Lessons for India from Sri Lanka: The Presidential form of Govt has severe limitations

Protests in Sri Lanka seek an end to ' executive presidency' and revisiting the disproportionate military budget and bloated public service, with 1.5 million people to serve a 21 million population

Lessons for India from Sri Lanka: The Presidential form of Govt has severe limitations

Dr Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu

Since March 2022, a citizens’ protest movement gained momentum in different parts of Sri Lanka for resolving the economic, social and political crisis in Sri Lanka exacerbated by the Rajapaksa regime. The symbolic zenith of this movement was the #GotaGoGama protest site at the Galle Face Green, Colombo.

The main protest site #GotaGoGama included a school, a library, a recycling programme, places of worship, sleeping and dining areas and a public dialogue space, all created with the intention of modelling an inclusive society.

While the peaceful protest drew international attention, on the 9th of May, 2022, Mahinda Rajapaksa's supporters staged a violent attack on people protesting at Galle Face.

Allegedly, provincial and local council members brought loyal supporters to Temple Trees, the Prime Minister’s official residence, intoxicated them and incited them to attack protestors. Subsequently, these henchmen raided the #GotaGoGama site at Galle Face as well as its sister site #Mynagogama at Temple Trees, destroying tents and brutally attacking unarmed protestors.

This angered members of the general public who stood in solidarity with the #GoHomeGota protest and people retaliated by fighting with the goons and then went on the rampage, torching houses and vehicles of MPs, ministers and known Rajapaksa supporters.

While the Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned and was flown, along with family members, to the Trincomalee naval base, 270 kilometres from Colombo, uncertainty gripped the island nation. Army vehicles patrolled the streets in Colombo and a former army commander claimed to have been appointed ‘Defence Secretary’ told the media that the army would protect everyone.

A majority of Sri Lankans are Sinhala Buddhists (70%) with Hindus comprising 13%, Muslims 10% and Christians 6% or so. But as in India, the minority Tamils, Muslims and Christians have often been at the receiving end of the majority.

The collapse of the economy, hastened by the pandemic and resultant loss of revenue from tourism, and the political crisis that has followed has created a window of opportunity. While Sri Lanka faces an existential crisis, there is a social churning as people discuss the ways out of the mess.

There are clear lessons for India, as the following excerpts from Groundviews.org, an award winning Sri Lankan portal promoting citizen journalism, would indicate.

Beginning with the Presidential system

The question left hanging and hanging now for some 44 years is the abolition of the key impediment to governance in Sri Lanka, the executive presidency.

Forcing Gotabaya to go is the immediate issue. Once he is gone parliament can act to install a head of state and an interim government which will bring in the necessary reforms before we proceed to elections, paper for ballots permitting!

That interim government can be appointed on the basis that as a collective entity it will not contest elections, negotiate and take responsibility for the IMF agreement, abolish the executive presidency, preside over a referendum on the abolition – the people must have a direct say in this and endorse abolition since they have by their demonstrations brought the issue to a head.

Beyond the goal of regime change, of getting rid of the Rajapaksas, systemic change must require serious consideration of pruning the public service bill, some 1.5 million on the pay roll for a 21 million population.

We must change the culture of entitlement, of being looked after by the state from cradle to grave, from free education to a government job for life. We must take into account that unlike our immediate neighbours, our population is 52% female and ageing with all the ramifications for the health and other sectors this entails.

We need serious reform of our tax structure, the agricultural sector and have to consider the consequences of a tea industry in terminal decline. Furthermore, we cannot sustain spending on the military as the largest component of our national budget. De-mobilisation is long overdue.

We have too, to fully implement the 13th amendment to the constitution, at the very least, as part of the solution to the national question and reform the education system of the country to produce citizens of a functioning democracy rather than segregate our future generations according to ethnicity and religion.

Corruption has to be dealt with at the governmental level as well as the societal level. As a simple example, do the leading government schools in Colombo and hence the country, adhere to the territorial limit for entrance? How many middle class parents in this country are forced into corruption by having to adopt addresses that meet this requirement simply to give their children the “best education’ the country offers?

Were this requirement followed would there not be a significant minority of Muslim children for example in our leading boy schools in Colombo, given that they are located in areas where there are a number of Muslims? And given the language policy, when do children of different ethnicities get to meet each other? Why should a particular religion be taught in schools, rather than comparative religion, if religion at all? The Rajapaksas are not responsible for the deeper systemic crisis of governance that we are facing. They are responsible for grossly exacerbating it with their greed for power, corruption, derisive dismissal of human rights concerns and demonstrable incapacity for governance.

As a consequence they have made themselves the issue and are thereby, perversely the catalyst for change.

(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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