WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka


Selfish politicians let Sri Lanka down
@ Latheef Farook  Special to Gulf News

After four and half centuries of European colonial rule, when Sri Lanka became independent in 1948, Dubai was an undeveloped emirate without even basic facilities, Indian university degrees were not recognised in Sri Lanka and Singapore leaders vowed to turn their island into a Sri Lanka, which was then a Third World role model for economic prosperity, political stability and communal harmony.

But 55 years later, Sri Lanka is locked in never-ending political turmoil, its economy ruined by two decades of armed conflict and consequential devastating impact on life.

Dubai, now a prosperous city state, is running Sri Lanka's flag carrier Sri Lankan Airline and Sri Lankan students are rushing for admissions to schools and universities in India, while Indian entrepreneurs aggressively penetrate many sectors of the island's economy. And Singapore is a highly developed country.

How did this happen?

The blame rests solely on the Colombo ruling class which control the two main political parties - ruling United National Party under Senanayakes, Jayawardenes and now their relative Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party under the all powerful President Chandrika Bandaranaike and her family.

Known for their links to British colonial rulers most of them were Christians but embraced Buddhism, the religion of the largest majority, after entering national politics.

The tragedy was that the two parties which dominated the political scene since independence adopted short sighted policies aimed only at the next election and not the next generation or the country's long term interest.

Every time they spoke of national interest they only meant their own interests. The intense personal rivalries within the ruling class continues to date, to the detriment of the country. This was demonstrated by the crisis triggered on November 4 after Chandrika fired three key ministers and suspended parliament.

Leading columnists accused the two parties of being solely responsible for turning this once prosperous country, with all its wealth of human and natural resources and peaceful people, into one of the most mismanaged countries in the world.

Alienating the minorities

Instead of exploiting the gains under colonial rule to ensure further growth, the two parties competed with each other, indulging in communal politics aimed at Sinhalese votes, alienating the minorities. This trend, which emerged in the mid 1950s under Chandrika's father S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike founder of SLFP, continued with greater intensity in subsequent years. Frequent communal violence against minorities deeply divided communities sowing seeds of enmity and bitterness for future conflict.

It was in such atmosphere the late Prime Minister Srimavo Bandaranaike's government passed the 1970 constitution depriving minorities of the safeguard enshrined in the previous Soulbury constitution, driving Tamil political parties to bury their differences and unite under the banner of Tamil United Liberation Front, TULF which, in turn fanned communalism in the North dividing communities further.

But the Colombo ruling class failed to read the emerging threat to national unity and territorial integrity, especially in the context of widespread sympathy for Sri Lankan Tamils from the southern Indian state of Tamilnadu.

In the late 1970s President J.R. Jayawardene got an excellent opportunity to sort out the minority problem when his party was voted to power with an overwhelming majority and the entire country was behind him. But Jayewardene made things worse by his 1978 constitution which further frustrated and isolated the minorities.

In this desperate environment his failure to stop the July 1983 massacre of innocent Tamils forced Tamil youth to take to arms. The result is around 65,000 killed, 800,000 displaced, around 700,000 fleeing, 300,000 children displaced and more than 30,000 war widows.

The economy was shattered and billions of rupees wasted in fighting a war which neither side won. Once the Tamil Tiger guns started silencing all voices of dissent even mainstream Tamil political parties and politicians became irrelevant as seen today.

Fed up with long years of killings and destruction people wanted a peaceful solution to ethnic issue acceptable to all communities and wisdom dawned on the leaders in the south too on the need for a negotiated settlement.

But personal rivalry remained the greatest obstacle.

For example Chandrika, voted to power in 1994 with 62.2 per cent of the vote, offered regional councils on federal lines in her August 2000 draft constitution which was torn and burnt in the Parliament by the UNP led by Ranil Wickremasinghe who, according to Chandrika, had agreed to more than 90 per cent of the contents and assured his support. Thus she failed to solve the ethnic crisis.

Once again Ranil Wickremasinghe, voted to power on December 5, 2001 on a peace plank, signed a ceasefire agreement with Tamil Tiger rebels in February 2002. Fighting stopped and the country enjoyed a period of peace though the Tamil Tiger rebels exploited the situation to strengthen their military power provoking people in the south.

Submitted their proposals

Despite peace there was uncertainty all over and now, four days after Tamil Tiger rebels submitted their proposals for an "Interim Self Governing Authority" regarded by majority Sinhalese as prelude to a separate state, Chandrika sacked ministers and suspended the parliament shifting the focus of political debate from the LTTE proposals to PA-UNF conflict.

Tamil Tigers may ask for the sun and the moon and try to sideline Muslims in the constitutional arrangement, but leaders in the South have their own limitations in appeasing and accommodating them.

Yet the need is compromise from all sides, although difficult and complex, between the ruling Úlite too, political unity among democratic civil society and reforms for a realistic negotiated settlement to transform the current crisis into opportunity.

The country is passing through one of its most crucial stages in its history threatening its very survival and failure means unpredictable consequences. And future generations will never forgive the present set of leaders and history is bound to be very harsh on them.


WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka