Undoubtedly the greatest challenge in Sri Lanka at present is the restoration of trust. On the one side there is fear that a separatist agenda has not been abandoned, on the other there is fear that unity will be enforced by subordination of minorities to a dominant centre.

Connected with this latter fear are fears about demographic change and militarization. Conversely, the other fears of the majority are in fact distinct from the fear of separatism. They relate to worries about domination by a minority through disproportionate influence on governance.

I will look first at the challenges represented by these last worries, since they are the easiest to assuage. They spring from two sources, the first being the high number of Tamils in positions of importance in government in the period leading up to and just beyond independence. This factor arose however simply because of the better educational facilities available in the North, as well as the commitment to education evinced by Northerners, in view of the paucity of other opportunities in the area.

Overcoming any imbalance caused by this is easy, since it only requires ensuring that good facilities are available islandwide, and that students all over the country are committed to education that will develop good administrators as well as entrepreneurs. At the same time it should be recognized that the earlier imbalance was based not on race but on geography, and that there are minority areas with appalling education systems, just as there are many majority areas that have good facilities. Reforms in the education system must be based on equity on a national basis, and the ideal outcome would be employment relating to governance that ensures equitable representation of all communities.

In this regard government must also note that there is a greater commitment to educational excellence on the part of minorities, and this should not be held against them. The recent experience of the Post-Graduate Institute of Management in marketing a Master’s course for administrators is a case in point, given that applications poured in from the North and East, with very few from the rest of the country. The remedy for that is not to penalize the North and East, but rather to ensure that officials in other areas too understand the value of high level education and training. Incidentally the enormous superiority of the Northern Province and Eastern Province websites to those of other provinces makes clear the greater professionalism of personnel in those Provinces. The failure of government at all levels to take corrective action in the other Provinces is a fault that cannot be laid at the door of the competent.

In this regard I should stress the relative failure on the part of majority community administrators to understand the need to broaden their horizons. Tamil speaking public servants, perhaps because they necessarily understand the limitations of the language they function in most readily, strive as a general principle to become competent in the other languages used in Sri Lanka. Conversely Sinhala speaking public servants are often content to remain functionally monolingual. This then leads to better and more productive relationships on the part of Tamil speaking public servants with international interlocutors, including aid donors. The resentment this sometimes leads to is obviously unfair on the capable, and is best remedied by concerted efforts on the part of all public servants to improve their communication skills.

This element relates to the other worry on the part of the majority community, that there is a built in bias amongst foreigners towards minorities. There is some element of truth in this, but it arises largely from perceptions of discrimination in the past. Unfortunately it is true that there was discrimination, and in particular discrimination involving violence, in the attacks on Tamils in the first six years of the Jayewardene government. Though all that is in the past, its memory has been kept alive by the separatist movement over the years. But overcoming that negative impression cannot be done by further discrimination, it requires instead a much better communication strategy on the part of government, and a strategy based on facts rather than arguments of bias.

I have long argued that government has suffered badly from its incapacity to tell sensibly and accurately the story of the last few years. It is to my mind a very good story, but unfortunately – perhaps an inevitable consequence of democracy – government concentrated more on telling a story that would translate into electoral success, and did not concentrate enough on winning hearts and minds on a wider scale. That must change, and to do so it is necessary both to develop communication skills, and also to work harder at understanding reasons for resentment and the perpetuation of a discourse, including in the international community, that dwells on the deprivation suffered by minorities.

I have no doubt that such understanding, with a commitment to remedial measures when there are good reasons for resentment, will do much to quell any residual urges for separation. Those are minimal amongst minorities within Sri Lanka, and measures that strengthen their commitment to a united country will soon dispel the influence of those elements in the diaspora that are still recalcitrant. These too are not significant, but little effort has been made thus far to channel the energies of those members of the diaspora who are peaceable by nature into working together with government to improve the situation of the minority in Sri Lanka. That requires careful and concentrated effort, and the failure of government to concentrate on that, to convey to the diaspora the positive measures taken and involve them in plans for more, is regrettable, and will contribute to further difficulties unless corrective action is taken soon.

