Presentation, at the Global Asia Institute Speaker Series (2010), National University of Singapore. (Ground Views) – John Richardson
Confounding predictions of self-appointed experts, including myself, Sri Lanka’s armed forces achieved a total military victory over the LTTE. President Mahinda Rajapaksa then won a decisive mandate in a relatively free and fair election, contested by a strong opponent. An even more decisive victory by the United People’s Freedom Alliance party, in Parliamentary elections concluded just nine days ago, has consolidated his power.
In an ambitious pre-election manifesto, the Mahinda Chintana, President Rajapaksa outlined very specific and concrete goals touching on many aspects of Sri Lanka’s political economy and society – subjects included “a land of plenty,” “a disciplined and law-abiding society,” “clean water as Sri Lanka’s heritage,” “houses for all,” “electricity for everybody,” “a clean, green environment” and much more (p. 6). states in the Mahinda Chintana,”is to break the fundamentalist concepts of a traditional homeland and a separate state and empower the citizens of this country to arrive at a peaceful political solution which would devolve power to all its citizens.”“For every failure we found a solution” -“ Defense Secretary Gotabaya RajapaksaDevolving some power to the Sri Lankan Tamil community, within the context of a unitary state deeply imbued with the symbolism Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese monarchy, is a challenge that President Rajapaksa’s predecessors as President and Prime Minister have faced and been unable to resolve. Perhaps a clue to the government’s strategy may be found in a recent interview for the Indian defense review, entitled “Nine Key Decisions that Helped Lanka Beat the LTTE,” given by Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. It is in this spirit of drawing lessons from previous failures and finding solutions, emphasized so strongly by Defense Secretary Rajapaksa as key to the military victory, that I offer observations on possible lessons of relevance from Sri Lanka’s post independence history and from Singapore’s development experience.
Missed opportunities for reconciliation in Sri Lanka’s post-independence history
In my view, the period after 1985 has few useful lessons about achieving national unity, reconciliation and development to offer. Repeatedly, Vellupillai Prabakharans unwillingness to accept political solutions, other than an independent Eelam, scuttled the initiatives of the two Sri Lankan Presidents and a Prime Minister who were willing to accept the substantial political risks that negotiation and peace-building seemed to require.
Rather it will be useful to seek lessons from periods when Sri Lankan political leaders, like President Mahinda Rajapaksa, had such overwhelming political support that they were in a position, if they chose, to expend political capital by taking concrete steps toward communal reconciliation that would have involved, at a minimum, a degree of regional power sharing as well as greater creativity and flexibility in the implementation of official language policies.
In each, the party previously in opposition gained decisive power on a platform that 3 promised fundamental change. In each instance, however, Sri Lanka’s political leaders chose not to expend their political capital in this way but instead, to accede to demands of the radicals.
Post 1956 -“”reasonable use of Tamil-Ÿ and the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact
Choices made by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, who came to power in a time of relative communal comity, when Sri Lanka was viewed as perhaps the most promising among newly independent nations, may have been the most tragic. Bandaranaike backed down in the face of strident demands and demonstrations from communal nationalists, including some Buddhist priests.
This evoked violent demonstrations and counter demonstrations, which were made worse by Bandaranaike’s orders to Sri Lanka’s mostly unarmed police forces to exercise “maximum restraint” in restoring order. This marked the beginning of what James Manor has called a “poisonous” cycle in Sri Lankan politics that has damaged relations between Tamil and Sinhalese communities every since (1989, p. 269). Limited time mandates that I gloss over many parallels between circumstances faced by the post- 1970 United Front Government and those presently facing Sri Lanka’s top leaders. Interestingly, the Mahinda Chintana seems to imply that this period was a golden age characterized by high levels of government integrity and public well-being. I 1977, however, an overwhelming number of Sri Lankan voters rejected Mrs. Bandaranaike’s bid for a second term in office.
Moreover restrictive import policies benefited Jaffna’s economy. Mrs. Bandaranaike’s government provided funds that supported founding of the University of Jaffna. In contrast to 1960, when she began her first term as Prime Minister, Mrs. Bandaranaike had become a courageous, tough-minded political leader, who functioned very differently than her late husband. My own view, detailed more fully in Paradise Poisoned, is that issues impacting communal relations in Sri Lanka simply did not command her full attention. Had Mrs. Bandaranaike brought the brilliance and energy to domestic communal problems that she brought to international affairs, I believe relations between Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese and Tamil communities might have followed a very different path.”
