Dec 29

Economic development, aimed at helping achieve a high standard of living, is the key goal that citizens of all countries expect their governments to target – for, when the economy prospers, people are able to buy food at reasonable prices, and secure economical housing, hassle-free education for their children, employment for the next generation, basic health services and so on.  Hence, in the ordinary course of events, economic development is given top priority by both the government and the opposition, whatever the country.  However, to make any reliable progress in this direction, the most essential condition is that peace, equity and the Rule of Law should prevail.

Apart from the extremist fringe, who unfortunately are the most vociferous and effect-ive in pressing their views on gutless governments, the various polls that have been conducted among the general public from time to time show that most of our people are united in believing that war alone will not bring peace.  On the other hand, it is also largely acknowledged that it is not realistic to call upon a democratically-elected government (whatever the shortcomings in the electoral process) to remain inactive whilst substantial areas of the country are in hostile hands; in other words, the majority of the public are not likely to agree to the government giving up its operations against the LTTE.  All the same, the public would definitely like to see the authorities taking much greater interest in safeguarding the human and fundamental rights of not only those innocents who find themselves unavoidably caught up in areas where hostile military actions are in progress, and elsewhere, but also so-called suspects who are arrested arbitrarily, combatants who surrender or are captured, and even other ordinary citizens.  If this is not done, the advances made on the military front will not yield the long-lasting benefits that the people’s support and sacrifices should yield.

Obviously, it would be easy to establish peace if national unity could be established first.  The problem that we have is that there is a fundamental disagreement as to whether peace comes first and national unity follows, or vice versa. Near one extreme, there are those who insist that the minorities should integrate themselves indistinguishably with the majority, leading automatically to national unity and peace.  Close to the other extreme, there are those who believe that the hegemonistic aspirations of the majority could only be countered by first separating the various communities physically and that steps should be taken only thereafter to forge national unity, somewhat akin to what happened in Europe in the past, followed by what is happening there now.  In between, there is the majority, whose views are spread out across the whole spectrum from the one extreme to the other.

As in all situations where views diverge so markedly, there is no choice but to employ all possible means to persuade those at and near the extremes to be more flexible in their attitudes and to make every effort to move towards the middle.  The leaders of the various contending groups need to be coaxed into paying more attention to where their real interests lie rather than continuing to stick to fixed preconceived ideological positions.  Those at the farthest ends of the range of fixed positions would need to be convinced that their real interests will be damaged if they do not free themselves from emotionally-controlled fixed positions.  They must be urged to recognise the benefits of getting onto common ground with those of more moderate views.  It is only by follow-ing such a middle path that national unity and peace can be attained without compelling any group to sacrifice its culture, self-respect or rights.  But, as we all know, this is easier said than done.

The Citizens’ Movement for Good Governance (CIMOGG), like those others who have looked at this problem objectively, is well aware that finding common ground is a more than formidable task.  Professor Tissa Vitharana has indicated to us repeatedly how difficult it is to get the various groups in and out of the APRC to give up their preconceived positions and go after their real interestswhich, if one really studies the issues carefully, are almost identical whatever the group.  Surely, what everyone wants is a peace-ful, secure atmosphere in which to advance economically and personally, and to look after one’s near and dear?  It is only the corrupt, but powerful, minority who get a thrill out of exercising power over others and are greedy for unlimited wealth for themselves, who keep on aggressively emphasising, nurturing and exploiting the differences between races, religions, castes, classes, languages, parties and so on for their personal advantage at the expense of their fellow citizens.  This unscrupulous group is very powerful and will not cooperate with anyone working towards a fair compromise.  Therefore, there is no other choice for decent citizens than to take it upon themselves collectively, even in small groups, to lobby their representatives in Parliament unceasingly and press them to marginalise the extremists, whatever their views, and work towards a just settlement.

