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Preparing for ‘beyond GSP Plus’

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By Neville Ladduwahetty

 

In the midst of all the challenges that Sri Lanka is currently facing, the prospect of having to prepare itself for a possible temporary withdrawal by the European Union (EU) of its tariff preference in favour of developing countries known as GSP+ at this particular juncture, when the whole world is desperately trying to cope with the effects of a pandemic, runs counter to the EU’s own mission of helping developing countries through GSP+. This preferential treatment is extended to Low and Middle Income countries as classified by the Word Bank. According to this classification the Gross National Income (GNI) of Low Middle Income Countries varies between $1036 and $4045, while GNI of Upper Income Countries varies between $ 4046 and 12535.

The GNI per capita in Sri Lanka has hovered around $4000 depending on the method of calculation. Therefore, reaching a GNI per capita greater than $4046 is not much of a stretch. However, the issue is that a GNI in excess of $4046 needs to be sustained for three consecutive years for Sri Lanka not to qualify for tariff preference; a benchmark that is applicable for normal global conditions. Sri Lanka reached the Upper Income Status in 2019 prior to COVID-19. If not for COVID-19 Sri Lanka could have maintained the growth momentum for three years and beyond, in which event Sri Lanka would have lost the benefits of tariff preference. The fact that no allowance is made for a shortfall in GNI per capita due to a global pandemic, the consequences of which are experienced by every country, is not only deeply regretted but also lacks acknowledgement of reality. If such an allowance is made for 2020 and 2021 there is a strong possibility that Sri Lanka could reach the Upper Income status in 2021 and the requirement for three consecutive years would have been met. In such an event Sri Lanka would have lost tariff preference for GSP+ anyway. Therefore, the EU should seriously consider adjusting the threshold for Upper Income category for countries such as Sri Lanka that hover around the lower limit of Upper Income, instead of waiving temporarily or otherwise, GSP+ based on standards that do not apply for unprecedented global catastrophes.

As stated by former Director General, Dhammika Senasinghe, for Europe, Central Asia, the EU and Commonwealth, of the Foreign Ministry of Sri Lanka at a business forum, “As Sri Lanka progress to graduate to upper middle income states in the future we will be not qualify for the GSP+ benefits, which means we would need to work out on a special trading arrangement with the EU whilst highlighting our climate change related vulnerability also under the sustainable development criteria.” (ECONOMYNEXT, June 23, 2021).

Therefore, Sri Lanka has to prepare for the day when it is not eligible to GSP+. Since this is a real prospect, the Government should set up a group that is knowledgeable and experienced in trade related issues, preferably with international experience to prepare a proposal that could serve as a blue print for negotiations with the EU. The mandate for such a team should be to provide the same tariff preferences as the current scheme, or better for substantially all trade.

 

GSP+ to HELP DEVELOPING

COUNTRIES

According to the European Commission, GSP+ is a “Special Incentive Arrangement for Sustainable Development and Good Governance”. Furthermore, the Commission states: “The GSP+ scheme is designed to help developing countries assume the special burdens and responsibilities resulting from the ratification of 27 core International Conventions on human and labour rights, environmental protection and good governance as well as from the effective implementation thereof. It does so by granting full removal of tariffs on over 66% of tariff lines covering a very wide array of products including, for example, textiles and fisheries”.

Despite these inducements nearly 75% of the 193 countries remain in the Low or Upper Income category, as per the World Bank. Furthermore, only eight (8) countries are beneficiaries of the GSP+ scheme. They are, Armenia, Bolivia, Cape Verde, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Therefore, there has to be an explanation why more Low Income Countries are not attempting to take advantage of the tariff preference and work towards becoming an Upper Middle Income country. For instance, India, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh are not beneficiaries. Perhaps each of these countries have negotiated and initiated arrangements outside the constraints of GSP+ Therefore, there is a need to study the policies and strategies adopted by these countries including Vietnam, in order to stay competitive without the benefits of tariff preference of GSP+.