I mention the need to involve the minorities in plans for more positive action in the areas in which they dwell, because one of the main reasons for suspicion and fear is that they are left out of planning and hence deprived of benefits that should accrue to them. I believe the enormous amount of resources ploughed in by government to the North and East is ample evidence that the area is being developed in a way that never occurred before, and which will do much to reduce the disparities that led to so much resentment in the first place. But government has not taken special care to ensure participation of the targeted communities in planning, and has seemed to adopt a paternalistic rather than a participatory approach.

This is not the whole story, for much has been contributed by senior administrators in the areas targeted. But because of a lack of communication between decision makers and the community at large, the impression that persists is negative. This is particularly the case in the Jaffna peninsula, where existing levels of sophistication demand greater consultation. While it could be argued that, in the Wanni, needs were obvious, and it was important to get the job done swiftly, the failure to ensure more involvement of all stakeholders in the very north has led to resentment. This was apparent in the comparatively low poll government received in many parts of the Jaffna District, as compared to the much better performance in a majority of areas in the Wanni.

But even in the Wanni there is need to make clear that future development will be led by people of the area. This requires more concerted efforts at Human Resource and Capacity Development than have been thus far seen. Training at higher levels, encouragement of entrepreneurship, facilitation of micro-credit, support for cooperative community activity, recruitment of teachers from the area, involvement in security services, all these would help to increase confidence in government and its intentions.

In the absence of such initiatives, distrust grows. This is accentuated by the continuing military presence in the North. Given the possibility of renewed efforts to promote terrorism, in particular given the intransigence of former terrorist financiers and supporters in the West who seem to have the ear of at least some opinion makers, government cannot scale down to negligible levels the military presence. It should also be noted that the failure of critical voices to appreciate the refusal of government to scale up that presence, as advocated by the former army commander, has contributed to suspicions that those voices are not genuine, and are more anxious to denigrate government than to ensure the welfare of the people of the North.

Government concerns then about deliberate lack of understanding of the pressures that had to be overcome to ensure swift resettlement of the displaced, without the establishment of large cantonments as had been advocated, are understandable. But it is also important for government to understand the concerns of those who live in the area, and act expeditiously to avoid any sense of alienation developing. It would make sense therefore to move swiftly to recruit more minority representatives into the security forces, not only the police – where what has been done already is not well enough known – but also the army and the other services. It is disappointing for instance that the Education Ministry seems to have put a stop to the heartening initiative of the Secretary of Defence to commission Tamil officers into the Cadet Corps through a programme of training teachers of English. This would solve two problems simultaneously, but sadly several government departments cannot think outside the box and develop initiatives that will fulfil basic needs while also contributing to overcome political challenges.

Other areas in which the military could contribute actively to overcoming any sense of alienation is through training courses on the lines of the successful programme provided to students entering university. Though there were objections from politicians in the south, the target group as well as other stakeholders have expressed thorough appreciation of what was offered and achieved. There is no reason not to offer similar courses, not only for ex-combatants but also for youngsters who may not be qualified for government employment, given the decimation of the education system in which the LTTE indulged, even though government continued to finance it and administer schools in the dark years in which the LTTE controlled the area and continued with child conscription as well as military training in schools.

In a practical way, such training could offer basic qualifications involving languages plus vocational and aesthetic training, with a package that would allow those who were interested to obtain the six passes at Ordinary Level that would qualify them to join various branches of government service. A more streamlined approach to catch up education can easily be devised, which would also ensure the psycho-social attention, including through cultural activities and sports, that many in the region may require.

I have dwelt at some length on training which may seem at odds with my subject, which is political challenges. However I believe that the political problems that arose in the first decades after independence, before terrorism took over, were arose from discrimination with regard to language and employment, and it is therefore vital to ensure corrective action that will prevent recurrence of either discrimination or of perceptions of such. In this regard we need also to keep constantly in mind the destructive impact of the monolingualism in which our youngsters were straitjacketed, by the enforcement of mother tongue education on the basis of three different types of schools, for Sinhalese, for Tamils, and for Muslims.

