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Living in wishful hope of a new beginning

By Jehan Perera

(April 27, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The decisive election victories achieved by the government have set the stage for political stability. The most important question is whether this will lead to problem solving as well. National elections are not due for another six years. With the government having both the Presidency and a near 2/3 majority in Parliament there is no legitimate or likely means by which this stability can be threatened. This would be good news to economic planners who have long term horizons in which economic investments can bear fruit without being placed in jeopardy by sudden policy changes or by violence. This sentiment has already been reflected in the stock market, which has boomed to its highest levels ever.

Similarly, with its super majority the government is well positioned to address other difficult issues as well. These issues would include the ethnic conflict, human rights and good governance and relationships with the Western countries. These are inter-related issues and their resolution could further strengthen the economic impetus for national development that the government is looking towards. The war that arose out of the long festering ethnic conflict led to heavy economic costs, both in terms of destruction and lost investments. It also led to human rights violations that are today standing in the way of economically beneficial relations with the Western countries.

The recommencement of BBC radio broadcasts in all three national languages on state radio almost immediately after the General Elections can be taken as a sign of confidence of the government to permit even critical media reporting in the interests of freedom of information. The permission granted to retired General Sarath Fonseka to leave his place of detention and attend the inaugural session of Parliament was another positive sign that the government was abiding by the rule of law to permit the opposition to represent its voters in the supreme law making body.

However, the stronger indication of the future political direction of the government would come with the selection on ministries that took place last week. The allocation of ministries amongst the government members would not have been an easy task. The government has an unprecedented number of MPs amounting to 144. In the last Parliament almost all MPs were rewarded with ministerial positions. This was on account of the government’s need to attract opposition MPs over to its side to provide it with a majority in Parliament. The government succeeded only too well, but with the result that the government had a surfeit of ministers, which proved to be unpopular with the electorate.

It is to the credit of President Rajapaksa that he has tried to keep to his election promise that the number of ministries would be reduced to 35. It gives reason to hope that the government will be serious in its efforts to cut down on waste and inefficiency which has been a drag on the economy. The government has only slightly overshot this number with 38 ministers and 39 deputy ministers, although a few more are likely to be appointed in the near future. Even though these figures may still be large by international standards, they are relatively modest by Sri Lankan standards.

Negative message

In reducing the number of ministries the government has had to make cuts somewhere. Some prominent ministries that have been eliminated include the ministries of human rights, constitutional affairs and national integration. There is no doubt that there will be government departments that are tasked with handling those important subjects. But there is a negative message that is implicit in the demotion of these subjects. It either means that the government has once again pandered to the nationalists within its ranks who hold to the position that the end of the war is the solution to the country’s ethnic conflict or that the government leadership itself is of that mind.

One of the prominent governmental politicians who failed to obtain a ministerial position has been Prof. Tissa Vitarana, who held a ministerial position in the last Parliament. He was also appointed by President Rajapaksa to chair the All Party Representatives Committee, which was mandated by the President to find a political solution to the ethnic conflict. His non-appointment would strengthen the perception that the government does not believe that the ethnic conflict requires a political solution based on inter-ethnic power sharing mechanisms.

The final report of the APRC did not see the light of day. It was handed over to the President, and is believed to contain most of the inter-ethnic power sharing mechanisms that had been presented at various times during the previous three years. The nationalists within the government vehemently disagreed with its positions. Their view is that there is no ethnic conflict although there is a social problem. The government as a whole adopted the nationalist position to fight the war against the LTTE and also the elections. This united the Sinhalese majority to give the government its victories on the war front and in elections.

During the election campaign the President spoke of an indigenous solution and village-level devolution. This is far from the standard prescriptions in other parts of the world of federal or semi-federal arrangements. Such rhetoric may have been designed to mobilize the forces of Sinhalese nationalism behind the government. But with the end of the war and the end of elections, there is no more reason for the government to wish to mobilize Sinhalese nationalism behind it. This is the time for problem solving, which means arriving at compromises with the nationalism of others through negotiations.

Whither government?

The question now arises whether the government leadership, including President Rajapaksa himself, believes that the ethnic conflict requires a political solution that devolves political power to areas inhabited by the ethnic minorities. The choices made by the government in terms of its ministries and ministers suggest that the nationalist line has prevailed. The replacement of the Ministry of National Integration with one that is designated as the Ministry of National Languages and Social Integration suggests a focus on better inter-ethnic mixing as the basis for a solution. There are many amongst the majority community who view the living together of Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims in Colombo and other places as evidence that there is no real ethnic conflict.

There is a strong nationalist sentiment that has grown stronger with the government’s military victory over the LTTE that whatever ethnic conflict there may have been has been resolved with the elimination of the LTTE and its associated terrorism. It is believed that rapid economic development of the country, including the North and East, would productively engage the energies of people and reduce the impetus towards ethnic-based politics. However, such an analysis is not in keeping with international experience. Ethnic-based grievances and desire for self-determination exists in both rich and poor countries which economic development by itself cannot dispel. Tibet in China, Kashmir in India and Chechnya in Russia give ample testimony to the resolve of aggrieved ethnic minorities to seek some form of regional self-government above all other values.

Prof. Vitarana has been reported by the media as stating that President Rajapaksa has assured him of a ministerial position on his return next week from a South Asian Summit held in Bhutan. This opens up the possibility that the government’s position on the ethnic conflict is still open to change. There is also speculation that the newly appointed government is essentially an interim one. It is speculated that the President will reshuffle the ministerial positions and appoint a new Prime Minister when he takes his Presidential oaths for his second term in November. There are wishful hopes that the best is yet to come. Unfortunately, there is no special reason why the time of the second oath taking will herald decisive change in the polity.

The most likely scenario for the future is not change but continuity. This suggests a mix of positive and negative aspects of decision making as in the past. The appointment of ministers and the allocation of subjects to them, including Mervyn Silva as the deputy minister of media, are for real. The concentration of power that is already seen in the allocation of portfolios to some, including the President who has kept for himself the crucial ministries of defence, finance and planning, ports and aviation and highways, is likely to be further strengthened. In the context of this concentration of powers within the government itself, the prospect of devolution of power to the provinces appears to be unlikely. The opportunity for a new beginning, if that was what the President and his government wanted, was last week. It is the hope that springs eternal in the human breast that says there will be another new beginning in November.

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