The settlement that is negotiated must not only define the sharing of rights, resources and responsibilities but also include foolproof systems of implementation.  For example, we should not have a situation where a law such as the Official Languages Act has been in the statute books for 30 years but successive governments have shown no political will to have it implemented in good faith.  In similar fashion, the 17th Amendment continues to be violated by the government and the opposition.  This recent (2001) key addition to the Constitution must be resuscitated and implemented as it stands or after rapid steps are taken to make those few critical amendments which have been recommended by the Organisation of Professional Associations (OPA), CIMOGG and a number of other independent commentators.  Equally important is that the provisions of all the international covenants and protocols which have been ratified by the government must be brought into Sri Lanka’s Constitution without any further delay, and the appropriate laws passed by Parliament.  The necessary machinery for implementation of these crucial pieces of legislation must be set up and financed directly from the Consolidated Fund without being subject to cuts to suit the private agendas of Presidents, Ministers and Treasury Secretaries.

The above are the three most critical areas requiring immediate action but CIMOGG has identified some other particularly important areas as well and submitted its proposals to the APRC.  Sadly, it has been reported that no note whatsoever has been taken of any of the 700 public representations made to the Ministry of Constitutional Affairs for consideration by the APRC.

Meanwhile, in order to avoid a total breakdown of Tamil hopes that something positive will emerge from all their sufferings, the government must give up what is credibly accepted as its undeclared policy of allowing the police, the security forces and the rest of the administration of treating every Tamil as an active supporter of terrorism and putting the onus on those who are arbitrarily arrested to prove that they are not guilty.  How, indeed, does one prove a negative?  The number of dead bodies which have been appearing in the conflict areas and around Colombo, and the virtually universal failure of the authorities to carry out genuine investigations to identify and apprehend those responsible, is one measure of how much many of our citizens have been deprived of the protection of a fair investigation and a fair trial.  There is much justified suspicion that most of these dead bodies belong to Tamil suspects who had been arrested on mere suspicion, imprisoned, tortured and murdered by various parties whom the state is not keen to bring to justice.  It is not beyond logical reasoning to conclude that all those subjected to inhuman forms of torture are disposed of, whether guilty or innocent, so as to leave no room for the torturers to be identified.

There is another long-term issue that needs to be addressed as rapidly as possible.  This relates to the fact that the current educational system in the country is ideally suited to destroy all vestiges of national unity.  By compelling Sinhala children to go to Sinhala language schools, Tamil children to Tamil language schools and large numbers of Muslim children to go to Muslim schools, we are making sure that our peoples will get more and more isolated from each other.  On the other hand, forcing Sinhala children to learn Tamil, which has virtually no international, commercial educational or scientific merit for a Sinhalese, would be a futile exercise.  Sinhala-speaking and Tamil-speaking children would be less stressed and far happier acquiring a good knowledge of English, as a link language, rather than struggling with a third language as well.

There will be immediate objections from our eternally backward-looking extremists to giving any place to English because most of them did not have the opportunity to learn this international language and they do not want others to gain the benefit of getting in touch with the rest of the world.  There will be a valid objection from those who will point out that we do not have the teaching resources to introduce English to every school and class.  The solution to this would be to get a few good Sinhala:English and Tamil:English teachers to prepare graded lessons in DVD format which could be played on a small, portable DVD player (powered by a small solar panel and battery, where there is no electricity supply).  Assuming that there is one DVD player for every five pupils and that there are 4,000,000 pupils in all, we would need 800,000 DVD players.  Each pupil would be allowed to use the DVD player for, say, one hour after school twice a week.  Assuming that each DVD/solar panel combination costs around Rs20,000, the total outlay required would be a under around Rs16,000,000,000.  This sum is less than one-third of the amount that Transparency International Sri Lanka says is unaccounted for by the government in respect of its tsunami reconstruction programme alone.  If, with the aid of a foreign government which produces electronic goods, we were able to get this equipment at a concessionary price, there would, within one year, be a total of 4,000,000 children speaking enough English to communicate in simple language with students and other English-speakers who belong to other communities.  In five or six years, there would be an unbelievable transformation in the atmosphere among the communities.  There would, of course, have to be a 20% or so maintenance expenditure every year, which we suggest could be found from the many billions allocated to the President’s account alone.  Alternatively, the annual budgetary requirement could be greatly reduced if the programme were to be spread out over five years.