Positive changes need to be supported by proper process


By Jehan Perera

Although commentators not affiliated to the government are inclined to be severely critical of it for its many lapses, there is another side to the story. This can be seen in the government media which presents a story that is fulsome in praise of the present developments in the country. However, due to the exaggerated attempts to make President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his government seem to be a boon to the entire world if not just to Sri Lanka, this story can be lost as flattery and adulation.

The strength of the present government is that it can do what it really wants to do, whether this is good or bad. With its 2/3 majority in Parliament and enduring popularity of the president, the government is able to take the majority of people along with it. There is also the legacy of the anti LTTE campaign that continues to intimidate most people, and not just opponents of the government. One of the most disappointing features of the present is the absence of a clear break with the country’s violent past.

Therefore, due to its popularity and the lurking fear of falling foul of it, there is hardly any mass opposition to the government. This means that whatever the government chooses to do it can do and there is nothing to stop it. This was most recently seen in the passing of harsh legislation that empowered the government to take over so-called "underperforming" economic ventures, including those owned by those who are its political opponents. There was nothing that the Opposition could do to stop this. The absence of checks and balances, and the perception that even the judiciary is unable to hold its ground, is detrimental to the long term stability of the country.

These past two weeks the Sri Lankan stock market, which was promoted by the government as being amongst the best performing markets in the world has suddenly started to collapse. The drop in investor confidence is undoubtedly related to recent actions of the government. While the takeover law meant great cost and loss to those directly affected by the takeovers, it has also meant a dent in investor perception of stable economic policy. Despite this very serious impact on investor confidence the government chose to go ahead.

Positive side

On the other hand, the positive side of the government’s strength has also been manifesting itself in recent times. One is the opening of the Colombo-Matara expressway (E01), the first in Sri Lanka with multiple lanes and toll booths. This project was planned and begun many years ago under a previous government. But its completion was constantly delayed due to difficulties in acquiring the land and overcoming political opposition. The same holds true of the Norochcholai power plant mooted by a previous government, which also faced considerable opposition for many years on environment grounds. But the present government has got its built.

If Sri Lanka is to join the ranks of more developed countries, these projects have to take place. There has been criticism of the burden falling unfairly on some segments of the populace and massive corruption in tenders and in implementation. These need to be corrected. Japan, which funded the major portion of the Colombo-Matara expressway, is a country that could be usefully studied in this regard. Japan’s economic development started to take off in the 1960s following the opening of its own Tokyo-Nagoya superhighway. But Japan ensured that income inequalities were kept in check.

One of the major emerging problems is that Sri Lanka’s rapid economic growth of 7 to 8 percent is accompanied by a rise in income inequality and regional disparities. Building super highways and power plants invariably entails costs to some sections of the people. This is a dilemma of development. But the country as a whole will gain from these projects which the present government has successfully pushed through if there is greater economic equity. This is not only in the country’s national interest; it is in the government’s electoral interests. The near civil war conditions that have seized Thailand between "red shirts" and "yellow shirts" has much to do with the income inequalities that accompanied that country’s rapid economic growth.

Another highly contested area where the government is doing what has to be done is in higher education. For decades, the system of higher education in Sri Lanka has been weakening, as it is largely state-controlled and badly under-funded. The state universities have got run down due to the inability of the government to fund them at acceptable levels. But the obvious remedy of private universities has been resisted tooth and nail. Previous governments have retreated in the face of this opposition. But the present government appears determined to permit private universities to function, which is necessary to upgrade higher education in the country.

Proper mechanisms

Now at long last the government also appears willing to take on its greatest international challenge in the post-war period. This is to deal with the issue of war crimes committed in the course of the last phase of the war. The government’s initial response in the words of the President was that the soldiers carried a gun in one hand and the human rights manual in the other. Its position is that there were zero civilian casualties. Later on, however, the government amended this statement to mean that it had a policy of zero tolerance for civilian casualties. The reluctance of the government to come to terms with the past must be seen in the context of other countries where wars ended, but which took decades to come to terms with them.

In the case of Sri Lanka, however, relentless international pressure is ensuring that the process of coming to terms with the past is being speeded up. Recently, the government has been showing more willingness to accept that civilian casualties did occur, owing to the nature of a war with a foe as deadly as the LTTE. This concession was made by Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the launching of its formal response to the UN Panel report on alleged human rights violations in the last phase of the war and also the UK Channel 4 programme that purports to show some of these violations. The latest concession came at a conference on Reconciliation organised by the government at which the Defence Secretary pledged to investigate specific cases of human rights violations and war crimes committed by individual soldiers.

The government’s declaration of its willingness to take up the challenge of war crimes comes after the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission submitted its final report to the President. The LLRC met a large number of groups and individuals who gave it information about the last phase of the war, and some of whom experienced it personally. Among the LLRC recommendations leaked to the media is one that calls for an investigation into the alleged human rights violations in the last phase of the war. The LLRC itself could not take on this task as it was outside its mandate.

The government would also do well to remember that processes are as important as the final outcome. If it is to extend the credibility of the LLRC report it must ensure that the mechanism adopted to deal with its recommendations is credible. The challenge before the government, and this is one that encompasses all sectors is to ensure follow up processes which have been hitherto notable largely by their absence. The willingness of the government to deal with issue of the past and accountability is still in the realm of words. But thoughts and words are the necessary precursor to actions. This shift needs to be welcomed and supported.

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