Wednesday, July 24, 2024

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SRI LANKA: Overcoming the crisis

I have penned this article with the view to enlightening the political leaders of the country and those who express ideological views and are interested in the subject, the need for having an objective and pragmatic program for overcoming the crisis facing Sri Lanka and rescuing the country from falling into a state of anarchy. As a political critic who has foreseen this crisis beforehand and written extensively about it before it burst out, I feel that I am obliged to explain the reality of the situation as I see it, and suggest the course of action to be taken to overcome the crisis.

Also, I am writing this article at a time when the spiraling journey of the country towards anarchy has intensified its whirl in a new round. Obviously, this situation does not seem to have come to the serious attention of the rulers or the opposition political parties in the country. As long as the feeling that nothing effective is being done to end the crisis persists in the society, the crisis will invariably drive the country towards anarchy. The schools have been compelled to suspend term tests due to the lack of papers to print question papers. The Lotteries Board has suspended the sale of lotteries due to the shortage of papers. The Electricity Board has encountered a crisis of not being able to issue monthly bills because of the paper problem. The country, knowingly or unknowingly, is heading for anarchy. Bertrand Russell, a well-known British philosopher and social critic was of the view that anarchy is worse than dictatorship. The pressure exerted by the crisis on the people seems to have made the people act aggressively. The issue of the country moving towards anarchy does not appear to have been taken seriously by the leaders of the government or opposition. It is very dangerous to play with the crisis except finding real and sustainable remedies to solve it.

Approaching the IMF

The decision of the government though belated to seek advice and loan relief from the International Monetary Fund to resolve the balance of payments crisis can be considered a right approach. If this decision was taken soon after the pressure of the balance of payments crisis was felt, which is not so easy to resolve, the price Sri Lanka had to pay would not have been so big. When the exchange rate which had been controlled artificially for a long period of time was suddenly allowed to float, inevitably there would be a huge increase in the commodity prices causing an unbearable pressure on the people. Although the government has a responsibility to take necessary steps to alleviate the burden it makes on the people, the government did not possess the necessary strategic vision to do it. Consequently, the extent of suffering the general public had to undergo has been enormous. It must be said that there was a huge confusion in the way the government used to perceive things. The extent of damage done to Sri Lanka’s agriculture by banning the import of chemical fertilizers and pesticides under the guise of rescuing Sri Lanka from chronic kidney disease was huge. Despite all these serious mistakes, approaching the International Monetary Fund to resolve the balance of payments crisis, though it could be a painful experience, can be considered as a right decision taken by the President and the government. There is no doubt that the government in its attempt to keep the Dollar Rupee exchange rate at an artificially lower level despite facing a dollar deficit, the cost incurred to maintain that in terms of Dollars might have been huge .But it is right to abandon it rather than moving forward relying on that stupid and destructive policy any longer. The balance of payments crisis is only one among several explosive aspects of the crisis facing Sri Lanka. There is also a crisis in the socio-political system and the State itself and all are linked together. In addition to seeking advice and credit facilities from the International Monetary Fund to overcome the balance of payments crisis, adopting a reform program to make a true transformation of the country to overcome the other crises as well, which are intermingled, can be considered as an indispensable condition for the country at this moment. It must be a program acceptable to all political parties and groups, including the government, public organizations and the public, and especially the international community. It must be a practical program with a specific time frame leading to overcome the crisis facing the country and bring about a genuine and profound change in the State, the socio-political system and the economy.

Getting the government involved

Perhaps, the idea that the government which at present has provoked strong public anger and opposition should also be involved as a partner in the proposed reform program, could be a source of provocation, strong opposition and debate. Therefore, it is pertinent to explain as to why I should say so. For the practical advancement of the proposed reform program, it is essential to have statutory recognition for it and that is why the Government should be a partner in it. What we have is not a government of a parliamentary system that is easy to be overthrown but a government of a presidential system that cannot be overthrown. The conditions applicable for impeaching a President which can be considered the only way to remove a President who commits serious offenses have been designed in such a way that an incumbent President cannot be removed even by impeachment. Neither the 19th Amendment nor any of the previous government’s reform programs had a vision to formalize the impeachment process. In the end, Sri Lanka has maintained the presidential system up to now without having a formal and practical methodology to remove even a President who commits serious offenses, from his/her office except in a presidential election; there is no other formal procedure to remove a president from his office prior to the next presidential election. Accordingly, it is easy to understand how obsolete is the vision of the constitutional reform process in our country? According to the constitution, even in the event of a resignation of the incumbent president a presidential election will not be held to elect a new president. In such an eventuality, the Prime Minister or the Speaker of Parliament will be appointed to the post of President. The president will not lose office even if the government is defeated in a no-confidence motion against the government. These realities must be taken into account in a program designed to overcome the crisis. If the government is not made a partner of the reform program, it will have to wait until a new government comes to power to implement the reforms. The next presidential election is nearly three years away from now; there is a real danger of the country going bankrupt and plunged into anarchy if the crisis is not resolved soon. If the country finds itself in such a situation, it could lead to a major constitutional crisis that is not easy to resolve. Despite all these arguments, the question of whether the President and his government could be trusted might arise. That is a very important issue to consider. But by making the United Nations an observer of this reform program, a credible atmosphere among all stakeholders contributing to the program could be created. It will also be possible to obtain expert assistance and technical guidance needed to implement the program successfully. At the same time, the reform program will gain international recognition automatically.