 

SITUATION in SRI LANKA

The former DG cited above opined that “Sri Lanka utilization rate of facilities is around 55- 58 percent, while Pakistan is 96 percent and the Philippines is 73 percent. Confirming this situation during the 14th Trade Policy Review of the European Union held on 18th February 2020, at the WTO, Geneva, the Sri Lankan delegation stated: “judging from Sri Lanka’s two years’ experience, the utilization rate of the GSP+ facility by Sri Lankan exporters stand relatively low at 55 – 60%, due to several reasons, including difficulties of qualifying GSP preferential Rules of Origin Criteria. For instance, more than half of the apparel exports of Sri Lanka enter the EU market without availing the GSP+ facility, but paying relatively high import duties compared to other industrial goods”.

Continuing the Sri Lankan Delegation stated: “Sri Lanka is in the verge of losing the EU GSP/GSP+ benefits from 01st January 2023, if this Status continues for two consecutive years. Sri Lanka has already flagged this situation and wishes to negotiate an alternative bilateral preferential trade mechanism or alternatively, a special scheme of preferential market access for small and vulnerable countries in the upper middle-income category.

Whatever measures Sri Lanka adopts to improve the rate of utilization of facilities, the stark fact facing Sri Lanka is how to use the facilities offered by the EU when Sri Lanka is recognized as an Upper Income Country. How to prepare for such an eventuality should be the focus of the government. In such a context, the dire warnings by commentators about the prospect of losing the benefits of GSP+ on grounds of the status of Human Rights in Sri Lanka, highlighted by the UN Human Rights Commissioner and the ineffective measures adopted to address accountability and reconciliation by the Core Group, would be secondary to losing GSP+ on grounds that Sri Lanka is recognized as an Upper Income Country not only for its economic gains but also for its noteworthy achievement in the field of Human Development that in fact surpasses some of those within EU’s 27 Members.

If Sri Lanka is to undergo experiences similar to what it had to endure with the withdrawal of GSP+ in 2010 on grounds of the Human Rights situation in the country, the prediction is that many factories and commercial establishments would close down and thousands would lose employment at a time when the public is already facing unprecedented hardships due to COVID-19. Therefore, instead of waiting for the axe to fall, Sri Lanka should adopt a “proactive approach” as suggested by the Free Trade Zone Manufacturers Association (FTZMA). However, it would have been helpful if the FRZMA had specifically proposed such an approach.

 

GEOPOLITICAL DIMENSIONS of the EU RESOLUTION

The Resolution of the EU Parliament having given regard to related documents and a Preamble with paragraphs A to K, proceeds to adopt nineteen (19) Resolutions. Nearly all the issues Resolved either impact on issues within the domestic jurisdiction of Sri Lanka or relate to GSP+ except for paragraph 18 of the Resolution which states: “Expresses, concern about the growing role and interference of China in Sri Lanka”. The question that naturally arises is whether the real reason for Paragraphs 14 and 18 to co-exist in the same Resolution is because of genuine concern for Human Rights or because of concern for China’s “growing role and inference of China in Sri Lanka?

Paragraph 14 states: “Underlines that the GSP+ scheme offered to Sri Lanka has made a significant contribution to the country’s economy, from which exports to the EU have increased to EUR 2.3 billion, making the EU Sri Lanka’s second-largest export market; highlights the ongoing monitoring of Sri Lanka’s eligibility for GSP+ status and stresses that the continuance of GSP+ trade preferences is not automatic; calls on the Commission and the European External Action Service (EEAS) to take into due account current events when assessing Sri Lanka’s eligibility for GSP+ status; further calls on the Commission and the EEAS to use the GSP+ as a leverage to push for advancement on Sri Lanka’s human rights obligations and demand the repeal or replacement of the PTA, to carefully assess whether there is sufficient reason, as a last resort, to initiate a procedure for the temporary withdrawal of Sri Lanka’s GSP+ status and the benefits that come with it, and to report to Parliament on this matter as soon as possible”.

If the EU hopes to use a temporary withdrawal of GSP+ to make matters difficult for Sri Lanka because of China’s growing role in Sri Lanka, the EU may be acting against its own interests of staying engaged with Sri Lanka because China is bound to grab the opportunity and entrench itself even further. Therefore, it is in the interest of the EU to stay engaged with Sri Lanka and negotiate an arrangement special to Sri Lanka, conscious of the fact that Sri Lanka would not be eligible for GSP+ anyway, in the very near term.

