By Vishwamithra –
Decades of silent apathy has taken its tragic toll. What was once considered mainstream political activism such as non-violent protests and Satyagraha campaigns, marches towards destinations the majority of Sinhalese Buddhists venerate with supreme devotion, all party conferences which have ended up as meaningless platforms for worthless demagogues, instead of sharpening the sensitivity of the mind, have been rendered feeble and dead. Two revolutionary attempts at overthrowing two governments, one in 1971 and the other in 19877-1989 period, both by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) ended up in despondent disaster. Both revolutions devoured our young. Both were led by Rohana Wijeweera, a devout follower of Marxism-Leninism.
Seventy five years after she gained Independence, Ceylon stands on the edge of total collapse, both economically and in the sociocultural sphere. Leaders as well as followers do not seem to have any idea where they are headed next. Nevertheless, thanks mainly to the rapid development of the social media, the speed of information reaching the masses has accelerated exponentially and perfecting the process has become a well-defined priority, especially among the youth in the country.
In the meantime, the middleclass, the segment that is most acutely aware of the current crisis, if the visible signs are to be believed, is losing its cool. And they too are joining not only the queues for petrol, kerosene, diesel, milk powder and everything else, but willingly assembling with the protesters, a slice of the population which is usually crowded by the lower middleclass and the poor. Scarcity of essential household commodities has been a unique equalizer.
Corruption, which some say is the primary cause of the economic debacle also has played a pivotal role in raising the sharpness of the intellect of all the people and their decisiveness seems to gather momentum with each passing day spent at this queue or that line. An utterly treacherous saga is telling a story which needs no preamble, prologue or epilogue. Page one to the last line of the book is very readable because of its fast-paced flow, but painstakingly unreadable because of its content as it tends to send one to desperate action with absolute despair.
The government as well as the Opposition is engrossed in their own separate expeditions, flights that lead to the other side of nowhere. The Rajapaksas do not seem to care; their preoccupation with staying in power has overridden all commonsensical rectification processes that would have engaged any other government who would face such a catastrophic national drama.
Despite the fact that Sri Lankan voters have thrown out each and every government that did not perform to the satisfaction of the broad masses, only on two separate occasions caused fundamental changes to the country’s character. The first occasion was in 1956. S W R D Bandaranaike, the destroyer of national reconciliation, introduced a new notion of politics. Politics of the ‘Common Man’ and the introduction of the ‘Sinhala Only’ policies coupled with unwise and ill-timed nationalization of profit making ventures began their destructive passage and, SWRD virtually turned the country upside down and transformed the Sinhalese psyche into one that displayed its thereto-concealed propensity to kill and not being tolerant of otherness of a national identity.
When riots broke out between the majority Sinhalese and Tamils in the country, he handed the management of day-to-day affairs to then Governor General Sir Oliver Goonetilleke. SWRD, the man who thundered from the political platform about a dawn of a new era did not have the stomach to witness or manage the destruction that his words and action expressed and caused.
Yet what SWRD brought about as a meaningful transformation of society from one ruled by the English-speaking Pukka Sahibs to one dominated by postal peons and ‘kavi kola kaarayas’ (ballad sheet reciters) attained its desired end in that, one segment of our population that was cornered by the Colombo and big city-educated rulers found a place in the sun. Transformation of our language policy from English to Sinhala only made Tamils our mortal enemy and the first cycle of brain-drain occurred soon after its implementation. A great number of educated Tamils began their departure from our shores and continued their purposeful lives in Europe, America and other western countries. What they left behind was ember beneath the ashes which exploded in the early eighties as a well-armed militant uprising led by Velupillai Prabhakaran and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam.
Surely, there are other mitigating circumstances and groundbreaking policies at the center of political power in Colombo, yet what SWRD Bandaranaike began in 1956 was never subject to reversal. The change that ensued was conclusive and decisive. It changed how the Tamils think, even today. Sirimavo Bandaranaike only managed to worsen the sociopolitical dynamic by introducing the ‘standardization scheme’ in respect of University Entrance examinations. Affirmative action was introduced without paying any attention to intensifying of English language education in the rural areas, both in the South and in the North of the country. Our Universities started producing graduates who could not fit into the fast-developing modern society and its ever-growing marketplace. This in short was our first revolution, non-violent yet the products of which became immeasurably violent in the face of unarmed Tamil civilians as was shown in the 1983 riots and all other racial riots that took place from 1950s to the present day. Bandaranaikes’ revolution, as a matter of fact, was a great misfortune that befell our nation at a very crucial time.
The next transformation, if one could call it in such terms, took place in 1977. When JR Jayewardene was elected to office after the depressing rule of the Sirimavo-Felix combo; he reversed the economic character of the country. From a closed economy, he opened the floodgates and allowed the free and open-market principles to govern the behavior of the economy. Overnight commodities appeared at the marketplace and this transformation too remains one element of our collective Sri Lankan life that cannot be reversed. The open-market economy is here to stay with all its beneficial features as well as its inherent soul-destroying ills.
Even though JR’s economic transformation cannot be reversed, what he introduced as an Executive Presidency certainly can be changed and it must be changed, if Sri Lanka is to move forward as a cohesive unit of the global community.
