By Sumith Ariyasinghe –
Rumour has it that there is a saying among the foreign diplomats in Colombo that “Sri Lanka never looses an opportunity to loose an opportunity”. This is profoundly true of the end of the war five years ago. The military defeat of the LTTE was an opportunity like no other since independence to bring together island’s different ethnic and religious groups in one forward looking nation, all groups striving to build a happy and prosperous society for all. Two simple steps would have been sufficient to ensure reconciliation and thereby lay the foundation for a rational, modern nation. These were: (1) providing immediate relief to the affected people and, (2) a democratically based plan for power sharing so that the causes that led to the war are eliminated.
That these were not forthcoming was made clear almost the instant the war ended, when in his “victory speech”, the president declared that there were henceforth no minorities in Sri Lanka but only patriots and those who were not. Large numbers of war displaced Tamil citizens were in effect incarcerated in virtual concentration camps euphemistically called “welfare villages”, ostensibly for purposes of national security, when in fact the cause of national security would have been better served if those citizens were allowed to go back to their homes and livelihoods, and given social, economic, and emotional support. The Rajapaksa regime was unable to summon the vision and magnanimity needed to take these two steps. Instead, what followed was an orgy of triumphalism that persists in different guises until now, and will be on its gaudy display at the commemorative celebrations in Matara later this week.
The regime that failed to see the opportunity for national reconciliation at its moment of triumph saw in it a different kind of opportunity — to remain in power, aggrandize themselves, and build a dynasty. Nothing could be more effective than Sinhala Buddhist supremacism and triumphalist pride to serve as the ideology of this project. Since the end of the war this ideology has been disseminated with Goebbelsian efficiency through the largely state controlled media by (a) constant repetition of the themes of ancient Sinhala Buddhist glory, heroism, valour and genius and, (b) a portrayal of the island as being besieged by enemies ranging from the USA, imperialism, India, the international community, the UN, and local and foreign NGOs. From day one since the end of the war, this dynastic project dictates the regime’s policies and actions, constitutes its driving force, and lays bare the parallel project of edging out democracy.
The following well-known facts and events illustrate how this project is making progress. Constitutionally, the already inordinately powerful presidency was given more power by the abolition of the 17th amendment and the passage of an 18th, which also abolishes term limits on the presidency. For their audacity to challenge the president, the soldier who led the forces to victory, and the country’s Chief Justice, have been forced out on spurious charges. With a favourite appointed as the new Chief Justice and other measures, the independence of the judiciary has been compromised. Elections laws regarding declaration of assets, the use of state resources for political purposes, and the impartial conduct of the elections are openly flouted. Members of parliament are made into subservient yes men, and a large number of members of parliament of the ruling coalition have been given cabinet portfolios, making available to them a range of perks. Thugs and criminal gangs have become an integral part of the government, with the police and criminals becoming each other’s colleagues. The vibrant press that was once the pride of the island’s democracy has been muffled with far greater force than ever before and with literally deadly effect. Journalists have been abducted, tortured and killed, and a large number have fled the country, fearing for their lives. The national TV and the press have been transformed into instruments of state propaganda. Internet based journalism critical of the regime are blocked.
The economy is touted as booming, but sober economists disagree. Massive white elephant projects, like an unusable harbor, an idling airport, a large conference hall, and several sports stadia, all built on expensive Chinese loans, and nearly all named after the president, proclaim the government’s fondness for imposing structures, but do little else. Several major highways have been built, and while they are great for the rich and visiting expatriates, they are un-integrated with any overall economic plan. All or most state enterprises, headed by the president’s family or cronies, are run at a loss. A project of gigantic proportions but dubious credentials, to reclaim some 650 acres of land from the sea bordering the Colombo harbour is reportedly in the making, initiated by an “unsolicited tender”. The credibility of the Central Bank and the Department of Census and Statistics has been compromised by their concoction of figures to portray a rosy picture of the economy. As pointed out by Dr W.A.Wijewardena in these columns a few days ago, economic growth targets have become an “obsession”, forgetting in the process that “growth” is for the rich, and the poor are left behind. Corruption and nepotism are rampant. The Foreign Service has been made into a reward for family and cronies, and, to make up for the limitations of such professionally disadvantaged appointees, diplomacy is outsourced in some of the world’s major capitals, at exorbitant cost to the taxpayer, and with little to show.
On the ethnic front, the only positive step was holding the Northern Provincial Council elections. However, post-election, there is little to commend on how the NPC is being treated by the central government. The election of the NPC was indeed another opportunity that could have been used to bring about reconciliation. Instead the regime has chosen the usual path of delaying any dialogue. In the meanwhile, the army’s presence in the north is so conspicuous as to give the people the feeling that they are under occupation. Militancy of the extremist Buddhist groups like the Bodu Bala Sena has led to deterioration of relations with the second most important minority, the Muslims.
This general state of underdevelopment of the secular sphere is matched by a primitive religion the regime seems to subscribe to, that prominently features astrology and magic that mediaeval Buddhist literature scornfully labels “the beastly sciences”. Some observers surmise that these beliefs explain phenomena like the theft of the regalia of the last king from the National Museum that, after two years, still remains a mystery, and the periodic attempts to plunder archeological sites that do not seem to inspire any investigative priority in the authorities.
With arbitrary rule replacing the rule of law, the press muffled, the independence of the judiciary and the electoral process compromised, and emergency regulations remaining in the law books despite the absence of any credible reason, democracy in Sri Lanka is quite clearly endangered.
In view of the failure of the present regime to bring about national reconciliation, indeed instead, its worsening of inter-ethnic and inter-relgious relations, and its stifling of the country’s democratic institutions including the electoral process and individual freedoms, the question before patriotic citizens is what course they could take. A heavy responsibility falls on the shoulders of the elites to help forge a united opposition, which alone can liberate the people from the clutches of the present dictatorial regime. In particular it is the responsibility of the opposition parties, large and small, to forget their differences and unite in the common cause of re-establishing democratic government and institutions that will restore to the people their rights as citizens. Without in anyway underestimating the responsibility of the smaller parties, it should be said that the heaviest responsibility falls on the UNP, the JVP and the TNA to leave no stone unturned in the forging of a rainbow coalition, under their leadership, for the purpose of restoring democracy, which these parties must realize, would be in their own interest. There has been already substantial discussion on the idea of a “single issue candidate”. This certainly is an approach that merits further discussion, as would be any other meaningful way of unifying the opposition. This is obviously a project that needs the support of the country’s best professional and legal minds, for our goal should be the restoration of parliamentary democracy in the form that existed and thrived so well before it was desecrated, first by the 1972 constitution, and next and much more damagingly, by the 1978 constitution.