CONCLUSION

After wading through paragraph after paragraph of the EU Resolution, the only two paragraphs that matter are paragraphs 14 and 18. While the former intends to explore the prospect of a “temporary withdrawal” of GSP+ as leverage to advance Human Rights in Sri Lanka, the latter is concerned with the “growing role and interference of China in Sri Lanka”. While a temporary withdrawal is bound to hurt Sri Lanka at a moment of unprecedented hardship due to COVID-19, there is a strong possibility that China would take advantage and step into the breach. Such an outcome would not be in the interests of the EU and the recently stated resolve of the G7 to Build Bigger and Better (B3B), in order to counter the growing global imbalance created by China’s Belt and Road initiative.

Instead, it would be far more prudent for the EU to stay engaged with Sri Lanka because doing so is in its own interest and that of the West, and recognize that Sri Lanka is on the threshold of becoming an Upper Income Country, and in keeping with such a prospect work out arrangements as stated in Article 4 of EU’s GUIDE to SRI LANKAN EXPORTERS. Article 4 states: “Sri Lanka would become ineligible for the GSP+ scheme should the EU conclude a Preferential Trade Agreement with Sri Lanka, which provided the same tariff preferences as the scheme, or better, for substantially all trade. The EU is currently not negotiating any further trade agreements with Sri Lanka”.



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Flame throwers as deterrent to wild elephant incursions into cultivations?

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Much has been written in the news and social media about the sad and continuing Human Elephant Conflict (HEC) . I have read somewhere subject to correction, that most amount of elephant deaths caused by this conflict has been recorded in Sri Lanka, compared to other elephant habitats.

Independent wild life experts and officials of the Wild Life Department have discussed this matter on numerous occasions, but there seems to be no sustainable solution, effective in the long term. In my view the basic problem is that human being have encroached into Elephant Country, in which these mighty animals have lived for generations and taken over the territory, they rightfully occupied for ages. This is another result of the so-called development that every country talks about but that development at the risk of damaging the environment is not sustainable. Many developed countries protect the environment at any cost in preference to so-called development but not in our country.

I am not an expert in resolving the HEC but I have a little experience . When I was Chairman of Pelwatte Sugar Industries Ltd, the Pelwatte Sugar Plantation had been created by replacing forest land to grow sugar. The then government gave some very attractive incentives to bring a Multinational Company to commence sugar cultivation in Sri Lanka. Thousands of acres of forest land were cleared to plant sugar cane. It was a big investment with an extensive infrastructure including bungalows for the top management and also for staff officers.

There were regular incursions by elephants who loved the sugar cane. The Plantation attempted to prevent the elephants destroying the sugar cane by constructing electric fences which they had to maintain, large elephant ditches, which had to be desilted after every monsoon, and so-called elephant drives which were only temporarily effective. I have watched the poor elephants being driven by large number of vehicles, using crackers and other means.

Basically, the above mentioned are the only strategies used in Sri Lanka for human beings to drive away the elephants from their traditional forests after removing the forest and converting it to various types of cultivations. In Africa , it is reported that they rear bees in artificial hives, as surprisingly these huge animals fear the bees which sting them in their eyes . I am not aware of such a strategy being adopted in our country.

The poor elephants are also trapped or fed with “hakapattas” which are devices with an explosive hidden in some morsel of food that elephants love. They try to eat the food resulting the blast inside their mouth, totally dislocating their jaws and ultimately resulting in death.

The Wild Life Department is supposed to be giving the villagers some ” wedillas” . Only one to three are given to a single villager . The elephant is intelligent enough to realize that if they bide their time after the limited wedilla’s are used, they can easily romp in. This is the only protection afforded to the poor villagers.

We have seen TV pictures of many homes of villagers totally destroyed over and over again, as there is no protection against these huge animals. Their stocks of paddy is also devoured and all their crops destroyed repeatedly. These houses have been built by their hard earned money and totally destroyed over a single night. They have to protect their crops by night and also protect their homes and wives and children. They have absolutely no salvation.

The authorities who are experts on Wild Life Conservation, I believe have various plans, but there is no accepted, integrated plan of action, other than for the villagers to suffer without any relief and for elephants to suffer by their injuries and ultimate deaths.

