Thursday 24 February 2005

Life After the Tsunami - Where Does Sri Lanka Go Next?

Accountability now seems the need of the hour. It is something we Sri Lankans have called for from our public officials for days now unknown; but for sure, the future of Sri Lanka post-tsunami, has taken a dramatic twist. Let us remember however, that all is not lost. While accepting that the human death toll was unprecedented in terms of psychological damage to those who survived, there still appears more than a glimmer of hope for Sri Lanka at the end of the tunnel - that however is in economic terms; many thanks to the international community who's fiscal aid flowed into the nation's coffers in an hour of national need.

As a battered nation picks up the pieces and meanders down narrow streams of hope, the question that has since emerged is: where do we go next?

It appears essential that Sri Lanka's public officials now start working in the interest of the longer term. A contentious issue of the recent past has been the coastal "buffer zone," where the government has proposed building a barrier of mangroves - in light of the findings post tsunami on how the latter acted as a speed-breaker to the force of the waves on December 26. Initial proposals from the State were that the buffer zone stretched three-hundred metres inland; this was negotiated down to one-hundred metres by the local business community, in anticipation of what it viewed as a crippling blow that such a proposal would deal to the tourism industry, in terms of beach resorts. As we inch closer to two months since the tsunami, the issue remains unresolved. The result - reconstruction along the battered coastline stalled in its tracks.

The Government called for impartiality in dealing with the national crisis. It called for unification deviod of political and other differences. Yet, as it advertised its campaign "Helping Hambantota" in its post-tsunami reconstruction drive, the colours of the newspaper advertisements were unmistakable - striking shades of deep blue and red. Impartiality? Your guess is as good as mine.

The inability of the coalition heavyweight to reign in its partner in light of the latter's heavy politicising of aid distribution in the south was also no feature in the cap for the Government; the unsparing display of party flags and banners on relief convoys and refugee camps was evident for all to see.

The Opposition for their part, have been no saints. A campaign to free a jailed party strongman got back on track, with a prominent member of its ranks - also a leading constitutional law expert in the country - taking centre-stage at the BMICH in Colombo last month, to deliver a lecture on the legality of the imprisonment of the said strongman.

I wonder all over again, if it is at the least surprising to note that no reference was made whatsoever to the actual words uttered by the strongman concerned. Contempt of the Supreme Court were the charges levelled.

It must also be said that the traditional lighting of the oil lamp at this 'legal seminar' was done by none less than four prominent party parliamentarians. Impartiality? Let us think again.

It remains clear that the time for change is long overdue; and I'm not refering to a change in government. Sri Lanka's self-interested political culture has got to change. It is also pertinent to call into question, the nation's outdated electoral system. Proportional Representation may well ensure equitable distribution of seats in Parliament. However, with the heavy fragmentation of votes in the recent past, brought on by the recent influx of political parties into mainstream politics since the Constitution of 1978, it is high time that the nation looks towards systemic change.

Let us however return to the need of the hour. The peace process, stalled though it was, silenced the guns. The cruelty of nature however showed no mercy, as Sri Lanka struggled to return to her feet.

The Government for its own part, seized the opportunity to rectify long-standing shortcomings in grossly underdeveloped (and resultantly poverty-stricken) regions on the island, allocating considerable funding for redevelopment, on a scale hitherto unknown. Here of course, the necessary credit is due. However, while the State gathers its resources and produces a blue-print for new and improved townships, public focus has since shifted towards accountability.

Whether or not the funding would reach those most in need (at least for the moment), remains largely unknown. Hence it is apparent that transparency is the need of the hour.

The carpet was pulled under the nation's feet. Will the urgently necessary levels of transparency and accountability prevail for Sri Lanka to meet the magnanimous challenge that fate has set forth? Only time will tell.