A questionnaire for presidential candidates

Friday, 18 October 2019 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


There are many questions that presidential candidates need to answer on the way forward for Sri Lanka. Violent struggles wouldn’t have arisen if it had been possible to build the modern nation of Sri Lanka within a cohesive framework in which discriminatory practices based on caste, creed and religion were removed or minimised and all people had been granted equal rights and treated with equal respect 
     – Pic by Shehan Gunasekara

1. National security

The issue of national security has become an important topic of public interest in this Presidential Election. It can be considered as a special situation that has arisen in the wake of the recent Easter Sunday suicide attacks on several Catholic Churches and hotels. 

There is no doubt that the country needs an effective security system which is on constant alert on the national security. But the biggest threat to Sri Lanka’s security can be described as the violent uprisings triggered by the JVP movement led by Wijeweera in the south, the LTTE movement led by Prabhakaran in the north and the movement of Zahran after the end of the internal civil war. Of these the first was a Sinhala movement, the second a Tamil movement, and the third a Muslim movement.

But none of these violent struggles were spontaneous movements or something that fell from the sky all of a sudden. They cannot be considered foreign invasions either. It was not the issue of security but socio-political issues that caused these extremist movements. These violent struggles wouldn’t have arisen if it had been possible to build the modern nation of Sri Lanka within a cohesive framework in which discriminatory practices based on caste, creed and religion were removed or minimised and all people had been granted equal rights and treated with equal respect.

The official conclusion of the Presidential Commission appointed by President Ranasinghe Premadasa at the end of the second JVP insurrection was that the factors of race, caste and religion had influenced the riots of Sinhalese youth in the south and that of the Tamils in the north. Perhaps there might have been some influence of international Islamist extremists movements in the one-day suicide attack launched by Zahran, but it can also be presumed that the attacks on Muslims following the end of the internal civil war may have had some influence as well. 

Modernisation of security forces and intelligence services and keeping them on constant alert is essential. But wasn’t it a key condition for national security to have a conducive atmosphere created over the past 71 years, leaving no space for violent struggles to emerge over the issues of race, caste and religion? How could the modernisation of security forces and intelligence services alone become a solution to the security problem without addressing this requirement?

(i) What is the position held by the presidential candidates about this issue? 

(ii) What is their opinion on the caste system and the caste discrimination that has affected the Sinhala and Tamil society in Sri Lanka? 

(iii) Do they admit the fact that the prevailing relics of the caste system have become a cause of disgrace and humiliation to the people of oppressed castes? 

(iv) What are the reforms envisaged to be introduced to change this situation and restore their human dignity? 

(v) What do they propose to do to avoid conflicts between ethnic groups and religions and create social harmony among them? 

(vi) Do they consider it is necessary to look into the causes that led to the Sinhala and Tamil riots and consequential humanitarian issues that have emerged in the process of suppressing them?

2. Parliament

According to the 19th Amendment, from the moment the next president is elected, the executive power to govern the country will be transferred to a Parliamentary government headed by the Prime Minister. But the present Parliament being an extremely inefficient and corrupt institution is not capable of fulfilling this responsibility. 

One of the main reasons of this situation is the engagement of parliamentarians in businesses with the Government. It is a grave offence punishable by depriving MPs engaged in businesses with the Government of their parliamentary seats. Yet, this practice had been going on for over 40 years. Not only that, the Parliament has not made any attempt to stop it during this long period but the Parliament is also not willing to change this corrupt practice.

(i) Some of the candidates contesting the Presidential Election are from political parties which have Parliamentary representation; what is the position held, particularly by those candidates who represent a political party which has Parliamentary representation, with regard to the issue of Parliamentarians doing businesses with the Government? 

(ii) If it is considered to be a serious issue that had led to corrupt the Parliament, are they prepared to submit a proposal for a Parliamentary inquiry before the Presidential Election? 

(iii) What do the candidates of the political parties which are not represented in Parliament have to say about this issue?

