2017 testing year for all Sri Lankans

imagesVeteran Politician Rajavarothiam Sampanthan as Leader of the Opposition and a Member of Parliament in his message to the Nation issued for the New Year 2017, has said his expectation for the New Year was that Sri Lanka would find a permanent and lasting solution to the national question and has called to all political parties, religious leaders, civil society to work together to build a prosperous and peaceful country, forewarning that Sri Lanka should not miss, ‘this golden opportunity.’  Nobody could have hit the nail on the head better; because the past elected leaders had failed to meet voters’ legitimate expectations and aspirations; electorates have become disenchanted with the prevailing versions of democracy.

This classification is perhaps too simplistic as there are many degrees and variations throughout independent history of Sri Lanka, from well-functioning models of the 50s to the failed state, a very painful moment in history witnessed after the guns were silenced in 2009 when the government failed to live up to the obligations that successful winner must fulfill, namely looking beyond their narrow self-interest to the welfares of the people who depend on them. It was hoped that after winning the secessionist war with the Tamil militants, who troubled the island nation for 26 years, the government would accord top priority to finding a political solution to the ethnic issue and attend to the problems caused by the civil war.

This was after a period of untold suffering of three decades of bloody civil war where the High Security Zones (HSZs) were an integral part of the Sri Lankan Tri-forces defenses in the Northern and Eastern Provinces and its gradual expansion deprived Tamil speaking population of their rights. At the height of the war, strategic Palaly air base and Kankesanturai harbour were located within the HSZ and as the result many as a million people had to leave their dwellings, in addition to those who had been forced out of HSZs. The Tri-forces in Jaffna alone occupied a staggering 33,156 acres and elsewhere had held a total of 1,405 acres of land, at the end of the war. Land has been released in stages and Defense Ministry has promised to release more during 2015.

In May, 2009, there had been 152 battalions assigned meant to face a possible low intensity hit-and-run terror campaign. Army headquarters reduced the northern deployment, with more than half the battalions assigned for the Mullaitivu command redeployed. Though they were relocated after the conclusion of the war, during the six negative peace years to 2015, many Sri Lankans felt that the rulers had stolen their democracy by retention of security forces in the war torn provinces of North and East, while the rulers argued that militarization was necessary for National Security. This argument however was misleading, and had the rulers as winners compensated the losers; government could have completed reconciliation and by now secured the Nation with economic stability and far-reaching political consequences. It would have brought about some economic convergence between rural poor and urban rich population in the country and brought the Northerners who were divided from the Southerners by the bloody civil war closer.

With other things in mind the last regime became increasingly dysfunctional and imposed a strictness program that served its narrow self-interest and prevailing conditions were far removed from those prescribed for reconciliation, became progressively more difficult, and eventually impossible, because it couldn’t be ratified. Parliament passed the controversial 18th Amendment Bill in 2010; it is basically an amendment of the 17th Amendment, which the government considered as “ineffective and impractical.” The changes brought about by this amendment enabled the past President to seek re-election any number of times and it was all about arming him with absolute power. The bill was referred to Supreme Court, as per the constitutional requirement, who stated the amendment was consistent with the provisions of the Constitution and did not require a referendum; the bill was thus put on fast track and enacted within 10 days without offering the public any chance to air their views. Also the Provincial Police and Public Service Commission, which has been made defunct under the 18th amendment, did affect the provinces and thus, ideally, the bill should have received the approval from the Provincial Councils. According to the Standing Order 46 (A) the Provincial Councils should have been consulted on any Bill that provided for matters affecting their affairs. But the provinces were totally sidelined during the process. Thus the nation became the victim of lawlessness as much-needed reforms could not be enacted as rulers exploited loopholes in them and the 27 years old North-East Provincial Council was demerged. That is how institutions became increasingly complicated, and electorates became alienated. Compare this with the behavior of the US after WWII: the US launched the Marshall Plan, which led to the development of Europe and the free world.

The rise of anti-government movements led by a true Buddhist Monk further impeded the functioning of institutions and these forces of disintegration received a powerful boost in 2014, first by fielding a common candidate, then with the election of the common candidate as the President on January 8, 2015.. Thus democracy was given a new lease with the formation of a new government, formed by the two major political parties in coalition with other progressive parties for the first time in the history of the nation. In reality although new coalition government was elected, the new cabinet comprised of many incompetent extremists and old-timers a heavy price for the formation of the new government. The 19th Amendment to the Constitution was passed on 28 April 2015, which in effect diluted the powers of Executive Presidency, which had been in force since 1978. On January 9, 2016 new coalition government resolved to convert the House of Parliament into a Constitutional Assembly, marking the formal inauguration of the process of making a new Constitution in the place of the 1978 Constitution.

It is the hope that democracy will prove resilient in Sri Lanka with the proposed new constitution and institutions, including the second level Provincial Councils will be strengthened enough to resist the old regime, thus preventing any would-be dictator from becoming an actual one. It is time for the leaders and citizens alike to realize that with economic growth lagging and the reconciliation out of control, the country is on the verge of breakdown that endangers their way of life and those who believe that the country needs to be saved in order to be reinvented must do whatever they can to bring about a better outcome.

Sampanthan knows better than others that opportunities were missed in the past in 1987 when the Provincial Council system was introduced, in 2000 Proposals to provide autonomy for the regions with the establishment of an interim council for the northern and eastern provinces and later during the Post Tsunami Negotiations (PTOMS) of 2005. Now as all Sri Lankans awaits the New Year 2017 another opportunity is knocking at the door; while there are the extremists who are working with their own agendas to derail the whole process, already there are rattling within TNA members that it should walk out of the discussions in the Constitutional Assembly. Sampanthan has called to all stakeholders to work together to build a prosperous and peaceful country, forewarning that Sri Lanka should not miss, ‘this golden opportunity’. For he knows too well that they must make use of the opportunity to resolve the main issue once and for all; on the other side of the coin no matter how many development plans the coalition government may cook up with China, India or any other nation, the country could go forward only if a permanent and lasting solution to the national question is reached first. So the New Year 2017 would certainly be a testing year for all Sri Lankans.