Rocking the boat

By Kath Noble

(February 17, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The word 'stability' has been abused one
too many times for my liking. It is what most people in Sri Lanka craved for three decades. As the conflict raged around them, nothing was guaranteed. Their children could be taken at any moment, whether to fight and die on the battlefield or in a terrorist attack as they travelled to school on the bus. They wanted to live in peace. They still do, and the results of the presidential election indicate that their natural appetite for 'change' is yet to return. This is understandable. But it doesn't mean that the Government should be allowed to do whatever it pleases.

For a long time, proposals to abolish the Executive Presidency have been met with protests that the office is needed to ensure 'stability'. So the country puts up with its flaws. The Ship of State mustn't be pushed off course, it seems.

Now the same thing is happening with Parliament. The Government is telling us that it needs a two thirds majority to be effective. Just about every Minister who addressed a press conference last week said as much, from Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake on down. Without an overwhelming number of MPs, they claim, they won't be able to do what is needed to move forward.

This is a joke. Before we know it, they will be asking Sri Lankans to give up on democracy altogether and just do as they are told.

I think this country is as stable as it needs to be for the moment. The major challenge in the shape of the LTTE has been wiped out. And any threat posed by those who refuse to accept Prabhakaran's death as the end of the struggle for Eelam can be dealt with by intelligence services and the Police. As long as that remains the case, there is no significant danger to be faced.

What is required now is the consolidation of the gains made by the Security Forces. And that has to involve a range of political actors. A one party approach is bound to fail.

Indeed, it would be counterproductive.

We know what happens when the Government is handed too much power. It doesn't use it wisely. There are no philosopher kings in the UPFA, and anybody who thinks otherwise has to be mad. Mahinda Rajapaksa certainly isn't one, although I am glad that he beat Sarath Fonseka.

He has been demonstrating as much in the days since the presidential election. Instead of doing the smart thing and allowing Sarath Fonseka to bury himself in conspiracy theories that not even the most gullible members of the international community bought, to waste away into insignificance in a few weeks, Mahinda Rajapaksa decided to make a point. No doubt Sarath Fonseka did much to undermine the country and the independence of the military in his effort for personal glory. And in principle there is nothing wrong with punishing him for it. Perhaps he really was planning a coup d'état, although I rather suspect otherwise. Whatever the truth of the matter, arresting him only made the situation worse. It has brought Sarath Fonseka sympathy that he didn't enjoy.

Witness the invigorated protests that we have seen in the aftermath. And witness the statements being made, by friends of Sri Lanka as well as its regular critics.

Equally misguided are the efforts to transfer people working for the State who supported Sarath Fonseka in the presidential election. Of course trade unions are politicised. The SLFP is as much responsible for that as the UNP or JVP. Their members participate in campaigns. They probably breach rules or at least codes of conduct in the process, but it doesn't help to single out for punishment those who backed the losing side.

Perhaps the Government would like us to regard all these actions as necessary in maintaining 'stability'. But it is actually doing the reverse, making Sri Lanka more vulnerable.

The country needs to be governed responsibly, and the Opposition plays a key role in ensuring that this happens. Questions have to be raised and alternatives put forward and debated. Running the country can't be done properly without such checks and balances.

For months the UNP and JVP have been struggling. Their problems didn't start with the war victory, but it certainly didn't help. They weren't part of it. Worse, they did plenty to jeopardise the progress being made by the Security Forces right up to the moment it became clear that Prabhakaran was going to be killed. The public statements of their senior members were completely irresponsible. They also tried to defeat the budget and plunge the Government into crisis. Those are black marks against them, especially when they so quickly changed their minds about the wisdom of fighting the LTTE once the job was done.

I wouldn't blame anybody for criticising them on this issue. But it shouldn't be the only concern when people go out to choose their representatives.

There was a time not so long ago when the JVP could have presented a decidedly praiseworthy record of its achievements in Parliament. Its MPs actually prepared, studying legislation and its implementation in depth. They took their role seriously. And it paid off. They were able to move the country on problems that mattered. The UNP may have to look a little further into its history to rediscover its glory days, but it has certainly had its moments of triumph on behalf of the people who voted for it.

Even the TNA, operating as it was under the spell of Prabhakaran, used to do a good job of highlighting the plight of Tamils.

They must do so again. The more information and the greater the range of views being fed into the governance process, the better the outcome will be for Sri Lanka. And for that the Opposition needs to be stronger than it is today.

Moving forward, these parties need to be clear about what they stand for and why they deserve support. The vague promise of 'change' that they put forward at the presidential election didn't work. Neither will a campaign that harps on the fate of Sarath Fonseka, however disturbing his treatment may be. The Opposition needs to be more convincing.

Handing the UPFA a two thirds majority would be a disaster. Reconciliation should be the highest priority for the Government, and an essential part of that is building consensus.

I'm not convinced that this need have anything to do with the Constitution. We know that there are flaws, but implementing the provisions of the existing one as they stand would be a perfectly good start.

In any case, changes to such an important document aren't supposed to be made unilaterally by decree. Rather than one party declaring what it believes to be best for the country and pushing it on everybody else, amendments are best agreed upon with reference to all political groups. This is what was always intended. It is particularly necessary when they are being announced only after a new set of MPs is sworn in. People will have voted for their representatives before knowing what they are proposing. That gives them no mandate whatsoever.

If the Government ignores such considerations, it will have trouble delivering the 'stability' it is talking about so enthusiastically. Indeed, it may soon find that it is onboard the Titanic.

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