| by C. Wijeyawickrema
[The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent Sri Lanka Guardian’s editorial policy.]
“All human progress has depended on ‘new questions’ rather than on ‘new answers’ to the old
questions.”- Alfred North White — Science and the Modern World, 1925
Four blind men and the (devolution) elephant
( February 02, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The reactions to the LLRC report, on the subject of institutional, administrative and legislative measures need to be taken to promote national unity, remind the parable of the four blind men and the elephant. For example, the section on the subject of “the need for devolution of power” (8.212-8.226) generated different interpretations depending on the hidden or open agenda of the respective writer/speaker. Those who once took the position that “this war is not winnable” or “Sri Lanka will soon be a failed state” are now solidly behind the LLRC report because they think that what LLRC meant by “devolution” was the same type of “devolution” that they then agitated for. On the other hand, those who remember the word “devolution” of the Package Deals and the APRC-majority report phase, are so frightened and blinded by it to not see that LLRC’s term of devolution speaks of “empowerment” of people by “people-centric devolution” (9.231) and by “maximum possible devolution to the periphery especially at the grass roots level” (8.225).
Additionally, there are local and international agents who see a separatist loophole if LLRC devolution begins with land and police powers given to the white elephant called the Provincial Councils. Thus, there is a need to examine the Chapter 8 of LLRC report on “Reconciliation” with an open mind. There are three interrelated paths and approaches that can be taken to examine, understand and justify empowerment of people via devolution as suggested by LLRC. The three merging paths are (1) the Buddhist Middle Path, (2) the Bio-regional Path (geography-ecology) and (3) the Reasonableness (Doctrine) Path in western jurisprudence.
LLRC’s historic role
LLRC had a historical mission to fulfill. Only two other commissions come closer to LLRC in its landmark role: the Colebrooke-Cameron Report in 1832 and the Donoughmore Report in 1931. The first introduced constitutional communalism and the colonial policy of divide-and-rule. It created an administrative unit system based on artificial boundaries, a case of “legislating against geography.” The purpose then was to “diffuse” the influence of the Kandyan chiefs who rebelled against the British crown in 1818, and to give easy access to the white master to control and exploit remoter, undeveloped areas. The second, tried to “un-do” one hundred years of communal representation by introducing territorial representation based on the principle of adult universal suffrage. This was an experiment that USA and UK implement in their own countries only a few years ago, after much agitation by women’s organizations.
In “Ceylon,” local “somebodies and nobodies” opposed universal voting right stating it was like giving razor blades to monkeys. Some minority leaders opposed it and the new electoral system as it made the majority community the majority in the legislative body. In reality, members of the former Legislative Council and members of local aristocratic families in the “village Ceylon” contested seats of the State Council. Except in few cases, these prominent (feudal?) families “represented” people in the Parliament until the new district-based proportional selection system was introduced in the 1980s. With this, the representation vehicle hitherto known as the electorate /ward lost its democratic value and purpose. It is now known as “the dog fight for preferential votes,” a system promoting undesirable characters to contest via the party candidates’ list. This is a fundamental flaw in democracy and governance of Sri Lanka, an issue of basic human rights of all communities that LLRC could have wrestled with in greater detail.
The representative parliamentary democracy is facing a crisis, world-wide, some branding it as myth of democracy. The Youth Commission Report of 1999, that LLRC cites in its report was an admission of the dismal failure of the representative system in operation in Sri Lanka since 1931. LLRC missed a historical opportunity to examine these issues in a new light by asking new questions such as why there is spatial inequality (inequity) in Sri Lanka that respects no language or ethnic boundaries and how it could be mitigated. Spatially, one has to go beyond such metaphors like “milk to Colombo, forage to villages” (
JVP in 1971) or “Give us what Colombo gets”
(Col. Karuna in 2006) to GSN (village) level to understand lack of opportunities and environmental degradation prevalent in the country. Reports of faster economic growth at country level hide spatial inequities that exist at local scale. Rapid economic growth itself can cause spatial disparities in human happiness, if not carefully planned. However, spatial injustice in Sri Lanka is not race-based unlike in the USA where for example, environmental racism exists.
