By Laksiri Fernando –
I was extremely pleased when Maithripala Sirisena, the common candidate of the opposition, emphasized the importance of adopting a Gandhian policy for Sri Lanka in his appearance at the ‘Satana’ program of the Sirasa TV on 22 November. It meant mainly non-violence with emphasis on moral power. He showed a tiny booklet to the audience written by the renowned writer, W. A. Abeysinghe, titled “Gandhi Example for Sri Lankan Politics,” written in Sinhala. For those who are not familiar with Abeysinghe, he is a popular writer and a literary figure whose many essays became interestingly published in a Tamil title, “Satyam Shivam, Sundaran” (Truth is Beautiful), edited by his daughter, Dipachandi Abeysinghe, in 2011.
Let me call Maithripala Sirisena, MS.
In his concluding presentation, MS emphasized the importance of “media freedom for democracy” and vouched it would be re-established after a victory, of course among a gathering of many journalists and media personnel. Therefore, one may discount it as a media stunt. However, he also outlined the basic tenets of a program that the United Opposition Front might unleash in a few weeks’ time. That was impressive. His emphasis, as he said, was on “unity and harmony of ethnic and religious communities” on the one hand, and “alleviating the grievances of the low income earners” one the other.
These twin approaches would be underlined by the “respect for and protection of all human and fundamental rights,” he said. How many political leaders actually speak about human rights in Sri Lanka? He belongs to this rare species. At least his public utterances were politically correct. He gave an emotional promise to “end the corrupt family rule, re-establish rule of law, reinstate democracy and change the existing political culture.” All these were in addition to the “abolition of the executive presidential system within 100 days,” which is the main platform of the opposition. Whether this is feasible or not is a debatable matter on which I would return some other time.
He agreed with the JVP leader, Anura Kumara Dissanayake, who was another panelist at the program, that “benevolent dictatorship (Sonduru Akgnadayakatwaya) is now turning or has turned into a malevolent one (Kuriru Akgnadayakatwaya).” The emphasis came from AKD.
It is in respect of “changing the political culture” that he referred to Mahatma Gandhi and his principles, and also referred to Nelson Mandela of South Africa, Dr. Martin Luther King of US and our own SWRD Bandaranaike. I would have preferred him also to mention SJV Chelvanayakam, along with Bandaranaike, who were the two main advocates of Gandhian principles in our country, whatever the deviations of their followers or themselves. He said “our policies will be based on these principles.”
He emphasized that “Nelson Mandela was in prison for 27 years, but after he came to power or office, he held the presidential position only for 4 years.” Alas, that is not the case in Sri Lanka.
A President for 100 Days!
There are those who have asked the question “Why should anyone vote for Maithripala if he is not going to be the president after a hundred days while Ranil is going to be the PM? I am quoting the question from Dayan Jayatilleka, not as a polemic against him, but as an example. Some others have asked the same question thereafter.
Obviously, this question is asked not because of any ignorance. Let me first ignore the clear personal antipathy against the person who is supposed to become the PM. Contrary to the indication in the question, there will be a strong UNP constituency who would vote for MS merely in order to appoint Ranil Wickremesinghe as the PM. That is one strength of this strategy. Leaving that aside, what is behind the question is a particular perception of politics. That is my main concern in this article. Let me reduce the question to the following: Why should anyone vote for Maithripala if he is not going to be the president after a hundred days?
The clear and simple answer is ‘to abolish the presidential system and bring good governance and caring administration in the country.’ It may be a puzzle for those who think politics and elections only in terms of power and position. However, the time has come to think politics and elections in terms of justice, fairness, righteousness, honesty and integrity. That is the cry of the moment.
When one traces the history of the present movement for the abolition of the presidential system, it started with the formation of the National Movement for Social Justice (NMSJ) initiated by Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thero and others, particularly after the 18th Amendment. It was on the same premises and concerns that the movement for ‘Pivithuru Hetak’ (Clean Future) was formed by Ven. Athuraliye Rathana of the JHU. Both movements were moving away from ‘mere power politics’ towards the ‘establishment of Justice.’
Of course, the presidential system can be abolished through extra-electoral or extra-parliamentary means and one may think that is the logical procedure than contesting for the presidency and then leaving the position in 100 days’ time. But the results would be disastrous and worse than what we have at present.
Contesting the presidency to renounce the position in 100 days may appear contradictory to some. But it is the most dialectically logical and consistent proposition. As the popular proverb goes, ‘it is only through the mouth of the well that one can escape when one falls into it.’ There is no other way.
There is a philosophical underpinning to what is happening in Sri Lanka today, if I may become little abstract. Hitherto almost all societies considered politics as matters of power between various classes, ethnic or social groups, dynasties, individuals or ideologies. And as a result, questions of justice had to take a back seat. The newest theory is about clash of civilizations (based on religious beliefs). The consequence of power politics has been war, violence and destruction of life and property, with immense human suffering. This has been common to national as well as international politics, but Sri Lanka has been a classic example of this predicament in recent times.
Do we need to or can we go on the same lines in the future? Can’t we take a reverse turn and understand the common human peril and make a determination to stop the lunacy and take a more rational and a reasonable path?
