Once again the focus falls on Lanka due to its strategic location in the Indian Ocean, regular occurrence seen many times since the island nation gained independence seven decades ago. At different times UK as its former colonial master, USA as the super power and Japan as a top Asian nation, several times India as the closest neighbour and lately China as a major power in Asia have directly or indirectly impeded in to the affairs of the nation. All with their own security concerns over Indian Ocean and not due to any concern on the people of this little country that was once a paradise; always the opposition blamed the government of the day for the impediment and when they gained power did the same mistake and gradually the country lost its leading position in Asia. Thus having seen many opportunities squandered Sri Lanka could possibly overcome this weakness, if all politicians put country’s interests first and as a priority reinstate the democratic rule shirked from the people seven decades ago.
With the end of colonial rule in 1948, Sri Lanka the tiny island nation at the tip of large Indian subcontinent has had an inferiority complex with India, its powerful northern neighbor. To offset this complex many times Sri Lankan governments brought in major powers; a regular occurrence was them dictating their wishes on the coy rulers. Also Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) due to lack of sound policies failed to exploit the advantage of being located in the maritime highway and sound economic placing in the region; as successive governments neglected the many industrial infrastructures left behind by the British. The timid rulers could have used it with the many economic development opportunities that came their way to build the nation. Instead no sooner the British colonial rulers left the shores, with the pretext of subsistence agriculture programme, concentrated their efforts to change the demography in favour of the majority community that oppressed the minorities of a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country. Then to keep the country united supressed the offending youths of oppressed minorities that kept the communities apart permanently. As generations grew without thinking as one nation with extreme politicians on either side of the divide worked determinedly to keep this mindset alive in the name of race and religion. The state oppression continued with many discriminatory acts of giving prominence to the language and religion of the majority community and the colonisation programme that denied the basic rights of the minorities.
These acts caused many friction between communities resulting in instability in the island; with many interested parties in the island helping the extreme elements for their own benefit and the losers were the ordinary people living mostly in the rural areas of the country. It caused uprisings from the economic minorities and the separatist tendencies from the ethnic minorities against the state led to a civil war, where many perished more from the minority communities. For their own safety many from the affected communities fled to other countries and India had to deal with the influx of many refugees that triggered security concerns in the Indian Ocean. To resolve this issue India gave military training in their own soil to the minority youths fleeing in from Sri Lanka, who returned armed to wage guerilla war on the security forces of their own oppressive government that in time developed into a full scale civil-war. Thus Sri Lankan government sort assistance from other nations to control the conflict.
As conditions deteriorated in 1987 India was forced to interfere and the Sri Lankan rulers were dictated to sign an Indo-Lanka peace pact between the two governments that devolved powers to the provinces to overcome separatist tendencies in the north and east provinces. Unfortunately, the constitution was amended to devolve powers to all the nine provinces; not a well-planned amendment as the government rushed it through without properly debating in the legislature to get the consent of the legislators. Yet to the resulting Provincial Council system applied to all nine provinces was a luxury wasted and did not well blend into the central governance system due to poor implementation and certainly failed to meet the aspirations of the people living in north and east provinces for whom it was intended and the civil-war continued till 2009.
Contrary to the advice from friendly nations like India, the rulers acted against norms and kept pushing their majority rule on their terms on all the minorities and most impacted were the minorities living in north and east provinces who had come out of a civil-war brought to finish with yet another external interference. These increased meddling by other nations dented the independence of the island nation that either missed or messed up many development opportunities. There was the opportunity with many nations coming forward to rebuild and develop the island nation to nature a climate of peace and stability in the Indian Ocean. But the political leaders failed to put country before self and their political parties’ interests and the authoritarian rulers allowed the war victory go to their head and continued with their discriminatory rule against the minorities and by 2015 became more corrupt in the process.
