By Tisaranee Gunasekara –
“I just passed a polling place and it’s crowded. There’s no parking… There’s an electricity. It’s exciting.”[i] That was American activist Lecia Brooks (of the Southern Poverty Law Centre), referring to the mood at the Alabama special senate election. So things were in Sri Lanka, during the presidential election of 2015 – the long lines, the quiet excitement and the hope not just for any change but a change for the better.
In 2015, millions of Lankans regarded ‘Good Governance’ not as a catchy slogan, but as a solemn pledge and a programme of action. They voted not to replace one government of deplorables with another government of deplorable but for a government that is at least halfway honest, halfway decent, halfway just, a government capable of righting the wrongs of the past rather than adding to them.
Almost three years on, that hope of positive change is almost dead. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government has lost its moorings and its bearings. Mr. Wickremesinghe seems willing to sacrifice the party to save alleged bond-scammers while Mr. Sirisena was willing to forge an alliance with the Rajapaksas to save himself from an electoral drubbing. The government doesn’t realise how cringe-worthy its conduct has become because it has locked itself inside an echo chamber, one lined with mirrors, its own audio-visual universe where it sees nothing but its own reflection and hears nothing but its own words. The government doesn’t realise how cringe-worthy its conduct has become because it has locked itself inside an echo chamber, one lined with mirrors, its own audio-visual universe where it sees nothing but its own reflection and hears nothing but its own words.
A successful government has to stand for something more than mere self-interest. What does the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration stands for, today?
The government couldn’t have implemented all its promises. No government can. But it need not have departed so decisively from the path it pledged to take. There was nothing inevitable about its failure. That failure is rooted not in insurmountable objective barriers but in a disastrous absence of courage, decency, sense and memory.
The brutal killing of Dala-pootuwa, the iconic blind elephant with crossed tusks, is a potent symbol of the government’s descent into an avoidable-mire.
If Sri Lanka takes her Buddhism seriously, she should impose a total ban on ivory, with the full blessings of the Sangha. Unfortunately, such a ban is unlikely to happen anytime soon, because it would be resisted tooth and nail precisely by Sinhala-Buddhists, both the ordained and the laity. But the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration’s pledge to protect elephants and bring elephant-killers to justice was an implementable one. After a promising start consisting of rescuing several abducted elephant calves and destroying a consignment of blood ivory (Mahinda Rajapaksa had wanted it to be gifted to the Temple of the Tooth), nothing happened. The minister responsible for wildlife conservation sank into a complacent torpor.
The murder of Dala-pootuwa, initially revealed not by the minister or his officials but by the media, caused a public outrage. Prodded into wakefulness and action, the government handed over the investigation to the CID and the prosecution to the AG’s Department.
The demand for ivory from Asian elephants is reportedly increasing. Poaching is on the rise, and Sri Lanka has been warned that her tuskers are in danger (only about 50 tuskers remain in the wild; in short our wild tuskers are an endangered species facing extinction). Had the government taken notice of these warnings, had it taken action against elephant killers early, the tragedy of Dala-pootuwa could have been prevented.
Why didn’t the government?
Death by self-mutilation?
The Rajapaksa regime protected elephant-killers/abductors. During the Rajapaksa years possessing an elephant became a status symbol amongst the politically connected new rich. President Rajapaksa was liberal in ‘gifting’ elephant calves of questionable origin to kith and kin. Around 2011/12, “environmentalists and animal welfare activists in Sri Lanka started noticing an inconsistency in the number of elephant calves in captivity. The number of captive calves seemed to increase despite a very low number of captive births. A year later a regulation book on all captive elephants in Sri Lanka maintained by the Department of Wildlife Conservation mysteriously went missing…. To exacerbate the dubious registration process of captive elephants the Ministry of Wildlife Conservation in Sri Lanka declared a controversial amnesty. According to the amnesty people illegally owning elephants could simply pay one million rupees to legitimize their ownership…”[ii]
Though there are rumours of a deputy minister trying to save a monk implicated in the killing of Dala-pootuwa, there is no high-level official complicity between the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration and elephant killers. The government didn’t protect elephant-killers/abductors. Neither did it crack down on poaching. It did nothing. The new Animal Welfare Bill got lost in the Bermuda Triangle of the state, another broken promise. The government’s indifference created a permissive climate in which the poachers thrived.
The real failure of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration is made up of promises which were broken not because implementing them would have meant facing existential threats or overcoming insurmountable odds, but because the government just didn’t care enough to look beyond narrow self-interest of its members and supporters.
Forget politically complicated tasks such as 13+ or withdrawing the military from the North and the East. The government is yet to build the promised 50,000 houses in the North, because it is wedded to the idea of prefab structures totally unsuited to local conditions and therefore opposed by local people. Had the construction of proper houses commenced in early 2015, it would have been over by now. 50,000 families would have been provided with a home of their own. What a tremendous achievement that would have been. The government deprived itself of this success for no good or acceptable reason.
