Political Scientist, Author, former Sri Lankan Ambassador to France, Spain & Portugal, and Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva, delivered on 29 May 2013 before the Citizens’ Movement for Good Governance held in the Auditorium of the Organization of Professional Associations, Colombo
Thank you Dr Visvalingam. Ladies and Gentlemen, good evening!
You are a collection of individuals who have served Sri Lanka with distinction over many years. Not content with serving Sri Lanka in various capacities for decades, you continue to interest yourself in the country’s present and future. And for that, I salute you. Your contribution is something that sets a high benchmark for people like me.
Now, that having been said, it is a matter of regret that Sri Lanka, almost alone among the nations of South Asia, does not have a tradition, or if it had one, discontinued the tradition, of continuing to utilize the wisdom that people like yourselves have accumulated over decades of State service. In India and Pakistan, people like yourselves would be inducted into the various public policy boards. You would be serving on the Boards of think-tanks, institutes of strategic studies, institutes of public policy. This is how settled and wise systems continue to use the experience, talents and the intellect of distinguished citizens.
You have not only accumulated much knowledge and experience, the country has in some cases invested in that experience. Many of you who have moved up through the civil service, through the military, have had the opportunity of progressing with distinction through higher academia and professional training institutions. Most societies try to continue to use people such as you in training younger generations, in imparting the wisdom of experience, in serving as an institutional memory which we have lost. But we for some reason do not do this. In fact, the experience of people such as you, usually serve as a disincentive. If one mentions A, B or C and says he served during this time, the immediate response is yes, very good, but so and so would be unhappy if we associated him in any way in the policy or policy review process. So, that is one of the things that have gone wrong in Sri Lanka. I am happy that your organization has not contented itself with mere lamentation but has chosen to try to do something about it yourself. I have read Dr Visvalingam’s interventions over the years on matters of public policy and I thank him for that. But more importantly, all of you could be doing something else during your weekly meeting and yet you continue to engage in deliberation, in making proposals, in trying to make things better.
Now, part of my speech this evening is to urge you to do more. Because when one is in a situation where the State, or the regime or the status quo is not functioning as it should; not even in its own enlightened self-interest, then the center of gravity must shift to society, to the professionals, to the citizens. And here, your organization sets an example. But the challenge is greater than it has ever been. And therefore, the task is also more onerous and more urgent.
Let me venture a common or even banal suggestion. And that suggestion is that most of us in this room and most people we know would have been positively disposed about the decisive termination of the war in May 2009. Now the term “positively disposed” covers a continuum from glad to relieved or happy to relieve. But I also think that most of us in this room and most of the people we know have a sense of disquiet about the present and if we take our minds back to May 2009, I dare say that none of us really expected to be here in this mood 4 years down the road. That is not what we thought things would be like. That’s not what we thought we would feel 4 years later. So there has been an important gap between expectation and fulfillment. And this gap, I submit, can be super-imposed on yet another gap between promise and fulfillment.
Sri Lanka’s story or the story of Ceylon is probably that story; the story of the gap between our promise as a country, as a society and the actual outcomes, the actual performance. But today, we are at a particular point of crises. I certainly do not say that this is the worse crises we have faced because we have faced far worse situations. Not only did we have three decades of war, at least two of which were punctuated by suicide terrorism every month, perhaps even every week, but we also had a situation in the late 1980s where we faced triple challenges. We had the Southern insurrection, a Northern insurrection and an external military presence on our soil; all at the same time during the period 1987-90. And this is one of the worse situations that any society or State would be in.
So where we are now is not anywhere as bad as where we have been. But in a different sense, in a different dimension, it is somewhat more disturbing. I would call this the human resource dimension. Because however bad things were in the 1980s or the 1990s, we could always count on human resources of a certain quality. We could think of certain names or leaders, or people who could perhaps turn things around. The system was not as depleted of quality human resources as it is now. The human resources crisis is perhaps best dramatized by the phenomenon of the brain drain which has accelerated in the post-war period. Now, THAT is an anomaly. The brain drain is something we have been discussing for decades but we now have a situation where young people don’t even wait to finish their first degree. If they can leave during their first degree they’ll leave. So the brain drain is cutting deeper and deeper in. Young professionals look for the first opportunity to head for the exit ramps. This is exactly the opposite of what any post-war society should look like; especially one in which the legitimate State won. We have contrary examples in Angola, in Ethiopia, even in Rwanda where the degree of recovery and development has been much faster. But here, not only are young people leaving and few coming back but the policy of the system seems to be at best ambivalent, at worse a conscious disincentive to such return. Take the issue of dual citizenship.
