The new government must take a leap into a modern state – Dr. Jehan Perera

Sri Lanka has a new government that came into power amid heightened popular expectations of reforms, which would take the nation in the direction of rapid development and modernity. This is a throwback to the anticipation that accompanied the election of the previous administration in 2015 when the base of popular belief was that the new government would root out corruption.

There is a similar expectation on this occasion too that has only grown with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s declaration – in both Sinhala and English – when he took oaths that he would not tolerate corruption, which has become the bane of politics and the economy, and drained the wealth of the people.

Immediately upon assuming office, the president won public commendation for the positive action he took to streamline governance, which is a departure from the past. The most significant reform was restricting the size of his cabinet to 15 ministers. This may have been a difficult task in a polity where the expectation is a minimum of 30 to 40 cabinet members.

Other reforms include reducing the staff assigned to his office while continuing to live at home and not in the presidential residence. These can be viewed as steps to take governance away from feudal trappings, being part of a movement intended to offer Sri Lanka an efficient and cost-effective modern state.

This is on the positive side; but the truth is more multifaceted…

On the negative side, Rajapaksa’s victory has revived memories of the pre-2015 period when corruption and impunity reached high proportions.

There is a climate of fear in the north and east, where the ethnic Tamil and Muslim minorities live. Moreover, there’s a renewed fear of government such that those who were deemed to be political opponents or enemies of the state could be liable to punishment even to the extent of enforced disappearances. It is hoped that such a situation would not recur.

In the past five years, there has been a strengthening of institutions in the aftermath of the 19th Amendment to the constitution, which depoliticised key state institutions.

However, the demotion of the head of the police’s Criminal Investigation Department (CID), the fleeing abroad of another senior police officer of the CID who was investigating criminal cases involving ruling party members and their families, and the targeting of 704 officers of the CID who have been denied permission to travel abroad without prior permission are ominous indications of an apparent desire to wipe out past records.

It seems that the independence of state institutions is not being exercised in the face of a juggernaut. The sight of old faces among the 15 cabinet ministers appointed to head the caretaker government, several of them with tarnished reputations, could be viewed as another sign that little has changed from the past.

Most of the reforms that the president is putting in place are popular and they’re good for the country. On the other hand, there could be other reforms that are popular and have the support of the majority but may be more problematic. There will need to be caution in moving forward on these.

The support of the majority of people may be a necessary condition for successful reform but it is not a sufficient reason. One such reform being proposed is to abolish the provincial council system in which the central feature is devolution of power to enable power sharing by ethnic minority communities that are the majority in two of the country’s nine provinces.

It is best that any reform or abolition of provincial councils should be undertaken in consultation with major stakeholders and India, as well as political parties that represent the Tamil and Muslim people of the north and east, with the state representing the rest.

Furthermore, it is important for the Tamil polity to downscale its expectation from the maximalist demands that were placed before presidential candidates as a condition for support. Its demands during the election included evolving a political solution through a federal arrangement with recognition of a right to self-determination and conducting an international probe into war crimes.

One stark feature of the recently concluded presidential election was the polarisation in votes between the north and east, and the rest of the country. This is a line of division that needs to be healed early so that Sri Lanka can take the leap to the next level of development as a polity that is united in both heart and mind.