By Kusal Perera –
“Our aim is to change the regime. So we invite everyone to join hands with us.” – Ranil Wickremesinghe – UNP leader, at the launch of the new “Opposition Agitation” (Vipakshaye Virodaya) Monday 11 February, 2013
Another seemingly new “alliance” launched on February 11 Monday, has some “throw away” politicians also on board and make the same stale statements as before. For how long would the people keep listening to such statements, that in effect are only statements ? Will the people take seriously, any statement to the effect that the Rajapaksa regime would be overthrown soon ? This in fact is not the first time Wickramasinghe had said, he would topple the Rajapaksa regime. A few days before in Matara, Wickramasinghe said, after he pledged to topple the Rajapaksa regime by 2014, the regime has got scared. Few years ago, he called on all democratic forces to join the “Platform for Freedom” that announced a “Five Precept” programme of action titled “Commitment for Change”. He promised to topple the Rajapaksa regime and rebuild the country, on that platform too. Launched in November, 2009, at the Jayawardne Centre, “Platform for Freedom” then did not include the TNA, officially.
During a slow and a lazy hike through 03 years and many elections including the 2010 presidential and parliamentary elections that needs no new comment, the Platform for Freedom had new add-ons like the single headed New JHU and the TNA at its public meetings. But, it went into total slumber during the “Impeachment” against Chief Justice Bandaranayake. As one at Hulftsdorp said, even police dogs wouldn’t have traced where those leaders were, during the “impeachment”. This “Opposition Agitation” launched anew, comes in the wake of “Platform for Freedom” giving up on it’s rusty credibility to speak about democratic issues. The new “Opposition Agitation” includes more names, a longer list of political affiliations, but apparently nothing new.
What nevertheless made some to take another look at this “Opposition Agitation” was its first campaign in Thelippalai, on behalf of Tamil people. It looked a new approach with the TNA firmly in and away from Sinhala chauvinism that often tails campaigns led by the UNP. But that was 305 kms away in Jaffna. Here in Colombo, despite Wickramasinghe’s reported speech in Thelippalai against high security zones robbing the right of the Tamil people there to have their own land, his own Sinhala trade union leaders in the Jathika Sevaka Sangamaya (JSS) were proposing to organise support bases in their branch unions, for the newly emergent, extremely violent and racist “Bodu Bala Sena” (BBS). Local UNP supporters were seen canvassing support for BBS slogans to boycott Muslim shops and “Halal” certified products. There is definitely a total disconnect between Wickramasinghe and his own party loyalists. A gap that had never been attempted at, in politically bridging.
He has not been able to mobilise affiliate organisations of the party, in taking up serious issues against the present regime. The JSS is far outside any trade union activism. It had never been allowed to develop a workplace leadership, even to match the Sri Lanka Nidahas Sevaka Sangamaya, of the SLFP. Therefore it had never taken any initiative to even mobilise its own membership on any issue. Not even on galloping cost of living or on wage increases. They thus remain, more as party sympathisers. During Cyril Mathew‘s time, he got it mobilised as a Sinhala thug outfit and the JSS remains so, though without venom.
The UNP’s women wing, the “Lak Vanitha” remains an organisation whose leadership prefers to donate mats, while women and children from North to South get abused, raped and murdered, one leading English Sunday news paper said was 05 rapes a day. This women’s leadership in the UNP is alien to the large presence of toiling young women in the Apparel Sector and slaving Rizana Nafeeks in the ME, who play a very vital role for this deficit driven Rajapaksa economy. There is a mismatch, both in terms of personalities who can not afford to challenge the Rajapaksa regime with their spouses enjoying positions and privileges awarded by the ruling regime and in terms of political naivety in them.
With such heavy baggages not taken to account, this new collective of parties and groups in this new alliance that has no clear political programme, but only slogans they feel, could be popular attractions, has no additional constituencies, apart from the UNP and the TNA. Politically therefore this is not much different to the previous alliances and the programmes that were adopted. The “Five Precepts” titled “Commitment for Change” put forward when the Platform for Freedom was launched 03 years and 03 months ago, contains almost the same formula, though in a different format. It thus says, there is a fundamental flaw in how opposition politics understand alliances for “unity” and how they are defined. That flaw is what keeps this Rajapaksa regime afloat, though in turbid waters.
“Unity” in a broad, party “front” is calculated in numbers of leaders sans quality that would sit on the stage and the numbers that would address the meeting. But increased numbers on stage without political quality, does not necessarily bring increased numbers to the venue of the meeting. Nor does that increased number of leaders on stage, increase the political interest and motivation of the “anti Rajapaksa” crowd. The interest of marginalised and disgruntled polity, in rallying round the alliance. More because, some who are brought to the “Opposition Agitation” stage to increase numbers are discredited “political tourists” recently arrived to be on opposition platforms. The question is, how could a serious change come about, with a new political alliance.
