By Lukman Harees –
Everywhere I go I see increasing evidence of people swirling about in a human cesspit of their own making.- Norman – Angell
Are Sri Lankans getting into the same mind-set of the Zimbabweans under Mugabe? One wonders when reading about the unravelling comical events in the country. We need to understand why Mugabe is often revered by those who live, or have lived, in previously colonized nations. He literally fought for the independence of his country from an oppressive occupying government and won. As a British colony a white minority group prospered and had held sway over national decisions with their own interests in mind rather than those of the black Zimbabweans. The ascension of Mugabe to Presidency signalled the end of an era and the beginning of a hopeful future. He brandished a fiery rhetoric and castigating the white colonizers and their allies. Yet, he also made a charming impression on the whites particularly who had the benefit of three decades’ hindsight . ”If yesterday I fought as an enemy, today you have become a friend. If yesterday you hated me, today you cannot avoid the love that binds you to me, and me to you.”
With these words, exactly 30 years ago, Robert Mugabe sought to reassure whites and blacks on the eve of his swearing-in as prime minister of the newly independent and internationally recognised state of Zimbabwe He became a hero to his struggling black countrymen. Mugabe was a freedom fighter and he won, the only problem is the curtain did close. Thirty years later, we cannot even decipher any hopeful ceremonies uniting Zimbabweans on a common platform and any echoes of the uplifting moments which the country witnessed at the beginning. Zimbabwe has been travelling since then on a downslide . The economy has been getting in deep trouble by the day . Incompetence and corruption were on glaring display. The nation remains all but bankrupt and isolated, and life for most Zimbabweans remains paralysed.
Why do people still support Mugabe? There are people around Mugabe who are benefiting. It’s in their interest that he will stay. They are few, but they are benefiting. This is their last chance to loot the country, to build up their wealth. And they are stronger than those who realise that change is inevitable. There is too much of a culture of fear, of impotence, for them to do something. The war veterans are also split, but it’s not clear which faction has more support.But the Zimbabweans generally in their hearts believe that this situation can’t go on like this for much longer; it must be the beginning of the end.
Back in Sri Lanka, after a disastrous 30 years old savage War , which resulted from the short sighted political expediency after Independence, President MR too emerged as the leader who liberated our country from the shackles of Tiger extremism and terrorism. He announced in May 2009, that all Sri Lankans irrespective of their racial and other petty differences should desire a united and harmonious Sri Lanka. He pointed out that creating a Sri Lankan nation under one flag and with one objective is the goal of his government, and that the government is committed and dedicated to treat all Sri Lankans equally with no discrimination. He also said that ‘hereafter there will be no majority or minority and all will be Sri Lankans, and that there will not be discrimination against anyone just because a person does not belong to the majority community. He also warned the youth not to become prey to the vicious campaigns being mooted by certain politically motivated groups to divide the nation on ethnic and religious grounds and shatter peace and harmony existing in the country.
Just few years after the end of the War, government of MR seems to have surrendered this lofty goal at the alter of some fringe Sinhala Buddhist groups ,allowing them to drive Sri Lanka into another frenzy of extremism; this time along religious lines. Taking the example of Mugabe, he would have been a national war hero and a leader who liberated Zimbabwe from the white rule ;but the business of governing his country and the ability and ethics to do in a competent manner is obviously something Mugabe- the freedom fighter woefully lacked. Churchill too, was the best war time leader Britain had, but lost power at the subsequent election, as he failed to prove to the electorate that he could govern effectively in peace time . We therefore need to look at the effectiveness of MR government in peace time , quite apart from the significant lead role played by MR and his government to end the War, however controversially it may appear to some critics.
Today, what we witness in Sri Lanka, in the post war Sri Lanka is the disintegration of the social landscape along religious and racial lines forgetting the bitter lessons of the three decades of an expensive ethnic conflict , the decline of our moral compass in all spheres , political expediency in the decision making process of the government , the relegation of social justice to the side-lines and the degeneration of the rule of law in the society. Although MR government cannot be blamed for these ills, at least they could be held responsible for failing to arrest the declining the law and order situation in the country and the lack of a coherent and a plausible economic policy for the country. Regarding the former , a humorous story goes that when an Afghanistan Minister declared at the Sri Lankan airport , that he was the Minister of Ports and Navigation, the officer politely mentioned that there were no sea fronts in Afghanistan as it is a landlocked country. Prompt came the retort : ‘Well! you also have a Minister of Law and Justice, don’t you?’ .