Today the government is in crisis not because of the Rajapaksas and their ragtag opposition. The government is in crisis because it has not done what it promised to do and done what it promised not to do.
An opposition which had the courage to take on the might of the Rajapaksas (Mr Sirisena was not exaggerating when he said that had he lost, he wouldn’t have been allowed to live) has become a government too timorous to stand up to the rich, the powerful and the fanatical. An opposition which won by appealing to what was best in the people has turned into a government that survives by pandering to the worst in politicians. An opposition which understood and addressed the hopes of Lankans in all their diversity has turned into a government that is deaf and blind to the growing plight of the very same people. An opposition which occupied the moral high-ground has turned into a government that wallows in the moral-mire.
The irony is inescapable, tragic. Had the government implemented the basic promises of 2015, so much good would have been done, and so much harm avoided. Whenever the government did implement its promises, the results were positive, like the restoration of judicial independence, or the 19th Amendment or the Right to Information Bill. The ultimate beneficiaries of such constancy to the pledge of good governance would have been the government itself, the SLFP and the UNP, the President and the PM. They could have shared victory at the LG election, leaving the Rajapaksas to compete with the JVP for third place.
A Politico-electoral Cul-de-sac
When the first round of nominations for the upcoming local government elections ended, the largest number of rejections belonged not to the UNP or the SLFP but to the SLPP, the political party created for the sole purpose of returning the Rajapaksas to power. Six of their nomination lists were rejected (including in winnable places like Maharagama) compared to two of the SLFP. This gives the lie to the organisational genius of Basil Rajapaksa. It is also symbolic of a larger reality. The Rajapaksas are not as strong as they would have us believe.
The Rajapaksas are master illusionists. They know how to inflate strengths and conceal weaknesses. But such illusion-mongering is harder to sustain in election times. The first cracks are already visible in the JO/SLPP edifice. Wimal Weerawansa’s party is in tatters. Dinesh Gunwardena and the MEP are being accused of sabotaging the SLPP nominations in Maharagama (the charge is serious enough for Mr. Gunawardena to deal with it in the Sunday Divaina). The problems are likely to exacerbate as the election campaign gets going.
The fall of Robert Mugabe and the plight of India’s once great Congress Party demonstrate the limits of familial politics. The agenda of the joint opposition can be summoned in one sentence: restore Rajapaksa power. That is all the party stands for. This family-centrism is not an election winning formula, especially with new voters, most of whom are likely to regard JO/SLPP as an anachronism, amusing, entertaining but essentially irrelevant. Time is thus the enemy of the Rajapaksas. Or it would have been, if the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration had not been so intent on self-mutilation.
The greatest damage to the government has been done by the government itself. Instead of ending corruption, the UNP and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe have expended most of their political capital on protecting alleged bond-scammers. Living costs are higher than ever; since the president’s brother is a gargantuan player in the rice market, he cannot avoid the charges of complicity. Not only is the Colombo port city forging ahead; China has been given the Hambantota port as well, plus a huge expanse of land in an environmentally vulnerable province for a special industrial zone (this will further worsen the human-elephant conflict and increase the number of elephant deaths). To compensate, India will be given the Mattala airport, placing Sri Lanka in the crosshairs of Sino-Indian rivalry. Having failed to forge an alliance with the Rajapaksas, President Sirisena is busy rewarding crossovers with ministerial posts at public expense. The government is either stagnating or crawling in Rajapaksa footsteps.
In 2015, a majority of Lankans voted to make a clear break with the past. That hope caused voter turnout to reach an unprecedented high. Three years on, those hopes have been culled by the government’s actions and inactions. The resultant hopelessness is likely to depress voter turnout at the upcoming local government election. This will limit the UNP’s victories and hit the official SLFP hard. It won’t enable the Rajapaksas to become the biggest vote-getter island-wide, but it will enable them to come second, probably a close second. Such a performance can ignite a political crisis which, if mishandled, will bring down the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration.
The crisis is exacerbated by the absence of a better alternative. The only available alternative is the Rajapaksas, who, in their three years in the opposition, have learned nothing. They have not admitted to any mistakes, nor made any changes for the better. They are still as extremist, still as willing to ignite a racial or religious conflagration to gain a political advantage, still as undemocratic and illiberal and family-centric as ever. If there’s anything worse than the present lot, it is the previous lot.
Just one vignette from the past: the assault of then High Commissioner Chris Nonis by Rajapaksa favourite Sajin Vaas Gunawardena. When the story broke out, the Rajapaksa Foreign Ministry held an inquiry. Its verdict was that no one laid a finger on Chris Nonis. He imbibed too liberally and fell off a stool in his inebriety. Twenty eight fellow-guests, all of them Lankan politicians, officials and hangers-on, said so; and they gave the evidence in writing[iii].
That was Rajapaksa justice; that was Rajapaksa rule. That is not a past any sane person would want to return to. So the question remains and will have to be answered before 2020. Where do we go from here?