How prudent is it to force young people of Sri Lankan origin to actually have to choose between being citizens of the United States, or Canada, or Australia and citizens of Sri Lanka. Why do we wish them to make this choice? One may of course speculate about certain considerations which are said to be of a security nature but it really doesn’t make sense to me when you weigh the pluses and the minuses because if we were to adopt a rational and open minded policy about dual citizenship, what we would immediately do is secure for Sri Lanka shareholders in many parts of the world. The moment you give dual citizenship freely then you are buying into most of the Western societies from which the anti-Sri Lankan lobbying operates. When you fail to do so, you are depriving yourself of a possible strategic advantage. Why would anybody want to do this certainly beats me.
We are also placing ourselves in a social situation which is little short of tragic because those of you who have children and grandchildren would love to have them come back or come back more often. But if the doors are shut, if the attitude is one of a lack of welcome then it is we who will be the losers. Those who have children, grandchildren, nephews and nieces out there who do want to come back and work, who want to spend time and be citizens of Sri Lanka as well. It is we who are saying ‘may be not’.
This goes in a completely opposite direction of the two miracles of the contemporary world: India and China. Very different systems but similar policies. Both countries have over billion people. One would have thought that they would say ‘look we can afford not to have people coming back because we have such a large population and an educated one. But you know that the overseas Chinese and the non resident Indians have been crucial players in catalyzing the economic revolutions of China and India. But we are doing just the opposite.
What this tells me is that the main reason for the gap between promise and fulfillment has been in the realm of mentality. There is something about the mentality of those who are making the decisions that reflects itself in the policy process. And those policies have blocked the transition from a successfully won war to a sustainable peace. Now, what can we, as citizens, do about this blocked transition? How can we unblock it because we do have a vested interest? We do want a country in which there isn’t an economic free fall and a relapse into anarchy. We want a country to which our youngsters can come back from overseas; and those who are here would want to say. So there is a vested interest that all of us have. So what really can be done?
I wish to suggest three or four ideas so that you might take it up during your own deliberation. The first is that organization such as CIMOGG should function actively as public interest or public policy think-tank. Now to do that, a basic principle has to be adhered to, and that is that you would reach out to – and you certainly number already amongst yourselves – the best minds that we have. Now this is a simple principle but it is one that is observed in the breach, in Sri Lanka. One never thinks in terms of bringing together the best minds to deliberate or recommend on anything. So many other criteria are in play except for that fairly basic one. But CIMOGG in by itself, or together with other similar organizations, can strive to rehabilitate and practise that principle.
So you can address yourselves, as you have been doing in the past but perhaps in a more systematic manner, across the board to a whole range of public policy issues. This may involve issues of diplomacy, strategy, security, economic policy, health policy, whatever. You have all been involved in this. When I look around in the room, I can see that you have been involved at the highest level. There are people here who have actually made history. So you do have the capacity to bring together the best minds and reflect on these matters; not necessarily behind closed doors but in terms of public seminars, symposia, round table discussions. For instance, a round table discussion need not have as many people as a larger event such as a conference should have but it is important to be active in that realm and to produce some kind of outcome documents which can then be fed not to the rulers who probably don’t read it but to the public. There is really no point, anymore, in sending up documents to the people who matter because the people who matter do not read those. They would prefer to rely on what their own inner circle or clan would say rather than reach out to the best professionals, and specialists and the most experienced people in the respective fields. This is why public opinion has to be built up. Not only in the newspapers and articles but by using the new social media and some of the traditional media which have not been used by people like ourselves who tend to write to newspapers. There’s also FM radio, there’s television and there’s of course the internet. Keep maintaining a steady drum beat of comments and criticisms. Keep intervening and build up opinion.