It may be the impeachment of the CJ and the installation of another controversial figure in her place, the comical circumstances in which Duminda Silva was acquitted or those involved in the ‘ Fashion Bug’ case were released ,or how Azath Salley was taken in and later released , or how the rogue monks and their goon squads were left untouched despite clear evidence of their involvement in anti social and racist attacks and how the Police acted partially in these circumstances ,the international community on the one hand and our future generation on the other, are watching with gaped mouths the type of Sri Lanka our present leaders are attempting to shape- lawless and without character. That too with the connivance of the people of Sri Lanka ,through their naivety, silence and apathy in respect of the unravelling events before their eyes. The silence of the majority was deafening whether it was the case of 1983 goons out on the streets persecuting the innocent Tamils or destroying their properties, or the case of the extremist BBS/SR on the streets and the social networking sites making Muslims and the ‘other’ look like aliens and traitors .
As a country, we are certainly lost in a swirl in the ocean- The Indian Ocean. Swirl denotes utter confusion or disorder . An Island , which glittered on the world map as ‘the Pearl of the Indian Ocean’, was known as the Paradise Isle to many visitors to its’ shores, and a land which the Buddhists believe had been thrice blessed by Lord Buddha, therefore continues to swirl about in a cesspit of its’ own making and on a fast track to becoming a country with many laws and fundamental rights but without the rule of law, social justice and space for the ‘other’. No amount of lessons which the history taught our nation arising from a disastrous war spanning 30 long years and the resultant economic setbacks or no amount of missed historic opportunities offered to us after the proclamation of Independence in 1948 or at the end of the War to unite and work together , appear to bother us or enthuse us in the least. As a respected monk observed in a press interview regarding the electricity price hike, ‘We Sri Lankans need to come out of the tame mentality complex, stand up and be counted’.
Sri Lanka may not be as broken a country as Zimbabwe, as it stands . Further, post-independence Sri Lanka also cannot be tarred with the same brush as there is still space within the public domain to express public displeasure through the power of the vote and the recent events are certainly not a testament to some inherent Sri Lankan inability to govern. It however shows that public apathy and silence on vital issues of governance and communal harmony , if continues to prevail in this country, may lead to a minority rule as oppressive and inconsiderate of the welfare of citizens as the ignominious Tiger rule which we witnessed in some parts of Sri Lanka before May 2009. Zimbabwe may showcase our future, if we do not learn lessons and break the timid-ness, silence and naivety to speak up for our constitutional rights , social justice dues and to uphold the rule of law. Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims , should not be embroiled eternally in a heated futile debate as to who came first , who came next OR who is the guest and who is the host , without fighting for the common cause to establish rule of law and fight for social justice , based on the fundamental rights under the Constitution and the political, civil, social and cultural rights entitled under the UDHR. This is certainly a class based struggle and not a race based struggle. Failure to do so is akin to writing ourselves a “how-to” manual for national destruction. In this regard, the Zimbabwe case therefore offers some important insights. It illustrates the prime importance of accountability as an antidote to idiocy and excess. It highlights the lasting effects of the reluctance by people to criticize their own leaders and also offers a stark warning about what can happen when political elites operate with no fear of being taken to task.
The Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen has famously argued that no functioning democracy has ever suffered a famine, because democratic governments “have to win elections and face public criticism, and have strong incentive to undertake measures to avert famines and other catastrophes.”. If Sri Lanka is to move forward as a common front, , the people should hold the government which they elected through their ballot to account , and should be alert to ensure that the regime is and will be reflective of the aspirations of its’ people, and attuned to feel their pulse to live in a multi ethnic and a multi lingual Sri Lanka ,free from the drum beats of the racist goons and free from the widening inequality and the polarization between rich and poor. Euphoria about the ‘ victory’ over Tigers should stop as it has already been used by Sinhala Buddhist extremist elements as a victory over the Tamils, thereby eating into the psychology of the Tamil community. Side shows of hate speeches against the Muslims have been clearly further marginalizing the Muslims and adversely affecting the cordial relations stretching to many centuries . It is imperative that all communities alike get together for a common cause – to build a Sri Lanka where the rule of law rules and communal amity is restored and social justice is meted out to everyone who have made now this Isle their home and are citizens irrespective of who came first and who followed.