3. Assets and Liabilities Act

The Assets and Liabilities Act No. 1 of 1975, as amended by Act No. 77 of 1988, is one of the most potent laws that can be used, with the support of the public, to trap parliamentarians and public officers of executive grade who had earned assets via unlawful and undue means. Apparently this law has been designed leaving a few loopholes so that a person who gets caught can easily escape from it. Just by closing these loopholes, it can be made a powerful law to trap those who have earned unlawful assets and bring them under the net of law.

According to the present law, the maximum punishment that can be imposed on a person who has refrained from declaring assets and liabilities is only a fine of Rs. 1,000. Even the form designed for the declaration of assets and liabilities is not appropriate for today. It would be possible to increase the fine to Rs. 500,000 and in addition to impose a punishment of one year imprisonment and make it mandatory in respect of those who had refrained from declaring assets and liabilities deliberately. 

It would be possible for the declaration form to be formalised by introducing an electronic form; also all assets and liabilities declarations can be published through the Bribery or Corruption Investigation Commission or through a website maintained by the Auditor General. This amendment alone will enable to trap those who had earned assets illegally and bring them before the law.

(i) What do presidential candidates say about this? (ii) Would it be possible for the candidates of the political parties that represent Parliament to submit proposals to revise the laws on declaration of assets and liabilities before the Presidential Election?

4. On education

Education is the backbone of a nation. The present education system of the country is out-of-date and is in a confused state. The education system has failed to transmit knowledge, values and discipline required to create a pluralistic, disciplined and integrated society. It has not been able to abate the recognition given to ethnic, caste and religious differences in society and make an adequate contribution to the economic development of the country. 

What Sri Lanka has is a system of rote education, a system based on memory, being practiced from Grade 1 to University education. Neither the education authorities nor the teachers have been able to understand that this is a destructive way of transmitting knowledge that blunts the creative abilities of children. The method of learning everything by memorisation has caused to make the entire student population, victims of undue mental stress. This can be considered as one of the major factors that had led school children to get lured into drug habits.

Sri Lanka is considered as a country that does not know how to teach Mathematics properly. The failure rate of Mathematics at the GCE Ordinary Level examination stood at as high as 65%. The policy adopted to change this situation by the education authorities had been to reduce the passing score down to 29 points instead of using new teaching methods and techniques that will help enhance the desire of the students to learn the subject with renewed enthusiasm. As a result, the pass percentage of Mathematics in the GCE Ordinary Level examination has increased to 65%. The damage done to students in this process is enormous.

According to the World Bank, teachers can be considered the category of staff that is lowest paid in government jobs. Although the Government education system in Sri Lanka is considered free, tuition education operates alongside, as an essential condition for getting through the competitive exams. It operates as a crucial factor that limits the chances of the poor to rise up in the social ladder through education. 

The school system has been established in a manner providing super grade schools for the children of well-to-do people while children of poor parents get under-resourced schools without much facilities or reputation. It can be said to have limited the ability of the poor to rise up in education. In almost every country where there is an advanced education system, the students of primary education have to select a school from few schools available closer to their homes.

The condition of every elementary school is more or less the same. So there is no big competition to face to get a school. On the contrary, the school system in Sri Lanka has been designed in such a manner that the applicants cannot get the first school without facing a big competition and spending a huge sum of money. Despite the fact that the Commission on Youth Unrest and the National Education Commission had strongly recommended the need to change this corrupt system, it seems that the authorities do not allow it to be changed.

(i) How do the candidates contesting the Presidential Election perceive the education system in Sri Lanka? In their opinion, what are the reforms needed to improve the education system?

5. Milk and meat problem

The cost incurred by Sri Lanka for importing milk powder is as much as $ 500 million a year. Despite the fact that Sri Lanka has the potential to produce its milk requirement in the country itself, the biggest obstacle it has faced in this regard can be considered the popular belief of the country that rearing cattle for meat is a sin. 

The cattle farming only for milk are not economically viable. It can be economically viable only if the cattle are used for meat in addition to producing milk. The businessmen are not interested in investing in cattle farming in Sri Lanka because the country does not have a consistent and realistic policy in regard to the production of beef.

