By Laksiri Fernando –
There are several issues related to the devolution of power to the provinces lurking behind the Sampur event where the Chief Minister (CM) of the Eastern Province (EP), Nazeer Ahamed, abused and insulted a senior naval officer, Captain I. R. Premaratne, at a school event where small children were present in addition to the US Ambassador. The behaviour typical of many politicians in recent past or even today should be condemned without hesitation.
The CM has apparently regretted his behaviour according to the SLMC leader, Rauff Hakeem (The Island, 26 May 2016), but in any decent democracy this is a matter that any responsible politician or political officeholder should have resigned on. Unfortunately we don’t have that responsible tradition in Sri Lanka. In addition to any ‘disciplinary’ inquiry conducted on the matter by the President or the government, the aggrieved naval officer has every right to claim damages from Nazeer Ahamed, and he may be liable not as the CM but in his personal capacity. Otherwise, the tax payers’ money would be wasted.
Having said that, there are two other issues more profound in my opinion than what appears to be the case. First is about the way the CM has apparently been treated at the said event without being invited to the stage by the compere. It is said that it was the Governor who gestured him to come on board and when he was approaching the stage he was stopped by the naval officer probably to give way for the small children. Could it be a mistake or misunderstanding? I really doubt. As The Island editorial (26 May 2016) rightly said, while condemning the behaviour of the CM, “The CM should be treated with due respect and if any official has been remiss in his duties action is called for against him.”
Photo – CM Nazeer at the event in March (blue tie)
It is said that the event was organized by the Navy to declare open a computer unit and a science lab at the Sampur Mahavidyalayam to the benefit of the students. This is commendable. On the Navy initiative, they were the donations of the David Pieris Group and the incident has happened when some school bags were being distributed to the students on the stage. As the organizers of the event, it may be the prerogative of the Navy to choose the chief guest for the event although they could have invited both the Governor and the CM as chief guests or one as the guest of honour.
Sampur Mahavidyalayam to the best of my knowledge is a provincial school and not a national one, and the CM of the province and his administration have every right to participate and look into the matters of that school or any school under their purview. At least the CM should have been treated at the event with respect. If the present CM is an assertive one unlike the past CMs, it is not a negative attribute per se but rather a positive one except that the assertiveness should have been exercised with sophistication which is a rare commodity among many politicians.
It is not long time ago (only in March) that the Navy handed over 177 acres of land in the area to the original owners, on which the Sampur Mahavidyalayam was also situated, under President Sirisena’s directives. For that ceremony, the present CM also has participated. Therefore, the CM cannot be an unknown person to the Navy or the Captain. Even last year, 60 acres were released to the original owners on the initiative of the President.
Second issue is the following. According to the Navy News (website), the Sri Lanka Tamil Teachers’ Union has also praised the handing over of the ‘Maha Vidyalaya,’ the building renovated and furniture repaired, to the school management. This is again commendable.
However, who is in charge of the school management now? The provincial council, the central government or still the Navy?
These seem to be the crust of the problem where the CM and the Provincial Council were side-lined or neglected by the Navy or the Governor.
It is understandable in a way that the Navy or any section of the armed forces would prefer the Central Government to the Provincial Council/s or a Governor to a CM. There is no doubt that when the Governor is there, he should get priority. But this does not mean that the CM should be side-lined.
In addition, the Navy or the Army should come to terms with the devolved government structures in the provinces particularly in the North and the East where a heavy presence of them is required for security reasons. The relations should be most amicable on both sides. If these matters are not clear to the Navy or the Army, there should be some efforts to make them clear or clearer.
I happened to visit the Eastern Provincial Council and Trincomalee in connection with an evaluation project of the Finance Commission and the World Bank in December 2010. That time the CM was Sivanesathurai Santhirakanthan. In addition to what we were investigating, it was my observation that the PC was under resourced particularly in terms of competent officers, knowhow and equipment/facilities except for buildings. Meagre capital and project funding was another issue. The tasks of resurrecting education and schools were enormous. I understand that for 2016, there is an increased capital fund allocation but this is still 1/4 of the recurrent expenditure. The recurrent expenditure mainly means for salaries and day to day expenses.