As a nation, we should not protest simply to vent to our anger and alienation. We have to take action to change the society, of course in a non- violent manner. Whether they are merely sit-ins, candle lit vigils, demonstrations , or even mass marches , they should be grounded in political reality that serve as means of winning actual changes. We must understand that the injustices we are suppose to oppose are deeper and more complex than just some bad people with racist ideas or corrupt officials plundering public wealth or characters like Duminda Silva or Mervyn Silva giving credence to the fact :Might is Right. Beneath the surface of lawlessness or social injustice ,lies a “Brown Sahib power-structure” of wealthy individuals, powerful corporates, and influential politicians who derive significant economic and political benefits from systemic racism, communalism , majoritarianism and feudalism and therefore they use their power to establish, extend, and maintain the widening gap between the haves and the have-nots. If we need to change that system, we had to understand what political power is, where it comes from, how it is generated, and how it can be used to change society. JRJ, CBK , RP or MR were once part of the movement to change this system in one way or another. But once they were part of it, they get assimilated and go around the vicious circle. As Albert Einstein said “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”.
When we look at political power in the abstract, we see three sources, or kinds, of political power namely Violence-power,( In a democracy, government is the primary holder and wielder of violence-power), Money-power (The primary holders and wielders of money-power are wealthy individuals, large corporates, and in some contexts government itself), and People-power ,which is the power to organize protests that affect public opinion and change the cultural context and to elect or recall politicians among others. .( Bruce Hartford, 2008). In a democracy, the primary wielders of people-power are membership organizations, mass movements, and unorganized individuals acting in concert. People-power is the only real power that those of us who are neither rich nor at the top of government have. Both wealth and government do everything they can to maintain their power by making us feel helpless and confused. One way is by telling us that in a democracy it is only through elections that we the people wield power. True, people-power can be exercised through elections , but only when there are organizations and movements that educate and mobilize people around their interests OUTSIDE of the electoral process. However, in SL in the absence of a viable opposition, the civic society/ Media should take charge. To be politically effective using people-power, we have to build mass popular support. In our society, building popular support based on violence won’t work, as the state is well-organized and over-equipped for suppressing violence and further people too fear and oppose violence. Thus, in our society today ,social change through violence does not work. It is therefore important to mobilise people-power to create social change, only through non- violent means.
In this context, when communal issues come in- between to mar our common goals , it will benefit those who are in power by dividing the opposing ranks. Community leaders should therefore form a body and discuss these parochial issues of communal issues frankly and freely, thereby not allowing spilling over of such issues to the streets. Civil leadership and a vibrant Media should guide public opinion to divert attention towards common causes rather than divisive communal causes .Fighting for a society where rule of law and social justice rules roost is certainly not a cause limited to one community ; rather it is a common cause where all , irrespective of racial and religious differences can unite and work towards. The role of an effective unbiased Media is also a must in helping people to heal the wounds of War ,to raise a future generation free from racial bias and also create a common consensus in effective ways of dealing with national issues in a civilized and fair-minded manner .
In building a common movement for this purpose, it is also pertinent and important to get the full commitment of the Sinhala Buddhist community who are numerically in the majority. It is therefore a fact that unless the fears and concerns of the Sinhala Buddhist people are not addressed and sorted out,, in the same manner the concerns of the ‘other; are addressed, it will be an utopian dream to achieve sustainable peace and development in Sri Lanka. It will be a national priority , however they may seem misplaced by other communities. Sociologists observe that the Sinhalese entertain the constant fear that as a nation they would be wiped out from the face of the earth in the not too distant future , seeing themselves as one of the smallest and weakest communities in the world . They view their religion threatened by Christianization and Islamization ,also experiencing hostility from Tamil Nadu with a population of 60 million. They also think that their language will in the future go into extinction . Besides this, they also feel that their community has been numerically going down progressively due to family planning by taking the government policy too seriously and they are morally going down with lack of patriotism owing to pre-occupation with selfishness, with immorality, crime and corruption. It should also be appreciated that psychologically Sinhala Buddhists go back to the times after 1815 A.D. when the Sinhalese Buddhists were the underdogs, when they felt losing national pride and self-esteem. Naturally, they refer to their “Sinhala Buddhist-ness “, when minorities refer to themselves as ‘Tamils”, “Muslims”, “Christians” etc. This is what Nera Wickramasinghe, an author in history (2006) refers to as the ‘minority’ complex of the majority Sinhalese. They therefore perceive that it is a cry in desperation for self-preservation than intended to hurt the minorities or deprive them of their equality of status as citizens. It is therefore important that a line is drawn between the extremist and at times violent slogans of the ultra-nationalist BBS/SR and the genuine fears and concerns of the Sinhala Buddhist people ,which are abused by the former elements to serve their selfish agendas. It is imperative that those who want to create a united and a prosperous Sri Lanka for their future progeny to promote mutual understanding between communities under a common Sri Lankan identity.
It has also to be realized by all people irrespective of which community one belongs to , that they suffer not due to communal strife per se but from inequalities, mis-governance, corruption, social injustice, politicization of the vital government institutions and the breakdown of law and order. The sooner we understand the underlying causes, the better.