Dancing to new Eurocentric tunes
Most of the witnesses who appeared before LLRC displayed an ingrained Eurocentric bias (Europe provides superior solutions) in their thinking. In the 1840s Macaulay said, “[in India] we must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect” (Macaulay: The Shaping of the Historian by John Clive, Random House, 1973, p.376). He also asked, “…Who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole literature of India and Arabia (p. 372)? With this superiority complex, despite dismal performance of their own representative capitalist democracies, European and American politicians continue to interfere in the affairs of former colonies devastated by the colonial policy of divide and rule. Their new tune directly relevant in the Sri Lankan context is the strategy called “meaningful devolution” by way of “unmajoritarian institutions.” This method promoted by white Eurocentric writers like Donald Horowitz creates regional ethnic minority elites and slowly weakens the central governments in former colonies (it may take a decade or two or more), until a new Kosovo or South Sudan (or even a separate country of Scotland) is established splitting countries. Thus, the new policy of creating “unmajoritarian institutions” is a “sanitized” version of the old divide and rule policy, providing ladders to separatist monkeys to carve out separate countries at each other’s throat. Already, South Sudan started an internal war.
The real democracy of empowering people (not separatist party politicians) locally is not in this new Eurocentric formula. This formula stops at regional ethnic politicians’ level and it failed in Nigeria and Lebanon, two cases that Horowitz used to cite as success stories. It is also interesting to note that in his writings Horowitz did not mention even once the concept of Panchayathi Raj Institutes in India based on consensus politics (God speaks in five, if five people agree, god is with them) not western party politics of throat-cutting competition. Sri Lankan villagers are today divided so hopelessly due to green, blue and red party politics. Fortunately, LLRC did not buy the “Horowitz path” of devolution which would “empower” Tamil separatist TNA politicians. Instead, LLRC promotes meaningful empowerment of people at the village level to deal with social, economic and spatial inequities prevalent in the island.
The colonial strategy of portraying natives as savages (ref. “atrocity literature” in Breaking India: Western Interventions in Dravidian and Dalit Faultlines by R. Malhotra, 2011, p. 5) as part of the general design of humiliation of natives (psychological versus military subjugation) is currently presented as gross violators of international human rights needing R2P. Under the new remote-controlled colonialism it is projected with a new twist as group rights and aspirations. Thus we know via the Wiki leaks that the American Embassy in Colombo was worried about Tamils losing interest in group rights or aspirations, (secret cable sent from Colombo embassy on 1/15/2010). Eurocentric thinking requires “using” the individual to get to the group to plant the seeds of dissension within countries. Western university professors and think-tanks spend decades formulating theories and implementing strategies such as the R2P.
Instead of asking “How can we help Tamils and Muslims to achieve their aspirations,” LLRC could have asked, “Why most spatial units (districts, electorates, natural regions, villages or GSN units) in Sri Lanka are not developed?” because poverty is not just a Tamil or Muslim problem. In that case it could have led LLRC to ask further questions such as “What actions are needed to help the Mahinda Chinthanaya Program (MCP) I & II to fight Sri Lanka’s second war, the war against poverty and spatial inequity?” Or, rather than language rights or international human rights, LLRC could have focused on the issue of “spatial rights” or “spatial justice.” Tamils in villages are not asking “group rights.” They want water, roads, schools, more busses, railway line, radios, bridges, TVs, bicycles and hospitals. That was what I saw recently in Vavuniya, Ampara and Passara when I visited Tamil areas. When they have these basic human needs, they will copy Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and intelligently think on their own if an aspiration to have a separate Tamil country in Sri Lanka is viable, possible or desirable. Otherwise, what can happen (happening) is Tamil and non-Tamil selfish separatist politicians, local and foreign, trying to manipulate innocent Tamils and Muslims villagers to satisfy their ulterior aims.
What LLRC cannot do
Promoting group aspirations is a fluid (controversial) issue world-wide, for an agency like LLRC to get involved with. Group aspirations of different communities often clash with each other such as Turkey wanting to join the Christian EU which France vehemently opposes. Group aspiration is a matter secondary to individual aspirations. It is a duty to one’s community that individuals try to fulfill after the individual’s private rights are satisfied. Having a hygienic, clean toilet at home is different from building one in a public place for group-use. One can have a shrine room at home adjoining a Muslim neighbor but a group aspiration to build a Hindu temple next to a Mosque can clash with Muslim aspirations. Simply stated, LLRC could have suggested better things for a better future for the country.
No amount of paragraphs in the LLRC report on human rights and white flags can satisfy the international crowd asking the flesh of pound from Sri Lanka for humiliating the politicians of the white west in April 2009. Foreign ministers David Miliband and Bernard Kushner heard from Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa words that can be described as the end of humiliation paradigm used till then by white colonial masters to mentally subjugate Asians and Africans. Yet, their long term plan to derail Sri Lanka cannot be stopped by any number of LLRC reports. Thinking this was possible LLRC tried to bend over backwards and made several unwanted mistakes.
