“Political Situation In Sri Lanka and the Region”
Posted on March 2nd, 2015

by Asanga Abeyagoonasekera

Speech delivered by Mr.Asanga Abeyagoonasekera former Executive Director of Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute(LKIIRSS) on the 27th February 2015 at the Consortium of South Asian Think Tanks(COSATT) Regional Conference on “Deeper Integration for Peace and Prosperity in the South Asian Region” organized by Centre for South Asian Studies(CSAS) in cooperation with Konrad Adenauer Stiftung(KAS) in Katmandu, Nepal.

Political Situation In Sri Lanka and the Region” by Asanga Abeyagoonasekera

Distinguished scholars, ladies and gentleman,

First let me thank Centre for South Asian Studies(CSAS), Konard Adenauer Stiftung( KAS) and the Consortium of South Asian think tanks(COSATT) for the kind invitation. It is a great pleasure to attend this COSATT regional meetings and this is my second time in Nepal. I think a regional discussion at track two among distinguished Scholars is very important and this discussion will definitely benefit our region.

Regional security is threatened by weak political systems, which lack good governance and the rise of threat from extremist groups. The fundamental setback is due to weak political culture that promises many but delivers far less. Frustration of the general public has been evident in many countries and transitions in political systems are evident such as in Sri Lanka who is due for a constitutional amendment to curb the powers of the executive President and change its electoral system.

Rising inequality is another serious issue the region needs to address. More than short term plans a long-term plan should be considered to minimize the rising inequality and provide a better living for the people at the bottom of the pyramid. Glamorous infrastructure is not the only solution for this as evident in Sri Lanka, India and many other countries. The modern Mumbai airport is surrounded by slums and garbage dump yards, in Sri Lanka we have build the new International Airport but not many flights come there but surrounding people in the area is in poverty, previous government was building a massive tower call the lotus tower in Colombo apparently will be the tallest in South Asia, just a symbol without addressing the key issues and we have many villages and people suffering for a better living standard. If the regional politics don’t address the basic needs you will see turmoil.

Political instability is evident everywhere and many has been killed in this region since January this year. In Bangladesh it’s clearly evident. Maldives is also in turmoil. Former President Nasheed has been arrested and a political crisis in the Maldives looks to further deepen.  Amnesty International has been critical of the human rights situation on the islands. There is a need for constitution amendment in Nepal. This entire context is happening now in South Asia, instability of Governments and political crisis is deepening in this region.

Sri Lanka’s new President HE. Maithripala Sirisena’s and his rainbow coalitions landmark win, which came amidst a lot of skepticism, has been dubbed a ‘Silent Revolution’ and is being looked at as a chance to restore democracy and help rebuilt a nation bruised and battered by a 30 year long civil war. The present political environment some scholars see it as a political transformation some don’t. The 100day reform plan set by the new President is implemented soon after his victory and public is keeping a close eye specially on social media about the progress. The term silent revolution I coined in my column published at IPCS this month is due to the tremendous contribution of social media to defeat the past regime. Less than 500,000 votes made the difference and it was the majority of the minority and the 1million odd social media users who were the game changers. The political transition was smooth unlike some other nations in South Asia. This maybe due to our democratic value system which is far more rich than any individual political leader.

The former president Mahinda Rajapaksha came into power in 2005 but his greatest achievement came in May 2009 when he defeated the LTTE. The end of conflict brought about a much needed relief for the people and the economy but it also gave the Rajapaksa regime a sense of ownership of country which allegedly led to a term increasingly marked by allegations of nepotism, corruption, and authoritarianism.”(Pant, 2015). Furthermore the manner in which the former regime dealt with allegations regarding the Human rights violations during the end of the war was not very diplomatic hence it lead to various types of diplomatic isolation.

Good governance is the new theme of the current regime. The 100 day plan with its crack down on bribery and corruption, steps taken to abolish executive presidency, the new peoples” budget, reduced government spending on recurrent expenses and push for a new electoral system are glimpses of a better future for the people. The former Rajapaksa cabinet with one hundred ministers was reduced to less than 40, which is remarkable. Implementation of right to Information RTI will be one of the great achievements by the public as they will be able to question authorities on budget and to voice against corruption. Strengthening of institutions and independent institutions is a very important element as mentioned yesterday by Dr.Joseph. Sri Lanka and the region has very weak government institutions that is maneuvered by politicians not for the public good of the people. So many loss-making institutions is a result of political interference and over staffing and many malpractices. Fund allocations for institutions were mismanaged by the previous regime. For example the think tank I was heading had an annual operational budget of Rs5m and we had an MP under Foreign Ministry who has spent 2m in one day for gambling paid by government according to the local news. This has to stop in the future and I hope the new government will do a better job.

