By Charles Sarvan –
I wonder if, of the many who opted for change, some were not voting for Mr Sirisena but rather against Mr Rajapaksa? If so (and altering “The known devil is better than the unknown devil”) was it also a case here of the partially-known being a better option than the devil and his cohorts who had proved their degree of “devilishness”? If my surmise has foundation, I would suggest three broad grounds for the rejection of the Rajapaksa faction:
(1) The lawlessness and violence, brutal and capricious, from which not even Sinhalese Buddhists (members of the privileged group) were exempt.
(2) Alleged corruption and extravagant self-aggrandisement by the former President, his family and hangers-on. Going by reports, it was untrammelled “conspicuous consumption” of what little of the public wealth there was. Sir Thomas More in his Utopia (published 1516 in Latin) recommends that the leader be permitted to amass a fixed amount of wealth. Having reached that ceiling, he would then be content and begin to address himself to the needs of the people, rather than of himself and his family. Sir Thomas was being ironic, pointing to the fact that those ‘possessed’ by material greed can never be satisfied. A million, ten million, a hundred million – there is no satiation, and so no limit to accumulation. They amass more and more, merely for the sake of possessing more and more, far in excess of what they, their children and grandchildren will ever need. Luxuries and extravagances can be invented and indulged in. I recall Imelda Marcos and her two thousand pairs of exclusive hand-made shoes in a country where many, children included, went barefoot. Presidential palaces and mansions co-exist with huts and hovels.
(3) The unjust and blatant ill-treatment of ethnic and religious minorities. Tamils Island-wide are denied full equality, in practice more than in law. Tamils in the “occupied territories” (to use a phrase associated with Palestine) suffered and suffer the most: see documents such as (a) ‘We Will Teach You a Lesson: Sexual Violence against Tamils by Sri Lankan Security Forces’, Human Rights Watch publication, 2013 and (b) A Still Unfinished War: Sri Lanka’s Survivors of Torture and Sexual Violence, 2009 – 2015. International Truth & Justice Project, London, July 2015.
So if I am not mistaken, and if a not inconsiderable number voted against the Hon. Mahinda Rajapaksa rather than for His Excellency the President, the motivating factors, as indicated above, were quite different. While to Tamils, point 3 is of urgent and utmost importance, for many Sinhalese, it could be of little import. (I use phrases such as “if I am not mistaken”, “it could be” because this is a tentative exploration and I try to avoid dogmatic assertion.) Perhaps, if points 1 and 2 were attended to and rectified, these Sinhalese would be quite happy to allow point 3 to remain and continue. Indeed, one could go further. Nelson Mandela in his autobiography observes that the vertical lines of ‘race’ and skin-colour are far more powerful than the horizontal divisions of class, despite Marxist claims to the contrary. For example, a working-class woman from ethnic Group A will collaborate in the persecution of someone from Group B even though that person is also a woman and from the working-class. Even Christian Nazis joined in the persecution of Jews who had long converted to Christianity. Further back in time, Jews who had converted to Christianity in Spain were known as Marranos – pigs. (Could it be said that in Sri Lanka many Sinhalese Christians, vis-à-vis Tamil Christians, are first and foremost Sinhalese and only then Christian?)
Obama could not have been elected President by non-white voters only. Their votes were influential rather than decisive: many a white American voted for black Barack Obama. So it was with the defeat of Mr Rajapaksa: Tamil contra-votes were, I think, more influential than decisive. To use a metaphor, they tipped a scale already tilting. This brings me to what I see as the crux. What if the majority of Sinhalese voted against the Hon. Mahinda Rajapaksa only on grounds 1 and 2 above, while the minorities were chiefly motivated by Point 3? “The enemy of your enemy is my friend” then becomes “The enemy of your enemy still remains your enemy”. If so, it would be a case of different groups with different agenda coalescing to defeat an individual but not united in aims and wishes, policy and programme. How will those Sinhalese, both those who supported and still support Mr Rajapaksa, and those who voted against him on grounds 1 and 2 only, react if concessions are made to the Tamils? (Tamils do not see these as “concessions” but as human and civic rights.)
The new government, in order to retain support, will have to address 1 and 2 while proceeding cautiously with 3, that is, if it genuinely wishes to render justice. Take, for example, the security forces which at present number about 300, 000 – I confess I have no official up-to-date figures. They are an oppressive weight in the occupied territories, and an enormous financial burden and waste on the entire Island. Their number, on the one hand, is far too large given the present internal situation and, on the other hand, far too small to fight a foreign country, be it India or China: perhaps the little Maldives? After World War 2, millions of soldiers were “de-mobbed”, de-mobilised. They were paid compensation, helped with occupational-training or re-training and returned to civilian life where they could make a useful contribution to the economy. But the Sri Lankan army having been a tool of politicians has got used to power and privilege; to riding roughshod over civilians and, like the army in Egypt, to engaging in business, often dubious; outside the law rather than legitimate: for example, abduction, torture and the demand for ransom, and conniving with ‘people-traffickers’.. Demobilisation must be done after careful thought, with proper plans drawn up. If not, there will be thousands and thousands of disgruntled and resentful men and women ready to listen to promises from the opposition.
I am sorry if while there seems to be general relief and rejoicing, I sound a discordant note but winning the peace is no less difficult than winning wars. If it’s not a contradiction, I would counsel a cautious euphoria. “We have scorched the snake, not killed it.” She’ll heal and be herself again: we remain “in danger of her former tooth” (Macbeth, Act 3, Scene 2.)