I have been thinking about it for some time and came across of a possible strategy which of course has to be appoved by the department of Wild Life and for the large population of genuine elephant lovers , who have tried their best to solve this problem but failed up to date. I thought of a particular device called a flame thrower. According to Google, (picture attached ), this flame thrower can be purchased in the US without a license and it can be used over and over again, if it is is refueled. I believe it cost around US$500 , plus of course the fuel used for producing the flame. There is possibily one catch and that is I believe sometime after the 1st World War, it was decided to ban armies from using this very potent weapon which can totally destroy small buildings, army camps etc., against individuals.

I do not intend them to be used to kill or maim elephants, but as a very effective deterrent at long range. I would like to have the views of the wild life experts before anyone can consider using this weapon as a deterrent. Mine is only a suggestion, as we continue to have elephant and human deaths, without any action taken to prevent same.

 

Mahendra Amarasuriya

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A COSTLY ADVENTURE – Part 14

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CONFESSIONS OF A GLOBAL GYPSY

By Dr. Chandana (Chandi) Jayawardena DPhil

President – Chandi J. Associates Inc. Consulting, Canada

Founder & Administrator – Global Hospitality Forum

chandij@sympatico.ca

Inspired by a Cycling Legend

When I was a little kid, my hero was Morris Coomarawel, who was the first cyclist to represent Ceylon in the Olympics (Rome 1960, at the age of 19). Then at age six, I rode my tricycle every evening in our front yard, imagining that I was Morris. In the years 1960, 1962, and 1963 Morris won the Tour de Lanka Cycle Race against several hundred older contestants. I was amazed that a teenager could cycle around 460 kilometers within 15 hours. Once a year, I impatiently awaited among a large group of fans, by the Galle Road near Bambalapitiya Flats, to cheer and watch Morris getting closer to the finish. Usually, he did so about 30 minutes ahead of the second placed cyclist.

I was not a natural cyclist. When I was in my pre-teens, I took a long time to learn how to balance in order to avoid falling when cycling around the bends. Determined to master the basics, I used to cycle around Havelock Park for hours. When I joined the Ceylon Hotel School (CHS), having met many colleagues who liked to cycle motivated me to get involved in organizing a cycling adventure.

The Cycling Adventure of the Iron Horses

Finally in 1973, the organizers of the adventure were able to convince about 15 of my CHS buddies to join a five-day cycling trip covering four (Western, Southern, Uva and Sabaragamuwa) of the nine provinces in Sri Lanka. When they heard that the plan was to cut CHS classes for two days to do the trip, three of them dropped off in fear of being punished by the CHS Principal. The rest of us who agreed to go on the trip planned details, itinerary, overnight free accommodation in friends’ homes, the budget, logistics and supplies at the CHS hostel. We called ourselves, ‘Iron Horses’. We commenced our trip on Thursday, May 17, 1973, which was the Vesak full moon religious holiday. We cut school on Friday and Monday.

We knew that during our trip, we would see many Vesak lanterns, decorations and pandals (thoran) illustrating selected stories from the 550 past life stories of the Gautama Buddha, erected islandwide at public places. During the trip, we planned to get free meals from many dansalas that offered food and soft drinks free to any visitor. These added color to our adventure and less stress on our pockets.

 

1) Galle

On the first day, having started early in the morning, we took the whole day to cycle 120 kilometers from Colombo to Galle. Having had no practice runs, it was tough at the begining of the trip. After about 50 kilometers our legs gradually got used to the rhythm of pedaling. I frequently led the group while, Udda, the best cyclist and cycle repairman of the lot rode last. He kept an eye on mates who were a bit unfit. We were not in a great hurry. We spent a lot of time sight-seeing, toddy-drinking, sea-bathing, joking with village girls and resting under large trees in between. In Galle we spent the first night in the home of a CHS colleague from the junior batch who was not given much notice about our arrival.

While cycling, this student, Sumithra waved at us from a CTB bus going towards Galle. Knowing that his home was in Galle, we quickly shouted at him, “Machang, can we stay at your place tonight?” I think that he had doubts that we will ever make it to Galle on those old, rusted and badly maintained bicycles. He quicky shouted back at us from the moving bus, “OK, please come!” When 12 of us showed up at his doorstep that evening, he and his mother were most surprised. However, they were most hospitable and with the help of their servants they quicky prepared a good dinner for us. We roughed out and slept on mats in their large living room.

