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SRI LANKA AT CROSS-ROADS AND THE NEW DEVELOPMENT PARADIGM

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by Dr. Dayanath Jayasuriya

President’s Counsel

Compared with most other erstwhile British colonies, independence was granted to Ceylon virtually on a silver platter. This statement is not meant to undermine the efforts of our own freedom fighters who without bloodshed managed to convince the colonial ruler that the country was gradually getting ready for independence. The Donoughmore system of government was a precursor to the decision for self-rule. When the first independence constitution was drafted, with the able assistance of Sir Ivor Jennings, there were simmering issues that the draftsmen took into consideration. Rights of minorities and stateless persons, religion, language of instruction, parity of status and land rights were among the many issues which multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-lingual issues that typically encounter when power is to be transferred from a colonial ruler to a self-elected body of representatives. The British approach varied from country to country; in India, for instance, the issue of the division of India and East and West Pakistan was left to be resolved after independence was granted.

In 1972, the first constitution was replaced with the country becoming a Republic and changing the name from Ceylon to Sri Lanka. Prior to the enactment of the Constitution, which followed an ad hoc method of working through a Constituent Assembly, the right of appeal to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council was abolished. Her Majesty the Queen ceased to appoint her representative as Governor. During the period 1971 to 1977 the country witnessed many issues; an insurrection by a large number of youth was quelled within a short-time by then then Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike and the rise in global petroleum prices had a severe impact on the country. Import restrictions, ceiling on ownership of houses and land, nationalization of foreign industries etc. took place but with mixed results.

In 1977 a new Constitution was enacted. The Executive President, J. R. Jayewardene, led the initiative to liberalize the economy. With free trade and various expensive developmental projects, corruption began to erode the system slowly but surely. Even though the early signs of Sri Lanka becoming a transit centre for international drug smuggling, arms smuggling, illegal gambling, casino and sex establishments became evident but these were largely ignored by law enforcement agencies. This Constitution still remains in place, notwithstanding a record of 19 amendments. The 19th amendment was meant to curb the powers of the Executive President and to empower the Prime Minister. But on two occasions a President and a Prime Minister belonging to two different political parties led to disastrous results.

At the Presidential elections of 2019 and at the general elections of 2020, a major issue was the amendment or repeal of the 19th amendment and/or the adoption of a new constitution. The Government has opted to amend the 19th amendment through a 20th amendment as the first step.

The case for a strong Executive President is based on the assumption that the country can make rapid development under such a regime. In several speeches broadcast over the media the current President has requested that he be provided with the freedom to accomplish his developmental agenda without undue hindrance. Over the 72 years since independence the country has made only marginal gains in relation to many widely accepted socio-economic and related indicators. In the early 60s, the Sri Lankan model of development was studied by countries like Singapore and Malaysia but today Sri Lanka lags behind these and most other developing countries. Gains in the health and education spheres have had a major set back, caused partly by the 30-year long separatist war which exacted a heavy toll. Issues of internationally orchestrated calls for accountability for war crimes, justice for displaced minority groups, the rise in Islamic militancy as was evident by the brutal attack on churches and hotels in April 2019, the large numbers unemployed or underemployed due to COVID-19 are among a few of the major issues that loom large.

It is in this background that the Government is poised to push ahead with a new constitutional amendment. Only time will tell whether this was timely or not, as the country has had a major setback due to COVID-19 and the closure of the airports and the economy is barely recovering. The economy also took a major beating a few years ago when an expatriate Singaporean friend of the then Prime Minister possibly caused what is now regarded as the biggest Central Bank robbery.

