By Gamini Jayaweera –
Dream of a new era was realized in Sri Lanka on the 8 January 2015. We have placed our trust and pinned our hopes that the newly elected President and the Prime Minister would work tirelessly towards re-building a Democratic, Peaceful, Law abiding and Sovereign nation in the coming years in accordance with the rules of good governance. In this article I will briefly discuss some issues about the new-found freedom which is one of the main benefits we have reestablished under the new regime.
The State We Were In
It is important that we cast our minds back to the state we were in prior to 8 January 2015 to highlight the ways in which the previous regime abused the power and violated the mandate given by the people of Sri Lanka for winning the war. The independent media personnel such as Lasantha Wickrematunge, Ekneligoda, and many others were either murdered or disappeared, White vans were in operation inflicting fear in people who voiced their opposition to the previous regime, Bribery and corruption were at an unprecedented level, Family rule was visible almost at every level destroying the independence of public institutions to non-existence, Allegations about assault on some Trade Union leaders, Killing and wounding protestors in public demonstrations, Freedom of speech was suppressed, Democracy was in peril, and the signs of a dictatorship were visible. The so called economic “Boom” was built on huge amount of borrowed money with a very weak industrial base. The rulers of the previous regime and their relatives & friends were having a “jolly good time” with the borrowed money. They have created huge debts which cannot be paid back in the foreseeable future. The country was virtually bankrupt. That was the state we were in.
Although after twenty months in power the new government has not performed to the expectations of the nation, we have to admit that the new regime has allowed us to enjoy the freedom of speech without intimidation, exercise the workers’ right to take industrial actions for their rightful demands, stage peaceful and legitimate protests without fear, and publicly expose the fraudsters irrespective of their status or the political affiliation.
It appears that some of the Free Press, Trade Unions, Independent Citizen Groups, and “Rabble Rousers” from the North and the South are exhibiting their destructive behaviors to destabilize the democratically elected government for personal and political gains. Similarly, we have to admit that some of the activities that have been carried out by the “Yahapalanaya” government during this period are also not in line with the promises given by the President and the Prime Minister during their election campaigns. It is time for us to ask these various forces whether they are exercising their new-found freedom in a rational and responsible manner to rebuild our nation?
It is universally accepted that the press which is free from outside influence and control, is the centerpiece in any democracy. The daily newspaper in Sri Lanka is still a powerful tool of disseminating important information to the nation. But it appears that some of the Sri Lankan national newspapers are mis-using their new-found freedom to distort the facts and publish reports to mis-lead the nation. Recently the President, the Prime Minister, some politicians and public figures have complained about the false reporting by these newspapers. The irresponsible way in which they report on sensitive national issues to create nationalism or division in the society is deplorable. The nation wants to know about the dishonest and unlawful activities of the government and the opposition. The nation welcomes positive criticisms rather than advocating negativity at all times. It appears that these irresponsible newspapers are tarnishing the image of the noble profession of journalism which is practiced by many other professional journalists in the country to a higher standard
As a schoolboy in 1964, I listened to a speech given by the late Ven. Dr. Kotagama Vachissara thero. in a meeting held at the Ananda College auditorium in support of the proposed Press Council Bill to regulate the press to maintain the impartiality of reporting. The late Ven. Thero said “ජාතියක මුර බල්ලා පුවත් පතයි. එම මුර බල්ලා පිස්සු බල්ලෙකු වී හපා කනවානම් ඵම බල්ලා බැඳ තැබීම වරදක්ද?” (“The newspaper is the Guide Dog of the Nation. If that dog becomes a Mad Dog and starts to bite everyone, is it wrong to tie it down?”).
Though the late learned Thero’s analogy is correct, I do not support the present government to bring legislation to curb the freedom of the press. But the behavior of these newspapers may force the government to regulate the press to ensure that they all maintain the integrity and the responsibility that goes with the new-found freedom. If so, I hope that this action is neither to shackle the press freedom nor to control the press by the ruling party by any means.
Wild Cat Strikes
It is clearly visible that following the establishment of the new government, some trade unionists are staging walk outs and organizing wild cat strikes for any small dispute without getting the support of their majority membership. In civilized societies, responsible trade unions discuss their grievances with the responsible ministers to find out solutions to their problems. Failure to resolve the issues in question, the trade unions ballot their members to get their consent to take industrial action or not. Once the vote is in favor of a strike to win their rightful demands they give sufficient notice to the government about their forthcoming industrial action. That is how the responsible trade unions should operate to fight for their reasonable demands.
Normally, the wildcat strikes are spontaneous i.e. not planned, for critical issues such as breech of safety resulting in injury or death to fellow workers, assault by the management, and sacking of employees without disciplinary enquiries, etc. But we have witnessed that some of these wildcat strikes which have been taking place since 8 January 2015, had the support of the leadership of some trade unions without investigating the root causes of these disputes. We have hardly witnessed either these kinds of wildcat strikes, or the legitimate strikes during the previous regime because of the fear of intimidation and torture against the union leadership and the workforce.
These kinds of wildcat strikes are technically illegal and counterproductive. They create a massive inconvenience to business and the general public. Are they exercising their new-found freedom in a constructive and responsible manner? As late Pundit Nehru once pointed out “I am the last man to say that labour should be denied the right to strike…..Nevertheless, there are times when strikes are dangerous, when strikes not only injure the cause of the nation, but also ultimately the cause of the worker himself.”
