Living with a Bane
Regular parliamentary elections based on universal adult franchise have been a constant feature of independent Sri Lanka, continued from the inauguration in 1931 of the Donoughmore Constitution, named after the Earl of Donoughmore, who chaired a commission on constitutional reform appointed by the Secretary of State for the Colonies. Two political parties have governed the country throughout the post-independence period: the United National Party (UNP), mostly contesting elections alone, and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), usually in alliance with other groups, mainly left-oriented.
The constituency-based electoral system resulted in three landslide victories—in 1956 for S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike´s Mahajana Eksath Peramuna, in 1970 for the United Front under Sirimavo Bandaranaike, and in 1977 for the United National Party of J.R. Jayewardene. A system of proportional representation was introduced in 1978 in the hope that it would prevent wide swings of the political pendulum. As a result, no single party has been able to sweep the polls since 1978, and a sizeable and vigorous opposition has been a feature of the parliamentary process.
On the other hand, the dictatorial power of the executive presidency, also introduced in 1978, has severely encroached upon the legislature´s prerogatives. During the runup to the last elections, the People´s Alliance had been categorical about its intention to abolish the executive presidency which, before assuming power, they considered to be “the bane of [our] country since 1978”. Having enjoyed the powers of the executive presidency for over two years, however. President Chandnka Kumaratunga and her government seem in no hurry to do away with it.
Over the years, increasing rivalry at election time has resulted in bitterness amongst the political leadership as well as the rank and file. The SLFP (in association with leftist parties) and the UNP have failed to find common ground on important national issues; this has been one reason for the country´s inability to come to grips with the deep-seated ethnic problem. Violence and corruption have crept into electioneering and into public life. The country has been politically polarised between the two political groupings.
The three election landslides of 1956, 1970 and 1977, assassinations of several political leaders, two youth insurrections by the militant Marxist-oriented Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (Jvp) in the south (1971 and 1988-89), and the continuing Tamil militancy in the north and east, have marked the tortuous path of Sri Lanka´s journey since Independence and great expectations to its present condition, 49 years later, of confusion, corruption and economic stagnation.
The population has almost trebled in 50 years, even though effective family planning programmes seem now to have curbed growth. Human development indicators are still among the best in the region and the quality of life remains high—but only in relation to the South Asian neighbourhood. In the 1950s, Sri Lanka had a per capita GNP twice that of South Korea (USD 162 versus USD 82). Today, South Korea´s per capita GNP has soared to over USD 8000, while Sri Lanka´s remains at about USD 600. Malaysia and Sri Lanka both have similar populations and multi-ethnic societies, and yet Malaysia (which became independent nearly 20 years later) has an economic output seven times that of Sri Lanka.
Tension and Conflict
The reasons for the present social and economic crisis can be found in the majority Sinhala leadership´s failure to develop a sensitivity to the rights of minorities, and in the concurrent demand for Eelam (an independent Tamil state) by frustrated Tamil politicians. With the introduction of universal adult franchise under the Donoughmore Constitution of 1931, Tamil political leaders had become apprehensive of the advent of independence from colonial British rule. Members of the Tamil community had enjoyed better educational facilities in the northern province and were able to enter the public services in numbers often far in excess of their ratio (about 1 2 percent) in the total population.
Some of these Tamil leaders even argued against the granting of independence. When the Soulbury Commission, sent by the post-war British Labour government to propose constitutional reforms, was conducting sittings in 1946, some, including G.G. Ponnambalam, leader of the Tamil Congress, argued for “balanced representation”. According to this formula, 50 percent of the seats in the legislature would represent the minorities, who constituted 25 percent of the population, and the other 50 percent the majority Sinhala, making up 75 percent of the population. Tamil politicians established the Federal Parly in 1949, demanding self-determination in the so-called “traditional Tamil homelands” which, they said, were made up of the northern and eastern provinces. These provinces had been demarcated in the nineteenth century by the British mainly for administrative convenience.
The demands for self-determination in the northern and eastern provinces lay practically dormant until the mid-1950s, when the governments in power introduced certain measures which alienated the Tamil community.