Post 1977 -“ Strengthened Presidential power under a “Gaullist” constitution
Let me next turn to the last Sri Lankan President, before President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who had sufficient discretionary power to reverse the trend of deteriorating communal relations in Sri Lanka. In 1991, it was my good fortune to spend a number of hours with President Jayewardene, discussing Sri Lanka’s post independence history and his Presidency.
Like President Rajapaksa, J.R. Jayewardene gained office with an overwhelming mandate. The ideal state -žmust be composed of ideal men; men without greed, hatred or ignorance.”President Jayewardene was, however, a many faceted leader. He campaigned on an inspiring vision of an economically developed Sri Lanka. Like many political leaders, he believed that relatively unfettered personal political power was prerequisite to realizing his vision of an economically developed Sri Lanka. President Jayewardene saw himself as the quintessential political realist. How could such an able political leader have miscalculated so badly? In a televised press conference, following the Indo-Lanka accord signing, President Jayewardene’s self-appraisal was candid. Responding to a reporter’s query about why he had not earlier reached agreement with Tamil political leaders, his self appraisal was candid: “It is a lack of courage on my part, a lack of intelligence on my part, a lack of foresight, on my part.” Does Sri Lanka’s history offer lessons that might be applicable to present circumstances?
It might seem premature to draw parallels between circumstances of the three political leaders I have highlighted and those facing President Mahinda Rajapaksa, but I believe it is realistic. President Rajapaksa has an overwhelming mandate. Also, it seems, despite Sri Lanka’s complex proportional representation system, that President Rajapaksa’s United People’s Freedom Alliance will be able to command the 2/3 parliamentary majority necessary to pass constitutional amendments. While there is optimism about Sri Lanka’s economic future, there are also vulnerabilities, most notably high government deficits, high inflation, the burdens of heavy defense expenditures and the possibility of international sanctions against Sri Lanka, affecting trade, foreign investment and the flow of funds from international donors. There are questions about how the government might deal with rising discontent produced by deteriorating economic conditions. This was a challenge that President Jayewardene’s government faced in 1982. In offering my reflections, I recognize for quite understandable reasons, there has been little receptivity on the part of Sri Lanka’s top leadership circle to recommendations from western scholars what should be done. I acknowledge that my views about the likelihood that Sri Lanka’s army could defeat the LTTE were wrong. Nonetheless, I believe my views on 6 development and reconciliation in Sri Lanka, based on more that two decades of study, may yet have something to offer. It provides a detailed, comprehensive cataloguing of the challenges Sri Lanka faces as well as concrete, specific goals. It recognizes that details must be fleshed in, over time and in consultation with various stakeholders in Sri Lankan society. Reconciliation should be acknowledged as a requisite of economic development.
First, I believe President Rajapaksa should continue his public acknowledgement that for Sri Lanka’s economic development to reach its full potential, communal reconciliation is essential. The greater the success in reconciling Sri Lanka’s majority Sinhalese and minority Sri Lanka Tamil communities the greater the probability that polices intended to develop Sri Lanka will succeed. Sri Lanka must, indeed, become “a united motherland -“ one nation with one vision.” To me this sounds very much like the agenda Lee Kuan Yew’s People’s Action Party proposed to Singapore’s diverse peoples as the new nation faced the challenges of survival, post independence.
At three previous junctures cited in this talk, Sri Lankan political leaders made political calculations that acceding to or encouraging communally divisive voices would best serve Sri Lanka. Like many Sri Lankans, I have lost friends and mentors to the bullets and bombs of LTTE assassins.
I believe Sri Lankans would return home, in large numbers, if they believed that economic opportunities in a secure, inclusive society focused on clear development goals awaited them. President Rajapaksa can provide leadership that creates such opportunities. Sustainable development should be Sri Lanka’s overriding national priority.
Second, I believe President Rajapaksa, should, indeed, make sustainable development Sri Lanka’s overriding national priority, as the Mahinda Chintana pledges to do. In pursuing this goal Sri Lanka’s leaders should be should be mandated by the President to emulate Defense Secretary Rajapaksa’s model for winning the war. Experts from whom Sri Lankan leaders sought advice and academics who trained them, especially at the London School of Economics, differed widely. In his succinct and lucidly argued 2007 volume, Singapore’s Success, development economist Henri Ghesquiere highlights three of the most important lessons that he gleaned from studying Singapore’s post-independence development trajectory.Â “First, Singapore followed an integrated approach to development. Outcomes, policies, institutions, social and cultural values and the political dynamics of implementation reinforced one another.-Ÿ [By pursuing an integrated approach to development, across a broad spectrum of policy areas] “-¦health, fiscal and monetary policy, education, transportation and the like,”-¦ “the government created an intricate network of mutually reinforcing linkages producing a powerful outcome.” That is Singapore’s ultimate lesson.”