This article looks at the enabling environment required for selected priority national development to gain speed under the enhanced powers of an executive President.

a) People-centred Development

The exact size of the wealthy class cannot be estimated. Operations against drug traffickers with large quantities of drugs, arms and currency notes and multiple bank accounts raise credibility issues with regard to our banking system and customs controls. The Financial Intelligence Unit has remained silent as to how banks would have done a genuinely serious job with regard to due diligence and ‘Know your Customer’ requirements; otherwise one cannot explain the large deposits in accounts of people who cannot possibly provide any legitimate sources of income. Political patronage and corrupt officials within the law enforcement agencies would have provided their blessings for crimes of such great magnitude to take place. Over the decades the poor classes have become poorer and a new class (nouveau riche) has emerged vying with the traditionally rich upper class. Large numbers have gone to the Middle-East for employment and have been remitting part of their relatively modest salary but this alone has not been sufficient to raise their standard of living.

Unlike India, Sri Lanka lacked a permanent National Planning Council. Several governments did set up small national planning cells but without any real impact. A national poverty alleviation plan requires precise information of unmet needs at the micro-level of villages and in the fringes of urban centres. Media coverage often shows how the impoverished classes live. Basic facilities such as safe drinking water are lacking in many parts of the country. Empirical evidence suggests that well nourished children live healthier lives and perform better at examinations but large numbers find it difficult to have even a square meal.

We have recently seen the current President visiting selected villages and ascertaining problems and immediately suggesting to officers a solution. This is reminiscent of late President Premadasa’s taking the “Kachcheri to the villages and towns” concept where a one-stop improvised centre promptly attended to unmet needs, particularly documentation such as national identity cards, birth certificates etc. This is what should be done by Provincial Councils and other local authorities and respective ministers. It is to be hoped that the example that is now being set will trickle down to ministers, state ministers and heads of departments. For each village or cluster of villages there should be a mapping exercise done of unmet needs and the resources required for timely action. Bottle-necks should be identified and brought to the notice of the relevant authorities who should not hesitate to give directions for prompt action. Accountability mechanisms are grossly lacking or even if they do exist they are largely ineffective. ‘Passing the buck’ is a skill many public servants have effectively mastered.

The State alone cannot uplift the status or influence the life-styles of millions living in under-served villages and towns. The private sector should be assigned the responsibility of assisting selected villages for developmental activities as part of the CSR agenda or otherwise. This might result in a new paradigm shift in poverty alleviation through public sector-private sector joint endeavors. We have witnessed foundation stones being laid for so many important projects such as new hospitals and medical centres, schools etc. but follow-up action is often lacking due to bureaucratic indifference or lack of funds.

Bureaucratic indifference or sabotage is not a problem confined only to small developing nations. It is significant that a few weeks ago the Presidents of the US National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine issued a strongly worded message condemning ad hoc policy-making in relation to US health policy:

“As advisers to the nation on all matters of science, medicine, and public health, we are compelled to underscore the value of science-based decision-making at all levels of government. Our nation is at a critical time in the course of the COVID-19 pandemic with important decisions ahead of us, especially concerning the efficacy and safety of vaccines. Policymaking must be informed by the best available evidence without it being distorted, concealed, or otherwise deliberately miscommunicated. We find ongoing reports and incidents of the politicization of science, particularly the overriding of evidence and advice from public health officials and derision of government scientists, to be alarming. It undermines the credibility of public health agencies and the public’s confidence in them when we need it most. Ending the pandemic will require decision-making that is not only based on science but also sufficiently transparent to ensure public trust in, and adherence to, sound public-health instructions. Any efforts to discredit the best science and scientists threaten the health and welfare of us all.”

An Executive President should be able to periodically monitor what happens in the field by getting regular feedback from responsible ministers, state ministers, departmental heads and so on and play the role of a trouble-shooter when necessary without fear or favour.

b) Good Governance, Law and Order

When the first post-independent constitution was being drafted Sir Ivor Jennings was against the idea of providing for the justiciability of human rights stating that this would hinder administration and will become a gold-mine for lawyers. The 1977 Constitution empowered citizens to invoke the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court if their fundamental rights are violated. Though an important development per se, it comes at a cost

Reluctance by some heads of department to institute disciplinary action is impeded by several reasons, two such reasons being the possibility of the action being challenged in a court of law or due to the interference by a Minister or other powerful politician. The tradition of appointing commissions or committees to look into each and every major problem issue is a costly and often meaningless exercise. After a period of time public and media attention is diverted to new public issues.

