By Rajeewa Jayaweera –
Three recent news items over the radio and in the print media made this writer wonder if we in Sri Lanka are living inside a ticking time bomb.
A Youth Politician affiliated to the SLFP, interviewed during a recent membership drive event and broadcast over the SLBC Swedeshiya Service made a shocking revelation. Asked for reasons for his involvement in grass root level politics and of his expectations, he stated he had three reasons; a) to secure employment b) to obtain Police protection when in need and c) to secure admission to good schools for his children. The bottom line is, our youth are of the view, political patronage rather than a sound education and faith in the system is the key to these very important human wants.
Meeting in the Provinces
In a brief news item over Gold FM which this writer accidentally heard while travelling reported of a meeting attended by two current Deputy Ministers with party supporters somewhere in the provinces. The party supporters had turned vociferous and heaped the two Deputy Ministers with difficult questions. Attempts by the two politicians to appease those gathered with their usual evasive and meaningless answers had served no purpose and the audience had shouted down the two Deputy Ministers, resulting in the two of them making a hasty exit.
Anamaduwa Cooperative Society elections
The Sunday Island on April 02, 2017 carried a news item containing results of elections to Cooperative Societies in Anmaduwa. Of the 198 elected members, the Joint Opposition had walked away with 180 seats. The UNP won the remaining 18 seats. The SLFP (Sirisena faction) and JVP did not win a single seat.
The issue involving the Youth Politician is an indication of the hopelessness of our society in general and youth in particular. What he has voiced is not an isolated case but the general apathy found among Sri Lankans, both young and old. Jobs through political patronage leads to the total breakdown of the social order and discipline at work place. Protection of the law and law enforcement agencies is a constitutional right of every citizen and should not be dependent on political patronage. Similarly, law enforcement agencies need to enforce the law impartially. The Anamaduwa Cooperative Society election results is an eye opener. In the January 2015 Presidential elections, President Sirisena received 37% of the vote and in Parliamentary elections in August 2015, the SLFP received 57% and UNP 39% of the vote in Annamaduwa. The Cooperative Society elections results in March 2017 of only 18 UNP contestants being elected while not a single contestant from both the SLFP (Sirisena faction) and JVP being elected is but a clear sign of a massive loss of political capital by both President Sirisena (and his SLFP faction) and the UNP. It has taken President Sirisena and the UNP, a relatively short period of 26 months and 19 months respectively, to squander much of the political capital they possessed less than two years previously.
Contentious issues are many. CoL is a key issue. However, high CoL is an issue faced by successive governments for decades and is not a first-timer. SAITM issue too is not a first-timer. The North Colombo Medical College was a similar issue in the 1980s. The Hambantota Port is a contentious issue. The Rajapaksa regime faced much less opposition over the Colombo Port project, perhaps since his was not a ‘unity’ government and was less tolerant of dissent.
However, there are two burning issues. The plunder of the Central Bank is a first-timer and the Bond scam simply refuses to go away. The initial attempt by Prime Minister Wickramasinghe to bury the issue by appointing a committee of three lawyers who exonerated the former Governor of wrong doing went awry. President Sirisena thwarted the subsequent COPE investigation by dissolving parliament as soon as the COPE report was completed and ready for release. The COPE report completed by members of the 15th Parliament was a compromise between rival political parties. It is rumored, political horse trading had resulted in the failure to name one of the main culprits in the bond scam. The verdict of the on-going Presidential Commission is yet to be seen.
In the recent past, the government has approved hikes in allowances for MPs with a ludicrous justification of excessive social obligations. A supplementary estimate of Rs 371 million has been submitted for approval for the purpose importing brand new vehicles for several cabinet ministers. This is over and above the millions spent in leasing vehicles for politicians in addition to duty free permits issued to MPs. Brand new vehicles for Ministers is not a first-timer. However, these acts do not sit well with the masses who received daily doses of the Rajapaksa administration’s corruption and wastage since November 2014, when Maithripala Sirisena threw his hat into the ring as the common candidate. Promises were made do things differently under a ‘Yahapalanaya administration’ and to bring to book, those in the previous administration guilty of corruption, which remains largely unfulfilled. Candidates rejected by the people have been brought into parliament and the government, using dubious methods. It is such practices and behavior which has resulted in the incident during the Meeting in the Provinces and Anamaduwa Cooperative Society election result.
