By Lukman Harees –
“We should be long past applauding politicians of any hue: they got us into this mess. The best deserve a probationary opportunity to prove themselves, the worst should be in jail.” – Gerald Warner
In Britain in 1945, an event occurred which still causes shocked questions from around the world.
Clement Attlee was elected Britain’s new prime minister after Labour won a sweeping victory in the 1945 General Election, defeating great wartime leader Winston Churchill. This came as a major shock to the Conservatives following Mr Churchill’s hugely successful term as Britain’s war-time coalition leader, during which he mobilised and inspired courage in an entire nation. People voted for Atlee, in spite of admiring Churchill as a Hero. His wife told him that it might be a ‘blessing in disguise’. Winston Churchill is said to have replied that it was ‘very well disguised’. The Daily Mirror described the Tory’s shock as being ‘reminiscent of the funeral of a millionaire at which all the mourners have just learned that they were left out of the will’.
A war weary Britain with one eye on the future had thus rejected a party which had been complacent and a man who had focused entirely on the nation’s good, to his own detriment. How did Churchill, the man who had led Britain to victory in the Second World War, get voted out of office at the moment of his greatest success, and by such an apparently large margin? To many it looked like Britain was supremely ungrateful, but if we push deeper we find that Churchill’s total focus on the war allowed him and his political party to take their eyes off the mood of the British People, allowing their pre-war reputations to weigh them down.
However, there are other different possibilities as to why he lost this election. It also could be that the voters thought that the man who had led them so well in war was not the man to lead them in peace, or that the election result was not a reaction against Churchill personally, but against the Conservative Party’s record in the 1930s under Baldwin and Chamberlain.
Social issues also dominated the part of British political life that was not taken up with the war, and Churchill and the Tories slipped back in the public’s mind. Churchill, a one-time reformer, wished to avoid anything which might fracture the coalition and didn’t back the Beveridge Report (1942), which was highly popular with the public, being the basis for the post-war reforms.
Another reason for Churchill’s downfall had been linked to his approach to the Labour Party during the campaign. Churchill unfavourably compared the Labour Party to the fascist states in Europe that had just been defeated. To move to a socialist state, Churchill claimed in his June 4th, 1945 election broadcast – disastrously – that the Labour Party would have to move to some form of Gestapo-state. After this speech Labour candidate for the Premiership Attlee said in an election broadcast: “How great was the difference between Winston Churchill the great leader in war of a united nation, and Mr. Churchill the party leader of the Conservatives.” Thus, being a man of War, when the war came to an end and party politics resumed, Churchill suddenly found himself without a clear sense of purpose or direction. The very qualities that had made him a great leader in war were ill-suited to domestic politics in peacetimes.
Will this historic defeat of Churchill which happened 70 years ago, strike a chord with the people of Sri Lanka, resonate in their minds and serve as a lesson and a warning, before they go to the polling station on January 8th, 2015? Well! It should!
Post War Britain voted for a decisive change at the right time and for a new government for peacetimes, and analysts said in retrospect that Churchill would have been a disaster as Prime Minister in immediate post war Britain as events proved after. On the contrast, Sri Lankans have already had the taste of a term of the Rajapaksa Regime after the end of the War to gauge, before they are being asked to consider voting out, the so- called War Hero to rule post War Sri Lanka!
We must learn from the lessons in history both from within the country and without (or will we?) “That man does not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach.“ (Case of Voluntary Ignorance in Collected Essays 1959). A post in Facebook says it all:
President MR has been rightly credited by the grateful Sri Lankan people for being a heroic political leader who refused to bow down to the dictates of the West, in conducting the War against the Tigers and bringing it to a successful conclusion in 2009, although there were allegations of human rights abuses in the last phase of the War. At the end, all communities breathed a sigh of relief and to-date the country has been this enjoying the fruits of peace (in terms of absence of War without bombs and suicide bombings). He deserves wide applause for that feat. At that time, minorities felt assured by the President’s firm assurance that ‘hereafter there will be no minority communities or majority communities, but all Sri Lankans’.
We need to understand the psyche of the voter at the 2010 elections, when President Rajapaksa shrewdly advanced the next presidential contest by two years, with the idea of cashing in on the popularity gained from the total military victory over the LTTE. The Sri Lankan people were then still in ‘War victory euphoria’ and were not in any mood to think about the suitability of President Rajapaksa’s leadership qualities in steering domestic politics and economy in peacetimes, as compared to General Fonseka, his contender. Thus people voted for him the second time as a token of gratitude, in keeping with their Sri Lankan traditions.
It was during the second term in office that the real colours of MR came into focus and despite many gigantic development projects, Pandora’s box of social evils was let open, which awakened the masses to the dangers of this MR dynasty taking over and devouring all aspects of ordinary life in Sri Lanka.
According to analysts, even the electoral verdict of 2010, although stunning and conclusive on the whole, however had some cracks in parts in terms of voting patterns, showing clear signs of alienation in terms of ethnicity, class, and the urban-rural divide. MR did not mend them but carried on regardless, considering the verdict as a mandate to rule as he deemed fit, to boost his family fortunes and those of his stooges. The prestige of the country suffered considerably as never before, in view of an inefficient Foreign policy as allegations on human rights abuses and war crimes during the last days of the War were brought up in international forums.
