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Executive Presidency, the social change expected in Sri Lanka

| by Victor Cherubim

( August 1, 2014, London, Sri Lanka Guardian) An overhaul of the system of government in Sri Lanka has been mooted before and has not only been thrashed out within our country but also has been raised at a public gathering of Sri Lankans at the House of Lords, London 30 July 2014, chaired by Lord Sheikh, the Conservative peer, David Cameron’s key Muslim Adviser.

Sri Lanka, for whatever reason is always news. President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s non visit to the Commonwealth Games 2014 at Glasgow, the issues of the crestfallen Muslims of Lanka, the forthcoming Uva Provincial Council Elections, the formation of a common front against the Executive Presidency, the cost of living spiral, the impending invasion of masses of Indian fishermen into Sri Lankan waters on August 2, 2014 in protest, are all crowding on us.

For a variety, diversity, ingenuity and multitude of other reasons, as well, Sri Lanka is highlighted in bold print. We can take this as a criticism or as a compliment. As one of my friends sent me a curt SMS reading:

“Truths untold make untruths thrive
Truths told make minds open wide
Open minds make justice and injustice known........”

When you no longer have external sources of support that are totally reliable, what do you do? There is no need for me to prompt, we naturally turn inward to our own resources, or we can continue to focus on our disappointments. The test according to sages is to let go of any bitterness and strengthen from within.

This perhaps, is what our President is doing at the moment. President Mahinda has highlighted “that in 2005 after 56 years of independence, the GDP was only US$24 billion and per capita income a mere US$ 1,241.Twenty years ago, only 46 percent of people had electricity and infrastructure was of a very low level. Inflation was an awe of nearly 12 per cent per year and climbing, foreign reserves were only sufficient for about 6 weeks of imports. Unemployment was about 7 percent and poverty was over 15 percent. The debt level was nearly 91 percent of the GDP.”

The President further said, “When we built ports, airports, highways, road and power plants, we were not thinking only about you and your children, but also about the unborn generations of all Sri Lankans.”

Thinking about our future

Think about where we were in 2009 and where we are now. Many will argue that it was all done for familial reasons, for personal gain. Others will say that whatever has been done could not have been achieved without sacrifice. Still others will maintain that there was a price to pay for our development. The non-contents will challenge that progress without law and order is half the progress. The very opportunity to express these varied but poignant views is in itself a breakthrough.

What exactly did the Executive Presidency achieve, if any?
Safeguarding our nation is the top priority of the President. Was this achieved?

The protection of our civilisation, our heritage, the cultural traditions and our values. Was this achieved?
Enriching our rural countryside, beautification of our towns and cities, bringing a modicum of pride in our people. Was this achieved?
Security of life and limb, was this achieved?

The cost of economic development

The people in the developing world, Sri Lanka no exception, want to be up with the latest trends, but really, what is “modern” is very often outdated. Besides, developments initiated by governments are pretty much the same the world over. “It is the same technology, centralisation and infrastructure.” It is pulling people towards cities via roads. It may be all right for a large landmass like India, would it be appropriate for Sri Lanka?

What we in Sri Lanka really need is development from the bottom up – grassroots, community based, rural development. Though it may be healthy development, the downside of this process, is that it is relatively slow. Could we in Sri Lanka have afforded to wait another thirty odd years for this kind of “appropriate, socially sensitive” development is another question? The war left us no choice but to tackle our mode of transport, amenities and communication, but it also put us in a debt trap all the same.

Increasing social inequalities

The constantly increasing inequalities in the distribution of income, is our Big Issue. “Whilst 20% of the richest grab 54% of the national income, the poorest 20% gets only 4% of the income,” according to a policy report, this is spiking crime and anti-social acts and mounting debt, at the same time the legitimate concerns and measures taken for safeguard of our people out of poverty, are being pursued. But we also see the evils of foreign intervention to keep our country, in permanent bondage with all forms of torment, coercion.

Political change

Political change like economic change is rooted in grassroots support. There has always been an insistence on parliamentary democracy. But the exigencies of the situation, perhaps, could have caused the creation of the President Jayewardene 1978 Constitution. There is a clamour now that “national interest demands that the Executive Presidency be abolished.”National interest for all intents and purposes needs to be tested at the ballot box.

It is argued that the abolition of the Executive Presidency is only one aspect of the change that is necessary in the light of changed circumstances. Whether the electorate is ready for a root and branch change is debateable.

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