S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike rode to power in 1956 on the slogan of “Sinhala Only in 24 hours” (the introduction of Sinhala as the official language overnight) and aggravated the feelings of fear and concern among the Tamil minority. The ethnic problem accelerated progressively after the promulgation of the Sinhala Only Act, but there were other irritants, such as the unscrupulous “standardisation” of marks for university admission (1970), and the enactment of a republican constitution (1972). The former set minimum entry mark for admission to medical faculties at 229 for those educated in the Sinhala medium and 250 for those coming from Tamil medium. The latter deleted the clause of the Soulbury constitution which stated that “no law shall make persons of any community or religion liable to disabilities or restrictions to which persons of other communities or religions are not made liable”. The Tamils revolted against the discrimination, and later their demands escalated to include a separate Tamil Eelam.
Bandaranaike himself attempted to respond to the feeling of disappointment and dismay among the Tamil people by proposing the formation in 1958 of regional councils in the north and the east with a fair amount of autonomy. This started the process of successive governments in Colombo vying with each other to meet the demands of the Federal Party for Eelam as a way of solving what was then known as the “communal problem”. Pressured by the members of the Buddhist clergy and the UNP in opposition, Bandaranaike withdrew his proposal for regional councils even as an acceptable solution seemed within reach.
Ethnic discontent persisted and other leaders tried their hand at solving the problem. However, none succeeded in convincing the majority Sinhala people that their particular proposals would not pave the way for separation. Dudley Senanayake´s scheme for the devolution of power to district councils (1966) and J.R. Jayewardene´s proposal for district development councils (1981) were opposed by the SLFP, the party in opposition on each occasion.
Violence broke out on the streets of Colombo when the Indo-Lanka Agreement (also called the “Rajiv-JR Accord” of 1987) was signed. The violence was directed at the Jayewardene government for what was said to be his sellout to India. The first elections to provincial councils, set up as per the terms of the Agreement, were boycotted by the SLFP and by the successor to the Federal Party, the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), which is now generally regarded as the ´moderate´ element in the spectrum of Tamil politics.
The attempt by the present People´s Alliance government to solve the ethnic problem through a “package” of devolution proposals has given rise to a divisive debate. The proposals are essentially those presented by the TULF to Rajiv Gandhi in 1985 during the tripartite talks in Thimphu (considered neutral ground) between the government and various Tamil groups, with the mediation of India. The proposals go beyond the devolution of power in President Jayewardene´s 13th Amendment (1987), which was modelled on the lines of devolution of power from the Centre to the states in India. The government feels that the implementation of this “package” will help marginalise the militant Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
Economy and Society
Until the policy of economic liberalisation was instituted in 1978, both UNP and the SLFP-leftwing coalition governments continued with social welfare policies to improve the education, health and nutrition of the growing population. Free education from kindergarten to university, introduced back in 1944, was continued together with free health services, subsidised nee—and even free rice for a short period in the mid-1960s. School children have been provided with textbooks, midday meals and school uniforms, all free.
Generally, the efforts of the UNP governments have led to improved economy, while the SLFP´s stints in power have strengthened social welfare benefits. The policies of liberalisation have resulted in economic growth, but the gap between the haves and have-nots has also widened. In the 1988-93 period of his term in office, President Ranasinghe Premadasa emphasised poverty alleviation, through the Janasaviya (self-reliance) project, which the present government is continuing in its own way as the Samurdhi (prosperity) programme. These safety-net schemes were put in place to ease the pains of liberalisation.
After years of socialist policies and an economy which was largely state-controlled, when Sri Lanka embarked on a free market path in 1978 there was significant economic growth and considerable optimism of an economic take-off. During the period 1978-82, the economy grew at an average rate of over 6 percent per year, in real terms—nearly double the rate of growth compared to 1970-77. Investment increased from 14 percent in 1977 to 29.6 percent in 1982. Unemployment was halved from 26 percent to 12 percent of the work force. The inflation rate fell from 18 percent to only 5.4 percent in 1982.
However, the violent civil disturbances of July 1983 shattered the dream of sustained success. The liberalisation of the economy was done too quickly and without adequate safeguards to protect national interests. “Let the robber barons come,” President JR. Jayewardene declared. And so, they came. The privatisation programmes for nationalised ventures, initiated in 1988, led to corruption, the extent of which is only now being revealed through commissions of enquiry set up by the present government.
The healthy social indicators as well as innovative economic policies put in place since 1978 should have paid dividends. Unfortunately, the great promise has not been fulfilled. Colvm R. de Silva, a leading left politician at the time of Independence had cautioned: “One language will result in two nations, two languages can make one nation.” His warning was not heeded. Ignoring communal rumblings, the decision to make Sinhala the only official language planted the seeds of civil strife which has resulted in a fractured society that cannot take advantage of the economic possibilities that are there.