When Sri Lanka hosted the Non- Aligned Conference in 1976, all nations attended while in 2013, we saw the controversy when it offered to host the Commonwealth Conference. Domestically too, the credibility of the MR Regime has had the lowest plunge, particularly in his second term in office, due to wide-scale abuse of power and the breakdown of law and order in the country. In terms of international debt, people felt as though their country was being mortgaged to some specified foreign countries like China.
Public resentment has already built up against the worsening corruption which has sky rocketed to unimaginable heights. Businesses often complain that only insiders win official contracts. Sri Lanka fell 14 places this year in the World Bank’s ranking of the ease of doing business. According to Transparency International, Sri Lanka was ranked 91 from among 174 countries in the corruption index for 2013 as compared to 79 the previous year.
Media was ruthlessly supressed, with many forthright journalists disappearing in ‘white vans’ while State controlled press spread white lies. Rule of law declined considerably and the law enforcement authorities were virtually inefficient, indifferent and corrupt while the people lost their confidence in the Judiciary which has been heavily politicized. The former Chief Justice was ousted for ‘jumping out of line’, replaced by one of MR’s own henchmen. The government through the Defence Secretary, openly gave tacit support to the extremist elements within the Sinhala Buddhist community like BBS and SR, who took the law into their own hands, promoting hatred and inciting violence against the minorities, without fear or sanction.
Nepotism within the Regime has begun stinking to high heavens. The Telegraph UK (2013) said: “Sri Lanka is a country ruled by four brothers who have turned their country’s government into a family business. At the apex sits President Mahinda Rajapaksa, almost as powerful is his younger brother, Gotabhaya, who serves as Secretary of Defence…the reconstruction of the north has been handled by the president’s youngest brother, Basil, who is minister of economic development. The eldest Rajapaksa brother, 70-year-old Chamal, serves as Speaker of Parliament…Meanwhile, a son of the president, Namal Rajapaksa, 27, is an MP from the ruling party. If you include sundry cousins and relatives by marriage, then members of the Rajapaksa clan can be found in every important ministry and province. It is a dynasty and its tentacles have reached all branches of government including the Foreign Service. As never seen before, there is misrule and abuse of public funds by ‘one family’ ”. The Rajapaksa family controls 56% of the Budget, 16% more than in 2010. What is the size of the Cabinet of Ministers and Deputies which itself is a world record?
It is therefore Divine Providence which has thrown a lifeline to the people of Sri Lanka in the form of this forthcoming Presidential Election, to save their motherland from further disaster and peril. The people’s verdict on 8th January 2015 will be a decisive one, the implications of which will be felt even by our future generations. Like an Emperor without clothes and unashamedly, MR is seeking another term of office, having removed a two-term limit on the country’s powerful presidency in 2010 through a constitutional amendment. Weeks ago the Supreme Court, as expected, even dismissed legal concerns about his eligibility to seek a third term. His critics give horoscopic reasons and waning of his support, as reasons for his sudden decision to call for an early election. While the British people voted Churchill out in 1945, based on their assessment ‘Churchill may have been the right man for the wartime, but not for peacetime’, the Sri Lankan people today have the opportunity to vote on facts based on the true colours of the MR Regime during the previous terms.
The battle lines have now been drawn with Maithripala Sirisena (Maithri), the General Secretary of the SLFP staging the biggest coup seen in recent times by defecting from the government ranks and presenting himself as the Common Opposition Candidate. There are signs of convergence of all opposition and progressive forces to fight what they call the common threat of the dictatorship and the abuse of power by the MR dynasty and to abolish the much maligned Executive Presidency which vests almost absolute powers on the incumbent. Many defections have taken place and many more are expected in the coming weeks while the MR Regime is trying to stem the tide by offering large sums of money. MR vs MS. Ultimately Punch Singho inside the voting booth will decide!
It is interesting to note that, like Churchill did in 1945 with his ‘Gestapo’ story, MR and his ministers too are making careless statements in public these days which are serving the opposition cause. MR said that he has files of those who left, the contents of which he can reveal if he wants (but he won’t) . It indicated the level of corruption within the highest levels of government and that the President has been protecting information about the misdeeds of his MPs and using them as blackmail, which made MR’s approval ratings dip further.
Adding to this, the Daily Mirror (Sri Lanka) recently reported under the heading ‘We have plundered enough: Amaraweera’: ‘Presenting an interesting political theory, Disaster Management Minister Mahinda Amaraweera yesterday said voters must not topple this government as chances are minimum for corruption among UPFA members as they may have amassed ill lucre enough by now and if the UNP came to power, they would start afresh to make a killing. ..’. A reader commented :’ Only in Sri Lanka we can actually expect a Minister to make a comment like this openly and still get elected to parliament..’. There is also another minister suggesting that people should tie the supporters of Maithree to the tree and assault them (following Mervin Silva’s example). These statements during election times are proving suicidal to MR’s election campaign.
