By Krishantha Prasad Cooray
Today, it is hard to open a newspaper or watch a newscast without cringing at how little has changed in our political psyche since the rout of Gotabaya Rajapaksa just over a year ago. Of course, with Rajapaksa himself out of power, Sri Lanka is no longer careening towards the edge of a cliff, but things could be so much better if only our political class learned any lessons from the Aragalaya.
Across both sides of the aisle, we see the same faces, giving the same stump speeches, making the same demands, and remaining obsessed with eking out more votes. To borrow a phrase from James Freeman Clarke, they are obsessed with the next election, and unconcerned about the plight of future generations.
Nowhere is this clearer than the petulance with which most political parties have responded to President Ranil Wickremasinghe’s recent call to give serious consideration to the devolution of executive power to the provinces of Sri Lanka.
The nationalists are clutching their pearls at the very idea of power sharing. When they hear “provinces”, they think “Tamils and Muslims”. Some of them say “we” won “the war”, and so power can stay where it is. Others take the position that no matter how much a policy helps the Sinhalese, it should not be done if it could also help minority communities to thrive.
As boneheaded and myopic as the nationalist stances are, at least they have a stance.
Liberals, such as those in the SJB whose leader and party platform have consistently stood for a full implementation of the 13th amendment in writing, seem unable to rise to the moment and articulate a stand in support of their own policy, seeing instead an opportunity to undermine a President who stuck his neck out by taking a bold and perhaps unpopular position.
As the theatre continues, there is no one left to explain these concepts to ordinary Sri Lankans in simple words. To a population tired of hearing the same speeches over and over again, no one has broken out of the noise to articulate the potential strategies of power sharing and their associated risks and rewards.
It is in moments like these that Sri Lanka most misses Mangala Samaraweera, who died two years ago today. Mangala was a political visionary who saw what others did not, and who in his final years graduated from politics to statesmanship. In those years, his entire priority was always the next generation, and not the next election.
When today’s politicians discuss devolution, they harp on about the war, about India, the 13th amendment, Indo-Lanka Accord, colonialism or the LTTE. They are obsessed with history and frame our national conversation around the past, where if Mangala were here he would focus our attention squarely on the future.
By the time President Wickremasinghe decided to raise the spectre of devolution once again, he had no doubt steeled himself for the pantomime that would follow, but there was nothing he could do about it, because he has no Mangala to wake us up to reality. He would have spoken plainly and fearlessly, unbowed by the terror tactics of extremists and nationalists. If Mangala was here, he would ask us to forget about the past, and just think of our predicament today.
We have a central government that failed so catastrophically that its leader was ousted in the first successful revolution in Sri Lanka’s history. We have defaulted on our loans. We have shortages of food, medicine and almost everything else. Sri Lankans are giving up on their country, packing up and leaving in droves. However much things have improved since the Rajapaksas were shown the door, much more needs to be done to secure our future. It is no secret that the Rajapaksas don’t want the country to succeed when one of them is not at the helm. Their support of the President is nothing but a tactic to stall for time, to rebuild their brand and return to power.
Sri Lanka’s policies on any number of issues swing violently from one direction to another from election to election, and through it all, our core administrative infrastructure, from our schools to our hospitals to our justice system and utilities, all continue to stagnate as the world moves on. Potential investors who have visited Sri Lanka for decades hear the same ideas with the same zeal that they did 20 years ago, and still find that they can get nothing done without political patronage.
Mangala would challenge us to ask whether this path of decline is inevitable, or whether we could radically reimagine the way our country worked. Imagine, for example, if each of the nine provinces was indeed self-governing. Imagine for a moment that each province had its own executive and legislators, and its own set of policies around how to administer their schools, universities, hospitals, police forces or even agricultural policies.
Would crime and corruption still be rampant island-wide, or would at least one province take this problem seriously and elect a chief minister devoted to cleaning up that province’s public sector and making it the safest province in the country?
Would it still be impossible to seek justice in our court system without being able to both afford the services of a President’s Counsel and wait for years as your case was postponed for no apparent reason? Or would at least one province elect leaders who would adopt best practices from around the world to digitize magistrate’s courts, bar unnecessary delays and pride itself on hearing and concluding cases faster than anywhere else in the country? Might that same hypothetical province also suggest guidelines that encourage judges to rely on an increasingly large body of jurisprudence to avoid relitigating the same issues over and over again?
