The commitment of the government to bringing, inter alia, the entire land area of Sri Lanka under state control has enabled it to reach a point where less than 600 square kilometres are still held by the LTTE. The desperate resistance to the advance of the armed forces of the State has, according to figures mentioned by Minister Keheliya Rambukwelle, cost 3,000 lives in the last three months alone - that is, without counting the number of LTTErs killed. It is undeniable that the grievous price that the youth of this country, and their parents, spouses, children and siblings, are paying will all be squandered if we do not pause now to identify the causes of the conflict objectively and find solutions which will not, at some future date, result in a resurgence of violent ill feeling between various sections of the population and the government.
It is the view of the Citizens’ Movement for Good Governance (CIMOGG) that there are two dominant elements which have led to the disastrous history of conflict, poor governance, economic stagnation and the breakdown of the Rule of Law over the past sixty years. The first element has been the failure of the State to set up stable, independent administrative institutions to ensure that just and equal treatment, as required by the Constitution, is meted out to every citizen, without regard to race, religion, caste, family relationships, wealth, old school ties and other tribalistic connections, so that everyone would think and act as Sri Lankans and not as members of assorted sub-groups. The second element is that the educational systems, curricula and many of the media continue to harp upon the dissimilarities between different groups of Sri Lankans rather than try to meld them together into a harmonious whole.
Equality and Independent Administrative Institutions
There is no need to elaborate on the fact that, at present in Sri Lanka, there is gross discrimination in access to jobs, power, financial rewards, education, freedom from administrative and police harassment, and other benefits. It is self-evident that, as long as there are no balanced, independent institutions to ensure that fair play is observed between one Sri Lankan and another, there can never be a commitment from the less favoured to cooperate wholeheartedly with those who are better off. On their own, the Courts, which have recently gone a long way to protect the fundamental rights of citizens, cannot carry the whole burden of maintaining equity. In any case, it is only those who can afford good lawyers who could even consider attempting to get justice enforced by litigation.
The passing of the 17th Amendment in the year 2001, with its real and alleged flaws, was a giant step forward in creating independent institutions to help maintain impartiality in many key areas of State activity. However, Presidents Kumarantunga and Rajapakse have successively helped to render ineffective this vital upgrading of the Constitution. They have preferred to retain powers that they should have entrusted to independent institutions so that they (the Presidents) could have made use of their wide vision and immense political influence to build a united and prosperous Sri Lanka, which is what our future generations are entitled to. Everyone who has studied the working of the 17th Amendment knows that it has a few easily corrected shortcomings and that, if the President really wants to improve it before re-implementing it, Parliament will not hesitate to support him. Therefore, it is time that President Rajapakse divorces himself from the sordid business of trying to pack all important positions with supposedly loyal followers, many of whom have let him down so badly that the public’s generally high regard for him has been needlessly sullied. Mihin Air, the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation and the progressively increasing inability of the Police to prevent or solve cases of kidnapping, arson and murder within areas considered to be highly secure are just three examples. The President’s standing in the people’s estimation will indubitably rocket upwards if only he would let independent institutions take decisions on matters which no effective President in any other part of the world would even dream of getting involved in as he presently does.
Education and the Media
The streaming of children, from a very young age, into separate schools has expanded the rifts between our diverse language and religious groups. How on earth can one expect Sinhalese children to meet and interact on a daily basis with Tamil or Muslim children if they are prevented from doing so by very nature of the educational system? Forcing Sinhala children to learn Tamil, and Tamil and Muslim children to learn Sinhala, without their having any substantial opportunity to meet freely, is destined to fail in its ultimate purpose. In any event, since all children are expected to learn English compulsorily on account of its worldwide importance, is it not more probable that, on the rare occasions that children from different language streams meet, they would prefer to converse in this link language rather than in either Sinhala or Tamil? In any event, as we have pointed out before this, our children are already overloaded with homework. Do we want to compel them to go to yet more tuition classes?
Sri Lanka has a vastly bloated public service. Of the 1,000,000 and more of those who are employed by the State, it is doubtful if more than 100,000 have to interact with members of the public who speak only Sinhala or Tamil. That being so, why force every schoolchild to waste time over several years in acquiring a thorough knowledge of Sinhala or Tamil when only one in 20 of them, or even fewer, may ever have to work in all three languages? Nevertheless, to accommodate the views of those who think that every Sri Lankan child should study all three languages, the teaching of conversational Sinhala and Tamil may be encouraged by allocating an hour or two a week for this purpose - as a "fun" subject - with the proviso that there will be no examinations to be faced and, if at all, only prizes to be won. If, later, some of those leaving school or the university have to work in a job where they are required to speak a language other than their mother tongue and English, the exposure they would have had in the "fun" classes would help them acquire a deeper knowledge of the third language relatively quickly.
Books and the media must be discouraged from highlighting and exacerbating racial and religious disparities, and feeding the hatreds that so many demagogues have exploited without conscience to gain influence over those who do not have the skills or resources to examine critically the half-truths propagated by them. Every school textbook should be vetted by a representative group of academics to exclude material that could cause disaffection between children of different backgrounds who might otherwise gladly become friends. The media is intelligent enough to self-discipline itself, providing the government sets out clear guidelines as to what will encourage national unity and what will not.
What we hope the President will do
If President Rajapakse is to have any chance of becoming a historically important figure, victory over the LTTE alone will not guarantee that. He must distance himself from the self-seeking advice of sycophants and smooth-sounding villains. He must divorce himself from the day-to-day machinations of these undesirables and work for a united Sri Lanka of willingly cooperative citizens. He would then be able to fulfill his promise not to leave the next generation of Sri Lankans to face the kind of problems that have been allowed to build up relentlessly since independence.
The two most important steps to be taken now would be to implement the 17th Amendment and also to set up a distinguished team of persons to represent parents, teachers, academics, public servants, trade unions, businessmen, the media and the professions, who would go into the question of how to foster daily interaction between school going children of all backgrounds and engage them in activities which will favour a uniformly Sri Lankan approach and not some narrow ethnic, religious, caste, class or other view. In current circumstances, it is only the President who can get these two steps taken.
President, Citizens’ Movement for Good Governance