Following is the speech delivered by Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute (LKIIRSS) former Executive Director Asanga Abeyagoonasekera recently, at the Consortium of South Asian Think Tanks (COSATT) Regional Conference on ‘Deeper Integration for Peace and Prosperity in the South Asian Region’ organised by the Centre for South Asian Studies (CSAS) in cooperation with Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAS) in Katmandu, Nepal.
First let me thank the CSAS, KAS and COSATT for the kind invitation. It is a great pleasure to attend these 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. The frustration of the public has been evident in many countries and transitions in political systems are evident, such as in Sri Lanka, which 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 built the new international airport but not many flights come there but the surrounding people in the area are in poverty.
The previous government was building a massive tower called the Lotus Tower in Colombo, apparently 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 have been killed in this region since January this year. In Bangladesh it’s clearly evident. The 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 are deepening in this region.
Sri Lanka’s new President Maithripala Sirisena and his rainbow coalition’s landmark win, which came amidst a lot of scepticism, 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 as a political transformation but some don’t.
The 100-day reform plan set by the new president was implemented soon after his victory and the 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 one million odd social media users who were the game changers. The political transition was smooth unlike some other nations in South Asia. This may be due to our democratic value system which is far richer than any individual political leader.
The former president Mahinda Rajapaksa came into power in 2005 but his greatest achievement came in May 2009 when he defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The end of the 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 ‘people’s’ 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 100 ministers was reduced to less than 40, which is remarkable. The implementation of the Right to Information (RTI) will be one of the great achievements by the public as they will be able to question authorities on the 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 have very weak government institutions that are manured by politicians not for the public good of the people. So many loss-making institutions are 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 Rs.5 million and we had an MP under the Foreign Ministry who has spent Rs.2 million in one day for gambling paid by the government, according to 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 the use of a Bribery Commission without much power and can’t play an independent role. The new government is looking at strengthening the Bribery Commission a very important step. My personal view is the Bribery Commission should be decentralized to the provinces in Sri Lanka specially to fight political corruption.
Electronic platforms such as ipaidabribe to fight retail corruption should be strengthened 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. The asset growth of political leaders should be analysed and authorities should question the 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 the previous government failed terribly in a few areas on our post-war reconciliation process. Post-war reconciliation and rebuilding are the most important steps. 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 reconstruction 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 the reconciliation process to bridge the hearts and minds of North and South. The 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 multiethnic ‘rainbow coalition’ is a good way to start. Bipartisan between the president’s Blue Party SLFP and prime minister’s Green Party is looked at and has been put to practice. This is a great achievement and a historical moment in our political history.
The two parties that have been ruling since 1948 independence 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 organisations 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 peacefully, 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 the previous president played too much in the China axis and did not balance with the 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 public and could affect future relationship with India.
It must also be noted that it is imperative that Sri Lanka strengthen its ties with India, China and the 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, which came in as underdogs and overturned a high power-centred 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.”