Tamil separatism in Sri Lanka began in the 1920s and in 1949 and not in 1956, 1976 or 1983. Mentioning later years omitting former years is like not telling the whole truth. Tamil expats from Sri Lanka are not diaspora like the Jews who lost a homeland. The first thing done by those who went as asylum seekers when they got a new passport was to make a pleasure trip to Sri Lanka! Making any statements on the 13th Amendment is like eating curd using a razor knife. It is unfortunate that LLRC members did not know that 13-A was an imposition on Sri Lanka, the communal concept implemented in India by the 1935 Government of India Act. 13-A accepts that in the island there is a traditional Tamil homeland. How did LLRC lawyers miss this? To suggest solutions to current socio-economic, moral and ethical issues in Sri Lanka 13-A path is not needed. In fact 13-A is now part of the problem.
The tragedy of the commons
LLRC was given a mandate to recommend ways and means to prevent language and race-related violence and to promote unity and peace in the country. If it directed its attention on the spatial justice needs of Sri Lankan people, not the human rights laws and group aspiration-agitations of the foreign separatist crowd, it would not have missed the “moment of unprecedented opportunity Sri Lanka Faces.” Citing “triumphalism” is like looking for scapegoats to please the separatist lobby.
After May 19, 2009, Sri Lanka’s burning issues are not of language, race or religious nature. Yes, people in the Colombo City and others urban areas are suffering from the fear psychosis that they went through for 30 years. Parents split the family into two in travelling so that at least 50% will survive if a bomb in a bus kills the other 50%. The parent at home was listening to the radio wondering if a bomb blast took place near her child’s school. Some thought of erecting a wall around the house, not knowing that they only created their own little prisons. Coming back to Sri Lanka after 33 years I see these “prisoners” daily on the road, in the bus, inside three wheelers and cars. There is the temporary pleasure of being secure inside a car or was able to get a seat in the bus after a momentous struggle! In Maharagama, Wattala, Panadura, Kiribathgoda or Dehiwala dust, smoke and noise pollution is unbelievable. People throw garbage bags on to the road in front of the house “protected” by the wall and stray dogs spread them all over. A kind of Darwinian survival of the fittest exists and people may not know that they still suffer from a hidden, sub-conscious fear of death. A tragedy of the commons phenomenon is visible everywhere.
Sri Lanka is America
Creating a new Senate or having more Tamil policemen or other such things will not bring peace and prosperity to Sri Lanka. The urgent and hopeless issues in Sri Lanka are not different from the problems the average American faces in the USA. Public education, health care, child care, elderly care, industrial pollution, air and water pollution, gridlock on highways, lack of public transportation, overcrowded prisons, cancer-causing chemicals in food supply, obesity, teenage pregnancy, corruption in the legal system and lawyers, exploitation of patients by medical doctors are some from a short list. What are ground level daily issues in Sri Lanka? It is definitely not ethnic rivalry. School education, higher education, private tuition mania, exploitation of patients by medical doctors, health care, village and city roads, garbage disposal, bribe culture in government, provincial and local government offices and crime and corruption are some examples. Schools without water or at least one toilet cannot impart free education. The tragedy of the commons, selfish-personal gain by private individuals or public corporations at the expense of public goods and the corresponding societal moral decay is what LLRC should have spent time. This has taken place over a period of sixty years. No government can handle this mess on its own.
LLRC cannot expect any reasonable outcomes unless the electoral system is changed and the public service is overhauled with performance evaluation and merit promotion installed. Ordinary citizens have no place to go for normal/usual services. They have to either know somebody in an office or give a bribe to somebody in an office. Increasing numbers in the government service or increase in expenditure on government projects cannot erase the frustration people have about the moral and ethical decay taken place in the country. If the head of unit is out shopping can we expect the clerks of that unit to be at the desk or not on cell phone for hours? Despite preaching by ministers this is reality what I saw and heard. How can we provide incentives to the public servants to serve better and how can we remove corrupt behavior with disincentives (carrot and stick) should be the number one priority. This is a key issue that LLRC should have handled. The introduction of mandatory income/assets declaration by public servants, open to citizen scrutiny; community service method of punishment for crimes against society such as bribery and corruption; removal of illegal weapons in the hands of people and the utilization of military for civilian construction purposes are matters that need attention for any serious progress.
All kinds of development work have been taking place in Sri Lanka today. But similar work of national magnitude was attempted in the past by Mrs. B, Dudley S, and R. Premadasa respectively. How efficient and effective were they? Did officers act as “yes” men and women and deceive politicians? Or were there systemic defects that even dedicated officers cannot succeed? Development work cannot be successful unless it improves the living standards of the local people impacted by it. That is the yardstick of progress.