While the attractive position along lucrative and strategic Indian Ocean maritime route that had caused geopolitical tussles in the Indian Ocean in the past over Sri Lanka, brew up again this time mainly between rivals India and China. China was focused on the construction of ports along these valued routes, while it was vital from India’s point of view to secure its periphery and that means the seas as well as nearby states such as Sri Lanka. The previous regime had intended to build the Hambantota Port project with massive Chinese loans and operate the port on its own, but had difficulty of making the port profitable with billions in debt to China and spent heavily its government revenue servicing that debt.
It was at this stage the civil societies disgusted over six years of negative peace under an authoritarian rule supported a move prompted by India and USA, who were not pleased with the policy of Sri Lankan government leaning towards China. The main opposition party keen to grab power backed the move; with the leadership of most minority political parties already supporting the regime to be ejected, were slow to react for fear of losing their privileges, but only joined their voters as an afterthought. But the leadership of Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the political party representing the largest minority in parliament did act firmly from the very start in assisting to bring about the change that resulted in the formation of Unity Government to break the link between power and corruption in the country.
TNA having supported the change was expected to be part of decision makers in the government; instead their veteran leader opted to keep his party in opposition to play the waiting game for a fair political solution. In contrast the two majority political parties forced into an alliance for the first time with their mindset still bent on retaining the well manipulated rule in favour of the majority community, at the cost of the basic rights of the minorities were not ready to provide a fair political solution to TNA. Thus they were unable to come out of their party politics that prevented both the Unity Government and TNA to expedite the resolution of the ethnic problem. The legislature was turned into a Constitution Council to draw up a new Constitution and the draft is expected to be tabled in parliament for debate.
Further on the economy the disposed previous regime had accepted China’s extended hand to develop ports in the island nation. As expected this China’s influence was on their terms and when the presidency was challenged in late 2014, was very much concerned that a new regime might be an obstacle to its plans. But the Unity Government in the face of mounting debt had no option and was compelled to pick up the opportunity in late 2016; caused great concerns to India and Japan, by negotiating a potential deal to trade a high percent stake in the project, which included a 99-year lease of land to China in exchange for debt relief.
While all extreme elements in the country on the south of the divide mobilised themselves together behind the breakaway members of the previous regime to oppose the government preventing them solving the ethnic problem and the extreme elements on the north of the divide mobilised against the TNA preventing them to make positives moves on the same issue. Earlier, having voted for a change TNA should have been part of the cabinet to get decisions to meet the aspirations of their people, instead opted to stay out and continue their political drama from the opposition. The passive pro government stance split the TNA alliance. The breakaway fraction wanted political solution that would merge back their two provinces into a self-rule unit resolved first without the wait and see approach of the TNA leadership opting to stay out. It is widely accepted that TNA should not have extended their support blindly to the government, at least should have put some basic issues as conditions for support. The Unity Government more due to their own inability than for above reasons failed to turn the tide to rebuild a nation inherited in shambles. This upset the very people voted for then in 2015, who at LG Polls in 2018 either refrained in disgust or voted for those who left the alliance reflected the true feelings of the people.
Earlier TNA was helping with the draft of the new constitution, on realising that to keep unity in a country with a permanent majority, it is fundamental for all to have equal citizenship rights’ to share the powers of governance. Yet TNA failed miserably to put any pressure on the Unity Government to expedite the much publicised issues their people faced from the war that ended a decade earlier. These matters are only getting resolved at a snail phase after people in misery brought it to the notice by undertaking many protest marches and meetings during the three and a half years. However last week, TNA knowing well that they cannot make plans in isolation have grabbed the opportunity that came their way to join the Presidential Task Force in the development of the two provinces.
Sri Lankan legislators to reinstate democratic rule shirked from people seven decades ago, must complete the debate on New Constitution and promised reforms to rid of corruption, before seeking votes at the General Election due in 2020. For their part those 15 million eligible to vote in 2020, irrespective of their party political inclinations, should support the new constitution and use their vote wisely to replace the many useless legislators, may include leaders from their political parties with able novices to enable to get a competent set of law makers, to build on the little serenity left in the nation. All possible if Sri Lankans put their mind to it!
“A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” ~Winston Churchill