In the second volume of his remarkable autobiographical testament (2000) Singapore’s “Minister Mentor,” Lee Kuan Yew, described two key factors helping to shape his policies that seem particularly relevant to President Rajapaksa’s circumstances. Is there a highly respected, disinterested advisor who could provide a similar window of experience and knowledge to supplement the backgrounds of President Rajapaksa and his close advisors, especially his brothers Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa? In fact there is an individual with a background similar in many respects to that of Dr. Winsemius, deeply knowledgeable about the economic foundations of Singapore’s success as well as the global economic context in which success has been achieved. I refer to my Lee Kuan Yew School Colleague and the author of Singapore’s Success, Henri Ghesquiere. Let me follow the parallels between President Rajapaksa’s circumstances in Sri Lanka and Lee Kuan Yew’s early years of leadership a bit further.
In 1968, not long after a decisive PAP election victory, Prime Minister Lee took a short sabbatical at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. The lessons he learned from conversations at Harvard deepened his knowledge of American Society and international political economy. Could there be a lesson here for President Rajapaksa, a highly gifted, visionary, political leader, but a product of Sri Lanka’s Singhalese heartland whose international political economic experience has been limited? If Sri Lanka is to become a home for “Entrepreneurs with strength to conquer the world,” perhaps a sabbatical in which Sri Lanka’s President seeks to deepen his understanding of the world Sri Lankan entrepreneurs are setting out to conquer might be invaluable. Sri Lanka’s present circumstances are probably more propitious than those Singapore faced in 1968, when Prime Minister Lee temporarily turned over the reins of government to his deputy, Goh Keng Swee.
Towards a bright future for Sri Lanka: Buddhism as a reconciling force
But how are the divisive fissures in Sri Lankan society that have hitherto poisoned promising development agendas to be overcome? I believe that a gifted, powerful political leader such as President Rajapaksa can create a discourse in Sri Lanka through which Buddhism becomes a reconciling, rather than a divisive force. The story in the twenty-fifth chapter of the Mahavamsa, describing how Sinhalese King Dutthagamini united Lanka under one rule, by defeating Tamil King Elara, is known to virtually all Sinhalese schoolchildren. The chronicle tells how, after winning his great victory, Dutthagamini experienced remorse. However another warrior king, the great Emperor Asoka is also revered by Sri Lankans. Like Dutthagamini, Asoka won a great military victory. Missionary work throughout his realm and beyond became Asoka’s mode of conquest, “the conquest that by this (the Dharma) is won everywhere, that conquest, again, everywhere is productive of a feeling of love.” I am assuming, though I can’t say for sure, that most Sri Lankans know that their President is named after the monk who, according to legend, converted Sri Lanka to Buddhism, the son of Asoka the Righteous.
Is it beyond the realm of possibility, that President Mahinda Rajapaksa, architect of perhaps the greatest military victory in Sri Lankan history since that of Dutthugamini over Elara, could choose Asoka the righteous as a role model? Buddhist traditions and practices offer much in the way of guidance for reconciliation and for humane, sustainable development. Restoring Sri Lanka to its place as a development success-story for the world
This path-breaking work was the first to highlight Sri Lanka as a unique development success-story: a country that, while achieving relatively modest levels of economic development, had successfully met the needs of virtually all its people for an acceptable physical quality of life. Later, in my co-authored book, Ending Hunger: An Idea Whose Time Has Come, I wrote about Sri Lanka’s rice ration program (later decried by development economists as unsustainable), which sought to make the principle of food sufficiency as a basic human right a matter of public policy.
Though we knew relatively little about the country, Sri Lanka was a beacon light for idealistic young development scholar-practitioners, such as myself. It could bring to its development process lessons that success stories like Singapore have to offer. But the context in which those lessons are applied could be uniquely Sri Lankan; uniquely Buddhist.
John Richardson is author of Paradise Poisoned: Learning about Conflict, Terrorism and Development from Sri Lanka’s Civil Wars (2005). He is Professor of International Development, School of International Service, American University, Washington, D.C.; Visiting Professor, Lee Kwan Yew School of Public Policy, and Global Asia Institute, National University of Singapore.