Presidential election 2010, and the next armed uprising in Sri Lanka

“The feeling that the rule of law does not preside over the highest authority in the country led to disgust and mistrust in the ability of the constitution to protect the fundamental rights of people.”

By Thrishantha Nanayakkara, PhD

(January 14, London, Sri Lanka Guardian) I carefully observed the developments in Sri Lanka around the current race for the presidency in order to find an answer to one of my major points of interest as a citizen. That is who has a better sense of what is needed to be done to avoid a fourth armed uprising in Sri Lanka?

Higher education: If we carefully look at the root causes of the past three armed uprisings, frustrated university students and intellectuals played a central role in the early developments in the two JVP led uprisings and the Tamil Nationalistic movements like EROS (Eelam Revolutionary Organization of Students) that finally led to LTTE’s armed struggle. Though the JVP movement gave more emphasis on employability of graduates, the Tamil movement gave more emphasis on wider access to a quality higher education. I feel that they are the flip sides of the same coin. Still today, only 3% of the students who sit for A/L examination get entrance to the state universities under a quota system that marginalizes students in cities to give more opportunities to the rural students. Moreover, state universities are virtually running a monopoly in higher education denying the choice of a university education to the rest of the 97%. I urge Sri Lankans to read the manifestos of the two main candidates – Mahinda Rajapakse and Sarath Fonseka - carefully to see who seems to have a better sense of urgency to bring in reforms in this area.

Freedom of expression: All three armed uprisings went through a brief stage of radical politics that were met with harsh police and military retaliations from the state that spiraled the status quo down to messier depths. Therefore, there is a need to build a culture of tolerance for opposite views. Sadly, we have been seeing an increasing level of violence against opposite views that peaked with a death yesterday in Tangalla. Intimidation is everywhere. The best test is to ask yourself if you feel free to talk against any of the presidential candidates. If you feel more scared to talk against one candidate, he is responsible for creating that fear psychosis. The danger, is that this fear psychosis makes some youth to develop extremist ideas though they may look dormant.

Rule of law: The feeling that the rule of law does not preside over the highest authority in the country led to disgust and mistrust in the ability of the constitution to protect the fundamental rights of people. The immediate questions many ask are, whether Government corruption is tolerated by the law or not, whether executive presidential discretion risks the country’s future in the personality of the president than the values of the constitution? etc. The withdrawal of the foreign currency remitting ceiling during the election heat, failure to implement the 17th amendment to the constitution gave open indications that Mahinda Rajapakse has not been that great in combating corruption and abuse of state property by the ruling party. On the other hand the recent scandal on Sarath Fonseka’s involvement in a defence hardware supplying company headed by his son-in-law raised fresh concerns about his integrity. However, we should give more priority to exact legal mechanisms both of them propose to bring in to fight corruption in the future, because it is only the law and the power of the law enforcement agencies to hold all citizens including the president liable under the law that can guarantee clarity in the future. Who looks more innocent is a secondary issue. In that sense, I highly appreciate Sarth Fonseka’s specific reference to bring in regulations in line with the UN convention against corruption (page 12 of his manifesto). However, we should note that Mahinda Rajapakse has given strong promises to fight corruption though he does not refer to the legal mechanisms he will use to do that.

Notion of citizenship: National integration and solidifying the noble notion of citizenship plays a pivotal political role in avoiding extremism. The question we should ask is, whether every citizen feels that he/she has a reasonable right to live a free life and achieve his/her economic and political aspirations without compromising the right of another citizen to his/hers, and does not feel that a particular section of the society is preferentially treated? In that sense, both candidates have made attempts to bring minority communities to the mainstream politics. Mahinda Rajapakse took steps to give a former rebel commander wide powers within his party and a ministry of National Integration. However, many educated Tamils do not seem to see much effect in this move. Sarath Fonseka on the hand has managed to bring members of the Tamil National Alliance which was virtually the LTTE’s democratic arm in the parliament, and JVP who claim to be representing the rights of the oppressed communities in Sri Lanka, along with the main opposition United National Party to play pivotal mainstream roles in his political campaign. If it continues to listen to the cries of the former rebels and the communities they represent, I do not see anything more valuable than this political miracle. However, I am not sure if Sarath Fonseka will have enough political maturity to keep this coalition of diverging ideas to evolve a lasting solution to the discriminated masses in Sri Lanka.

Sustainable economic growth: The economy needs its due attention because it was the economically deprived communities that provided the foot soldiers to fuel all three armed uprisings. Both candidates seem to be promising lucrative Government concessions and salary hikes to Government servants. While appreciating this generosity, I am yet to see any of the candidates galvanizing the public opinion that it is shear focused hard work of each of us that can one day save us from the economic crisis. The Government can not deliver concessions if the wealth creation machinery is retarded. In order to revive our economy, we should give the bats and balls to the private sector and make the Government play the umpire’s role. At present, we are in a confusion. Government corporations like CEB (per day loss is more than Rs. 3 million), Petroleum corporation (annual loss in billions of Rupees), and the National career (again the loss in billions of Rupees) need to be revived with viable business models without sacrificing the Government’s ability to run them in the best interests of the public. Local universities should be empowered to back up the private sector with relevant R&D. My own survey among universities proved me that successive Governments have not dared to bring in reforms to the way Universities are allowed to manage their R&D finances (see here). Mahinda Chinthana program has undoubtedly lead a number of credible projects like the Norichcholai power station, the Galle, Hambantota, and Colombo harbor projects, and the highway projects. The rapid development in North and East also deserves a salute. However, it is Sarath Fonseka’s belief that better Government accountability and transparency will save a massive amount of money wasted in vain, and expand more room for faster growth. He estimates that the economy could grow at an additional 2% if the wastage could be stopped.

Foreign relations: Foreign relations is a double edged sword. One can effectively use it as a resource to develop the country and maintain political stability, or one can view it as a threat and alienate the country from the rest of the world or be aligned to one camp of countries leading to its own risks and opportunities. In the past, mistakes done by certain administrations regarding our relations with India played a vital role in the formation of LTTE as a formidable military force, and their ability to win international support. Mahinda Rajapakse Government took a critical decision to risk any relation that stood in the way to the military victory and foster those that stood favorable. Though this was a bold step, I am yet to see any credible efforts to repair damaged relationships after the war, compared to the effort put to gain political advantage of the military victory including the decision to advance the presidential election by two years. Though Sarath Fonseka’s foreign policy looks more non-aligned, he should be more clear about the stand on the West and neighboring India.

Final remark - when we are in a war, we should choose the right candidate to win the war. When we are in peace, we should choose the candidate who is best to eliminate the root causes that may give rise to the next war. The past war has transformed all Sri Lankans who suffered from the war. I hope it transformed the minds of these two main candidates who were directly steering the war effort, and they attained maturity to go beyond egoistic claims to the war victory to serve the needs of a peaceful society – one where harmonious change can take place without oppression.