 

2) Weligama

The second day, we covered much less distance, only around 30 kilometers. The reason for this was that we had free accommodation pre-arranged in Weligama in a large house of a very generous CHS student one year senior to us, Chandralal. On the way, we had a sumptuous lunch in the home of the grandmother of an Iron Horse (Kotte). As this house was by the beach, a before lunch sea-bath whetted our appetite for a sumptuous home-cooked lunch with many Southern specialties.

 

3) Godakawela

On the third day, we covered the longest distance, over 160 kilometers passing the Nonagama Junction and going towards Udawalawe in the middle of a thick jungle. The villagers warned us about wild elephants in that remote road which we cycled hours after sunset. At that time Sri Lanka had no highways or street lights outside the main cities. Only Udda’s bicycle had lights and proper brakes. All others were fairly old. That added to the spirit of our adventure. Finally, we managed to arrive at our destination, a large ancestral home (walawwa) in Godakawela, owned by the famiy of Sunil, a memer of our group. This house was surrounded by a large estate and had a beautiful pond well covered with tall trees. Before dinner, 12 of us had a refreshing skinny dip in that pond in the moonlight. A few of us did not spend too much time in the water for fear of snakes. The rest were a little too drunk and stupid to think of such dangers.

 

4) Ratnapura

On the fourth day, we were drenched by heavy monsoon rains. This was an excuse for us to make several stops at dansalas for free vegetarian lunches. Riding in the rain was fun, but we were soaked without any dry clothes to change into. Finally, just after 40 kilometers of riding we arrived at our final night stop. It was the home of one of our CHS lecturers (Mr. Kumar Thambyah) and his younger brother (Lalith) who was one year senior to us at CHS. Their home was in the beautiful hilly suburbs of the City of Ratnapura. That evening, after dinner, we celebrated our adventure with a long baila singing session. With the help of some Gal and Pol arrack, our singing became louder and more out of tune towards midnight.

 

5) Colombo

The fifth and last day was a race to see who would return to Colombo first. It was a ride of around 110 kilometers From Ratnapura to our hostel. We were able to finish the race before sunset. At the CHS hostel we were given a rousing hero’s welcome by fellow hostellers. Returning first, I finally felt like Morris Coomarawel although we took five days to cover a distance of 460 kilometers, which Morris used to do in a single day. Nevertheless, we were pleased that we completed our adventure without any major problems.

 

 

Suspension

Soon we heard the bad news about a looming major problem. The Principal and the Vice Principal were very disappointed that nearly half the students in my batch, were absent from CHS for two days. The next morning, we realised how furious Herr Sterner, the Germa

n Principal of CHS, was about the ‘can’t care less’ attitude of the Iron Horses. We were not allowed to attend classes and a full inquiry set up. First it was a meeting with 12 of us together with the principal and vice principal. We were ready for that meeting and narrated the same lies. We told them that we planned to return on Sunday night, but unforeseen challenges like some urgent cycle repairs prevented us from doing that. As all the repair shops were closed during the long weekend we were compelled to extend the trip by a day. They did not buy this cock and bull story.

At that point they stopped questioning us as group and proceeded with a one student at a time face-to-face investigation. The cat was out of the bag very quickly. We told the principal and the vice principal 12 different stories during the individual cross examinations. All 12 us were suspended for a month. It was indeed, a costly adventure!

Hiding at the Barberyn Reef Hotel

Considering my father’s disappointment about the last warning I received at the end of my first year at CHS, I decided to keep this one-month suspension a secret from my family. As suspended students cannot stay at the CHS hostel, I had to quickly find a place to hide in for a month. Thanks to the tip money I earned at the Mount Lavinia Hyatt Hotel working as a trainee waiter, I had enough for board and lodging for a month. I was considering the possibility of renting a relatively cheap room at the Central YMCA where I practised judo but unfortunately, they were full.

