|Thursday, 1 January 2004|
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Rejuvenating Sri Lanka
While it has almost become habitual for human beings to approach the dawning of a New Year with fresh hopes for a better future, continuously unfulfilled public expectations and aspirations compel quite a few Lankans to dismiss such yearnings with a considerable measure of sceptical doubt and cynicism.
This reaction, apparently, is rooted in a feeling of hopelessness spurred by the belief that positive change in this country in areas which impinge on the life of the citizenry very closely, is very slow in coming, if it comes at all.
Today as a New Year begins, there are special reasons for the intensification of such gloom. At the time of writing, the political crisis which gripped the country a couple of months back is remaining unresolved. Hopes of forging ahead with the peace process have dimmed considerably in the breasts of many in proportion to the prolongation of this crisis. The sense of confusion is so great among some that Sri Lanka is seen as having "two governments", each going its own way.
Those at the helm of governance in this country need to look sharp and be alert. The perception that there is no effective governance in Sri Lanka is a prime incentive to further lawlessness, violence and disorder. It also leads to a pervading sense of insecurity among the citizenry which acts as a fertile ground for collective paranoia, of which steeply-rising suicide rates are one sound proof.
As if these collective woes were insufficient, we now see the initial strrings of religious friction and hatred. This is a new front which could hasten Lanka's suicidal dive towards national disintegration.
So, there is ample reason for some to be cynical about "new beginnings" today. But we, a primary moulding influence on public opinion, have always counted ourselves as being among those who see fresh possibilities in problems - however grave they may be.
Rather than slink away from the present set of problems - most of them seemingly daunting - a fresh effort should, indeed, be made to treat these problems as challenges which test our mettle as a people. We need to go about resolving them, with the legitimate interests of the people in mind. If all sections of the Lankan polity unite in resolving them, we could indeed lay claim to greatness, if not, we will deserve to be denigrated as the facilitators of civilizational decline.
It is obvious that there is no future for us independent of efforts by everyone, irrespective of political party loyalties, ethnic origins and creeds, to band together to make Sri Lanka a livable country. Attempts at pursuing selfish, short-term aims could only sink the country in a mire of national disintegration.
It is our duty to point to the framework of action and values which could bring national rejuvenation and that we prefigure broadly as follows: No plan of national revival would prove effective if it overlooks the need to grant the dignity and worth of every person and community in this country.
The grave mistakes made in relation to the ethnic issue should not be repeated. For, the violation of the dignity of the Tamil community, led to a bloody war, which is yet to be ended on honourable terms.
If Lanka is to rise as one man, the freedom, dignity and autonomy of every person and community - religious or otherwise - must be upheld and protected by the State. It must ensure that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is no dead letter in this country.
Another step forward for SAARC
The New Year begins on an auspicious note for the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), which is holding its much-delayed summit in the Pakistani capital from January 4. Leaders from Pakistan, Sri Lanka, India, Bhutan, Nepal, Maldives and Bangladesh meeting in Islamabad will deliberate on the future course of South Asia over a three-day period.
The strained relationship between India and Pakistan was the biggest stumbling block to SAARC, which some observers had virtually written off for precisely the same reason.
But a visible improvement in Indo-Pakistan ties has proved the sceptics wrong. The two countries have resumed contacts at every level. Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and Pakistani President Pervez Musharaff may meet on the sidelines of the summit, leading to a further improvement in links.
The fact that the leaders of the seven South Asian States are gathering in Pakistan, which has seen a number of terrorist attacks recently, proves that SAARC cannot be deterred by terrorism. SAARC countries have experienced the devastating effects of terrorism. It will be in their collective interest to rise against the challenges posed by terrorist groups based in South Asia as well as international terror groups operating in the region. All SAARC countries, with the possible exception of the Maldives, need to resolve armed conflicts and establish lasting peace. SAARC can be a forum for cooperation in this regard.
SAARC leaders should also focus on two major issues that directly impact on development: Poverty and trade. South Asia is one of the poorest regions of the world, with a marginal slice of world trade. SAARC must evolve an effective poverty alleviation strategy. Instead of depending on foreign aid, it should strive to finalise the South Asia Free Trade Agreement, which will increase trade within the region, energising its economies and empowering the masses.
Ultimately, SAARC will have failed in its mission if it does not encourage people-to-contact. In the long term, SAARC should aim to make South Asia a single economic region with a common currency, much like the European Union.
There should be complete freedom for its citizens to travel freely among the seven countries. The Islamabad Summit will be an ideal opportunity to lay a solid foundation for such a people-centred SAARC.
Produced by Lake House