With the dawn of the New Year in the Gregorian calendar today, traditionally one looks forward to good tidings in the months ahead. For some, this would be more of what they have enjoyed in the past; for others, there might be a need to forget the past and look to the future with renewed hope.
The government wishes the people a "suba anagathayak" or a blessed future, leaving the citizenry to contemplate the blessed past they may have experienced.
One might say that the people have had mixed fortunes in recent times. The end of the country's 'war against terrorism' in May 2009 could well be treated as the dawn of a 'new era'. For it was then that the country was able to shed the shackles that had constrained it for a good many years from achieving greater heights in all aspects of the politico-economic-social-cultural life of its inhabitants.
If 1977 was the turning point at which the country was able to shake off the shackles of economic retardation, 2009 would have been when the country had another opportunity to set itself on the path towards joining the modern world without encumbrances.
It is to the credit of the successive administrators, both political and bureaucratic in those dark years when a virtual 'civil war' tore the country apart, that Sri Lanka's economy at least survived (2001 being the exception when for the first and only time, a zero growth rate was recorded). It was a period in which the nation also survived as a democracy. All the flaws and drawbacks notwithstanding, elections were held on time (except the 1982 referendum that circumvented a parliamentary election) and the institutions that sustain a democratic state, viz., an independent judiciary, police and media however tainted by increasing politicization, functioned.
In the post-2009 period, the government of the day had a golden opportunity to usher in a golden era. Riding on the crest of an unprecedented wave of popularity and national pride for defeating the monstrous beast of terrorism and the menace of separatism and unify the nation, it had the world at its feet.
How well or how badly the government has set about this task of nation building is a debatable issue. There is no one answer. For instance, there is, plain to see, economic activity in the country - and not just in Colombo or the Western province but throughout. The heavy imbalance of economic development hitherto limited to the Western province has been largely redressed. Once sleepy rural villages have been transformed into bustling townships. This has not happened overnight or in the post-2009 period, but they have indeed been given a boost with broken roads turned into highways and the wider spread of development activity in to the provinces. The question though, is at what cost and what level of corruption?
When the ruling party's headquarters in the district where the Minister of Economic Development is the chief organizer is constructed by the company that has got government contracts, it speaks little of good governance, in the traditional sense. But the government seems not to care for traditional sense.
The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC)'s report that we have been referring to for the past three weeks since it was made public last month, has identified many areas where there is what is known around the world nowadays, as the 'democratic deficit'. The report has clearly identified the roots that eventually result in incidents like last week's shooting of a foreign tourist in the President's own pocket-borough, the details of which are dealt extensively on page 14 of this issue. It is a textbook case of the government ignoring saner counsel and paying the price for it.
The report is silent on issues like corruption but it contains much food for thought for the government to chew on. For a third week since the report was made public, and well over a month since it was handed over to the President, the government maintains a deafening silence on how, or if at all, it would deal with the many issues raised and recommendations made on the domestic front.
On the international side, the issue of allegations of violations of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) during the last days of the military campaign to defeat the LTTE will no doubt be a nagging question to which the government will need to seek an answer. India, however, keeps raising the issue of devolution of power, and again, the government does not need to respond to please the Indian administration, whose proxy in Sri Lanka is the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), but may find it difficult to keep postponing treating this headache indefinitely.
Many disgruntled elements ask why the winds of change sweeping through the Middle Eastern countries have not blown in this direction. They ask why, when people are getting onto the streets to protest authoritarian regimes and unjust economic policies from Cairo to Damascus and Washington to Moscow, and there are anti-graft rallies in neighbouring India, it is pretty quiet here. It may well be that things are not so bad here, really.
It may also be that people here still cling to the belief that there is a designated opposition that is there to do its job rather than the government's bidding or wallow in in-fighting. This is no reason though, for the government to ignore the calls for better governance.
The government itself is at the crossroads. There is a fear of it moving towards one-party rule with a token opposition. There is the fear that it would castrate independent institutions, or what is left of them and take the Suharto route to development, with all the crony capitalism at its command trampling democracy on the way. What befell the Suharto administration, however, is contemporary history.
Our Political Editor spells out on this same page the agenda that the government faces in 2012 especially on the international scene. Domestically, the people would not be expecting an Utopia but equally, it would not be too much for them to ask for a de-politicisation of the entire gamut of their day-to-day lives that now revolve around a small but powerful coterie of politicians and bureaucrats.