By Jehan Perera
The night bus to Jaffna was also fully booked. Those who had returned on holiday from the diaspora were happy to be back and to share their views. One said he had spent two weeks in Colombo and was now on his way to spend two weeks in Jaffna. He spoke fondly of the natural beauty of Sri Lanka and the warmth of its people. He said he was spending two months in Sri Lanka on vacation as he had accumulated the leave to do so.
The run up to Christmas demonstrated a visible return to normalcy in the urban centres of Colombo and Jaffna and possibly other urban centres such as Kandy, Galle and Batticaloa as well. The roads in Colombo were congested with traffic and so were the shops to which people congregated in numbers. The same was visible in Jaffna where the shopping areas were filled with people though the roads were not congested like in Colombo. Hotels in Jaffna were fully booked for the holiday season, with many the moderately priced good hotels not having a room to spare.
The seat of learning in Jaffna, the University of Jaffna, was full of students. Unlike some of the other universities which have been conducting their courses online, the University of Jaffna has been determined to conduct its courses on campus and face to face rather than virtually. The university has demonstrated strong leadership in banishing the horrendous practice of ragging which masks physical abuse, and has taken on the support of a community kitchen started by two of its academic staff. Some of the other universities have seen their student attendance drop due to the inability of the students to meet the highly escalated costs of their meals and accommodation. The change in the University of Jaffna is a dramatic one from what it was in the past when students clashed with one another on ethnic grounds or clashed with the administration on political grounds. This change can be attributed to good leadership that shows care and concern for the students.
However, this is not the only reality in the country. There is another reality that is less visible but which affects the life of the majority of the people. The crashing of the economy over the course of the past year has brought misery to the lives of large sections of the population. The doubling and trebling of prices even while incomes remain static have made it impossible for large numbers of people to make ends meet. They have been living off their savings and borrowings. It is anticipated that the pressures of having to prepare their children for school in the new year, and meeting the steeply higher costs of exercise books and clothes will lead to protests coming to the fore once again. The government has so far failed to show care and concern for its people.
It is a tragedy that in this situation when the majority of the country’s people are facing acute economic hardships that old practices of corruption and lack of accountability continue apace. There is currently a controversy surrounding the purchase of medicine in which there appears to be political involvement and lack of transparency. This scandal accompanies the travesty of a previous over-order of medicines. Despite the acute foreign exchange shortage which the country is stuck in, it is now in the process of seeking the technical know-how regarding the physical destruction of an excess stock of Covid vaccine. In another controversial tender that suggests corrupt practices at play, the electricity engineers claim that coal purchases have not been made due to problems in the tender and if the problem is not sorted out soon that there will be a recurrence of the 10-hour power cuts that catalysed people onto the streets.
In his Christmas message Pope Francis has provided some guidelines how societies including Sri Lanka could utilise to improve the life of the people. The entire document can be accessed at <https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/speeches/2022/december/documents/20221222-curia-romana.html> The pope’s message is written in an uncomplicated manner and is not difficult to understand. What follows below would be a brief summary of the main themes that would be applicable to Sri Lanka. The first would be the issue of accountability. The problem is when those who do not themselves either practice or believe in the principle of accountability are in a majority in society.
Recognising this problem, which is universal, the pope says “It is not enough to condemn evil, including the evil that quietly lurks among us…More condemnation can give the illusion that we have solved the problem.” Likewise, in Sri Lanka, President Ranil Wickremesinghe will need to determine the way forward on issues of accountability. This is his first challenge. The president has yet to show resolve on this matter be it corruption, accountability or even following the constitution. The issue of citizenship that confronts members of the government still remains unresolved. The passage of the 21st Amendment to the constitution was acclaimed as a triumph of good governance and good sense. So far the signals emanating from the government are very negative in terms of adhering to the law in an even handed manner.
Some of the proceedings in parliament mask a disrespect for the rule of law in which the ruling class believes itself to be above the law. The pope cautions, “Besides the violence of arms, there is also verbal abuse, violence of the abuse of power and the hidden violence of gossip.” In other words, the war that ended in 2009 on the military battlefield has not meant that peace is assured because violence can take many different forms. The pope urges the need to “…accept that individuals and institutions, precisely because they are human are also limited.” President Wickremesinghe has a second important challenge to overcome. This is to resolve Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict through a political solution. This is a task that the president has said he will achieve before February 4 next year, although previous leaders have failed for nearly 75 years.
There is considerable cynicism and also opposition to the president’s efforts to make this process of agreement a success. His failure so far to deal with accountability issues is adduced as reasons why he will fail here too. Corruption and moral turpitude are not peculiar to Sri Lanka. They are found elsewhere in the world as well. These are not issues that should be dealt with lightly or dismissed as if they were one-off aberrations. The question is how does a democratic society which is pledged to the rule of law deal with these situations. The visitor from the diaspora, who had left Sri Lanka more than 15 years ago, said that Sri Lanka would be a better place to live in than Switzerland if not for the economic situation and politics.
The British colonial officer Leonard Woolf who wrote the classic novel of the Sinhala village prophesied that Sri Lanka could become the Switzerland of the east. In a memorandum to the colonial government in 1938, he explained with details of populations of all the communities in the then Ceylon and compared them with the sizes and populations of each canton in Switzerland to justify his recommendations for a federal system. The essence of a devolved or federal system of government is that people at the local level become the agents of change.
At the non-political and administrative level, the University of Jaffna has shown the way forward by taking responsibility for funding and running a community kitchen where hundreds of students may find a nutritious meal. The task of civil society and all citizens at this juncture is “not simply about avoiding evil, but doing all the good we can” as recommended by Pope Francis in his Christmas message. Like the administration of the University of Jaffna is doing. This may be the only way forward as we have yet to see a master plan for national recovery.