It fact, that is the prime challenge before our people today. Thanks to the prohibitive powers invested in Executive Presidency, the Rajapaksas have exploited it to the full. They have shown the country and the world, what an Executive President elected by a majority in a country could do. As the late Colvin R de Silva said, other than making a man a women and woman a man, the present Constitution of Sri Lanka could do almost anything so long as the governing party has a two-thirds majority in Parliament.
Today the country is in dire straits. The average household is trying to grapple with dwindling incomes and rising expenditures. The chief breadwinner in the family wakes up early morning to stand in line for cooking gas. His place in line is beyond the first 500 and the truck arrives with only 300 cylinders. What could he do other than joining the queue the next day at a much earlier hour? He goes back to a home engulfed in darkness caused by a government-imposed power-cut. At this very moment he’s living on hope, hoping that no member of his family would fall sick, that the power cuts would not hamper his daughter’s studies. His wife is rushing through her usual chores because she too has to take an earlier bus to her work place.
The whole cycle of life has dramatically changed. It is not an isolated story of one family. It is the tragic drama being played out in every household in the country except, of course, in ones occupied by those avaricious politicians. How can the parents stop their son or daughter joining a movement that is preaching a revolutionary change? How can they tell themselves that what is of utmost necessity is a fundamental transformation, not just a change of parties from the Rajapaksas to the Premadasas, AKDs or Champikas? The only decisive factor is whether it’s going to be one of violence or one that is non-violent.
Is it possible to make such a fundamental change without resorting to violent overthrow of a sitting power? Emerging consensus is definitely for the ouster of the Rajapaksas from power immediately. But it is not possible to oust them from power immediately; Gotabaya was democratically elected to power and he has another two and half years to go. If he resigns today, the sitting Prime Minster will assume Presidency until Parliament elects the next President. Rajapaksas’ Party holds two-thirds majority in Parliament and it is very unlikely that a non-Rajapaksa would be elected to serve the balance term of President. All five Rajapaksas, Mahinda, Gotabaya, Basil, Chamal and Namal are known crooks; they also possess the unenviable character of being extremely incompetent.
There is no avenue open for those who demand quick results. If the Rajapaksas are to be banished from power there must be sufficient amount of mass-pressure, violent or non-violent, brought upon the body politic of the country so that the Rajapaksas would concede. Nevertheless, the manner in which the varied protests are taking shape in the country, a massive manifestation of anger, resistance and fury cannot be ruled out. The question is whether it would be violent or relatively without violence. And when that happens, are our Opposition politicians ready to embrace it or will they run away from it? To rid the country of the seventy five year-scourge, a fundamental change needs to be engineered and from the looks of it, it won’t materialize from any existing political party. If it does come about, it won’t be as a result of some political party organizing it; it’ll be as a spontaneous expression of a people so oppressed by the absence of essential household items in the market. It may be violent, or maybe not violent, let’s hope for the latter.
But, if the above scenario becomes real and the Rajapaksas are overthrown, what next? That indeed is the most fundamental question in the current context. If the Rajapaksas are replaced by another substitute, a mere regime change is a farce. Something much more substantive, both economically and constitutionally must be introduced days after the change. Quick, thorough and groundbreaking changes should follow with severe punishment to those who enriched themselves at the expense of the country and that process must be unsoiled, transparent and rapid. That is a topic for another column altogether.
History has witnessed many revolutions. Their causes, the very ouster of the existing regimes and what followed have been chronicled for students of history in detail in many a book and publication.
The American Revolution was an ideological and political revolution that occurred in British America between 1765 and 1791. it created the United States of America, the first modern constitutional liberal democracy.
The French Revolution was a period of radical political and societal change in France that began with the Estates General of 1789 and the values and institutions it created dominate French politics to this day. The underlying causes of the French Revolution are generally seen as arising from the failure of the Ancient Régime to manage social and economic inequality.
The Russian Revolution was a period of political and social revolution that took place in the former Russian Empire which began during the First World War. This period saw Russia abolish its monarchy and adopt a socialist form of government following two successive revolutions and a bloody civil war.
The Cuban Revolution was an armed revolt conducted by Fidel Castro and his fellow revolutionaries of the 26th of July Movement and its allies against the military dictatorship of Cuban President Fulgencio Batista.
The August Revolution also known as the August General Uprising was a revolution launched by Hồ Chí Minh’s Việt Minh against French and Japanese colonial rule in Vietnam, on 19 August 1945.
Does the situation prevailing in Sri Lanka warrant such armed uprisings? Do the conditions realistically demand a change that is fundamentally different from the current economic circumstances which are uniquely repressive to the majority of its citizenry?
It is only in that abstract and hazy context one has to analyze and conclude whether a revolution in terms of these historical precedents is imminent or even necessary. These questions will surely be answered during the coming days and months. However, one cannot argue against the prevalent corruption and incompetence of Ceylon’s leaders, both in the government and the Opposition.
Failure in the last seventy five years does indeed qualify as one single cause for such an unprecedented spectacle, such a sociopolitical change which one might term as a revolution. The near future will definitely offer some tangible answers.
What we are really looking forward to is not tomorrow, it’s the day after that really matters.
*The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org