There needs to be a robust system of accountability at every level for any issue that is subjected to investigation. On certain important national matters, the Cabinet itself or the Minister in charge of the relevant ministry, department or agency, as the case may be, must be accountable for ensuring that due process is followed and consult the Executive President where his or her guidance is required.

In matters of international relations, the country has to delicately balance competing vested interests and demands and speak with one voice. The country has to be sensitive to international commitments offered in the past. Rating agencies have given a low rating which is a red flag to possible foreign investors.

Recent media reports on the smuggling of drugs, liquor, arms, cigarettes and other contraband suggest the degree to which law and order had deteriorated within many law enforcement agencies and how certain officials have facilitated or participated in these illegal activities. The April 2019 bomb blasts could have been possibly avoided if relevant officials had done what they ought to have done with regard to such a serious matter and the officials monitoring national security had acted more sensibly in a timely fashion.

A major task ahead of an Executive President is to take stock of institutional strengths and weaknesses, identity bottlenecks and improve governance systems leaving little or no room for deviations from accepted procedures. It is when those at the top are indifferent or lack moral courage to take on problems as and when they arise, that the rot begins to percolate down the entire system and a sense of complacency arises. A proper system of checks and balances will ensure better productivity, efficiency and a better outcome. Nepotism, bribery or corruption and undue interference will gradually phase-out when a better and just governance system is in place.

Lord Acton once remarked that “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” Sri Lanka now has a chance to prove that even with almost absolute power there can be great and good men. As I conclude this article I hear someone playing one of Elvis Presley’s classics: “It’s now or never,… tomorrow will be too late.”

[The author is the former Chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission of Sri Lanka. He has previously served as UNDP Regional Adviser on HIV and Development and Community Development Adviser for Asia and the Pacific and as Head, UNAIDS Secretariat and Senior Policy Adviser to the Government of Pakistan. He could be contacted at (ichpl@hotmail.com)]

 

Dr Dayanath Jayasuriya

Tel. 0777 384047


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Islamophobia and the threat to democratic development

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There’s an ill more dangerous and pervasive than the Coronavirus that’s currently sweeping Sri Lanka. That is the fear to express one’s convictions. Across the public sector of the country in particular many persons holding high office are stringently regulating and controlling the voices of their consciences and this bodes ill for all and the country.

The corrupting impact of fear was discussed in this column a couple of weeks ago when dealing with the military coup in Myanmar. It stands to the enduring credit of ousted Myanmarese Head of Government Aung San Suu Kyi that she, perhaps for the first time in the history of modern political thought, singled out fear, and not power, as the principal cause of corruption within the individual; powerful or otherwise.

To be sure, power corrupts but the corrupting impact of fear is graver and more devastating. For instance, the fear in a person holding ministerial office or in a senior public sector official, that he would lose position and power as a result of speaking out his convictions and sincere beliefs on matters of the first importance, would lead to a country’s ills going unaddressed and uncorrected.

Besides, the individual concerned would be devaluing himself in the eyes of all irrevocably and revealing himself to be a person who would be willing to compromise his moral integrity for petty worldly gain or a ‘mess of pottage’. This happens all the while in Lankan public life. Some of those who have wielded and are wielding immense power in Sri Lanka leave very much to be desired from these standards.

It could be said that fear has prevented Sri Lanka from growing in every vital respect over the decades and has earned for itself the notoriety of being a directionless country.

All these ills and more are contained in the current controversy in Sri Lanka over the disposal of the bodies of Covid victims, for example. The Sri Lankan polity has no choice but to abide by scientific advice on this question. Since authorities of the standing of even the WHO have declared that the burial of the bodies of those dying of Covid could not prove to be injurious to the wider public, the Sri Lankan health authorities could go ahead and sanction the burying of the bodies concerned. What’s preventing the local authorities from taking this course since they claim to be on the side of science? Who or what are they fearing? This is the issue that’s crying out to be probed and answered.