Independent public demonstrations against government actions or inactions on moral and ethical issues that have an adverse impact on citizen groups are crucial for freedom of speech. In a democracy, the protests should be carried out in an organized peaceful manner without causing obstructions to public safety and transport systems. But unfortunately, it has become the norm of some political elements to agitate the people to carry out unauthorized demonstrations for every little incident by blocking public roads without giving any consideration for the rest of the society’s daily activities, and health & safety issues of the demonstrators as well as the general public.
It is the elected government’s responsibility to provide protection for the demonstrators as well as the general public against the political elements who try to turn these demonstrations into public disorders resulting in a real threat to the society. In these circumstances the police have no options but to use force to disperse the demonstrators to maintain the public order. The government should strike the balance between the unauthorized demonstrations and the public order to allow everyone to enjoy nation’s new-found freedom in a responsible and disciplined manner. As late Pundit Nehru once said “Democracy without self-control and restraint turns into anarchy. Discipline is the very essence of democracy.”
In my opinion, the current government has done a tremendous amount of work during the last twenty months towards reconciliation between the Tamils and the Sinhalese after the 30-year-old bloody war. The issues are complex and it takes time to find lasting solutions to the problems. There is lot more to be done and the current regime’s efforts in the direction of reconciliation must be applauded by all parties. It is the responsibility of the political leaders of the North and the South to work very close consultation with the national government to negotiate a lasting solution acceptable to all parties.
It is sad to learn that on a number of occasions, some influential “Rabble-Rousers” from the North and the South have made unhelpful remarks, organized “hartals” and demonstrations to divide the nation on racial and religious backgrounds. No political leader has the right to demand that certain parts of the country should be allocated exclusively for certain racial or religious groups. Each and every Srilankan should be able to live and work in any part of the country irrespective of their racial and religious backgrounds. There should not be any “no-go” areas in the country for Srilankans. Making statements to stir up racial and religious hatred must be condemned by all civilized people. There should not be any place for such activities in our society.
These “Rabble-Rousers” may be expecting clear cut solutions to these complicated problems exactly the same way they used to deal with legal cases in their previous capacities as “clever” judges and lawyers. But being clever, one cannot solve all the problems. It appears that some of these “clever” judges and lawyers in the North and the South, lack political maturity and wisdom to deal with such complex issues.
There are no black and white answers to these issues. “Hartals”, demonstrations, and attempts to alienating the communities on racial and religious grounds are not the solutions. Patience and compromises are the order of the day. The representatives of the negotiating parties should recognize that their irresponsible behaviors may allow the extreme elements in the North and the South who are waiting in the wings for any opportunity to destroy the nation’s new-found freedom. The irresponsible “Rabble-Rousers” in the North and the South must grow up. It is time to move on.
Role of the “Yahapalanaya”
I do not expect the President and the Prime Minister to perform miracles to eradicate all the social, economic, and political problems that have been created by the previous regime in a very short period of time. But It appears that the freedom which the President and the Prime Minister have reestablished during the last twenty months is in real danger if both of them continue to run the country without giving their urgent attention and consideration to the real issues which matter to the general public. The new regime should recognize that the “lip service” is not acceptable.
I appeal to the President, the Prime Minister, and the Ministers to think wisely and take appropriate action to maintain the discipline, openness, honesty, and integrity of the “Yahapalanaya” government. They must take the lead to curb the unnecessary spending by implementing strict processes and procedures for the government to live within its means. They must also recognize that just because one can speak in English, comes from a privileged family background, and educated in an elite school in Colombo or Kandy are not the required relevant qualifications to run our state institutions efficiently and economically unless they are suitably qualified and experienced enough to do so. The government has a huge responsibility to play their part in preserving our new-found freedom in the long run. Otherwise the President and the Prime Minister may destroy the very freedom that they have reestablished on 8 January 2015.
I still keep my hopes alive that the “Yahapalanaya” government will make a real change in our society as promised by the President and the Prime Minister. But the government is gradually running out of time, unless the rulers can make a significant shift in their behaviors to eradicate the deep rooted mal practices and unethical behaviors exhibited by some of the ministers and the top government officials.
I have adapted the following poem written by the late Ven. S. Mahinda Thero, to suit the present situation. Please do excuse me for my very poor poetic language in compiling part of the poem, but I hope the message is loud and clear.
නව මැති ඇමැති ජනවරමක් ජය ගන් නේ
පහුගිය රජයෙ දූෂිත වැඩ හින්දා නේ
හිස් මොළ තිබෙද්දිත් මේ වග නොතකන් නේ
ඇස් ගෙඩි දෙකට හෙණ ගැහිල ද ඇමැතින් නේ
(Adapted from a poem by late Ven. S. Mahinda Thero.)
Time to Move On
It is time for the free press, the trade union leaders, independent citizen groups, and the “rabble-rousers” to move on from the legacy of the previous regime and make a positive contribution in the process of rebuilding our nation. The time is right for the President and the Prime Minister to investigate the reasons why they have garnered a poor reputation for good governance so far and take decisive, visible actions to rectify the situation as quickly as possible.
It is the duty of the government to listen and respond to the responsible free press, the trade unions, and the independent citizen groups in a positive, innovative, and progressive manner by inclusion of greater representation from them in discussions and working together to resolve the issues amicably. Hence the new-found freedom could be enjoyed by us all in the long run. As the founder of the Ford Motor Company, late Henry Ford once said; “Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success.”