Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

  • February 2020
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The challenges ahead in Independence

Posted by harimpeiris on February 6, 2020

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island on 06th February 2020)

Sri Lanka’s 72nd Independence Day celebrations are now over. The ceremony was held with the pomp and pageantry traditionally associated with the occasion and it provided an opportunity for the nation to both look back at its recent history, learn its lessons, as well as to look ahead to the challenges and the shared future which lies ahead of us as a nation.

Sri Lanka’s independence itself, is a clear occasion for celebration. To celebrate what was achieved seventy-two long years ago. Where a united national political leadership, successfully negotiated the transition from a British crown colony to a representative democracy. Sri Lanka’s independence heroes, were a diverse group, including those from the Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim and Burgher communities. Sri Lanka’s democratic achievements have been significant. Becoming one of the first countries in the world to have universal adult franchise in 1932 and also producing the world’s first woman prime minister in late Madam Sirimavo Bandaranaike. Since then Sri Lanka has also had a woman president, a woman Chief Justice, many women Cabinet Ministers, deputy ministers, MPs, Mayors and other political and civic leaders. In recent times, we have succeeded in having a gender quota for women in local government, ensuring that a minimum of 25% of all elected local government representatives are women. Sri Lanka’s basic free education and health care systems have ensured among other gains that we remain high on the global human development index, with a literacy rate of over 90%, long life expectancy and low infant mortality among other quality of life indicators. So, Sri Lanka’s achievements have been not insignificant in our post-independence period.

However, equally noteworthy have been Sri Lanka’s significant failures. Failures which are instrumental in ensuring that we are still a part of the global south, a developing rather than a developed society. These failures lie at the very heart of our society, regarding our identity as to who we are as a nation and the ability of our democratic institutions to resolve the complex issues and competing interests, manifest in any nation or society. Sri Lanka has witnessed massive politically motivated violence in both our south and north, among the majority Sinhala youth, organizing themselves through the JVP and the Tamil youth through the LTTE and similar organizations. The Sinhala Southern JVP uprisings were based on issues which could be broadly categorized on the underlying political theme of economic and social rights, while the Northern and Eastern LTTE struggle, which was anti-democratic in its elimination of internal dissent, merciless and criminal in its conscription of children and terroristic in its attacks on civilians, had its origins and drew its political support broadly due to issues in the areas of civil and political rights.

The prevalence of such issues in itself is actually not uncommon. Any society has competing interests and complex and competing claims to resources and political power. These claims and issues are usually resolved democratically through dialogue, debate and a civilized discourse. Sri Lanka’s failure has been the failure of our political institutions in every area, including the executive, the legislative and judicial branches of government to address these issues in an equitable manner, to be seen and widely accepted as equitable. Resulting in natural conflicts in society being addressed through organized political violence rather than through democratic institutions and processes. Consequently, for almost half our post-independence period of seventy-two years, we have been governed under a period of national emergency, monthly renewed by Parliament, overriding constitutional liberties. We still persist in having on our statue books, the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), introduced as a temporary measure over forty (40) years ago, and currently significantly lacking in internationally accepted norms and standards applicable to counter terrorism legislation.

Economic and Social Rights

Almost thirty years after the end of the second JVP uprising, while we have that political movement as a political party and a distant third leftist force in national politics, Sri Lanka still remains an economically very inequitable society. The top tenth percentile of the population earns nearly forty percent of the national income, and the second percentile approximately another thirty percent or more, leading to one of the more skewed income distribution and wealth disparities of a democratic society. The rest of South Asia is not much better, indicating that the end of the mercantilist economy of the colonial period, has economically benefited some but not the majority in our society. As the world rapidly changes to a knowledge-based economy, driven by technology and information, Sri Lanka is seemingly unprepared to face either the challenges of or benefit from the opportunities of the new economy.

Civil and Political Rights

Over a decade after the end of Sri Lanka’s ruinous, near three decades long civil war, we seem not much nearer to a post war reconciliation process which brings healing and unity to our divided and polarized society. Our divisions were perhaps best exemplified when the most widely debated issue about our Independence Day was whether the national anthem should be sung in Sinhala only or in both Sinhala and Tamil. It was LTTE suicide bomb victim, Member of Parliament and leading lawyer, late Neelen Tiruchelvam, who best in a single sentence described our dilemma, which he described as “the anomaly of having imposed a mono-ethnic state on a multi-ethnic polity”.

Sri Lankan society is diverse, ethnically and in terms of religious belief and practice. Our failures of the past and the challenge of our future, is to ensure that the Sri Lankan state accommodates and indeed protects that diversity. A diversity, which actually enriches us and strengthens us. It is then that all Sri Lankans will truly enjoy the benefits and privileges of the independence, which we won with such expectations and hope, seventy-two long years ago.

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