Considering the need for absolute truthfulness and honesty on the part of all relevant persons and quarters in matters such as these, the latter have no choice but to resign from their positions if they are prevented from following the dictates of their consciences. If they are firmly convinced that burials could bring no harm, they are obliged to take up the position that burials should be allowed.

If any ‘higher authority’ is preventing them from allowing burials, our ministers and officials are conscience-bound to renounce their positions in protest, rather than behave compromisingly and engage in ‘double think’ and ‘double talk’. By adopting the latter course they are helping none but keeping the country in a state of chronic uncertainty, which is a handy recipe for social instabiliy and division.

In the Sri Lankan context, the failure on the part of the quarters that matter to follow scientific advice on the burials question could result in the aggravation of Islamophobia, or hatred of the practitioners of Islam, in the country. Sri Lanka could do without this latter phobia and hatred on account of its implications for national stability and development. The 30 year war against separatist forces was all about the prevention by military means of ‘nation-breaking’. The disastrous results for Sri Lanka from this war are continuing to weigh it down and are part of the international offensive against Sri Lanka in the UNHCR.

However, Islamophobia is an almost world wide phenomenon. It was greatly strengthened during Donald Trump’s presidential tenure in the US. While in office Trump resorted to the divisive ruling strategy of quite a few populist authoritarian rulers of the South. Essentially, the manoeuvre is to divide and rule by pandering to the racial prejudices of majority communities.

It has happened continually in Sri Lanka. In the initial post-independence years and for several decades after, it was a case of some populist politicians of the South whipping-up anti-Tamil sentiments. Some Tamil politicians did likewise in respect of the majority community. No doubt, both such quarters have done Sri Lanka immeasurable harm. By failing to follow scientific advice on the burial question and by not doing what is right, Sri Lanka’s current authorities are opening themselves to the charge that they are pandering to religious extremists among the majority community.

The murderous, destructive course of action adopted by some extremist sections among Muslim communities world wide, including of course Sri Lanka, has not earned the condemnation it deserves from moderate Muslims who make-up the preponderant majority in the Muslim community. It is up to moderate opinion in the latter collectivity to come out more strongly and persuasively against religious extremists in their midst. It will prove to have a cementing and unifying impact among communities.

It is not sufficiently appreciated by governments in the global South in particular that by voicing for religious and racial unity and by working consistently towards it, they would be strengthening democratic development, which is an essential condition for a country’s growth in all senses.

A ‘divided house’ is doomed to fall; this is the lesson of history. ‘National security’ cannot be had without human security and peaceful living among communities is central to the latter. There cannot be any ‘double talk’ or ‘politically correct’ opinions on this question. Truth and falsehood are the only valid categories of thought and speech.

Those in authority everywhere claiming to be democratic need to adopt a scientific outlook on this issue as well. Studies conducted on plural societies in South Asia, for example, reveal that the promotion of friendly, cordial ties among communities invariably brings about healing among estranged groups and produces social peace. This is the truth that is waiting to be acted upon.

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Pakistan’s love of Sri Lanka

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By Sanjeewa Jayaweera

It was on 3rd January 1972 that our family arrived in Karachi from Moscow. Our departure from Moscow had been delayed for a few weeks due to the military confrontation between Pakistan and India. It ended on 16th December 1971. After that, international flights were not permitted for some time.

The contrast between Moscow and Karachi was unbelievable. First and foremost, Moscow’s temperature was near minus 40 degrees centigrade, while in Karachi, it was sunny and a warm 28 degrees centigrade. However, what struck us most was the extreme warmth with which the airport authorities greeted our family. As my father was a diplomat, we were quickly ushered to the airport’s VIP Lounge. We were in transit on our way to Rawalpindi, the airport serving the capital of Islamabad.

We quickly realized that the word “we are from Sri Lanka” opened all doors just as saying “open sesame” gained entry to Aladdin’s cave! The broad smile, extreme courtesy, and genuine warmth we received from the Pakistani people were unbelievable.