Displacement, poverty and housing were major problems affecting the people in the province. It is true that the contribution of the province to the national GDP still lingers around 7 percent as a consequence of the destructive separatist war. But the Eastern Province is traditionally called the country’s ‘Rice Bowl.’ There are many other areas through which the province could contribute to the national economy. But the most important pre-condition before all these is people’s confidence in the administration where their elected representatives are respected and their concerns are taken into proper consideration. This is the value of devolution and provincial councils closer to the people whatever the intermittent weaknesses.
Most important factor in this province is the ethnically mixed character of the population with almost an equal balance between the three major communities of the Tamils, the Muslims and the Sinhalese. In that sense, this province could be a laboratory of ethnic reconciliation if handled properly and with understanding. Otherwise it would be a future hell. This is where the Governor has a major neutral and empathetic role to play in addressing and appeasing various concerns and communities.
To make the long story short, during our visit to Trincomalee, there was a dinner invitation to us from a key naval officer who was a post-graduate student of one of my colleagues. On our way to the cantonment and his official mess that evening, almost near the premises, we were astonished by a small ‘shantytown’ with make shift structures and lingering human souls even at that hour. We stopped and watched. There were similar backyard areas even in the Trincomalee town which disturbed me most but this was different in scale and atmosphere.
In contrast, our friend’s official mess or the surroundings were like going from hell to heaven! We were facing the ocean, the sea breeze stimulating our cheeks and earlobes while we were sipping beer. It was a picturesque atmosphere minutely maintained by the navy soldiers. When we went near the beach, there was an illuminated ship and a building on to the further north. When we inquired, they were part of a navy-run tourist resort.
I did inquire about the ‘shanty town’ from our friend. He frankly admitted that those were the displaced people, mostly fisher folk, because of the land taken for security purposes. He himself was troubled as he himself admitted originating from a ‘poor family’ in the south. Those people were barred from fishing at least in that area. ‘We all are in a vicious cycle’ as he said.
Governor and the CM
There are obvious tensions behind the event between the Governor and the CM, if not at a personal level, in an institutional context. This is the biggest issue. However, what the CM has expressed so far relates to the person in the Governor, not so much of the institution. He has told the Daily Mirror (25 May 2016) that “I know the navy officers are innocent. It was the governor who was at fault.” What he has said about the ‘helicopter ride’ however is almost trivial although it was not at all tactful or diplomatic on the part of the Governor. There are delicate matters to be handled in the relationship between a Governor and a CM, on both sides, in particularly in the East or the North.
But subsequently the CM has expressed broader grievances saying ‘the Governor had shown a lack of respect for him, frequently undermining his authority in the province and interfering in his work.’ This is where some (controversial) constitutional arrangements between the Governor and the CM seem to be at play. This is what I call the ‘tensions in devolution.’ This is particularly true as the devolution of power is instituted in Sri Lanka under a presidential system unlike in India.
Even in India, according David Butler, “Conflicts between State Governors … (who are appointed by the central government) and Chief Ministers are endemic.” This he says in a study on “Surrogate for the Sovereign: Constitutional Heads of State in the Commonwealth” (p. 314). There is a more substantial study by Madhusoodanan Nair titled “Governors and Chief Ministers in Indian States: Conflicts and Relations.”
There may be a different angle to the current conflict, what P. K. Balachandran has highlighted as ‘Muslims Politics’ (“Indian Express,” 27 May 2016). As he says, right or wrong, ‘the Muslims in Lanka have traditionally striven to make use of state power for the benefit of their community and this has led to confrontations with the powers-that-be.’ He also states that the ‘Eastern Tamils charge that Muslim-led administrations have not been giving them their due, and praise the Governor Fernando for standing up for them.’
All may be misunderstandings, miscommunications or misconceptions (hopefully). However, if there is any perception or doubt to that effect, then that needs to be addressed in a more amicable manner. Cooperative devolution, in its broadest sense of the term, might be the solution. This means not only the Governors and the CMs cooperating, but also the centre and the provinces as well as all political parties representing the people in the provinces cooperating. A committee system of government like introduced under the Donoughmore constitution (1931) or what is largely practiced in Switzerland might be the best.