Govt. Needs To Act On Northern Chief Minister’s Recommendations 23 02 2014 By Jehan Perera

 Govt. Needs To Act On Northern Chief Minister’s Recommendations

It is clear that something has gone seriously wrong with governance in Sri Lanka. This is seen in the disempowerment of people at all levels of society. Those at the community level find that they cannot get their needs met in their interactions with the government bureaucracy. At the provincial level, the authorities find that they are powerless in the face of the central government. Now at the national level too, the government leadership is speaking in terms of going to the “electric chair” because international forces are disempowering them.

 Unfortunately there are not many who can see the larger picture and where the country has gone wrong in governance which has led to this disempowering. This problem was dealt with at a conference on Socio-Economic Development in the Northern and Eastern Provinces organized by the University Grants Commission of Sri Lanka at which top academics made presentations.

The positive message from the conference was that government may not be choosing the path of all out confrontation with its opponents in the country. Instead the invitation to the Chief Minister to be the keynote speaker at this prestigious conference can be seen as a reaching out for reconciliation. In addition to the academic community there were several others who had been invited to the conference including members of the diplomatic community. They noted that both the Chief Minister and the organizers of the conference had made efforts to reach out to one another.

Although the national anthem was sung in Sinhala-only at the beginning of the conference, at its conclusion, the vote of thanks was given in English, Sinhala and Tamil as befits a plural society that the Chief Minister called for in his speech. This was a small gesture, but it was demonstrative of goodwill. The speeches given by academic presenters at the conference focused on well researched numbers and statistics that gave a comprehensive view of the problems to which answers had to be found. On the other hand, the need for a fundamental change of approach was found in the speech delivered by the Chief Minister of the Northern Provincial Council, C V Wigneswaran. His speech gave evidence of his grasp of the overall policy situation in the country. He spoke the blunt truth, but in a way that was meant to educate rather than to attack. In his speech he dealt with fundamental issues of governance that bear upon the fate of the entire country. He noted that there were three areas of policy failure in the government’s approach to the Northern Province, which have had bad consequences on the entire country and also affect its international relations.

Three Failures

Chief Minister Wigneswaran pointed out that Sri Lanka was a plural society. Accordingly, the effort to create one nation, by using the values and symbols of the majority community was not appropriate. In an apparent confirmation of what he said, the national anthem that was sung at the commencement of the conference was in the Sinhala language only. As a result the Chief Minister was unable to join in, for it was not sung in his own language. He said, “There is no point in declaring that there are no minorities in the country and that we are one people and thereafter banning the singing of the national anthem in the language of one segment of the people. Instead of a pluralistic approach we have taken a majoritarian approach.” The Chief Minister also spoke of the importance of economic development that was meant to benefit the people. He said that the failure to be people-centric and attempt top-down approaches to development is another policy failure. The government has been focusing on big infrastructure projects that do not give priority to the people who live by the side of those big projects. They live in huts while next to them are big new government buildings and big wide roads that connect the North with the capital city. But in the case of development that benefits all, there is a need for consultation and for looking into the specific problems of each part of the country.

The third area of policy failure that the Chief Minister pointed out was government’s priority given to national security over democratic freedoms. He said that there was a critical need to transform the central government’s counter-terrorism mindset focused on state security. “Steps must be taken immediately to confine the military to barracks and to formulate a plan for a phased withdrawal from the Northern Province. This in turn should be followed by meaningful security sector reforms by the government. Sri Lanka does not need to have such a huge defence structure and manpower,” he said. The military is an institution that epitomizes centralized and top-down decision making that is appropriate to situations where two sides are each trying to harm each other. It is not at all suitable to be an economic or development partner in peace time.

Continuing Goodwill

The speech delivered by the Chief Minister was evidence of the continuing good will and sense of realism within the mainstream Tamil polity that sees itself as a part of the national polity and having a stake in the reformation of the whole. The intellectual rigour of the Chief Minister’s speech, together with his moral authority, made a positive impact on the audience of top level academics and other special invitees. This goodwill and realism was matched by the University Grants Commission, which invited him to be the keynote speaker on the occasion. The invitation extended to the Chief Minister was also noteworthy on account of the resolution that was passed a few weeks earlier by the Northern Provincial Council calling for an international investigation into war crimes. The action of the Northern Provincial Council in passing such a resolution could have been expected to upset and anger the government leadership. There is a need for overcoming the past and not getting stuck in it. This is best done through a political solution in which there is mutual forgiveness and reconciliation including making amends for wrongs done. The invitation extended to the Chief Minister, who was also a Supreme Court judge, may be due to the government’s realistic appraisal that they will need his support to deal with the issue of war crimes in the future.

This also suggests that the government is not closing its doors to possible cooperation with the Northern Provincial Council. So far the government has not responded to the demands by nationalist sections of the Sinhalese polity to dissolve the Northern Provincial Council on the grounds of national security. In his own speech, and diverting from his prepared text, the Chief Minister said that he was prepared to consider working within a solution that was less than the ideal that was required, even though other leaders of his party held a different opinion. He said that there were many agreements and commission reports to draw insights and concepts from. He said that good laws could be subverted by bad rulers, whereas even bad laws could be used to promote the people’s interests by good rulers. Even the limited powers available within the existing framework of devolution, and available to the Northern Provincial Council, can be utilized for the good of the people if no obstacles are placed by the central government. It is important that the government should respond positively to the contents of Chief Minister Wigneswaran’s speech and act on his recommendations.