Reform Program

The responsibility of drafting a new constitution and implementing the reform program, and its authority should be assigned to a Constitutional Council composed of people’s representatives. The constitution should be drafted in accordance with the methodology adopted in the participatory model of constitution making which has been accepted by the United Nations as well. When a Constitution is made by a public Constitutional Council, the power it needs to function has been granted by an Interim Constitution passed exclusively for the purpose. The reform program must also be based on consensus. Before proceeding to draft a New Constitution, a general consensus must be reached on the principles of the Constitution which is expected to be formulated. In addition to the reforms that are being implemented on the recommendations of the International Monetary Fund to resolve the balance of payments crisis, a reform program should be put in place to overcome the stagnation and breakdown of the socio-political system and the state with the following objectives.

(a) Investigate the causes of the breakdown of the social order and establish necessary reforms to build the Sri Lankan nation on the basis of human dignity and equal rights for all communities.

(b) Introduce reforms to replace the existing corrupt, inefficient and authoritarian system of governance with a better democratic system of governance based on the rule of law.

(c) Introduce reforms that will help rescue the State of Sri Lanka, which at the moment is in a state of decadence and failure from this ugly situation and create a modern state which is efficient, free from corruption and acceptable to all citizens and leading to the dignity of everyone.

(d)Introduce necessary reforms to establish an effective and independent judiciary while investigating the causes of the decline of the judiciary and granting it complete power of review and making the maintenance of the system of governance of the country at an efficient level, protection of the rights of the people, provision of necessary guidance to carry out the activities of the country according to the rule of law when necessary and conduct the hearing of cases of litigation without delay, its primary responsibility.

(e) Investigate the root cause of corruption that has plagued the state and its institutions like a terrible cancer, and come up with effective practical reforms that help eradicate corruption.

(f) A foreign policy must be formulated taking into account the country’s location, geopolitical and global political realities so that it will ensure the security, dignity and independence of the country.

The consensus needed to abolish the old constitution and adopt a new constitution must be obtained through a referendum held simultaneously after the new constitution is drafted. During the interim period it is the Interim Constitution and not the Republican Constitution of 1978 that should be regarded as the basic law of the country. Like in India, amendments to the Constitution which would weaken or distort the basic structure of the Constitution should be outlawed. Deliberate violation of the Constitution should be made a punishable offense. Public representatives elected by the people or public officials transacting business with the government directly or indirectly, misappropriation of public property and making decisions that cause damage to the government should be made punishable offenses.

In addition to the above reforms, those who have lost their jobs in the present crisis should be provided with alternative means of livelihood enabling them maintains at least a minimum level life until the country recovers from the crisis. The highest potential for this is available in the agricultural sector. A land reform program that makes beneficial changes in the land use and provides land to those who do not have lands but interested in cultivating could be introduced for this purpose. If a policy that provides land to those who are interested in cultivation can be devised, perhaps it may bring about a major revolution in agriculture with the educated youth getting engaged in the field of agriculture at this moment. Cultivation of cannabis needs to be reconsidered. Restrictions on growing cannabis are being lifted even in European countries. Shouldn’t Sri Lanka take advantage of that opportunity? All land that was taken over by the security forces from the Tamil people in the North during the war and have not yet been returned to their former owners should be returned to them. According to the estimates of the government, the damage caused to the agricultural crops by wild animals is as big as 40%. The tolerance level of damage should be between 8%-10% only. Only a policy of strict control of wildlife such as monkeys, peacocks and wild boars can bring about 30 percent growths in rural agriculture. If the rice needed for the country could be produced in the dry zone, the land used for rice cultivation in the wet zone can be used for economically more viable economic activities such as animal husbandry, fish farming and commercial cultivation. A policy that promotes beef industry could turn beef production into a lucrative industry and make the country self-sufficient in milk as well. A policy that gives prominence for the fisheries industry could help increase the income generated from fish exports. If the tea estates which are under the control of the plantation companies could be leased out to the families working in them and make them small scale tea farmers, the economic progress that could be achieved from that sector might be tremendous. Apart from that Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) or the method of subcontracting various business-related operations to third-party vendors and Knowledge Process Outsourcing (KPO) systems, scope of which includes preparation of accounts, tax returns, computer aided simulation, engineering design and development, and financial services, etc. should be strengthened. In the meantime, a mechanism should be established to look into the special grievances of the people.

Completion of the program.

The program outlined above could be implemented in two stages. The following elements can be included in the first stage. (a) reaching an agreement on the proposed reform program (b) appointing a Constitution Assembly consisting of people’s representatives (c) Identifying the areas to be investigated and set up commissions or design appropriate methods and implement them (d) to reach consensus on the amendments to be made and the principles on which the new Constitution must be based (e) Draft and adopt the interim Constitution by Parliament to empower the Constitution Assembly to implement the reform program. (f) Formulate necessary policies, and establish institutional arrangements. Thus, the first phase of the reform program may be concluded after holding an election to elect the members of the Legislature under the selected Constitution.

. The second phase of the reform program will begin with the formation of the Constitution Assembly which is composed of the representatives of the entire legislature elected under the new electoral law and the partially concluded new constitution.

From then onwards until the end of the second phase of the program, that is, until the new Constitution is passed by a referendum and enacted into law, the legislature will be responsible for completing the second phase of the reform program, as described in the Interim Constitution. A structural reform program of this nature will help overcome the degeneration of the state, socio-political system and economic stagnation and build a peaceful new country, a new state, a new socio-political system and an economy to the satisfaction and confidence of everyone.

Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC)

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