A new Colombo Plan for a new Sri Lanka

It’s a tough gig being Minister for Housing in Sri Lanka.  Especially if you want results, which Sajith Premadasa says he does.  Amongst the shanty towns and slums, the drug trade, violence and child abuse are endemic.  A good place for the new government of Sri Lanka to start will be to restore trust in the political process that it can deliver for all and not just a favoured few.

At his inaugural press conference, this son of a previous President assassinated in the early 1990s, says he wants to depoliticize infrastructure projects and start work on building 50,000 new homes for the poor in this country of 20 million.  And he will travel in his own car, rather than the motorcade preferred by his predecessor.  I was amongst hundreds who thronged his office on his first day at work, amongst the chaos only able to shake his hand rather than a promised meeting.  But I was privileged to witness the palpable hopes and dreams of the crowds there to wish him well.

There is a lot at stake and millions of Sri Lankans are eagerly watching to see if a new style of governance can emerge in this troubled nation.

While (successive) Australian Government’s have focused here on ending people smuggling, there are many other problems that also need solutions in Sri Lanka.  Earlier this month a new president was swept to power and expectations are high that the new leadership team will make good on their promises to stamp out corruption, establish a better functioning parliamentary system of government and switch focus towards helping the poorest of the poor.

Sri Lanka is yet another post-colonial nation in need of healing and desperately in need of good governance.  While its vicious civil war is over, there is a divisive and often violent struggle to define the nation in the name of ethnicity and religion, both things likely only to drag the nation further apart.

Unusually for a Commonwealth country, Sri Lanka has an executive presidency, a president with wide powers, which sits unhappily with a parliamentary system.  Having significant powers in his hands, the previous president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, was according to his detractors, able to hand out favours to his own family and oversee deepening corruption over recent years.  Sri Lanka’s former strongman President was rarely challenged by a fawning media.  Sri Lankans told me they were afraid to talk about politics – until the election on 8 January.

Then one of Rajapaksa’s own circle defected to the Opposition and mounted a strong campaign for change.  Maithripala Sirisena promised an ambitious “100 days” program of change, including replacing the executive presidency with a parliamentary republic, with strictly limited powers in the hands of the president – arguably best practice and certainly an opportunity for a fresh look at how to embed openness, accountability and checks and balances in a system desperately in need of a makeover.

But it will also require culture change if everyone is to feel an equal citizen of the republic, with so many marginalized and polarized by Sri Lanka’s deep religious and ethnic divisions.  At least Sirisena starts with support from a significant number of Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims.

Rajapaksa, the former president, was firmly on one side of Sri Lanka’s identity debate.  He was perceived by many of Sri Lanka’s Buddhist majority as their champion.  He was said to have visited every Buddhist temple in the country.   The problem was that Sri Lanka’s Buddhists who follow the religion’s peaceful teachings had been cowed into silence by demagogues who sought to redefine Sri Lanka in the name of the majority and to marginalize – or worse  – anyone who disagreed.  The previous regime appeared to turn a blind eye to violence and retribution in the name of one religion in this nation of many religions.

The Buddhist Power Force (Bodu Bala Sena, BBS, in Sinhalese), who mobilized unsuccessfully to back President Rajapaksa, are accused of instigating religious hate attacks over the years since the end of the civil war in 2009.   They are accused of attacking mosques and directing hatred at Sri Lanka’s Muslim communities and even its tiny Christian communities.  They recently formed an alliance with Myanmar’s 969 movement, Buddhist groups linked to anti-Muslim riots in that country.

Under the previous regime, there was a flurry of re-writing of history and culture wars to establish Buddhist supremacy, not inconsistent it should be said with Sri Lanka’s constitution, which gives Buddhism primacy.  The unlikely aggressiveness of Sri Lanka’s Buddhism dates back to struggles to maintain identity in the days of the European colonizers and Christian missionaries.  Today it manifests itself not just in thuggish attacks on practitioners of other religions, but in revisionist history.  New national monuments honoring historic Buddhist kings were erected across the Tamil-dominated North and East of the country in recent times.

Huge numbers of Tamils and other minority groups turned out in the recent elections to vote for change.  It is yet to be seen what the new government will mean for the minority groups, but a commitment to civil society, reduced role of the military, devolution of decision-making and human rights will – if delivered – transform life for millions.

Despite some rumours of a planned coup, the transfer of power so far has been peaceful and dignified, as it should be in a democracy.

Now the real test is whether the new regime can live up to the high expectations it has generated.

Sri Lanka is an economy that on paper is growing but in practice is a shambles, with deep inequality and recent infrastructure investments widely believed to be underpinned by corrupt business deals, poorly structured loans and politicians on the take.

The local media is acting like it is newly liberated, suddenly shining a light on dubious dealings that it had swept under the carpet ever since the January 2009 murder of a famous journalist, Lasantha Wickrematunge, whose Sunday Leader newspaper had exposed corruption.  Whether the media will maintain a healthy independence or come under the sway of the new government is yet to be seen, but optimism is undeniably in the air.

In a workshop with young leaders in a local Colombo community, held two weeks after the election, the discussion started slowly, because of a lack of experience in being consulted, but grew into a feverish pitch of excitement about the possibilities for Sri Lanka.  Young women and men talked passionately about the need for good governance to help the poor through education, housing, healthcare, promoting the nation’s products and protecting the environment.  Most of all, they long for unity of the people.  It’s a tall order but to look at the sparkle in the eyes of Sri Lankans is to know that they will make it happen if they are given a chance.

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