This was all to do with Mrs Sirima Bandaranaike’s decision to allow Pakistani aircraft to land in Colombo to refuel on the way to Dhaka in East Pakistan during the military confrontation between Pakistan and India. It was a brave decision by Mrs Bandaranaike (Mrs B), and the successive governments and Sri Lanka people are still enjoying the fruits of it. Pakistan has been a steadfast and loyal supporter of our country. They have come to our assistance time and again in times of great need when many have turned their back on us. They have indeed been an “all-weather” friend of our country.

Getting back to 1972, I was an early beneficiary of Pakistani people’s love for Sri Lankans. I failed the entrance exam to gain entry to the only English medium school in Islamabad! However, when I met the Principal, along with my father, he said, “Sanjeewa, although you failed the entrance exam, I will this time make an exception as Sri Lankans are our dear friends.” After that, the joke around the family dinner table was that I owed my education in Pakistan to Mrs B!

At school, my brother and I were extended a warm welcome and always greeted “our good friends from Sri Lanka.” I felt when playing cricket for our college; our runs were cheered more loudly than of others.

One particular incident that I remember well was when the Embassy received a telex from the Foreign inistry. It requested that our High Commissioner seek an immediate meeting with the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Mr Zulifikar Ali Bhutto (ZB), and convey a message from Mrs B. The message requested that an urgent shipment of rice be dispatched to Sri Lanka as there would be an imminent rice shortage. As the Ambassador was not in the station, the responsibility devolved on my father.

It usually takes about a week or more to get an audience with the Prime Minister (PM) of a foreign country due to their busy schedule. However, given the urgency, my father spoke to the Foreign Ministry’s Permanent Sectary, who fortunately was our neighbour and sought an urgent appointment. My father received a call from the PM’s secretary around 10 P.M asking him to come over to the PM’s residence. My father met ZB around midnight. ZB was about to retire to bed and, as such, was in his pyjamas and gown enjoying a cigar! He had greeted my father and had asked, “Mr Jayaweera, what can we do for great friend Madam Bandaranaike?. My father conveyed the message from Colombo and quietly mentioned that there would be riots in the country if there is no rice!

ZB had immediately got the Food Commissioner of Pakistan on the line and said, “I want a shipload of rice to be in Colombo within the next 72 hours!” The Food Commissioner reverted within a few minutes, saying that nothing was available and the last export shipment had left the port only a few hours ago to another country. ZB had instructed to turn the ship around and send it to Colombo. This despite protests from the Food Commissioner about terms and conditions of the Letter of Credit prohibiting non-delivery. Sri Lanka got its delivery of rice!

The next was the visit of Mrs B to Pakistan. On arrival in Rawalpindi airport, she was given a hero’s welcome, which Pakistan had previously only offered to President Gaddafi of Libya, who financially backed Pakistan with his oil money. That day, I missed school and accompanied my parents to the airport. On our way, we witnessed thousands of people had gathered by the roadside to welcome Mrs B.

When we walked to the airport’s tarmac, thousands of people were standing in temporary stands waving Sri Lanka and Pakistan flags and chanting “Sri Lanka Pakistan Zindabad.” The noise emanating from the crowd was as loud and passionate as the cheering that the Pakistani cricket team received during a test match. It was electric!

I believe she was only the second head of state given the privilege of addressing both assemblies of Parliament. The other being Gaddafi. There was genuine affection from Mrs B amongst the people of Pakistan.

I always remember the indefatigable efforts of Mr Abdul Haffez Kardar, a cabinet minister and the President of the Pakistan Cricket Board. From around 1973 onwards, he passionately championed Sri Lanka’s cause to be admitted as a full member of the International Cricket Council (ICC) and granted test status. Every year, he would propose at the ICC’s annual meeting, but England and Australia’s veto kept us out until 1981.

