By Emil van der Poorten –
The decision of Maithripala Sirisena to throw his hat into the ring has resulted in what must be the biggest sigh of political relief experienced in Sri Lanka in a long time, not to mention the usual fire-cracker sounds of celebration!
While it is easy enough to see this as an unmitigated blessing to a land that is drowning in a cesspool of corruption, a word of caution is not simply needed, it is essential.
Particularly given the players in this melodrama, one needs to bring more than a bit of circumspection to bear here.
While there is likely to be a significant amount of speculation as to who exactly had the greatest responsibility for getting Sirisena to “turn,” there is little doubt, given her appearance on the platform from which the announcement was made, standing right by Mr. Sirisena, that Chandrika Kumaratunge played a significant role, probably calling in her markers from way, way back.
Given that lady’s track record one would be well advised to apply the old adage to an evaluation of Mr Sirisena: “Tell me who your friends are and I’ll tell you who you are.” And, let’s face it, that wouldn’t put the erstwhile Minister of Health at the upper level of any band of political angels!
Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunge doesn’t exactly have a sterling record in the matter of not being vindictive and vindictiveness is no recipe for a return to good governance if Mr. Sirisena is successful in his quest for the Holy Grail. Neither is she, by any stretch, an example of someone who displayed principle and competence at the time she claimed to steer this country. However, let’s assume that she has seen the light during her particular journey to a Sri Lankan Damascus. After all, Saul did end up as Saint Paul, even if that particular religious fact is being quoted in this particular instance by an unbeliever!
That said, I will reiterate what I proposed in a piece in Colombo Telegraph a while ago: all the required preparations must be made to prosecute, to the full extent of the law, those who have economically raped and pillaged this country under the protection of the Rajapaksa Regime. I am not suggesting that any of those who did the same under Chandrika Kumaratunga or her predecessors be let off that particular hook, but a start must be made and it is most practical to go after those who’ve had the least amount of time to cover their tracks. That is a sine qua non in the cleansing and healing process which this country must begin if it is to return to anything resembling law, order and good governance. I will, again, issue the challenge I did a while back to the members of such as Friday Forum: you certainly have among your number those with the skills to play a leading role in this endeavour and I challenge you, again to emerge from your collective protective cocoon, stop simply issuing statements and do something positive and productive in the national interest. Even if the current corrupt bunch continue in power after the next Presidential election, the act I am suggesting will not be in vain because it will have established a beachhead of principle that can never be considered wasted.
I don’t know about the logistics of change that are needed and which, broadly speaking, all those involved in the anti-Rajapaksa movement subscribe to. However, what they have had to say certainly puts them on the side of the angels in this contest, even if anything even vaguely resembling moral or ethical conduct would do so in the current Sri Lankan context!
What I have seen, though, at first hand is the danger of serious dilution of any effort to return to democratic practice in this nation by the participation of those who’ve given ample evidence of their being prepared to influence decision-makers to equivocate in matters of basic principle and justice.
As someone who witnessed this in miniature and was among those who fought a losing battle to turn that particular tide at a rugby club, I witnessed, at first hand, a wholesale sellout of principle in the rugby arena. I saw how, because of the need to curry favour with “the powers that be” whose progeny were the “stars” of a club purporting to represent the “Senior Service,” even the use of an assault weapon on the field of play was, basically, let slide. Why? Because of a fear of “upsetting” the most important rugby fan in this country! That there were business considerations attached to this manipulation of response was patently obvious to any witness of what unfolded. I refer to this because it resulted in the selling out of fans, dozens of whom had been hospitalized because of the mayhem unleashed on them after matches involving those particular protagonists, and witnesses who had placed their employment on the line by submitting signed statements to corroborate video, some of which I still have in my possession.
Suffice it to say that these “Dinuwath dinuwa, paradunath dinuwa” businessmen are the very same business types who play a significant role on the national political stage by virtue of their connections to both sides of the political equation. They must not be permitted to subvert the need for justice and fairness and the bringing to book of those who have displayed an unparalleled capacity to rob this country blind. All they have been interested in is their own narrow business interests and they must not be permitted to influence and impede the course of justice because they are driven by the need to maintain the “insurance” they have so successfully maintained through thick and thin, while a whole country went to the dogs. That should not be negotiable in any shape, form or fashion. These sycophants have been a huge part of the problem that has paraded as governance in this country and they must not be permitted to impede the course of justice again parading as part of the solution.
As far as public opinion is concerned, the tide has turned and there is a veritable tsunami of dissatisfaction ready to express itself against the Rajapaksa Regime. How does one harness this most effectively?
In the matter of campaigning, let me make a few suggestions from experience garnered from more than half a century of political activity, much of it in the trenches of electoral combat both here in Sri Lanka (in a more civilized and civil time) and elsewhere, where the kind of violence which is a day-to-day part of political activity of any kind in Sri Lanka was conspicuous by its absence! Even given that caveat, the three simple suggestions I am about to make are more than relevant to a national constituency that is more politically sophisticated than those of many functioning democracies.
- Before election day (E-Day), canvassers need to to knock on every door in this country to persuade every voter to cast his or her ballot on election day. Where possible this foot-canvassing must be augmented by phone canvassing with a well-prepared script, by phone-canvassers who have been trained (particularly not to lose their tempers!)
- And, on E-day, every effort must be made to get every voter to the polls. Trying to exclude those suspected of supporting the current regime from such an effort would be a mug’s game because, with the climate of fear prevailing in this country and what is going to be the unleashing of violence without precedent by the incumbent government, very few are going to risk showing colours that would be deemed to be opposed to the incumbent.
- Then comes, perhaps the most important element of E-Day: ensuring that the ballot boxes are not tampered with and that the votes are reported as cast. Even if, by some miracle that results in Mahinda Rajapaksa being elected to a third (illegal) term, it will have established a cornerstone of democratic practice that has all but disappeared from this country, thereby making a significant contribution to the rebuilding of that political culture at some point in the future.
Yes, dear reader, we do live in interesting times, and what we make of them is entirely up to each and every one of us. Let not future generations say that we were found wanting at a time when the very destiny of this nation will be determined.
 The English translation of this pithy Sinhala saying would read something like “If we win, we’ve won and if we lose, we’ll still have won.”