Sri Lanka: Peace, National Unity and Economic Development

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Thu Jan 3 14:37:16 UTC 2008

   *Peace, National Unity and Economic Development* *by Dr. A. C.
*President, Citizens' Movement for Good Governance

Economic development, aimed at helping achieve a high standard of living, is
the key goal that citizens of all countries expect their governments to
target for. When the economy prospers, people are able to buy food at
reasonable prices, and secure economical housing, hassle-free education for
their children, employment for the next generation, basic health services
and so on. Hence, normally, economic development is given top priority by
both the government and the opposition, whatever the country. However, to
make any reliable progress in this direction, the most essential condition
is- that peace, equity and the Rule of Law should prevail.

Apart from the extremist fringe, who unfortunately are the most vociferous
and effective in pressing their views on gutless governments, the various
polls that have been conducted from time to time show that most of our
people are united in believing that war alone will not bring peace. On the
other hand, it is also largely acknowledged that it is not realistic to call
upon a democratically-elected government (whatever the shortcomings in the
electoral process) to remain inactive whilst substantial areas of the
country are in hostile hands. In other words, the majority of the public are
not likely to agree to the government giving up its operations against the
LTTE. But the public would definitely like to see the authorities taking
much greater interest in safeguarding the human and fundamental rights of
not only those innocents who find themselves unavoidably caught up in areas
where hostile military actions are in progress, and also elsewhere,
including those so-called suspects who are arrested arbitrarily, combatants
who surrender or are captured, and even other ordinary citizens. If this is
not done, the advances made on the military front will not yield the
long-lasting benefits that the people's support and sacrifices called for.

Obviously, it would be easy to establish peace if national unity could be
established first. The problem that we have is that there is a fundamental
disagreement as to whether peace comes first and national Unity follows, or
vice versa. In one extreme, there are those who insist that the minorities
should integrate themselves indistinguishably with the majority, leading
automatically to national unity and peace. Close to the other extreme, there
are those who believe that the hegemonistic aspirations of the majority
could only be countered by first separating the various communities
physically and that steps should be taken only thereafter to forge national
unity, somewhat akin to what happened in Europe in the past, and what is
happening there now. In between, there is the majority, whose views are
spread out across the whole spectrum from the one extreme to the other.

As in all situations where views diverge so markedly, there is no choice but
to employ all possible means to persuade those at and near the extremes to
be more flexible in their attitudes and to make every effort to move towards
the middle. The leaders of the various contending groups need to be coaxed
into paying more attention to where their real interests Iie rather than
continuing to stick to their fixed preconceived ideological positions. Those
at the farthest ends of the range of fixed positions would need to be
convinced that their real interests will be damaged if they do not free
themselves from their emotionally led entrenched positions. They must be
urged to recognise the benefits of reaching a consenses with those of more
moderate views. It is only by following such a middle path that national
unity and peace can be attained without compelling any group to sacrifice
its culture, self-respect or rights. But, as we all know, this is easier
said than done.

The Citizens' Movement for Good Governance (CIMOGG), like those others who
have looked at this problem objectively, is well aware that finding a common
ground is a more than formidable task. Professor Tissa Vitharana has
indicated to us repeatedly how difficult it is to get the various groups in
and out of the APRC to give up their preconceived positions and go after
their real interests which, if one really studies the issues carefully, are
almost identical whatever the group. Surely, what everyone wants is a
peaceful, secure atmosphere in which to advance economically and personally,
and to look after one's near and dear? It is only the corrupt, but powerful,
minority who get a thrill out of exercising power over others and are greedy
for unlimited wealth for themselves, who keep -on aggressively emphasising,
nurturing and exploiting the differences between races, religions, castes,
classes, languages, parties and so on for their personal advantage at the
expense of their fellow citizens. This unscrupulous group is very powerful
and will not cooperate with anyone working towards a fair compromise.
Therefore, there is no other choice for decent citizens than to take it upon
themselves collectively, even in small groups, to lobby their
representatives in Parliament unceasingly and press them to marginalise the
extremists, whatever their views, and work towards a just settlement.