The servile manner in which many local professionals and business leaders seek political patronage is a very poor example for our youth to emulate. They are already securely employed (some into their 70s or older), have no problems in obtaining Police protection when necessary and their grownup children no longer require admission to good schools. Boards of Directors of State owned Enterprises such as the national carrier SriLankan Airlines, who rubber stamp Presidential, Prime Ministerial and Ministerial directives having no commercial benefit and resulting in disastrous financial consequences to the organizations is but one such example.
Be aware of Global Trends
Our leaders, who do not miss an opportunity to board a jet plane and travel overseas on the flimsiest of pretexts, cannot be ignorant of what is happening in the world. Impeached South Korean President Park Geun-Hye is now in custody awaiting prosecution. Thousands of South Koreans laid siege to the capital Seoul holding candle light rallies and bringing life to a standstill, demanding the prosecution of Geun-Hye’s accomplice Choi Soon Sil and resignation of Geun-Hye herself. Some members of her own party broke away and formed another party thus weakening Geun-Hye’s power base and paving the way for her impeachment which was subsequently upheld by the constitutional court.
Paraguay, a country in Latin America under a military dictatorship from 1954 till 1989 has enjoyed democratic government since holding multi-party elections in 1993. The new Constitution limited a president’s term of office for a single five-year period. Sitting President Horacio Cartes attempted to amend the constitution by holding a secret senate vote to approve a bill enabling him to contest for another term. Protesters stormed Paraguay’s Congress (Parliament) building and set it on fire to show their displeasure and disapproval of President Cartes proposed constitutional amendment. It was a far cry from the infamous 18th Amendment of our own Constitution on September 08, 2010 when 161 sitting MPs including many who criticize the amendment today voted in favor. Needless to say, most of the 161 MPs owe their positions to political patronage and once a upon a time, were Youth Politicians similar to the Youth Politician interviewed by SLBC.
Beware of Local Trends and Consequences
What transpired during the Meeting in the Provinces is not a common occurrence, at least not yet. However, it could easily catch on whereby politicians could get shouted down by their own supporters. Even servile obedience and acceptance of corrupt, self-serving politicians has its limits. Under the Westminster system, people had the opportunity to express their discontent through the ballot. Poorly performing political parties and politicians were sent to political oblivion as we observed in 1970 and 1977. However, under the current Proportionate Representation system, people are deprived of such an opportunity. Even defeated candidates are brought into Parliament and Cabinet. What politicians must understand is, people pushed against the wall and left with no option but to fight back, are bound to find their own methods to take politicians and governments to task, not necessarily using the ballot or democratic means. The Arab Spring involving some corrupt and totalitarian countries is a case in point. Let there be no misunderstanding. There are limits to the use of Police, tear gas, water cannon and Armed Forces against protestors in a country or capital under siege. Governments have been toppled by protestors in countries such as Thailand, South Korea and Egypt after laying siege to respective capitals. Soldiers called out to disperse protestors in Cairo stood by idling while protestors compelled former Egyptian strong man Hosni Mubarak to step down. The body of the once loved and subsequently hated Italian dictator Benito Mussolini was on public display hung upside down for several days after his execution. More recently, the Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi, after being dragged out of a culvert was sodomized with a weapon prior to being beaten and shot. These are but extreme cases, yet relevant to leaders hated and despised by their people, who had surpassed their tolerance levels.
The government should get its act together and move forward, implementing its development plans and addressing at least some of the key issues. Protestors need be dealt with firmly. Even at this late stage, begin a process of appointments, based on merit and qualifications rather than on political patronage. Delegate powers to the currently toothless Commissions i.e. Police, Elections. Bring the Bond scam investigation to a close, punish the guilty parties, recover what is possible from the culprits and let the country move on. Likewise, find a solution to the never ending SAITM issue. Decide what civilian lands, occupied by the armed forces can and cannot be returned. Meanwhile, announce a suspension of vehicle imports and increase in emoluments for politicians, till the end of the 15th Parliament.
Let not our leaders fiddle away while Sri Lanka is burning!