India is a Hindu country and Hindus do not eat beef. But, India has the largest beef export industry in the world. India exported 2,087,000 metric tons of beef in 2014. That constitutes 20% of the world’s beef export. The revenue earned by India that year through export of beef stood at $ 4718.18 million. 

If Sri Lanka too, has a realistic and consistent policy on the production of beef, it would be possible to achieve the object of self-sufficiency in milk by improving cattle farming. Even if beef is not consumed in Sri Lanka, it can be turned into a lucrative source of income by exporting the product. 

(i) What is the opinion of the presidential candidates on this issue? 

(ii) Do they accept the need for having a consistent national policy that supports beef production?

6. The garbage issue 

Accumulation of garbage in selected places has become the policy adopted by Sri Lanka for garbage disposal. Every major city in Sri Lanka now has huge garbage dumps; occasionally we hear about the loss of lives and damage to property caused by the collapse of garbage dumps and explosions occurred in garbage fields. Dumping of garbage at selected locations is pursued regardless of the risks to the people living in the vicinity. 

(i) What is the opinion of the presidential candidates on the garbage issue of Sri Lanka? 

(ii) Do they accept the current policy adopted by Sri Lanka? Do they have an alternate solution for the problem?

7. Wild animals that harm agriculture

Due to unrestrained growth of wild animals that harm the agriculture, such as monkeys, rilavus, wild boar, peacocks, porcupines, and squirrels, there has been an extraordinary increase in their number and the density. Similarly, there has been an extraordinarily rapid increase in the damage caused to the agriculture by them. According to Government estimates, the damage is as high as 30% of total production.

No country will allow the growth of animals that cause damage to agriculture, without restrictions. The generally-accepted policy has been to allow the public to hunt the animals when there is a rapid and excess growth of some species. Or else to get the Local Government bodies to pursue a policy of destroying them. The kangaroo is the national animal of Australia. The Australian Government has taken a policy decision to reduce the kangaroo population by one million and had already destroyed 10,000 kangaroos in the first phase.

The best method to solve the problem of wild animals that cause damage to agriculture would be to grant farmers the right to hunt them and allow them to keep, transport and sell the meat.

(i) What are the views of the presidential candidates on this issue? 

(ii) What is their opinion on the need to give farmers the right to hunt wild animals?

8. On criminal cases 

Some of the crimes of the past have been the subject of much debate. The murder of Lasantha Wickrematunge, abduction and disappearance of Prageeth Ekneligoda, killing of Wasim Thajudeen, abduction of 11 youths for extortion and their disappearance later, violent attacks on journalists like Poddala Jayantha, Keith Noyahr and Upali Tennakoon are prominent among them. What is the policy that should be pursued in regard to these incidents for which investigations have been initiated and cases have already been filed against suspects in respect of some of the incidents? 

(i) What is the opinion of the presidential candidates in this regard? 

(ii) Whether these cases and investigations should be pursued and carried forward or should they be stopped?

9. The Constitution

The Constitution is now like a rag which cannot be put to use any no longer; it has lost its sanctity, consistency and proper order, the main elements that a constitution ought to have. As such, the country is in a state in which the need for making a new constitution is urgent and unavoidable. The methodology used by Sri Lanka in making constitutions so far has been through a Constituent Assembly consisting of Members of Parliament. But this system of making constitutions is now considered outdated. Moreover, the extent of corruption in the Parliament of Sri Lanka is such that it has lost its ability and integrity required for making a good constitution for the country.

Constitution making has changed significantly over recent decades. Constitution making in the 21st century is based on a participatory system that gives Members of Parliament less power while more powers are given to the people and their representatives. Its scope is not limited only to make a constitution. It is an acceptable system that can be applied to look into the shortcomings of the entire system and change the whole system.

(i) How do presidential candidates think about it now? 

(ii) Should a new constitution be drafted following the old methodology which was limited to the Members of Parliament? Or by using the new system that gives people more power in the Constitutional Council?

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