I always felt that our Cricket Board made a mistake by not inviting Pakistan to play our inaugural test match. We should have appreciated Mr Kardar and Pakistan’s efforts. In 1974 the Pakistan board invited our team for a tour involving three test matches and a few first-class games. Most of those who played in our first test match was part of that tour, and no doubt gained significant exposure playing against a highly talented Pakistani team.

Several Pakistani greats were part of the Pakistan and India team that played a match soon after the Central Bank bomb in Colombo to prove that it was safe to play cricket in Colombo. It was a magnificent gesture by both Pakistan and India. Our greatest cricket triumph was in Pakistan when we won the World Cup in 1996. I am sure the players and those who watched the match on TV will remember the passionate support our team received that night from the Pakistani crowd. It was like playing at home!

I also recall reading about how the Pakistani government air freighted several Multi Barrell artillery guns and ammunition to Sri Lanka when the A rmy camp in Jaffna was under severe threat from the LTTE. This was even more important than the shipload of rice that ZB sent. This was crucial as most other countries refused to sell arms to our country during the war.

Time and again, Pakistan has steadfastly supported our country’s cause at the UNHCR. No doubt this year, too, their diplomats will work tirelessly to assist our country.

We extend a warm welcome to Mr Imran Khan, the Prime Minister of Pakistan. He is a truly inspirational individual who was undoubtedly an excellent cricketer. Since retirement from cricket, he has decided to get involved in politics, and after several years of patiently building up his support base, he won the last parliamentary elections. I hope that just as much as he galvanized Sri Lankan cricketers, his political journey would act as a catalyst for people like Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene to get involved in politics. Cricket has been called a “gentleman’s game.” Whilst politics is far from it!.

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Covid-19 health rules disregarded at entertainment venues?

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Believe me, seeing certain videos, on social media, depicting action, on the dance floor, at some of these entertainment venues, got me wondering whether this Coronavirus pandemic is REAL!

To those having a good time, at these particular venues, and, I guess, the management, as well, what the world is experiencing now doesn’t seem to be their concerned.

Obviously, such irresponsible behaviour could create more problems for those who are battling to halt the spread of Covid-19, and the new viriant of Covid, in our part of the world.

The videos, on display, on social media, show certain venues, packed to capacity – with hardly anyone wearing a mask, and social distancing…only a dream..

How can one think of social distancing while gyrating, on a dance floor, that is over crowded!

If this trend continues, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Coronavirus makes its presence felt…at such venues.

And, then, what happens to the entertainment scene, and those involved in this field, especially the musicians? No work, whatsoever!

Lots of countries have closed nightclubs, and venues, where people gather, in order to curtail the spread of this deadly virus that has already claimed the lives of thousands.

Thailand did it and the country is still having lots of restrictions, where entertainment is concerned, and that is probably the reason why Thailand has been able to control the spread of the Coronavirus.

With a population of over 69 million, they have had (so far), a little over 25,000 cases, and 83 deaths, while we, with a population of around 21 million, have over 80,000 cases, and more than 450 deaths.

I’m not saying we should do away with entertainment – totally – but we need to follow a format, connected with the ‘new normal,’ where masks and social distancing are mandatory requirements at these venues. And, dancing, I believe, should be banned, at least temporarily, as one can’t maintain the required social distance, while on the dance floor, especially after drinks.

Police spokesman DIG Ajith Rohana keeps emphasising, on TV, radio, and in the newspapers, the need to adhere to the health regulations, now in force, and that those who fail to do so would be penalised.

He has also stated that plainclothes officers would move around to apprehend such offenders.

Perhaps, he should instruct his officers to pay surprise visits to some of these entertainment venues.

He would certainly have more than a bus load of offenders to be whisked off for PCR/Rapid Antigen tests!

I need to quote what Dr. H.T. Wickremasinghe said in his article, published in The Island of Tuesday, February 16th, 2021:

“…let me conclude, while emphasising the need to continue our general public health measures, such as wearing masks, social distancing, and avoiding crowded gatherings, to reduce the risk of contact with an infected person.

“There is no science to beat common sense.”

But…do some of our folks have this thing called COMMON SENSE!

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