A batchmate, Manik Rodrigo, offered to speak to his father who owned a small resort hotel in Beruwala. Over the telephone I negotiated a part-time job for a month at that hotel, the Barberyn Reef. Manik’s father, Sudana Rodrigo, told me, “Putha (son), as our occupancy is low in May/June period, I cannot pay you a salary, but I can provide you free board and lodging for a month. In return you will work 10 hours a day without pay.” As beggars can’t be choosers, I agreed but managed to negotiate to keep tips for myself.

That afternoon, soon after we were suspended, I took a CTB bus to Beruwala and commenced working at the hotel the same evening. I was grateful that Mr. Rodrigo helped me to keep news of my suspension away from my family. That was my fourth of 10 part-time jobs during my three years at the CHS. I realised then that every problem has a solution. I also learnt that every challenge can be turned to an opportunity by thinking out of the box.

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United Action Design or Alternative-Government Manifesto?

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by Kumar David

This column will argue today that the opposition to the current regime – political parties, trade unions, religious institutions and non-governmental organisations – should collaborate in a unified action plan to stall, pushback and defeat the authoritarian project, and it will dispute efforts to foster or formulate common-programmes for an alternative (future) government, yet. Let’s focus on the first and eschew the latter; that’s my refrain. Before getting my teeth into this I wish to suggest that the regime seems to have retreated a little. There has been some mobilisation; not formally but on the trade union side and on the streets. Protest movements are more numerous than the formal media cares to report. Be it farmers’ fertiliser anguish, protests against the Kotalawela Academy Bill, piloerection at elevation of prodigal Duminda into the stratosphere, nurses’ defiance, anger of the Catholic Church and petitions against the persecution of Muslims by the state, these manifestations of public ire have thrown the would-be Palace Junta on the back foot. Or so it seems to me. And the big ones are yet to come – widespread mass unrest about shortages and prices and the final showdown, a General Strike. The expression of outrage by all opposition entities (except pissu-Sira’s SLFP) against authoritarianism and abuse of power has been a big help to protesters. That’s the good news for now; I need to go on.

There are indeed powwows among the like minded – the Left, Sajith-Champika-Ranil-TNA like Liberals, NPP (including the JVP) arranged discussions, trade unions and reformist confessional bodies. These are either limited pandemic-restricted gatherings or by Zoom. There is however a disjuncture between the objectives of the different gatherings, or within them. If you strip to the core, the disjuncture is in three categories: Are we talking of (a) a programme/manifesto for the next or a future government, or (b) planning to pull together in common actions for defending democracy. And (c), in either case what are the terms on which we do (a) or (b), as the case may be. I will argue that (a) is counterproductive and will obstruct progress when the right opportunity arrives; (b) even on a limited scale has shown results and we must persist with it. So the more fruitful discussion is what are the does and don’ts, what are the (c)s, in respect of (b). Sectarian attacks against each other or within any of the aforementioned groupings at this time is stupid; let us focus on the common enemy.

Infeasible Alternative-Government Manifesto

Let me explain why doing (a) now will be a flop. Every one of us has been privy to one or other discussion or media report about some demand, suggestion, video or Zoom meeting. Consider what we have seen and also read between the lines. Some leaders, Champika and Sajith for example, are actually advancing the case why they should be the Next Great Leader. They are quite entitled to put forward their CVs, that’s their right; but let’s face it, nobody else is going to climb down and accept another’s CV right now. What is emerging in some forums about objective (a) is plain shadow boxing. Each one says this or that but the hidden agenda is “Anoint me! Anoint me!” This renders ostensible programmatic discussions numinous. People talk through each other but the real show is in the corridors where back-biting flourishes. A stark recent example is Champika’s demand in an interview with Kelum Bandara that “The JVP should give up its ideology and team up with us”. Meaning bugger your philosophy and identity, back me for the top-job. I take this opportunity to say: “Ranawaka why not you discard your hard-earned racist credentials and team up with the NPP to advocate devolution and power sharing with Muslims and Tamils?” Strategy (a) will make no progress at this time since Champika, Sajith, even emasculated Ranil and voiceless SF will not lie down and play dead. All of them daydream. This is opposite to the serendipitous conjuncture in the 1970 United Front where it was incontestable that in the event of victory Sirima would be PM. The same was true of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance in India’s 2019 election.

