Dr Devanesan Nesiah reviewed the ‘National Integrity System (NIS) Assessment – Sri Lanka 2010’ published by TISL, at the launch of the publication.
From even before Independence, since the Donoughmore Reforms of the early 1930’s, our democratic credentials have been unsurpassed in this part of the world. Beginning soon after Independence, over the last six decades, we have been retreating on several fronts. Of the thirteen pillars as defined in the TISL Report of 2010, several have taken a battering, and a few are on the verge of collapse. It is reported that it is the private sector that, overall, has stood up best. Among the media and civil society organisations, several have emerged, shone brightly, and a few have declined, been co-opted or taken over by the state, and some have disappeared altogether. Several state institutions have done poorly.
TISL, a new comer, is among the few civil society organisations with an unblemished record. Its international moorings may have helped, but such moorings have not saved some other civil society organisations from ill- repute or extinction from Sri Lanka. In that context this publication under review is most welcome. I think we will find it to be a reliable guide to what is right, what is wrong, and what kinds of corrective actions are needed in respect of the National Integrity System in our island.
The identification of business as the strongest pillar might be thought of as indicative of a bias in favour of the private sector. But this need not be so. Many of the other pillars are linked in one way or the other to the political system which, we all know, has deteriorated over the last four decades. Much of the rot starts there. In fact the Report could be faulted for being over cautious and over studiously uncritical of political developments and political leaders. Since in the short time allotted to me it is not possible to complete a balanced assessment of the report, I will focus disproportionately on the political system which I identify as being at the root of many of the ills.
In the section titled Overall Situation Analysis (p.9 of the Executive Summary), it s suggested that “a major Constitutional Amendment which required a two–third majority in Parliament…the absence of armed conflict since mid-2009, the presence of a powerful, even dominant government leading to stability and security all augured well for the country”. While the end of the armed conflict is undoubtedly a major boon, the manner in which it ended – in a massive blood bath rather than in a negotiated surrender of the LTTE – may have long adverse repercussions, several of which are already evident.
Moreover, a dominant government, particularly one with a two-third majority in parliament as well as a President with virtually unfettered powers, with the capacity to ram in the 18th Amendment into the Constitution or any other legislation at his discretion, may enjoy stability but not of a desirable kind. Such powers are \dictatorial, or unlikely to yield integrity and good governance and, in particular security to those opposed to the government. The various ills outlined in the section as unwarranted or difficult to understand in the context of the government acquiring a two-third majority in Parliament are in fact predictable consequences of such unfettered dominance. Political parties seek a two-third majority in Parliament for “stability and good governance”, but such overwhelming parliamentary strength may eliminate the checks and balances vital to a democracy.
We know this from our recent history that when a dominant government is elected, with a weak opposition, as in 1956 (though without a two-third majority), in 1970 (with a two-third majority), in 1977 (again with a two –third majority), and a few years ago under the Rajapakse Presidency (under which a two-third majority was secured through cross-overs). In each of these cases undesirable legislation and ethnic conflict leading to violence followed. Notable amongst the ill consequences are the Official Language Act, the1958 riots, the introduction in 1971 of “standardisation” of University admissions, the majoritarian 1972 Constitution, the eviction from their jobs and homes of thousands of “Indian Tamil” plantation workers, the majoritarian 1978 Constitution which further advanced and entrenched some undesirable provisions of the 1972 Constitution, the 1983 pogrom, the ruthlessly conducted civil war that ended in heavy blood-shed in May 2009, and the 18th Amendment.
Since the war ended, developments in the North have caused much concern to the population of that Province. There has been no move towards either reconciliation or accounting for the missing, or, meaningful rehabilitation of the displaced. Disappearances and abductions are yet continuing, though on a smaller scale than earlier, and no action is being taken against those responsible. In particular, media personnel and human rights activists have been attacked and assassinated. The civil administration remains heavily militarised. The Governors of the North and East and the Govt. Agent of Trincomalee are all military personnel and it is they who run the administration. The activities of the civil .society organisations, including INGOs, are curtailed and closely monitored. Everywhere military presence is overwhelming and huge chunks of territory are designated as High Security Zones.