Is it possible that under a devolved government, Gotabaya Rajapaksa may not have been able to choke off the agriculture industry nationwide? Perhaps one brave governor and her provincial government may have negotiated directly with a benefactor to get its farmers the tools they needed to tend to their crops and avoid a rice shortage.
Could another province have decided that it would single-handedly stem our national brain drain by setting aside tracts of land and other incentives for cutting edge universities through public-private partnerships, perhaps to lead the world in research into generative artificial intelligence, while inviting the brightest minds in the world to live and work on their campuses as “digital nomads” under a tax-advantaged incentive scheme? Indeed, might that same province have decided that their primary and secondary schools would be the envy of Sri Lanka, from basic necessities like clean toilets to transparent and accountable admission systems?
Would there be anything to prevent yet another province from digitizing its land records, perhaps on a public and transparent blockchain that puts an end to title deed fraud and gives investors peace of mind that they will not be tied up in court for decades over scams that boggle the imagination?
When you imagine the possibilities of decentralized government, it becomes clear that the real risk of devolution is not to any majority or minority religion or ethnic group. The real risk is to the “cabinet minister” political class, the revolving array of “senior politicians” who take turns between the halls of power and opposition benches, sucking up all the oxygen in the room and leaving no opportunity for the next generation of politicians to try their hand at governance.
In practice, “non-cabinet ministers”, “state ministers”, “deputy ministers” or “monitoring MPs” have no real or practical power to make a difference and are just positions to build names and own isolated pet projects or initiatives that succeed or fail based on the patronage of their cabinet minister or president.
If we had serious provincial government, Mangala would encourage every promising young leader to become a chief minister or provincial minister instead of hovering around Colombo. He would push them to try new ideas and bold initiatives to solve problems that had not yet been solved elsewhere in the country. Just like he opened competition in the telecom sector in the 1990s, he would have opened up competition among the different provinces in Sri Lanka.
Mangala was always sympathetic to the plight of ethnic and religious minorities feeling like they were treated like second class citizens. But his political secret and superweapon was that he always saw and knew that the mechanisms that minority stakeholders sought were the very same mechanisms that could unleash the full economic potential of the south and propel Sri Lanka past communal thinking. Just as winning ideas in the private sector are emulated by the competition, provinces would borrow the best ideas from each other and thrive. Those that failed would be punished by their electorates.
The saddest thing about Mangala’s vision is that it was never a secret to his long-time political allies, including the leadership of the UNP and SJB. It is well known that Mangala broke away from the SJB because he feared the party would become a “Rajapaksa lite” and not a true liberal alternative force. Now the SJB, from its leader Sajith Premadasa down, have an opportunity to seize the moment, extend an authentic hand of support to the President, and put its own ideas before the people.
Especially for a party so full of promising young leaders, the SJB has nothing to lose and everything to gain from promoting a system that would allow its best and brightest to fan out across the country and drive real change and give people real hope. Ranil Wickremasinghe, the solitary liberal voice in his government, could not have held out a longer olive branch to the opposition, signalling his support for an unpopular policy direction that both he and the SJB leadership know would be the right thing to do.
They are sitting on a political masterstroke that would require little more than endorsing and standing up for ideas they themselves believe in. The SJB is a party that has sought credibility and relevance since its birth, and it finally has an opportunity for its senior leaders to shine. From Sajith Premadasa to Eran Wickremaratne to Harsha De Silva and the other liberal voices in the party, this is their chance to show that they are not afraid of the Weerawansas, Ratanas and Gnanasaras, and to channel their inner Mangalas to take an alternative view to the people and to take a stand against racism.
All his life, Mangala Samaraweera was never afraid to speak. Others were afraid to let him be heard. He was a strong, charismatic, articulate, and credible voice who lent his formidable stature to any leader he backed. If anyone proposed the correct policy, he would have endorsed it without a second thought. But today, there is no Mangala to hide behind. It is up to the few remaining statesmen to lead the way, inspire the people and work with whoever they must in order to make sure that the Rajapaksas never raise their head again.