Only Sri Lanka perverted the right to be educated in mother tongue into a compulsion not to have alternatives. Obviously forcing people to study in an alien language is counter-productive, but it is equally counter-productive to stop those who aim at bilingualism having opportunities to pursue this within the school system. It is also manifestly unfair to restrict choice in a context when it is the poor and rural schools that suffer, whilst the privileged have continued to enjoy access to English, which has then enabled them to enjoy employment at levels to which those stuck in knowledge of only one language cannot aspire. Our failure to learn lessons from the manner in which India and Malaysia for instance have developed sophisticated education systems is culpable, but it is not too late to fast forward changes now.

My argument then is that we have to think laterally to overcome challenges with regard to distrust and fear – and indeed to develop lateral thinking in the coming generations to prevent them thinking in terms of old formulas and oppositional dogmas to solve any problems that might arise. However I should also pay some attention to more obvious political problems that have arisen, first with regard to what I mentioned earlier, namely questions of land and demographic change, and secondly with regard to governance.

Questions as to land arise for two reasons, one the fear that the military is taking over large swathes of land, the second the fear that settlers from outside are being brought into the Wanni. With regard to the first, it is sad that government has not made clear its rejection of the proposal that some elements had advanced, which involved a massive increase in numbers in the army, much of which would have been assigned to the North. As it is, the few areas in which the military will be stationed should be clarified soon, with clarity as to the compensation that will be offered to any who are displaced. The continuing reduction of the former High Security Zones makes clear that initial suspicions are not valid, but government has a duty to reach swift decisions on what is needed, and provide equitable alternatives to any who lose their land. Continuing uncertainty about what might be planned contributes to corrosive suspicions which could be used by the unscrupulous to exacerbate tensions.

These tensions are also connected with claims that Sinhalese who have no connection with the place are being settled in the Wanni. I have not found this to be the case in the resettlement areas I visited, and I should note that I questioned those I met very closely to find out about their previous ties to the land. In all cases it was clear to me that the families I came across had been driven away during the period of terrorist ascendancy, and often they could lay claim to occupation for a century and more.

It is also necessary to dispose of the myth that the Wanni was a traditional homeland for Ceylon Tamils, as they are termed, who have been in Sri Lanka for centuries. On the contrary, a high proportion of those who were displaced are of Indian Tamil origin, as I realized in talking to them. Many of them could speak Sinhala, which was because they hailed from the hill country. Some had settled in the Wanni in the sixties and seventies, preferring that to going to India when deportation took place under the Sirima-Shastri pact, while others had sought refuge there in the eighties, after the attacks on Tamils in the estate sector, which I fear Colombo took no notice of until Colombo itself was attacked in 1983.

I hasten to add that I do not see this as colonization or deliberate efforts at demographic change, as has been alleged, with regard for instance to the resettlement programmes headed by Jon Westborg when he was here in the eighties, long before he returned as Norwegian ambassador at the time of the ill-fated CeaseFire Agreement. He was simply helping the oppressed, and we can only feel sorry that those born in Sri Lanka were treated so badly in their home areas that they sought refuge elsewhere. Given the relative emptiness of the Wanni, their settling there was perfectly reasonable, and we should now ensure that they are given the capacity to exploit the rich resources of the area in a manner that contributes to national development as well as their own.

There should be no racist comments of any sort then about those who have gone back to reside in the areas from which they were driven by the Tigers, either southward in the eightes and nineties, as happened to Sinhalese and Muslims, or eastward to be used as human shields as happened to so many Tamils in 2008 and 2009. Careful explication of origins however should be made available to assuage suspicions.

More importantly, this should also be done with regard to the fishing communities who are now able to return to their traditional migratory existence between north-east and south-west. However government should make sure that no alienation of land takes place as a consequence, while it should also ensure that fishermen from the north-east are also facilitated to migrate to other parts of the country at the required seasons. In particular given the concerns about coastal development, information in these respects needs to be readily available. A mechanism to address any concerns would also be desirable, given the possibility that this is another area in which negative feelings could be engendered.

Finally I should look at the area which I suspect I was supposed to devote myself to, namely the question of political reforms. Though that is the area of greatest emotional stress, I should note that I believe it is only one aspect of a large problem that needs to be addressed in different ways, and in particular through the social reforms and the enhanced communication I have sketched out above.