Empowerment of people
There is one quick action the government can take to implement LLRC recommendations on devolution if it understands that spatial inequality, not racial inequality as the problem in Sri Lanka (Teaching Tamil and Sinhala to school children will remove within ten years any opportunity Tamil or Muslim politicians now have in trying to manipulate Tamil-speaking people). This depends on how free the government is from Eurocentric thinking. The government needs to reconsider implementing the Jana Sabah concept based on polling station or GSN unit-level data. Reminiscent of the Road Development Committees or Sanitary Boards during the early colonial times what Sri Lanka needs today is grass roots level non-political party entities elected to handle basic needs of people such as garbage disposal, road building and maintenance closer to home dwellings, basic health services, quality improvements in schools, prevention of soil erosion and environmental conservation and cooperative efforts to protect local farmers and producers from exploitation. Election of ten members per each entity and then one from such entity making an electorate level unit proceeding further up to the national level with whom the President of the country can have direct communication. This plan can be implemented by creating an office reporting directly to the president. A separate ministry or a department not needed.
This idea is not new (Maga Naguma and Divi Naguma are two programs on these lines). Several witnesses presented similar concepts for consideration by LLRC. This is the simplest and most effective way to monitor how big projects impact on local communities and to give people an opportunity to decide and control their day to day affairs. Each unit will prepare a land use map (plan) for their locality and monitor how government and NGO projects are implemented in their area. If a contractor is corrupt and doing sub-standard work local committee can prevent it. If school teachers are not teaching and promoting private tuition the local committee can interfere via parent-teacher associations or old school boys/girls association. Education ministers cannot solve these problems. If people are dumping garbage on to the road, local committee can take action against them. There is no doubt that politicians of all shapes would not like this idea, but Sri Lanka cannot become a Singapore in economic development and cleanliness if local people are not linked with the governance structure. At present there are no checks and balances to prevent political and official corruption rampant at the local (local government and GSN) level. A citizen affected by inefficiency of a local government, district, provincial or central government officer must be able to go to the local non-political party committee for redress.
Get people behind the government
The empowerment of people at the grass roots level needs to be done not because LLRC recommended it but because it is a political strategy available to this government to prevent international attempts to derail it using local agents. All kinds of misinformation campaigns, SMS with half-truths, networks capitalizing on government defects are seeping down to people spoiling their minds. Some are even dreaming of an Arab Spring, because what they see around them is local politicians making money! People are helpless and they have nowhere to go. Even a good pot of milk can tolerate only a few drops of dung such as Mervin Silva and his council members or Duminda Silva and the murder of a fellow politician. In this context the Subharathi national radio program is like trying to empty a lake with a table spoon.
The need to empower people at the grass root level is not just a political strategy to meet the external threat backed by local separatist agents. It is a necessity to protect people’s democracy while promoting sustainable development. In the West, local level administration was done by counties and parishes for generations which are more recently supplemented by groundwater management districts, river basin management districts and more specific functional districts such as solid waste management districts. In New Zealand, a smaller country like Sri Lanka, all local administrative units are demarcated using river basins as boundaries. Long before think globally, act locally became a popular concept Sri Lankan society was guided since antiquity by a sustainable development-related trinity of village, water tank and the temple. Ironically, what western professors are now prescribing to Sri Lanka and other countries are so similar to the principles enshrined in the concept of trinity of ancient Sri Lankan society.
Sustainable development via three merging paths
The Jana Sabha or Gam Sabha (or GSN unit level peoples’ committees) system can be justified utilizing three interrelated approaches. The Horowitz path (the infamous 13-A is an example of Horowitz path) can be easily dismissed as unwanted burdens (inviting to home snakes crawling yonder) placed on this tiny island nation by any one of these approaches. Presented as a model the three approaches (paths) are like the three sides of a triangle. The base of it is the moral and ethical foundation of a society. In the West, it is the Judo-Christian norms and values. In Sri Lanka this base has been Buddhism. In Figure 1 below the three sides of the triangle are listed as three columns. The sides of a smaller triangle inside the larger triangle indicate action, perception and location. Location is also described as space or place. Inside this triangle at the center is the triangle of spatial inequality, a result of not following or abusing the three paths. By following them inequality and inequity could be erased allowing Sustainable development to take root. The close affinity that exists between law and geography on the one hand and between law and Buddhism on the other in their applied interface generating socio-economic processes creating spatial (geographical) patterns deserves careful scrutiny by all who genuinely wish for a prosperous Sri Lanka.
Figure 1: Three merging approaches (paths) to mitigate spatial inequality