A change would want a thoroughly thrashed out programme, the whole society could easily see and feel as an alternative to what this Rajapaksa regime holds out for them. Equally important is the motivation and conviction the larger constituencies in the alliance have in carrying through that programme. Today what matters is the Southern constituency the UNP could reach out to. What matters is the possibility of reaching out to that Sinhala constituency, as different to the Rajapaksas in every aspect of governance. On that, this new “Opposition Agitation” should be seen in the South as “anti Rajapaksa” in both form and content, with a promise for the future. Politically as anti racist, pro democratic and development oriented in content. When Wickramasinghe speaks for the Tamil people in Thelippalai, that political inclusiveness, that plurality, has to be seen and understood in that very same tone and colour, in Maharagama too. Its that consistency in inclusiveness, in plurality which defines a political alternative to Rajapaksa, as socially valid. But that with the UNP, is not the case. Wickramasinghe can not make that happen. That is where the UNP led alliances have always failed.
Its partly the very chauvinistic birth of the UNP and its Sinhala history that buckles a pluralistic, inclusive presence. A Sinhala chauvinist party from birth, into power, it started off in 1948 by disfranchising Indian origin Tamils and leaving them “Stateless”. It started changing the demographic pattern in the East through colonising. It marched against the Tamil people in 1957. It instigated violence against Tamils in 1979 and in 1981 May-June, destroyed Jaffna town and burnt the Jaffna library. In 1983 July, it organised the most ruthless racial violence in our history, destroying Tamil business and devastating Tamil life. From D.S. to Jayawardne through Premadasa to Wijetunge, UNP has acted as very racial, Sinhala nationalist regimes for the benefit of Sinhala businessmen. Its a political heritage the UNP still lives with and is carried by men like Sajith, Karu Jayasuriya and most others in Wickramasinghe’s good books too, who’d not challenge the Sinhala politics of this Rajapaksa regime. Its easy for them to live with traditional Sinhala politics of the party, visiting Buddhist temples, and talking of individual corruption instead.
The party as a whole thus remains a total contradiction to what Wickramasinghe articulates in his liberal language and he has proved he keeps away from overcoming that contradiction. This racist contradiction was so even in the SLFP, when Chandrika Kumaratunge was brought in as the leader. Her inclusive politics was only an attraction for the remnant “Left” and perhaps for the moderates in Tamil society. She was not accepted by the SLFP for her politics. The SLFP carried her over as a “face change” that could defeat the UNP after 17 years of continuous rule. She was brought in with a guarantee, that she would only help glue the North – East market to the South and not hand it over to “Left” politics. Thus her promise to “humanise” the open economy.
Though with Chandrika as its head, in political content and life, the SLFP remained the party that made Sinhala language the only official language in this country in 1956. The party that for the first time used the military in the North in 1962 to crush Federal Party (FP) protest campaigns. Marched against Tamil people in 1968 and left the young novice Buddhist monk Dambarawe Rathanasara a victim of the protest. It remained the party that brought in geographical and language “standardisation” for university entrance and created the Republican Constitution in 1972, in further marginalising the minorities. Why Chandrika as President in August 2000 could not push her new Constitution with a substantial package on devolution, was not only because the UNP opposed it. But more because her own Ministers and MPs were openly agitated and PM Rathnasiri decided to stall it, with Mahinda backing him and MP Dixon Perera crossing over to the UNP.
Both the SLFP and the UNP as Sinhala political parties in the South competing between each other for political power, were only pushed to consider minority rights as an economic necessity. As a necessity for a larger market and social stability. The contradiction and disconnect in politics between the liberal leader and the Sinhala party and its affiliate organisations, stem from this endemic political chauvinism. This historical contradiction and disconnect has to be addressed, if Wickramasinghe wants to prove his statement right. Wickramasinghe needs to have with his latest “Opposition Agitation”, the new consumerist urban working class that came into being after the economy was opened in 1978. He needs to have the working class that by now has extremely large swathes of women labour, if he is to prove his statement right. The UNP as a party has to lead a political change in the new “Opposition Agitation”, gearing its JSS as a trade union and its Lak Vanitha as a women’s front, to break this “disconnect”. The party would have to be dragged out politically to oppose and challenge a Sinhala regime, instead of meekly following Sinhala racist campaigns that prop the Rajapaksa regime. Dragged out to challenge the regime on severe breach of law enforcement and rampant crime.
What is amiss, is the capacity and capability of the UNP leadership in taking that political turn. The second level leadership that Jayawardne groomed to back his politics in the party is wholly absent for Wickramasinghe, as a political backup. His insecure reluctance to groom a second level leadership in the party is now telling on its politics. New faces accepted from political hikers on a stage will not be a substitute that makes the “Opposition Agitation” work as an anti Rajapaksa campaign. All who were there and all who were brought in, would only add extra weight in carrying a larger entourage around the country, to speak to the Southern Sinhala constituency of the UNP that still opt to remain with the legacies of Premadasa and Cyril Mathew. Would still feel closer to and comfortable with the Sinhala racist campaigns of BBS, in the absence of a political change in the whole party, top to bottom. The presence of the TNA may have some influence in keeping the “lost comrades” of the “Left” on the platform, but that is also no answer for the UNP constituency to change. “Commitment for Change” that was promised to the people 03 years and 03 months ago on the now defunct Platform for Freedom, should first come from within the UNP, for Wickramasinghe to give some substance to his oft repeated statement, that he is out to topple the Rajapaska regime in 2014. He still has time, if he accepts the parliament is not where politics play decisively, is serious and politically capable both in his own party and outside with the alliance to engage politically against Sinhala racism, calling for a change for plurality and democracy.