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#4765, 3 December 2014

Dateline Colombo

Sri Lanka: Making a Case for Change
Asanga Abeyagoonasekera
Executive Director, Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute of International Relations and Strategic Studies (LKIIRSS), Sri Lanka

The final month of the year 2014 began with the news of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak. He was found not guilty of the massacre of civilians who protested for his overthrow in the 2011 Arab Spring. Society’s expectation for a total change in political culture was proven difficult to materialise due to numerous issues, of which Egypt is an example.

In the political landscape of Sri Lanka, as previously predicted, the presidential race begins on the road to the polls with a decision to be taken on 8 January 2015. Senior party member Maithreepala Sirisena, a member of the President’s own party, crossed over to challenge him as the opposition common candidate. The common candidacy presents a grand coalition of political forces. The joint opposition coalition harnesses the support of former President Chandrika Bandaranayake and the opposition leader Ranil Wickramasinghe. It promises an overhaul of contemporary political culture within a 100 days of assuming Presidency. The centre of this change lies in the abolition of the Executive Presidency.

A total change of the system is still to be implemented and its possibility remains curtailed due to the strength of the present Executive Presidential system. In implementing total system change, it is necessary to foresee its consequences and evaluate the practical aspects of the new system being implemented. To curtail or minimise the existing powers of the Presidency rather than going for a total system change is an option. Total system change is a gamble. It may be beneficial or could dismantle the development process and weaken existing political systems. The Executive Presidency has helped defeat terrorism; however, it is arguable that the very reason for the emergence of the conflict were these same Executive Powers. The 1982 extension of the parliamentary term without election is an example of the danger of this Presidency at play.

At the foothills of the Himalayas, the 18th SAARC summit showcased heated geopolitics. Pakistan's bid to invite China as a full member caused much speculation from neighbouring India. Reflecting on the words of former President JR Jayawardena at the inception of SAARC summit:  "We are setting this ship afloat today. There may be mutiny on board, I hope not. The sea may be stormy but the ship must sail in and enter the ports of poverty, hunger, unemployment, malnutrition, disease and seek to bring comfort to those who need it." SAARC should focus on improving living standards of the poorest in the region. Focus should lie on economic prosperity to the bottom of the pyramid, improving trade and infrastructure. In its thirty year history SAARC summits have been convened eleven times. Rivalry between member nations such as India and Pakistan limit the regional integration SAARC represents.

In this backdrop, Sino-South Asian engagement intensifies. AIIB projects such as the Maritime Silk Road continue on a budget of thirty billion dollars. During the summit, South Asian infrastructure development was promised by China’s Vice Foreign Minister, Madam Fu Ying. Chinese presence strengthens in regions such as the Middle East and Africa. Dubai is home to over 4,000 Chinese companies with trade without oil trade reaching $40 billion. Both partake in a bilateral strategic relationship. An ongoing African railway project through Chinese investments extends from Nairobi to Mombasa with plans to extend to Burundi, Rwanda and South Sudan. It is estimated to reach $100 billion Chinese investment by 2020. Such economic moves by China align with its target to become the world’s largest economy by 2025. Despite waves of Chinese political history shutting the nation out of the global sphere, China has made a giant comeback. Moving three hundred million Chinese citizens from a state of poverty to the middle income bracket is a remarkable domestic achievement. Domestic reform was not the result of sudden action but steady consistent reforms over time.

Democracy is necessary in order to preserve individual freedom and expand a nation’s power through free thought. Sri Lanka comes from a rich democratic culture and is progressing from being an economy that was factor-driven to being efficiency-driven. It should focus its strategy over the next three decades on graduating towards an innovation-driven economy. The people lie at the core of this economic shift. Outstanding political manifestos and rhetoric limited to a handful are redundant in the long term. 40 per cent students failing at GCE O/L is a warning for strategic investment in improving education quality and increasing budgets for R&D as it is connected. In a simple example, the investment in scientist engineers’ education will pave the way for future innovation. The economy is not a slot machine. Investments in casino projects are short-term, however investments in education, innovation and human resources to facilitate an innovation-driven economy is for the long-term. With developed human capital we will be able to tap few areas in the global value chain.

Blaise Pascal says “Man’s grandeur is that he knows himself to be miserable, grandeur must be abandoned to be appreciated. Continuity in everything is unpleasant.” Between grandeur and misery people aspire for betterment and continue the struggle to retain the richness left in democracy.

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