent the people anymore and have proved over and over again they are not competent and committed in taking up serious responsibility such as debating very important issues like constitutional and electoral reforms. Reading through “Hansards” of the past decade, one would not come across a single speech that can be taken as intellectual, logical, relevant and with common sense. Whatever the subject, there are no serious contributions in parliamentary debates except when at times the TNA is on their feet.
With that comes illegitimacy of this parliament. In 2010 April, the people voted at the elections and constituted a parliament with 144 UPFA members, 60 UNP members, 14 TNA members and 07 DNA members. Almost five years after, can anyone guess how the parliament is constituted now, without any elections held? The UPFA numbers went up to 156 MPs by end 2010 while the UNP was reduced to 42 members and the TNA losing their Ampara district MP to the Rajapaksas. Almost a year later, the JVP moved out of the DNA with their 04 MPs. That in every way deformed the people’s verdict in just one year.
In the latest break up in early January, 07 from the SLFP including Maithripala Sirisena crossed over, with 02 JHU MPs, 01 DNA, all SLMC and ACMC and 01 from the CWC joining the crossing over to the opposition. Meanwhile UNP lost their General Secretary who joined the UPFA. But the UPFA itself is now fractured with Weerawansa, Dinesh, Vasu and the breakaway JHU going their own way, canvassing a comeback for Rajapaksa. All of it has brought in a uniquely freak government that lives each day on the tactful sympathy of the SLFP majority in parliamentary Opposition. SLFP that in fact should be the government with their 125 MPs.
This shameless irresponsibility lacking any trace of credibility in present parliament cannot be what decides reforms for this country. A more democratic move would have been to ask for a people’s mandate in electing a new parliament to bring in reforms. But the political pickle that was packaged into a Common Opposition was not going to give up on the projected move in gaining State power by ousting Rajapaksa though remaining a weak minority in parliament. The UNP and the breakaway few from the SLFP/UPFA were determined to saddle themselves into power at the earliest opportunity, before any elections were thought of. This now results in a political confusion that is being balanced within the parliament, for which “promised reforms” are again the gel that keeps them together. Thus the reason why PEOPLE are not within their “yahapalanaya” equation anymore.
This government, at least the Wickremesinghe component of this government that is gearing to remain in power after elections at the end of 100 D programme, tries to maintain a facade of “citizen participation” in working out promised reforms, projecting a democratic and accountable rule. They tend to feel the urban middle class can be proxies for the larger society with NGO connectivity. This “citizen participation” with what the international community and donor agencies call “civil society” has no people in it. This is the betrayal part in democratic politics in this neo liberal world. Few urban NGOs take over the responsibility of the people without even the people knowing they are being replaced by “careerists” working for the funded world in very crucial forums that discuss the future of the people.
“Civil society” has very little meaning and no social relevance outside Colombo. In Colombo, this is a miniscule representation of urban elite tied to donor funded NGOs. Leaving aside the Sinhala racist accusations and allegations continuously levelled against the NGOs, the fact remains they are not democratically managed organisations and not independent from donor driven projects. Ever since the MIRJE folded up, there is no NGO that works with a membership with the democratic right to elect its leadership. All NGOs are individual or family based organisations. They are no doubt small legal entities responsible to the donors and not to the people, some working on their pet projects based on civil liberties, human rights, conflict management, policy planning, media freedom and lately on reconciliation, social integration, good governance and accountability as well. Most issues now having a good flow of funds after this “change” that removed all sanctions slapped under Gota.
These are all Colombo fixed projects with little contact on the ground except through their funded networks. Networks are subordinate and dependent on Colombo based managers and not responsible to their own community. Therefore the larger majority who work close to political parties at local level, trade unions and their branch organisations, provincial and local government activists are wholly out of NGO presence in most closed door high profile activities. Most activities are also conducted in English language. It is therefore never adequate or justifiable to use NGO representations in place of people under the label “civil society”.
In short, any form of deliberations, exchange of ideas and comments accepted via closed door invitee sessions on RTI, 19 Amendment or on proposed Electoral reforms cannot be rubber stamped as done with “civil society” participation to mean “people’s participation”. For these “civil society” participations cannot stand for Sinhala and Tamil speaking vernacular people and do not generate a democratic dialogue in society in the languages of the people. In fact people are not aware as to what is taking place in closed door sessions in Colombo and have not been told what content there is in those discussions, though it is the people’s fate that is decided by these handful of experts.
This thus demands a shift and a change in approach and attitudes. All draft documents related to all reforms have to be in public domain in both Sinhala and Tamil languages, well before they go to the Legal Draftsman’s Department for a final draft. And that again has to be made available for public scrutiny. There is a different role here for the NGOs, although they cannot replace the people in social dialogue. They can facilitate social dialogue if they wish to play a more open role. All these reforms in their legal jargon have to be made available to the people in simple language, with references where necessary and in user friendly format. The State organisations will not have funds or the efficiency in turning out such literature. This is one responsibility the NGOs can take over to fill the void in social dialogue.
Thus it’s not the few who believe they are experts, but the larger Sinhala and Tamil speaking society that should now play direct in accepting reforms when their elected representatives have betrayed complete trust. For these reforms are ones that will have to be longstanding and cannot be tinkered every now and then. So let’s demand a people based reform process instead of depending on Colombo proxies and a parliament that is now illegitimate.