By Uditha Devapriya –
“I knew nothing.” – Ravi Karunanayake
Politics does strange things to civil society. This, despite the fact that civil society is supposed to be independent. But then we are political animals. We do not want to be independent. We can’t be independent. We have certain preferred outcomes and these we want to promote, one way or the other, regardless of those notions of democracy and freedom we bandy about day after day. In other words, it’s all about seeing your favourite horses running the country and telling others how to run themselves.
The backlash against the (temporary?) caretaker government stems from three different groups. The first, obviously, are those who were humiliated at seeing the leader of the UNP being ousted, for the second time after a space of 10 years, from the prime minister’s chair. These are the kepuwath kola types. The second are those who raved over the government’s reformist program but ranted against its pro-privatisation economic program. These are the (spent) old leftists.
Regardless of their motives, both of them support a return to the status quo, which is why even someone like Kumar David, despite his leftist credentials and critiques of IMF austerity measures, terms the Sirisena-Mahinda combination a “putsch” much less preferable to the government the likes of him were critiquing.
Both these groups, however, are unapologetic about where their loyalties lie, even if they sweep those loyalties under the carpet of good governance. It is the third group that interests me. They are a mishmash of the first two, yet exude a (deceptive) neutral stance. Broadly entailing civil society, they include those outfits (in the media, online, and everywhere else) which have been promoting the very same good governance the government they support played and tampered with, these last three years.
If the Rajapaksas, who have no moral right over the UNP or their allies, want to pick on the hypocrisy of the previous government, they don’t have to look further than the hypocrisy of this civil society (which, as a friend of mine recently commented, tongue in cheek, is as “civil” as the international community is “international”). They would need to point at two distinct incidents which transpired during the yahapalana years, both of which that civil society feigned silence at. Let’s list them out, shall we?
The first was the Bond scandal. The “independent” media wasn’t exactly quick to catch up on it, even when it was spreading like wildfire through informal channels, and when they did catch up on it, certain commentators did, and wrote, everything they could do absolve the not-so-immediate wrongdoers.
I remember a particularly unsavoury piece, written by an anonymous “Roving Editor” and published in a prominent Sunday newspaper, prompting the politicians to stop focusing on the scandal and move on to “bigger issues confronting this country.” The best summing up of the magnitude of THIS issue came from former deputy governor of the Central Bank, W.A. Wijewardena, whose political inclinations are hardly with the Rajapaksas: that the bid placements caused a “far worse damage” to the Bank than the 1996 LTTE bomb attack.
Outrage against the Bond auction came from, I can attest quite strongly, a broad section of the population, both for and against the Rajapaksa regime. Outrage from the Rajapaksa camp was directed less at the reality of the scandal than at the “If-we-were-not-there-it-wouldn’t-have-happened” rhetoric. But that was a minority. The anger of the people, as a whole, was less partisan and more representative of the country (more representative, certainly, than the crowd that went out to the streets two weeks ago, since the money the Central Bank “lost” belonged to all of us). “Civil society” would have had a field day championing their cause, to the country, if not the world.
And yet, no protest erupted. None of those freedom loving activists came out. Where were they? Singing the Internationale with the old leftists?
EconomyNext, a website I otherwise respect immensely, failed to offer a single report on the bond auction in 2015, and did so only after the scandal hit the ceiling in 2016. The likes of Asanga Welikala and Razeen Sally, who delivered lectures on the role of the state as a night watchman, failed to condemn the role THIS state had taken on: as daylight robber. Welikala in particular had no problem titling his anti-Rajapaksa rant “Paradise Lost?”, hinting that Rajapaksa’s appointment signalled an end to some paradise that was supposed to have existed until then. Deluded, much?
And it’s not just the Bond scandal. Malinda Seneviratne, in his piece “Selective tear-shedding in seasons of demagoguery”, asks the following question:
“When Sirisena gave nomination to Mahinda Rajapaksa and immediately thereafter stood with Wickremesinghe, did they whimper about ‘the spirit of democracy’? When he sacked and replaced the General Secretaries of the SLFP and UPFA, going as far as obtaining an interim court order so the Central Committees of these political entities could not function, did they protest?”
I don’t remember the US Embassy, the British High Commission, the European Union, or the United Nations propounding their concerns over these anti-democratic moves. But there was a more reprehensible anti-democratic move engineered by the president. No one talked about it, and far from condemning it, many of those who are now denouncing the “loss of democracy” celebrated it.
This was the decision of the president to usher in defeated candidates through the National List. It wasn’t about the National List per se. It was about the legitimacy behind the decision to take in those who had clearly lost the trust of the people. DEW. Gunasekara, together with Nagananda Kodithuwakku, filed a petition against it, contending that the appointment of rejected candidates (as opposed to pre-selected appointees) through the List amounted to “a violation of the people’s sovereign right to elect political representatives of their choice”, since the clause inserted in the 1978 Constitution, Article 99A, the 14th Amendment, had not been enacted through the mandate of the people (obtained preferably via a referendum).
The petition was made in 2015. Then it got postponed. Then the Chief Justice, K. Sripavan, withdrew from the case. Then it got postponed again. Then he argued that it was a not a matter of general or public importance. Then DEW Gunasekera tried to take the case to Geneva. Then the Chief Justice rapped Kodithuwakku for obstructing justice (read, “persisting with the issue”). Then the case returned to the Supreme Court after Kodithuwakku filed a separate petition. Then it got delayed again.
Forget the US Embassy. Forget the British High Commission. Forget the European Union. Forget the United Nations. Where was Civil Society? They had championed parliamentary legitimacy. They had facilitated a shift in the polity from state to the legislature. The appointment of failed candidates was clearly not right, then. Article 99A required a campaign against it, if at all because it was as much a violation of the people’s sovereign right as the appointment of Mahinda Rajapaksa.
And yet, no one spoke. No one hummed.
Was it because if someone did hum, the Rajapaksas and their cohorts would have returned to the parliament (they did, but not as ministers). Perhaps. Revolutions, after all, even the most facile revolutions (like the one we witnessed from 2015 to 2018), thrive on expedience, and on tactics that lie outside the parameters of constitutional legitimacy. They are crafted by politicians first, and only then by policymakers.
But then, that’s the exact same argument the Rajapaksas are using. Now. Whether or not they intended it, the former government handed over the fuel and the gunpowder to this government. “You did it to us then, we’ll do it to you now!” is the gist, the bare essence, of what the likes of Keheliya Rambukwelle are spouting.
But that’s another story.
If those protesting outside, on the streets, are shedding crocodile tears over the plight of the people, they have only to remind themselves that the people they are fighting for were left virtually voiceless, and paralysed, over these last three years. Where were these democracy lovers, we can ask, when the Central Bank went down in flames over those bids, the president sacked the General Secretaries of the SLFP and UPFA, and candidates roundly defeated in a General Election were appointed without as much as a by-your-leave as ministers? Nowhere to be found.
Should we stand by them now? Ideally, yes. Are they for democracy? Perhaps. Do they idealise political outcomes which negate their calls for a movement that is NOT about Ranil? Definitely. Is this hypocrisy with a capital “H”? You bet.