Democracy has been a consistent feature of Sri Lankan life after Independence, and the citizens value their democratic traditions. But the society would have been far ahead economically if the ethnic problem, aggravated by a non-visionary leadership, had been resolved in time.
Despite bungling its race relations, squandering its democratic momentum, and its descent into anarchy and civil war, Sri Lanka continues to be regarded as a model for other developing countries. Heavy early investment in basic health and education have given the island´s citizens an unparalleled quality of life within South Asia. But the failure to resolve a civil war that has dragged on for 14 years has dashed hopes for real prosperity. The country has been compelled to pay for the lack of visionary and enlightened leadership. How much more ahead would Sri Lanka have been if past politicians had known to look further down the road? Stanley Kalpage, well-known Sri Lankan diplomat and former ambassador to the United Nations, looks at the lessons. Given the problems of the more populous countries of South Asia, Sri Lanka´s geographical location and small population should have made governance relatively easy. At Independence, on 4 February 1948, Sri Lanka had a head start on most other post-colomal nations: it had an efficient bureaucracy, seemingly alert politicians, and a high level of literacy and health of its citizens.
And so, expectations were high and prospects seemed bright for “Ceylon” when it gained independence. The country had achieved freedom after some 450 years of colonial rule (under the Portuguese, Dutch and the British), but without the bloodshed and bitterness which had marked independence elsewhere in the region. For the small island of 25,332 square miles, with only 6.7 million people and a density of just 265 persons per square mile, the difficulties and pitfalls ahead were hardly evident. A relatively good infrastructure of roads and railways, a sound plantation economy for earning foreign exchange, and an efficient administrative set-up, all were in Sri Lanka´s favour.
Back then, statesmen of Southeast Asia used to openly say that Sri Lanka was their model. Today the tables are turned, and the overall picture in the island is one of gloom and even despair. Hot spring, a magazine with Tamil Tiger leanings published from Pans, recently featured, not surprisingly, Velupillai Prabhakaran on the cover. Here is an editorial from the issue, which gives us some more of the “one man´s terrorist is another´s freedom fighter” argument.
… The one who is determining the political and military agenda in Colombo is nowhere near Colombo, holds no office, sports no military title, but what is more ridiculous, he carries a price on his head, and is known in Sri Lankan political terminology as a ´terrorist´.
We know of terrorists planting bombs in secret, but where in the world do you get over 1000 “terrorists” in full view, attacking a well-fortified camp, overrunning it, wiping out the entire garrison, and taking away heavy weaponry? Is it not obvious that the Sri Lankan terminology is flawed? Once the terminology is flawed the thinking gets erratic, and the entire behavioural pattern gets muddled. That is the basic semantic self-deception that is preventing the successive Sri Lankan governments from making any headway in its 13-year-old war against the Tamils. You can keep on calling a powerful liberation force like the Tigers as “terrorists” till you are blue in the face, but that can only help you display your anger—your helpless anger at that—but will never help you come to touch with cold reality.
Careless use of the word ´terrorist´ could also result in final embarrassment. Some “terrorists” of yesterday have the habit of turning up to be tomorrow´s “Your Excellencies”. Some even end up receiving the Nobel Prize for Peace!
…Madame President (Chandrika Kumaratunga) has only one Prabhakaran to contend with. But it has to be remembered that the Tamil leader has seen three Presidents before her, come and go. He has seen three War Ministers from Lalith Athulathmudali to Ranjan Wijeratne to the present Uncle General. He has seen ten Indian Major Generals in the northeast in his time, not to mention dozens of Sri Lankan ones with pips and ribbons and swagger sticks. And he has not been trained in Sandhurst or Lebanon or military academies, not even in Wirawila.
So what makes him tick? What makes the Tigers such a formidable force that Israeli weapons and Chinese gunboats and American training do not daunt them? In trying to get the right answers to these questions lies the hope for peace in Sri Lanka. And the day the Sri Lankan government and the Colombo Press and the Sinhalese people stop throwing the word “terrorist” around will be the day when wisdom will dawn and peace prevail in that island so favoured by Nature but so sadly brought to the brink of ruin by its leaders. That will also be the day when the Sinhalese people take control of their own destiny and the Tamil people of theirs.