I do know that Dr. Visvalingam is working on a very interesting document, a draft constitution. I followed some of the suggestions made over the years. I may not agree with all of them but I think it is a very well worth exercise. You have to keep generating and feeding ideas to all the political parties, to civil society organizations. Keep pushing up there because that is how the change took place and in far worse circumstances in Western Europe, in Latin America, in the Philippines, in many part of the world where we thought that change was just not possible. Change is possible because society was the battlefield. The State was bypassed. But in society there were a lot of discussions, dialogue and a battle of ideas as it were. So in terms of public policies there is much that can be done; on every issue. Write a letter to an editor; write an article to the newspapers. Don’t give up.
The two main issues, the democracy deficit and the devolution issue, I am not going to bore you with my stump speech. Again I would just leave you with a few ideas.
We have all been living or working in Sri Lanka or with the Sri Lankan issue for many years. There was something we could always count on and that we do not have today. That is the countervailing effect of an opposition. Whichever party we belonged to or didn’t, we could always count on the fact that the opposition in Parliament, at the elections, would act as a pressure group, as a competitor and therefore help self-correct the course of the country. Now we can’t count on that anymore. Why is this? I won’t come up with the usual jokes about the opposition. I would limit myself to two political science observations. One is that a war changes history in a way that few things do. It is a landmark event, whichever society you are talking about or whichever time of history. The experience that France went through during the occupation, the experience of the French resistance, it affected developments for decades after that; at least until 1968 and the resignation of de Gaulle after the referendum.
So Sri Lanka went through this massive experience; and wars define positions. You don’t live down the position you took during the war. If you have been on the wrong side of the war, you really cannot be on the right side of an election. There is no way to live that down, so long as this generation lives and may be even later because it goes into the history books. So a political party or leadership that got it wrong on something so massive as a war, that is associated in the minds of the people with a period of national retreat or retrenchment and the humiliation of the armed forces is never going to be able to match, let alone surpass someone who got it right. So either the status quo remains, in which case those in power do not have anything to worry about because they know that the electorate will never opt for a certain kind of leader or a certain other kind of leader, however the serious economic crises gets because finally you have to go into that polling booth and decide “Is the country safe in the hands of X or Y?” If both candidates are seen as equally patriotic then people would go on the basis of economic performance; which is what happened in 1988 between Madam Bandaranaike and Prime Minister Premadasa. If both candidates are seen as equally unpatriotic there again the question does not arise and you go on the basis of the economic variable. But if one has a legitimacy that accrues from having been a successful war time leader and the other is indelibly associated with a period of national humiliation, then no economic crises is going to be able to change that.
So what we have today, for the first time in our lifetime, is a political system which is no longer competitive. And it is uncompetitive not primarily because the President is coercively suppressing the main opposition because I do not see any members of the United National Party actually locked up, but simply because it is in implosive collapse. And if that is to change, the main democratic opposition has to dissociate itself from that particular period in its history. Just as the Sri Lanka Freedom Party had to dissociate itself from the memories of economic hardships of 1977 and substitute for Madam Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga who had shifted the party’s stance on the economy to one of embracing the open economy. So long as the SLFP was seen as the party that would perhaps take us back to the dark era of shortages, there was no way it was going to win. It is even more so in a matter which is more emotive; such as the recently concluded war.
So this is a choice that society has to make because the government will always prefer a discredited and weak opposition. But society can make that choice. And there are no coercive penalties for trying to change democratically the leadership of an opposition party and make it more competitive. So this is one thing I suggest civil society concentrate on if we want a change at least in the behavior and perhaps in the policies of the regime. And if there is no change in the behaviors and the policies then of course the citizenry will have once again the option that we always had but that we don’t seem to have now; which is of changing the administration by recourse to the ballot and that opportunity comes up in two and a half years latest. This is a fundamental systemic question. And I would argue that the democratic deficit is not so much a question of a bad constitution but a political market place which is no longer competitive. And unless that is changed, we will not be able to restore something that is fundamental to any society, namely, equilibrium. Right now there is no equilibrium.