What can we call the new way? I would call it the ‘quest for justice,’ while admitting its own limitations or misunderstandings. Justice to one can be an injustice to another in some circumstances. This is a contradiction that we have to resolve. When some call for justice they sometimes mean vengeance. This vindictive urge also should be neutralized. These are however some exceptions than the normal understanding. Normal understanding of ‘justice’ is good enough to make a departure from destructive power politics and to make politics reasonable, peaceful and more responsive to people’s needs and aspirations.
Permit me for a personal note. I have been advocating or holding the above ideas for some time and two landmarks can be mentioned. Once when the University of Colombo was engulfed in student violence between different political factions, the Centre for the Study of Human Rights (CSHR) issued an educational leaflet on my initiative requesting the students to change their minds about the ‘purpose of politics.’ Mistaken understanding of ‘politics as power’ was identified as the primary cause for student violence. That was somewhere in 1998. Later when a new Department of Political Science and Public Policy was established in 2001 at the University of Colombo, an emphasis in its mission statement was given to reconsider, in research and teaching, politics as a ‘struggle for justice’ and not as a ‘struggle for power.’ That mission however was not taken root.
I was not completely going against Lasswell’s characterization of politics, “Who Gets What, When and How?” but rather expanding on it. At the same time, I was not completely denying or rejecting the power aspect of politics. If I were to recognize power as an important dynamic, I would rather go along with Max Webber who characterized “power as the chance of a man or a number of men to realize their will in a communal action,” adding that ‘for a justiciable object,’ also revising the terms ‘man and men’ also to mean ‘woman and women.’
There is no need to idealize the opposition movement unnecessarily. However, there is a clear urge within the Sri Lankan society today to seek justice and ‘to renounce those who abuse power for the sake of power or for the sake of money.’ There is no wonder that this movement for justice has crystalized as a movement seeking the abolition of the executive presidential system. Due credit should be given to Kumar David who advocated the single purpose issue in conjunction. There can be a little exaggeration to picture the EP system as the sole reason for all the ills in society or polity. That is how the social movements, however, emerge. The slogan is also not far away from the truth. It is symbolic and depending on the further developments of the movement, it would lead to further reforms and change in society and polity. It is an opening of an opportunity. At least that is how the intellectuals or the social activists should perceive and support the movement.
What is the object of Mahinda Rajapaksa seeking a Third Term as the Executive President of Sri Lanka? Is it personal, family, party or country? Why couldn’t he handover the baton to another person within his party or even within his own family? Why is the family (or the acolytes) hiding behind him without allowing a democratic succession within the party and country? What is there to hide and safeguard? These are some of the questions that the people should ask before voting for MR or MS at the presidential election.
There is no doubt that the opposition movement itself contains certain ‘dynastic’ elements. No movement is pure. However, that is not the main character of the movement. It is abundantly democratic and progressive. Ranil Wickremesinghe as a key player has, so far, managed these diverse elements quite skillfully. The dynastic elements or other ailments are within manageable limits. The opposition movement itself is not one but several. That is the beauty of the movement; its democratic plurality. One section undoubtedly can ‘check and balance’ the other if there are extremes. There are ‘abolitionists’ and there are ‘reformists.’ There are ‘partisans’ and there are ‘bipartisans.’ The issues should be resolved pragmatically or practically.
There are those who considered the movement for the abolition of the EP system as ‘elitist and urban.’ Now the ‘Messiah’ of the movement has emerged quite unexpectedly from the rural milieu. He has a fitting name as the leader of the movement, ‘Maithri’ (meaning loving or compassionate one). He does have pliable charisma compared to increasing arrogance of MR. I would love to see both contenders debating on TV. Then people could make up their minds.
There is one significant statement that MS made in respect of power. He unequivocally asserted that the ‘power of the people is more powerful than the power of the state.’ This Marxian axiom might reverberate in the people’s movement leading to the elections in the coming future. There cannot be any doubt about that. He also made a clear request (or is it a message?) from the armed forces and the police ‘to ensure free and fair election.’ In turn he assured ‘to safeguard and protect all those professional soldiers and duty minded officers.’ Kumar David has already suggested to have Sarath Fonseka as a shadow defense minister. There is a need to counter any attempt to mobilize the armed forces against the democracy movement before or after the election.
There is obviously no need to support the opposition movement uncritically. Blind faith is not warranted. However, the notion of ‘critical support’ should be nuanced with ‘support first, criticism second.’ The need is not of sequential order but of priority. The criticisms should be constructive.
Let me make two brief suggestions in conclusion.
First is to resurrect the traditions of Bandaranaike, Chelvanayakam, Dudley Senanayake and MHM Ashraff in the emerging democracy movement to emphasize non-violence, fair play and cooperation between communities and political parties. NMSJ or its equivalent should emerge in the North and the East.
Second is to promote women participation in the emerging democracy movement in a forceful manner. The appearance of one or two faces on stage is not enough. Women may have a decisive role in unravelling the dictatorial quagmire link to the EP system. Their voices should be heard and acted upon.