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Challenge to good governance posed by budget

"The danger of having emergency and anti-terrorist laws is that they will be used as a first resort rather than as a last resort by a government that relies on a strong military to maintain law and order. The other stark feature of the proposed budget is the vast disparity between the amount committed to defence and to resettlement."

by Jehan Perera

(October 26, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian)
The government’s second budget after the end of the war has seen proposed appropriations that give the first place to the defence, and that by a very wide margin. By way of comparison, the defence appropriation of Rs. 215 billion dwarfs the resettlement appropriation of Rs 1.7 billion. It also dwarfs the second largest component of the budget which is Economic Development, which obtained Rs. 75 billion.

This was the case in the last budget as well. On the last occasion it was Rs. 201 to defence versus Rs. 3 billion for resettlement with the amount allocated to Economic Development about the same. The budget appropriation bill demonstrates how the government’s priorities have got consolidated in favour of defence and a national security state. The government’s budgetary allocations can only be explained by a focus on the security of the state. When the security of the state takes precedence over the welfare of the people the outcome is often referred to as a national security state. On the occasion of the previous budget, the government sought to explain the disparity between the budget allocations for defence and other ministries by pointing to the continuing security needs of the country.

They said that the government was establishing new police stations and other security posts in the former war zones of the North and East. Such efforts are clearly visible on the sides of the roads to which the ordinary traveller has access, and is also reported to be taking place deeper in the interior by those who are permitted access or live there. On the occasion of the present budget the government has explained the extraordinarily phenomenon of a continuing rise in the already high defence expenditures as the result of needing to pay salaries to the 500,000-strong security forces including police and installment payments for the military hardware bought during the war. Given that the LTTE was widely accepted as being the biggest impediment to Sri Lanka’s progress on all fronts, there would be little room for remonstration that the government spent heavily to win the war and defeat the LTTE.

In the aftermath of the war, it should be possible for the government to explain what these weapons purchases were and their costs, which would obtain the nod of approval from the people who benefit now from the end of the war. Strengthening military Any country that has limited resources needs to recognize that if it devotes a larger proportion of its resources to the defence sector there will be less to give to the economic and welfare sectors that directly impact upon the lives of the majority of people.

This logic applies even to rich and developed countries. It is on account of this reality that the British government has decided to slash its defence expenditures to the point where there are concerns that Britain cannot meet its international obligations. But the British government has given priority to channeling its limited resources to strengthen the British economy and win public support, rather than to strengthen its military arsenal. In the longer term any government is bound to pay a price with dissatisfaction rising within the general population due to economic hardships. This is particularly true of the Tamil population, which suffered tremendously during the years of the war.

They will be particularly critical of a government misallocation of resources that marginalizes their urgent concerns of reconstruction, resettlement and rehabilitation. But it is also true of the general population who are unlikely to be much impressed by government claims of macro economic growth figures of 8 percent plus, or by a booming stock market, to which the masses of people have little or no access. Such economic progress will be merely a concept to the majority of people who see a progressive deterioration in their purchasing power on a daily basis.

It may be in anticipation of a potentially restive population that the government is continuing to beef up the security forces with new recruitment instead of de-militarisation after the war. New military installations are visible in the North and there are reports that the government is also planning to set up similar installations in other parts of the country. This suggests a strategy of having the military as a back up to civilian authority in the governance of the country. In the former war zones of the north and east, the military often plays the lead role in governance and substitutes for the civilian administration which has crumbled by years of displacement by the LTTE and other Tamil militant organizations. However, there also appears to be an anticipation of a future usefulness of the military to quell situations that go beyond the control of the civilian administration in other parts of the country as well.

Repressive governance The unwillingness of the government to repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act as well as the continued validation of Emergency Rule by Parliament on a monthly basis is difficult to understand as a necessity more than a year and a half after the end of the war and the elimination of the LTTE, which the government has celebrated on many occasions. The continuation of governance under Emergency Law which was first imposed to cope with the growing insurgency now appears to have become the norm, with Parliament routinely voting to keep the government armed with these extraordinary powers of repression. The availability of repressive laws and a powerful military machine would send a message to the larger society of a potentially repressive climate of governance.

The danger of having emergency and anti-terrorist laws is that they will be used as a first resort rather than as a last resort by a government that relies on a strong military to maintain law and order. The other stark feature of the proposed budget is the vast disparity between the amount committed to defence and to resettlement. The government’s explanation for the very small allocation of Rs 1.7 billion for resettlement is that nearly all of the war displaced persons have been resettled, and only about 20,000 still need to be resettled.

The reality however is that physically taking back people to their previous locations where they lived is not resettlement. When people are taken back and put into the midst of land in which all buildings and infrastructure is destroyed, and the jungle has grown, it is not resettlement where the government can wash its hands, and say that it has done its duty, and now the people must fend for themselves. It is indeed tragic that the government is prepared to devote so much of resources to satisfy the needs of its defence budget and so little to satisfy its war displaced people.

Another explanation for the small allocation from the government’s budget to resettlement could be that the government expects the international community to make donations and provide for the war displaced people. If this is the case, then the government will need to urge the international donors to make their commitments for the sake of the war displaced persons. However, the front page photograph in the Sunday Times newspaper that showed an official of the International Committee of the Red Cross breaking down and weeping while on a visit to the North to hand over such international aid is not likely to be encouraging to the international community.

The news item that accompanied the photograph stated that the ICRC was providing 400 tractors to war affected people who had been pre-selected, but a government minister had given those tractors to a different set of people. The government will need to subscribe to certain norms and standards if it is to continue to receive international support. There needs to be a limit to the use of arbitrary power that is unchecked by law, merit or morality.
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