Another area which saw the MR Regime damaging the image of Sri Lanka both within and without, was their open support and patronage of extremist anti-minority groups among the Sinhala Buddhist community (majority of whom are peaceful). It was an open secret that groups like BBS, SR and Ravana Balaya had the tacit support of the higher ups in government, notably Gotabaya. After the defeat of the Tigers, BBS took it as a victory of Sinhalese nationalist forces over the Tamils, under which notion they began to promote hatred against the Muslims and also Christians amongst the Sinhalese, resulting in severe loss of lives and property. Social networking sites have facilitated this hate campaign, reaching the next generation as well. Under this government, mutual suspicion and misunderstandings among communities have grown to unimaginable lengths. Meanwhile, the government and its law enforcement arm turned a blind eye and even refused to heed the call of civil society to arrest the offenders and ban hate speech.
Aluthgama-2014 signalled the start of a dangerous new chapter in post War Sri Lanka, in inflaming tensions among communities who had lived peacefully side by side for centuries. It signalled a mini-1983. Gnanassara became the mouthpiece /cat’s paw of Gotabaya’s thinking and indicated to the minorities that they are merely guests in a country where only Sinhalese are the true sons of the soil and hosts. Wirathu, the ‘Face of Buddhist Terror’ was allowed to visit Sri Lanka to attend the BBS Convention despite his clear anti-Muslim agenda in Myanmar and opposition by rational minded groups who saw the danger in BBS-Wirathu cooperation. BBS has now shown their allegiance and support to MR in his election bid, which proved beyond any doubt, that BBS was an extension/ operation arm of the MR Regime’s majoritarian agenda and the MR Policy of ‘running with the hare and hunting with the hounds’.
Tamils are still marginalized in the aftermath of the War despite the constitutional guarantees about Tamil language and culture. LLRC recommendations are just wishful thinking like a film on a celluloid screen. Muslims despite their 1000 years heritage in Sri Lanka and their long history of patriotism before, during and after Independence, saw the shoddy treatment being meted out to them by the racist groups supported by the MR Regime. Even Sinhala Christians are facing immense suffering and were treated as traitors for being followers of a faith other than Buddhism. Thus, under this government there is no space for the ‘Other’ and to be fair, even the Sinhala Buddhist people are suffering with their genuine grievances being side-lined for petty political gains.
Sri Lanka therefore needs a political change to break this destructive and toxic cycle of violence racism and corruption. But the change should be one for the better. Maithri should be made to win, but on conditions. Undoubtedly, MR’s re-election will be a blow to democracy but his defeat at the hands of Maithri will not signal an automatic victory for it either. Maithree stressed that he will conduct an election campaign without any hate or anger at anybody and asserted that he will not engage in mud-slinging, hurting or pressuring any opponent, which will enhance his prestige as a credible contender.
From all the signs we see and know about Maithri, his election will portend relatively good times for Sri Lanka, if only he seeks to change the political culture of violence and corruption and ensure ordinary people get economic justice and are able to enjoy the fruits of progress equitably. Maithri’s election should not be like changing pillows for the headache (same wine in different bottles) or like getting a ‘Hotu Gaeni’(wife with a runny nose) by giving away ‘Kaehi Gaeni’ (wife with a cough) which will be getting a much worse option. The debates and discourses within the electorate must go beyond ‘anti and pro MR Regime’ themes, and also well beyond mere repealing of the Executive Presidency, to which they are presently confined.
The people should demand of Maithri and the Common Opposition Front to present the country with a credible full package and their plans to establish a democratic, multi ethnic, united and a just Sri Lanka and hold him accountable. The Maithri regime should also formulate a credible social reform policy as the people are suffering under high cost of living and high unemployment. It was a plausible social reform policy which earned Attlee’s Labour a definite place in the hearts and minds of the Post War British public.
Maithri should also convince the people of Sri Lanka that he has a credible team to ensure a workable plan of action and not a collection of politicians who will repeat the misdeeds of this MR regime, as stated by Minister Amaraweera. He must also present to the country his plans to make Sri Lanka re-establish its rightful place within the international community and not as an ‘international Pariah’ which seeks to make Sri Lanka a failed state, a majoritarian state suppressing the aspirations of the minorities.
Constitutional fundamental rights should be meaningful to all the people including the minorities. It is up to Maithree and his government to reassure the minorities that they will be able to live as equal citizens in Sri Lanka It is heartening to see Maithri disassociating with BBS as seen in one of his tweets.
Lastly, it does not mean that a mere change of government will do wonders, for we know that both UNP and SLFP governments have been equally culpable in suppressing people’s rights and resorting to repressive measures to feather and protect their own political nests. “Give politicians power and it certainly will be abused eventually — if not by today’s politicians, then by their successors.” — Harry Browne.
Thus, it is up to the civic groups to be alert and not take their eye off the ball, but keep the pressure on and hold the new government to account, for Politics and the destiny of the country is too important to be left in the hands of the politicians and we have been seeing it in good measure during the MR Regime.