A History of Failed Reforms
By Harini Amarasuriya
Recently, a friend shared with me an advertisement from a migration consultancy service. The advertisement simply said: “We have 6.9 million reasons for you to migrate to Canada”. Now, that’s quite a bold statement to make, I thought to myself. Yet, it’s indicative of a certain shift in the current mood among people. Recently, we have seen images of long queues outside the passport office.
Migration consultants have reported a dramatic increase in the number of inquiries and applications. My former colleagues from the university sector say that the number of reference letters they are writing for students seeking placements and jobs abroad have increased. All this suggests a sense of despair and hopelessness, especially among young people, about the future prospects of this country.
This is in marked contrast with the waves of enthusiasm that swept the country immediately after the last Presidential and General Elections or the frenetic support the SLPP mobilised during the election campaign. Although the Government would like to blame the COVID-19 pandemic for all the woes the country is grappling with, this is simply not correct. Certainly, neither the farmer protests nor the teachers’ protests are due to COVID-19; the first is a consequence of a stupendously ignorant policy decision and the latter is a result of years of neglect exacerbated by an arrogant if not clumsy response to trade union action.
The long lines at the passport office are not a result of a single issue, but driven mostly by a lack of faith and trust that the political leadership in this country are capable of finding solutions for the multiple crises the country is facing. The majority who are seeking to migrate are taking a huge leap of faith. Many are leaving without proper assurances about jobs, security, shelter or support networks. Anti-migrant sentiments are strong across the world as people seek scapegoats to blame for their ills. The fact that people are still willing to face these risks – often alone and in unfamiliar places – speaks volumes for their sense of disillusionment about their own country.
Sri Lanka is a country that seeks to solve problems through commissions: There have been multiple commissions of inquiry, investigation, public representations etc., all searching for answers, people’s views and providing analysis and lofty recommendations. I myself have been on some commissions and fact-seeking committees. I have also read many commission reports. What is glaringly obvious in a majority of these reports is the sense of injustice that citizens feel with regard to the State and its operations.
While most citizens expect the State and the elected Government to mediate on their behalf, to ensure their wellbeing and protection, in their experience, Governments have historically failed to deliver. This has led to increasing mistrust in institutions of the State as well as of politics. This is most eloquently stated in the Presidential Commission on Youth, established in 1990, soon after the UNP-led beeshanaya period. In Chapter 1 of the report, the commissioners say: “The oral and written representations made to the Commission indicated virtual unanimity that politicisation and perceptions about the abuse of political power are some of the main causes of youth unrest in contemporary Sri Lanka.”
The National Human Development Report of 2014, discussing the results of a youth survey conducted in 2013, states that an alarming 89 per cent of those surveyed said they had little trust in political parties compared with 47 per cent in a similar survey in 1999. The Report of the Public Representations Committee on Constitutional Reform in 2016 (of which I too was a member) in its introduction says: “We have failed in the task of building confidence in the organs of the State, in the rule of the law and in each other.
We are once again faced with the task of attempting to atone for past mistakes. Let us therefore not waste this opportunity.” The contents and sentiments expressed in these different reports are distressingly similar. Citizens are consulted, and come before various committees and commissions to share their views, stories and experiences and plead for justice. All the reports suggest that citizens feel marginalised and excluded from power and from the organs of power. Discrimination and exclusion is experienced through a range of factors: age, language, class, status, ethnicity, religion, gender. Many of the reports suggest remedies. All the reports urge the Government to act and to act fast – calls for State and political reforms, reconciliation mechanisms, restoring justice, rule of law, independence of State institutions are common refrains in almost all these reports.
It was the Youth Commission of 1990 that first recommended Independent Commissions to restore trust in the system of governance and to ensure justice and fair play. It is ironic that 31 years on, one of the members of that Commission, Prof G.L. Peiris, as a Cabinet Minister, oversaw the repeal and weakening of those Independent Commissions when he defended and voted for the 20th Amendment to the Constitution.
But this has been our history; this is the cycle that is repeated over and over again. If our leaders have been consistent in anything, it has been to promise the Earth, the moon and the stars before gaining power and to kick the very people who brought them to power in their teeth, and consolidate their power and that of their allies through any means. Is it a wonder then, that the passport office is besieged by disillusioned citizens seeking to flee what they see as a hopeless situation? At the same time, shouldn’t citizens take some responsibility for the situation in which we are now? For all of our leaders were elected democratically and Governments were formed constitutionally.
Arguably, Constitutions, laws and elections have been manipulated to the advantage of those in power, yet – at the end of the day, citizens have also voted for the Governments in power. In some cases, overwhelmingly, like for the current regime. Many people who contact us now, talk about being misled, of being fooled. As much as we hold up politicians for critique, should we also not interrogate our own impulses that propelled those we now criticise, to power? Some of these impulses have been less than laudatory if we are honest with ourselves: Like our propensity to subscribe to racist tropes or our inclinations to safeguard our own at any cost – be it our own in terms of family, caste, class, or even school.
This has meant that the same circles of power have existed for decades, with some superficial changes to provide an illusion of difference. And so we have come to where we are now – a point where especially the young, are ready to give up. And anyone who has the means is talking about leaving the country. But surely, we can do better than this? Thousands of young people sacrificed their lives for this country at several points in our modern history – because they believed in the possibility of transformation. We do not want any more lives lost in the search for change – but we do need to fight. Not with weapons, but with our minds and our hearts. We need to be able to see beyond the noise and the spectacle – and to get to the crux of the matter: That more than seven decades after independence, we have still not been able to free ourselves.