Moderates denounced as traitors
Constant tension between security and liberty- GL at AMCHAM meeting
"Diversity, both cultural and ethnic is a form of strength rather than a source of weakness or imbalance," said Professor G.L. Peiris, Minister of Export Development and International Trade, addressing the American Chamber of Commerce (AMCHAM) in Sri Lanka earlier this week.
"We need a system to use all our people to feel at home without any perception of exclusion or insecurity. The biggest policy dilemma today is how do you reconcile the notion of mature nationhood with cultural and ethnic pluralism? These are issues that have to be addressed together by coming out with innovativeapproaches."
"Those of you who have done business here for a long period are aware of the trends and potential of our country and are also aware of some of the problems we are having," Peiris added, explaining there is no simple explanation as to why solutions to the ethnic problem have 'eluded us', being a country with a vigorous civil society. "There is no simple explanation but one of the technical elements is the highly polarized culture that is all too evident."
There is an obligation for all to address the problem and seek a practical solution. "There has been a rapid erosion of middle ground and a strengthening of extremes at both ends of the spectrum. A moderate is denounced as traitor," the minister said, adding that legitimate issues have been tarnished and there is a growing need for objective and dispassionate minds. "Increasing polarization has aggravated the problems of Sri Lanka and brought along the situation in which solutions have been difficult to formulate and implement." He stressed the importance of developing a mechanism for a consensual culture rather than a confrontational or adversarial culture. Many political or social systems have to be responsive to the nuances of changes.
The minister spoke on the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the SLFP and the UNP which came into effect in October of last year. He said during negotiations between the two main political parties in the country, efforts were made to try and put in place 'certain mechanisms that would enable certain mitigation of adversarial and confrontational attitudes.' He explained that the parties drew inspiration from the system of government that prevailed in this country. An agreement was about to be reached on six areas including issues such as the execution of the economy. "It was apparent to us that it would be a piece of paper unless there was a mechanism put in place to operationalize all aspirations. Unfortunately, the mechanism was expunged from the document. That omission in the MOU turned out to be something lacking in enforcement.
Prof Peiris further added that Sri Lankans tend to 'lose sight of long term objectives because of immediate issues with which we are constantly preoccupied.' One such example is the current efforts to reform the electoral system in this country. I don't think there is anybody in any political party who would argue that it should remain.
Everyone agrees that the system is bad and has to be changed and there is unanimity of the compelling need to change it but it has never happened." Although agreement about the need for change in undisputed, there are no ideas on what should replace it. "This is because everybody wants to fare better under the new system than they did under the old. The result is that everybody is disillusioned." He referred to the current electoral system as the 'fount of corruption' leading to violence and instability as long as the country is complacent and allows it to remain. As long as it is in place, there are no prospects of eradication or reducing the levels of corruption. Most campaigns are costly, he said, adding that most members of Parliament have legitimate access to campaign funding but are compelled to resort to methods of raising greater funds, thereby creating a network of obligations that prevents them from exercising their judgment.
Investments are large and have to be recouped by financiers who will 'call in their IOU's.' According to Peiris,what people see today 'is not inter party rivalry but intra party rivalry.' Politicians are competing with members within their own political parties. "We cannot think about economic progress or development until we sort this out."
In the American political and cultural experience, the concept of affirmative action or reverse discrimination is of particular importance to Sri Lanka.
The minister said there is as much injustice in treating unequal peopleequally as there is in treating equal people unequally. "You cannot judge everybody equally. I think that idea is very relevant to us at this particular stage of economic development. That idea is seminal and fundamental because the attitude of our government is that exports have to be developed not simply to enhance the volume of foreign exchange earned but also to put emphasis on social equity." If this concept is implemented, benefits will go down to the grass roots level and enhance the quality of life of all.
Another relevant issue Prof Peiris touched on is the need to reinvigorate public institutions such as the ombudsman scheme and Parliament. He has noticed that the quality of debates in Parliament was much higher in 1994, when he joined than the present. "We have to make available to Members of Parliament research assistants to enable them to make a contribution of value to a debate. It has to do with the lack of proper resources." Civil society should interact with these committees to a greater extent. Peiris said people are only conscious of their power during elections but that there must be involvement at all times. That is the antithesis of government and requires an institutional mechanism to be conceived to achieve this objective. "That is the only way to make Parliament responsive to changing trends. Otherwise Parliament becomes removed from the issues and that will be a detriment to society."
He also addressed the issue of the preservation of human rights. "There is constant tension between security and liberty. Both are important and the challenge is to reconcile these two in a pragmatic way to achieve a perceptive and sensitive equilibrium. It is not a new conundrum. We have a lot to learn from the culture of the United States."