Text of a presentation by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha MP at the  Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats Conference on
Transitions to Democracy – Managing Burma’s Political Transition: The Challenges Ahead
16-19 November 2012, Bangkok, Thailand

The news from many parts of Asia has been full recently of ethnic or rather sectarian conflict. In Thailand and the Philippines, there have been southern insurgencies, with Muslim populations asserting a separate identity from Buddhists and Christians respectively. Indonesia has recently found places of worship being closed by a fundamentalist dispensation in Aceh. In both Bangladhesh and Burma, there have been riots, of Buddhists again Muslims or vice versa. And in Pakistan the struggle between Shias and Sunnis seems to be endless, a phenomenon we see in many countries of West Asia too.

In Sri Lanka we could say we were used to this, as we emerge from a thirty year long civil war, often characterized as being between Sinhalese and Tamils. Yet that would be erroneous, for though the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam presented themselves as the champions of the Tamil people, Tamils were amongst their prominent victims. In setting themselves up as the sole representatives of the Tamil people, they destroyed moderate Tamil forces, killing several leading politicians and browbeating others into submission.

But it would also be misleading to claim that there was no ethnic tension in the country. The Tigers became prominent precisely because there was no harmony and no union within Sri Lanka. Since our democracy was based on a British model, we did not have checks and balances built in, as had occurred with the United States, which had to build up a constitution in the context of conflicting claims, from states with different priorities.

Our democracy was majoritarian, which meant that it could be taken possession of by whoever obtained a majority in Parliamentary elections. Since we had the first past the post system, and since most constituencies were what the British would describe as marginals, on several occasions we had massive majorities in Parliament on the basis of small majorities in the popular vote. And so we had measures that were in theory democratic, ie were based on increasing the power of the people, but which took away power from minorities. Thus we had language policies that made employment more difficult for minorities, we had educational policies that made higher education less accessible, and we had land distribution that favoured the majority.

The manner in which language became a problem is instructive, for it was also based on egalitarian policies that ended up promoting privilege. Over 50 years ago Sri Lanka decided to make mother tongue education compulsory and, far from Sinhalese being imposed on Tamils, both languages were on a par for the purpose. But this meant that, when Sinhalese became the official language, many Tamils had no knowledge of it, and could not therefore obtain state employment. And, in a context in which the state was the principal employer, given the statist socialism that had engulfed us, Tamils certainly suffered.

The solution to the problem therefore required two steps. In 1987, Tamil was also made an official language. But monolingualism continued to dominate in education, until in the nineties we began to teach children the other language in schools. Most recently we have embarked on a policy of trilingualism, which will make communication easier and enhance employment opportunities for all. But I should note that the state is still not implementing that policy properly, in part because it still commands a monopoly with regard to teacher training even though it has proved woefully inefficient in ensuring an adequate supply of teachers in essential subjects. So, unless this is changed soon, and an adequate supply of teachers provided to schools nationwide, the problem will continue to haunt us.

Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha MP

The same goes for educational opportunity. Given that we still have a virtual state monopoly on education, we are depriving many bright youngsters of the opportunity to equip themselves satisfactorily for jobs in the modern world. This causes resentment, and all over the country too, as we saw through two southern Sinhalese youth insurrections in addition to the protracted struggle of the Tigers in the north. We have also failed to keep pace with modern requirements, and are woefully behind in science and technology, without which our youngsters will not be able to contribute actively to economic and even infrastructural development at the more advanced levels. Stuck still in the mindset of an elite Britain, a mindset that Britain has now overcome, we provide high level qualifications only to a limited number, in terms of academic approaches, rather than the vocational and technical excellence we should be nourishing.

All this causes dissatisfaction and disharmony, and will continue to affect the unity of the country. Naturally then we have calls for greater local empowerment, through autonomy, or through enhanced powers for regional bodies. And, obviously, if the central government fails to enhance educational and economic opportunities, then clearly there is a strong case for allowing local bodies to take over.

This however is a complicated matter, given that in recent years autonomy has seemed a precursor to separatism. In the old days we thought of Federalism as a way of binding a country together, aware as we were of the examples of the United States or India or Germany, where unity was preserved whilst allowing component units space to conduct their own affairs. However, following the end of the Cold War, and the break up of the Soviet Union and of Yugoslavia, we realized that the existence of autonomous or semi-autonomous entities could also be an excuse for dividing a nation up.

This is very much on the cards for several reasons. In the first place, politicians generally want power and, since only a few politicians can exercise power in a single country, there is an incentive to break that country up. Secondly, countries that wish to exercise influence in other countries will be able to do this more readily if those other countries are small. We thus have the entertaining spectacle of the European Union, as it gets larger and imposes more and more laws on its member states, actively supporting the break up of other countries, no doubt for idealistic reasons, but it just so happens that these are also pragmatic in terms of increasing its own influence in such countries.