In Sri Lanka one could question what’s the use of having a bribery commission without much powers and that can’t play an independent role. The new government is looking at strengthening the bribery Commission a very important step. My personal view is bribery Commission should be decentralized to the provinces in Sri Lanka specially to fight political corruption. Electronic platforms like ipaidabribe to fight retail corruption should be strengthen by Governments. We should strengthen models and processes to fight corruption in the region. We should educate the new politicians on political corruption its affect to the society. Many would prefer to follow the bandwagon of political corruption but we can change this culture. Asset growth of political leaders should be analyses and authorities should question high growth of assets. India Pakistan Sri Lanka and many south Asian countries are battling corruption a menace to our society.

Sri Lanka was able to destroy the threat of terrorism but there are still terrorism threats in the region. As Sri Lanka has come out of terrorism they could be used as an example to the nations combating terrorism. But previous Government failed terribly in few areas on our post war reconciliation process. Post war Reconciliation and rebuilding is the most important step. The northern provincial elections were a major step in this direction of inclusiveness after many years of voting right not exercised due to the conflict.

The train to Jaffna that restarted in 2014 after more than 20 years with the Indian assistance is more than just a train service. It must be looked as a way of bridging the gap between North and South. Sri Lanka requires more than just infrastructural development, it requires social integration and re construction, and the national reconciliation agenda should be a priority of the new government. Train to Jaffna article I wrote got me into trouble by the previous Government, what I tried to explain was physical infrastructure alone is not sufficient and we need to work on reconciliation process to bridge the hearts and minds of North and South. Previous Government thought by providing infrastructure they could win the votes in North East and this was a bad assumption. You could see clearly from the recent election results of North East.

Thus it is imperative to create an identity of Sri Lankan-ness, and the multi party multi ethnic rainbow coalition” is a good way to start. Bipartisan between the Presidents blue party SLFP and Prime ministers Green Party is been looked at and has been put to practice, this is a great achievement and a historical moment in our political history. Two party’s who were ruling since 1948 independence and had many differences in working together to rebuild the Nation. Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe’s remarks at the recent 67th independent day indicate the interest and his commitment for reconciliation, national government and good governance.

we have now, once again arrived at a period, during which we could realize that objective. Groups that represent diverse communities, following different religions, political parties, civil organizations and various groups came together onto one platform, shedding their differences to achieve a common objective for the benefit of the nation. Our aim is to [..] meet peace fully, discuss issues peacefully and disperse peacefully, in order to ensure good governance and build a united and prosperous nation. Let us resolve today to achieve that noble objective, to give real meaning to our independence.”(PM Ranil Wickramasinghe)

On Sri Lanka’s external role some scholars say previous President played too much in the China axis and did not balance with India US axis. Some newspapers reported that it was Indian intelligence RAW who was behind the government change in Sri Lanka. It’s important not to make speculations like this as it will create unnecessary problems with the general public and could affect future relationship with India.   It must also be noted that it is imperative that Sri Lanka strengthen it’s ties with India, China and US and have a balanced foreign policy. China’s Maritime Silk Road (MSR) or US pivot to Asia should be looked at as positive strategies, which will bring economic prosperity to our region that has a huge youth talent. We should aim to provide more high tech exports rather than labour intense products. Many South Asian nations should try to move from factor driven economies to efficiency driven in the next decade and further to move into innovation driven economies.

There is struggle and confusion in parts of the region, but then there are also success stories.

The new Sri Lankan regime who came in as underdogs and overturned a high power centered government as they campaigned with the interest of the common man in mind is one such story. Arvind Kerjawal and his AAP Party in the Delhi elections is another example. Such situations of small players making a difference and being heard give a sense of empowerment and hope to those formerly silenced voices.

Therefore let me conclude being optimistic and say that even with all this political turmoil in the region it is still possible to cooperate and work together to build a better political culture and improve the lives of our people in the region. Setting essential targets and fulfilling them we could achieve some success in regional integration. I quote Premier Li Keqiang “A philosopher once observed that we cannot solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them. Indeed, old problems can no longer be solved by clinging to the outdated mindset of confrontation, hatred and isolation. Dialogue, consultation and cooperation must be explored to find solutions to new problems. It is important that we draw lessons from history, and pool our collective wisdom to maximize the convergence of interests among countries”

Thank you!

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