The more serious obstacle to (a) is not the greed of putative starry-eyed leaders/presidents. It is that the systemic obstacles to a joint Manifesto are insuperable. Yesterday I tuned into a Zoom presentation on Tik Tok on HiruNews. Sumanthiran held forth: “I have the backing of all Tamil parties to say that while we stand with the opposition against contraventions of democracy, the opposition when it comes to office cheats us. We have been cheated repeatedly. Unless you make a clear articulation of your position on the Tamil question and you tell it openly to the Sinhala people, we cannot travel far with you. Our people are willing to come on the streets for democratic rights and face the consequences, but unless you tell the country ‘This is our solution to the National Question’, count us out as long-term partners”. Will Champika, Sajith, Ranil or SF ever come before the Sinhala Buddhist masses and say “Devolution”? The sun will rise in the West before that day dawns. A common opposition governmental manifesto-programme is a chimera. Forget it for now. Maybe later, after restructuring the institutions of state power it can happen.

The National Question is not the only insuperable obstacle to a Common Manifesto. Another big one is the Executive Presidency (EP) and with it the writing of a new or substantially amended constitution. Neither Champika nor Sajith can subdue their greed for securing an all-powerful EP. Notwithstanding proclamations of fealty to Buddhism they are slaves to thanha (craving). That’s OK, as someone who disregards religion I don’t really care. My point lies elsewhere, it is that abolishing EP is another point on which agreement will not be possible until someone is chosen as leader; then all the rejected sour-grapes cases will come on board!

I have so far not mentioned the most intractable stumbling block, the socio-economic content of a presumed common programme. There are those who desire socialism but will compromise at social-democracy, there are the champions of free-market capitalism, entrepreneurial export-oriented enterprises and labour-market reforms (that is putting the working classes in their place) and there are dreamers hankering after an idyllic society akin to the long-gone village. How do you persuade Karl, Adam and Friedrich Hayek to sit round the same table and decide on a menu? Come on get real! Let’s pull together to do what can feasibly be done together, and that too is just what urgently needs to be done.

 

 

The intelligence to focus on what can be done

 

Citizens have the right to resist attempts to nullify the

Constitution when other remedies to do so are infeasible

(Article 20 of the German Constitution – A rough translation)

 

The common minimal plan that I believe the whole opposition (and a goodly part of government supporters and parliamentarians when the government splits) can agree on, consists of a few basics. Let me have a go at enumerating them. The dimension that will weld every decent activist into a united force is the need to constrain the Powers of the State. That is to resist excesses that reach beyond the rule of law. Closely allied to this is the protection of Fundamental Rights from infringement by the (Raja) Paksa regime and by the police and armed forces. Maintenance of Order and Security are vital, but this is a two-edged sword. It is in the name of order and security that the state and the establishment carry out the most egregious violations of human and democratic rights. Hence vigilance and intelligence must be exercised in monitoring the state.

Action must ensure that the next election cycle is held on schedule. I am not in a hurry to advance it for the somewhat perverse reason that that the Paksas are so adept at hanging themselves that I would like to give them rope and time to finish the job. The worry of course is that the integrity of future elections may be corrupted. A comment that I frequently encounter is that the regime will fix future elections and that fraud, bureaucratic, physical or digital will be rampant. The Elections Commission is already embroiled in controversial transfers. The danger is most real but it can be overcome; best done by sharpening public vigilance right from now and paying closer attention to domestic and international monitoring mechanisms. I guess this falls between Regulatory Enforcement and Civil Justice. The other major item for an action plan to concern itself with is the judiciary; preserving judicial independence in respect of Criminal Justice and Civil Justice.

I will not ask for more, I am a realist. So long as the Rajapaksa-clan regime stays in office I am not asking for the moon. Eliminating Corruption, winning transparency and Openness in Government and creating traditions of Informal Justice, that is a fair society, is too much to hope for in these times. No one can guarantee that the next government will be a bunch of angels, but right now the urgency is to stop repression. We cannot wait till a perfect option arrives to take steps to avert looming disaster. This is the minimal, if nothing else that January 2015 achieved. When a house is on fire, pull the entrapped children out first!

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