The settlement that is negotiated must not only define the sharing of
rights, resources and responsibilities but also include foolproof systems of
implementation. For example, we should not have a situation where a law such
as the Official Languages Act has been in the statute books for 30 years
withot implementation. Successive governments have shown no political will
to have it implemented in good faith. In similar fashion, the 17th Amendment
continues to be violated by the government and the opposition. This recent
(2001) key addition to the Constitution must be resuscitated, and
implemented as it stands or after passing a few critical amendments
recommended by the Organisation of Professional Associations (OPA), CIMOGG
and a number of other independent commentators. Equally important is that
the provisions of all the international covenants and protocols which have
been ratified by the government must be brought into Sri Lanka's
Constitution without any further delay, and the relevant laws passed by
Parliament. The necessary machinery for implementation of these crucial
pieces of legislation must be set up and financed directly from the
Consolidated Fund without being subject to cuts to suit the private agendas
of Presidents, Ministers and Treasury Secretaries.

The above are the three most critical areas requiring immediate action but
CIMOGG has identified some other important areas as well and submitted its
proposals to the APRC. Sadly, it has been reported that no note whatsoever
has been taken of any of the 700 public representations made to the Ministry
of Constitutional Affairs for consideration by the APRC.

Meanwhile, to avoid a total breakdown of Tamil hopes that something positive
will emerge from all their sufferings, the government must give up what is
credibly accepted as its undeclared policy of allowing the police, the
security forces and the rest of the administration of treating every Tamil
as an active supporter of terrorism and putting the onus on those who are
arbitrarily arrested to prove that they are not guilty. How, indeed, does
one prove a negative? The number of dead bodies which have been seen in the
conflict areas and around Colombo, and the virtually universal failure of
the authorities to carry out genuine investigations to identify and
apprehend those responsible, show how many of our citizens lost the
protection of a fair investigation and a fair trial. There is a justified
suspicion that most of these dead bodies belong to Tamils who had been
arrested on mere suspicion, imprisoned, tortured and murdered by various
parties whom the state is not keen to bring to justice. It is not beyond
logical reasoning to conclude that all those subjected to inhuman forms of
torture are disposed of, whether guilty or innocent, so as to leave no room
for the torturers to be identified.

There is another long-term issue that needs to be addressed as rapidly as
possible. This relates to the current educational system in the country
which is ideally suited to destroy all vestiges of national unity. By
compelling Sinhala children to go to Sinhala language schools, Tamil
children to Tamil language schools and large numbers of Muslim children to
go to Muslim schools, we are making our peoples to get more and more
isolated from each other. On the other hand, forcing Sinhala children to
learn Tamil, which has virtually no international, commercial, educational
or scientific use for a Sinhalese, would be a futile exercise.
Sinhala-speaking and Tamil-speaking children would be less stressed and far
happier acquiring a good knowledge of English, as a link language, rather
than struggling with a third language as well.

There will be immediate objections from our eternally backward-looking
extremists to giving any place to English because most of them did not have
the opportunity to learn this international language and they do not want
others to gain the benefit of getting in touch with the rest of the world.
There will be a valid objection from those who will point out that we do not
have the teaching resources to introduce English to every school and class.
The solution to this would be to get a few good Sinhala- English and
Tamil-English teachers to prepare graded lessons in DVD format which could
be played on a small, portable DVD player (powered by a small solar panel
and battery, where there is no electricity supply). Assuming that there is
one DVD player for every five pupils and that there are 4,000,000 pupils in
all, we would need 800,000 DVD players. Each pupil would be allowed to use
the DVD player for, say, one hour after school twice a week. Assuming that
each DVD/solar panel combination costs around Rs. 20,000, the total outlay
required would be under around Rs. 16,000,000,000. This sum is less than
one-third of the amount that Transparency International Sri Lanka says is
unaccounted for by the government in respect of its tsunami reconstruction
programme alone. If, with the aid of a foreign government which produces
electronic goods, we are able to get this equipment at a concessionary
price, there would, within one year., be a total of 4,000,000 children
speaking enough English to communicate in simple language with students and
other English-speakers who belong to other communities. In five or six
years, there would be an unbelievable transformation in the atmosphere among
the communities. There would, of course, have to be a 20% or so maintenance
expenditure every year, which we suggest could be found from the many
billions allocated to the President's account alone. Alternatively, the
annual budgetary requirement could be greatly reduced if the programme were
to be spread out over five years.
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