Similarly, I believe that in talking of political reforms too, we need to think outside the box, and aim at satisfying not just the emotional needs of politicians but also the practical needs of people. In this regard I should note that the suggestions made by the TNA in discussions with government are a much better basis on which to proceed rather than the much more wide-ranging suggestions of previous negotiations.

Unfortunately I cannot discuss those suggestions here, given the need for confidentiality which must be upheld. This is particularly important because there will be extremists on all sides who will pick on one or two aspects of a possibly contentious nature and raise tensions, instead of concentrating on the common factors that are far more numerous. I will therefore confine myself here to some general suggestions, based on principles the Liberal Party has been enunciating for years. In this regard I should perhaps draw attention to the seminal role played by the Founder of the Liberal Party, Dr Chanaka Amaratunga, in formulating the polices which Mrs Bandaranaike advanced in contesting the 1988 Presidential Election, as well as those put forward by Gamini Dissanayake and Mrs Srima Dissanayake who took over from him, as the UNP candidate at the 1994 Presidential Election. Unfortunately in both cases those policies were cast aside by those who exercised authority in the opposition after the Presidential Elections had been lost, though they have been referred to nostalgically since then on numerous occasions. I should also add however that these are my own ideas in accordance with development since those elections.

Let me begin then by noting that the purpose of government, as well as of devolution, is to serve the people. Reforms must target improvements in this regard.

The welfare of the people requires security, which includes financial security and food security and environmental security, in addition to protection from violence and crime. Security issues, as discussed, are primarily the responsibility of national governments. All areas in a country should however contribute to decision making with regard to security as well as other responsibilities of a central government. The best way of ensuring this is what most democracies have, a second chamber based on equal representation for all provinces or regions. Such a chamber should also engage in discussion and consensus building, which is not easy in the more combative atmosphere of the main legislature.

Many issues pertaining to the daily lives of people are best decided upon by units that are close to the people and readily accountable to them. In short we need to pursue the principle of Subsidiarity, which sadly few political theorists in Sri Lanka advocate forcefully, even though almost everyone agrees when it has been explained to them that it makes sense. Subsidiarity, I should perhaps add, is the idea that decisions must be made by the smallest possible units affected by such decisions. So individuals decide about their personal lives, communities about schools which cater to them, and so on.

Many subjects in fact require close monitoring and quick responses that distant administrative units cannot provide. These are best administered therefore by small units. Reforms must strengthen the capacity of Pradeshiya Sabhas to deal with relevant issues, whilst ensuring they are accountable to the people. Whilst necessary actions should be expedited, they must be in terms of consistent policy and with financial accountability to Provincial Councils. In addition the allocation of resources with regard to such issues is best done by a Provincial Administration, albeit with due consultation. Reforms must strengthen the capacity of such administrations to ensure appropriate structures whilst dealing effectively with problems.

It is also important to avoid duplication of personnel and efforts. Apart from being a waste of resources, this leads to limitations as to action, since responsibilities are not clear. Reform should be directed to increasing efficiency. Streamlining personnel appointments and ensuring clear job descriptions is essential. For this purpose, the concurrent list should be reduced to ensure clearcut responsibilities. Whilst many issues can be devolved, others will require central government involvement. Where concurrence is required, differences should be settled by consultation, rather than relying on the current catch all attribution of decision making power to the centre.

To sum up, government should be exercised through

  1. A central government with a bicameral legislature that allows a greater voice to rural areas, through a second chamber based on equal  representation for all provinces

  2. A provincial government with an executive that has decision making powers with regard to issues that do not pertain to security or national policy or inter-provincial issues

  3. A local government system that has administrative powers with regard to day to day issues, including social services and utilities

I believe discussion should proceed on the basis of principles such as the above, though of course these may require adjustment after all stakeholders have provided their inputs. A forum such as this should of course raise relevant issues, but as I have suggested, this should not be in terms of harking back to formulas developed under different circumstances. These principles I believe uphold the spirit of the 13th amendment, while fine tuning it to add greater responsiveness to the people, greater responsibility to the various tiers of government, and greater involvement at all levels of the people and their representatives.

Daily News 12 Oct 2011http://www.dailynews.lk/2011/10/12/fea01.asp – Part 1

Daily News 13 Oct 2011http://www.dailynews.lk/2011/10/13/fea01.asp – Part 2