How then do we deal with the problem? How do we ensure that all ethnic and religious groups in a country feel part of that country, and in enjoyment of all facilities to develop, without carving the country up into ethnic enclaves that could then move towards separatism?

The answer lies I think in a basic Liberal principle, the idea that society consists of individuals, and theories of governance should be based on the welfare of individuals, not particular interest groups. This leads naturally to the principle of subsidiarity, namely that authority should be exercised by a collective only in the interests of the members of that collective, and therefore the collective should be as small as possible for any particular purpose. Since freedom should be restricted only insofar as it might limit the freedom of others, decisions should be made by the smallest possible body affected by such decisions. Personal morality should be decided on by individuals, matters affecting schooling should be decided on by parents and the community within which that schooling takes place, matters with regard to war and peace need to be decided by the nation as a whole.

In accordance with this principle, it is vital to strengthen local government institutions. In Sri Lanka unfortunately the debate is about whether power should be exercised by the Central Government or Provincial Governments, even though it is clear that neither can adequately address the needs of people in many particulars. Matters such as local roads and transport, educational services and training, utilities and waste disposal, health and nutrition needs, all need to be managed and monitored at local level.

At the same time, these services must be provided through systems that ensure consultation of the people being served, and accountability to them. Some work to promote this has started, with efforts at training local government officials in participatory budgeting. However, in a society in which governance has traditionally been top down, we need to make concerted efforts to change the culture and ensure people participation in decision making – and also, equally important, in monitoring of implementation.

We should be aware then of the full meaning of democracy, which means that the people are empowered, not merely that they have the right to select those who govern them, and then, after a few years, to change them if they prove inadequate. Rather, the people should be empowered so as to engage in continuous interactions with those who govern them, to put forward their needs and their requests and monitor how all levels of government respond to these. Whilst obviously decisions have to be made by an elected government, without those who selected them interfering unduly, accountability to the people must also be reinforced at all levels. For this purpose we should develop appropriate instruments such as a Fundamental Right to Information, as well as mechanisms for ensuring public scrutiny of public expenditure.

At the same time, we must reinforce the participation of all ethnic groups in decision making. In addition to increasing the input of local communities into the decision making process, we must recognize that some decisions must necessarily be made at the highest level, by a central government. It is important therefore to increase the involvement of all groups and regions in that level of decision making too.

This is done obviously by strengthening the consultative process in any central Parliament and including all interest groups in the Executive; but there should also be weighted representation for smaller groups that would otherwise feel neglected.

The obvious mechanism for this is a Second Chamber of Parliament, based on equal representation for all regional units in a country. Unfortunately those countries that have a British Parliamentary tradition tend to look askance as Second Chambers, given that the House of Lords has so clearly been a bastion of privilege. However the example of institutions such as the American Senate, and other bodies based on that, indicate how the power of smaller groups can be entrenched through such weighted mechanisms.

Interestingly, India provides an excellent example of how a Second Chamber not only increases the influence of regions in the legislative process, but also facilitates their contribution to the Executive. Three of the most powerful positions in India now, including the post of Prime Minister, are filled by minority representatives, including those who have entered Parliament through the Rajya Sabha, or Upper House, through which capable people can gain virtual nomination to Parliament without having to go through the hustle and bustle of ordinary elections.

Unfortunately in Sri Lanka, despite the President having put the introduction of a Second Chamber into his manifesto, and despite all parties agreeing that this would be a good idea, nothing has been done about it for three years. This is in part because there is a dangerous belief that you should not solve problems piecemeal, and thus problems remain unsolved for years as the perfect solution to everything is sought, whereas all experience teaches us that, if you solve a few small problems, the bigger ones seem less complicated.

There may however be another reason for the delay in introducing a Second Chamber, namely that it may threaten the power of the current breed of politicians. A second chamber would introduce more professionals and technocrats, and take away from the primacy of those who are superb at electioneering, and therefore hold executive office without necessarily having the skills required to do what is expected of them in such positions effectively.

Sri Lanka then should be moving towards these twin pillars of broadbasing power, namely a second chamber weighted towards the regions, and much more local responsibility for local issues. These pillars would I believe prove effective in other countries too, including Burma, which has suffered for too long from tight centralized control of both legislature and executive. Participation and empowerment are the keys to ensuring harmony and entrenching a democratic union, and we should promote mechanisms that achieve these goals.

Part I: Daily News 22 Nov 2012http://www.dailynews.lk/2012/11/22/fea02.asp

Part II: Daily News 26 Nov 2012 http://www.dailynews.lk/2012/11/26/fea01.asp