The most disappointing failure is the lack of any initiative towards reconciliation. The TNA has emerged in local government elections as the voice of the majority of the Tamil people in the North. They have been trapped into talks with State at which many promise are made and hardly any of them are implemented. The conditions of the talks include the maintenance of secrecy which prevents the TNA from explaining to their voters or to any others why there is virtually no progress. If they abandon the talks, they could be blamed for lack of progress and for this reason they are under heavy pressure to continue their talks though they are largely in–effective. Perhaps there is a need for a responsible third party to participate in the talks to lift it out of the rut it has got into.
Up to about the third quarter of the 20th Century our journalists, newspapers and other media personnel were outstanding and noted for their independence. Sadly, this is no longer so. Many journalists have been killed or fled the country or have been co-opted by the state. As set out in the Executive Summary, the climate of fear ”has compelled(even) the non-state owned media to engage in the practice of self censorship to avoid further intimidation, and the overall situation has been described as “one of the darkest points in modern Sri Lanka” in terms of media freedom”. Apart from intimidation the state can also influence the media through advertisement money. For the media, advertising revenue is all important and is an inducement that is very difficult for media owners to resist.
The report underline the need to empower, increase the independence, and insulate from political interference the Public Service Commission, the Attorney General’s Office (to be re-structured to represent the public interest and not of the State) and the Auditor General.
There is a list of needed legislation. Priority assigned is for new legislation to cover protection for whistle blowers, victims and witnesses.
I can do no better than to read from the relevant paragraph of the Executive Summary.. ”Bribery and corruption are of great concern in Sri Lanka. The VAT scandal that was exposed by the Auditor General in 2004 allegedly led to a loss of 441 billion rupees (U.S.$3.96 billion) Two reports by the Committee on Public Enterprise(COPE) released in 2007, both of which highlighted corruption, waste, and inefficiency in the public sector, received widespread public attention. The reports found incompetence and leakages in state-owned enterprises (notably the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation, the Ceylon Electricity Board, the Bank of Ceylon, and the Ports Authority) to be a severe drain on public funds, and losses incurred in 26 public enterprise reviewed in 2006 were estimated to amount to Rs.100 billion(US$).90 billion) In 2008, several scandals hit the financial sector, with many depositors losing their assets and the regulatory bodies seen to be failing to protect them”.
It is a curious paradox that though women got their vote together with men as far back as 1931(ahead of the rest of Asia and of many countries of Europe), the proportion of women in Parliament and other elected political bodies has remained abysmally low – around 5%. The prejudice against quotas for women in such political bodies appears to be higher in Sri Lnnka than even in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh where women are better represented. Women’s professional educational and literacy levels have been much higher than in the rest of Asia and they are well represented in a few professions but ill- represented in many others, especially in the private sector. The proposed increase in representation within political parties may do little to increase women’s representation in elected bodies; quotas for a minimum period are unavoidable.
This legislation is at the root of many of our problems. Unfortunately, it has added greatly to the already considerable powers of the Executive President and, for that reason, it is virtually locked into the Constitution.
Neither the current President not any of his successors may have any incentive to remove the amendment from the Constitution.
Finally, are the 13 pillars the most appropriate; and is the report well organised and clearly presented? I can think of no pillar that is of little or no relevance, nor of any glaring omission. Regarding the organisation and presentation, it is not easy to work through over 300 pages in this report in one sitting. Most readers will use this report as a reference book and refer to one or two sections at a time. This is facilitated by the lucid classification into chapters and sections. Monumental work has gone into the design of the report, and the collection and presentation of the material. Overall, the effort has been worthwhile and those responsible need to be congratulated on a difficult and exacting task well done.