Finally on the issue of devolution, my views on this are fairly well known. I would therefore only wish to deal with one aspect and that is the external dimension. I have been amazed that the debate on devolution in Sri Lanka seems to have one or two unconscious assumptions. One is that there are only Sinhalese people on this island and the other is that this island is the only place on the planet. Because if one factored in that, though the Sinhalese are 75%, there are other communities on this island and we all have to live together, we have to cohabit. And if one factored in that just across the water, we have Tamil Nadu with 70 million people of Tamil origin and which is no longer a kingdom as it was in ancient time but it is part of India. And if we factor in the strategic vulnerabilities of this island, we would be less cavalier in the kind of suggestions that I find in daily newspapers, may be even at the highest level.
We seem to have forgotten the bitter lessons of the past. We have forgotten what happened before the intrusive airdrop of 1987. Everybody knows about the airdrop but we forget what happened 24 hours before and I think it is almost paradigmatic. Because 24 hours before we were informed that there were supplies which Indian boats, flying the Red Cross flag wished to deliver to the suffering citizens of the North of Sri Lanka. Now, we had two options there. One was to receive those supplies and distribute them jointly. This was one thing we could have done but we did not do that. Instead, with a rather loud insistence on sovereignty and under the direct orders of the then Minister of National Security who was in direct contact with our Navy boats, we turned back the Indian boats with the Red Cross flag. And then for few hours we were on Cloud 9 or in 7th heaven as they say. And what happened then was that the President of Sri Lanka was informed, not very politely, that the same supplies would be delivered by Indian Air Force transport planes, which would be accompanied by Mirage 2000 interceptors and that any action against the transport plane would be responded to by military force.
Now, we have a bill which will be presented today I believe to the Parliament which will inevitably come up to debate. It is to do with the abolition of the 13th Amendment. As a student of comparative politics, I remember that a country, to which we were very close, Yugoslavia, ceased to exist in our lifetime. Yugoslavia was very proud of its military, and rightly so. I visited Yugoslavia with my parents and learnt of their history from the post-war period based on the valiant and successful partisan resistance to the Nazi general armies, an army that was multiethnic and built up on the basis of fighting a partisan war and was therefore able to deter Stalin’s Russia from intervention. That Yugoslavia disintegrated. How did that happened? It began when Serb nationalists, after the death of Marshal Tito, decided that Tito had been over-generous to the minorities. The Serbian Academy of Sciences, of all things, in 1986 started a campaign to repeal the autonomous status of some of these republics and provinces. That process of repeal began with the autonomous province of Kosovo, in 1990. When the Constitution was revised, the autonomous status of the province of Kosovo was revoked and the province of Kosovo was dissolved in 1990. Now today, Kosovo is not a province. It is a country.
So I tend to think in terms of process. You can do something like turning back the Indian Navy boats but you must also be able to understand that unilateralism has consequences. And we have to grasp the realities of the balance of power.
I would conclude my remarks with drawing attention to something I had written about last week in the newspapers. I think some of you in the audience know that India has long had a naval air force in the South of India with the longest air strip in Asia; which is understandable as it has to do with monitoring the naval traffic. But a few days ago, a brand new airbase was opened in Thanjavur, in Tamil Nadu. And India located its most leader war plane, the SU30MK1, at that Thanjavur airbase. I am sure it has nothing to do with Sri Lanka. It is probably part of monitoring the Indian Ocean but one also knows that India’s threat perceptions come from Pakistan and China. And neither Pakistan nor China is close to the South of India. We also know that strategic planners must base themselves not only on stated intentions but on capabilities. What is that airbase capable of doing in a worst case scenario? For some strange reason, the Indian Minister of Defense – Mr. Anthony – in his speech during the opening of this airbase, which has nothing to do with Sri Lanka, reassured the audience that Sri Lankan military personal would not be trained there. Now how Sri Lanka came into that speech, I do not know but there was this reference. So this is why I say that this policy debate and these moves that are been made or sought to be made on these issues of devolution, must also take into account the reality of Tamil Nadu.