By Ian Ferdinands –
I belong to a generation of Sri Lankans who witnessed many missed opportunities. Opportunities to stand proud as a nation, to grow politically and socially as a people, to prosper economically. Many of these opportunities defined by a political event, missed because of political will or lack of it. Missed because we permitted politicians to usurp the power that is rightly ours. Most often electing them and then allowing them to do as they please. A majority of politicians rarely fulfill what they promise or do what the people require. That seems to have been the norm in Sri Lanka’s case. Now its election time again. A big one this time. Amidst the rumors and humor that has been part of the political landscape we will have an opportunity to choose. It is our time.
My early recollections of an election go back to a day I spent as a kid, in a remote school room somewhere in the Uva province, where my father was in charge of a local government election (a village council or sub set of it). The process of people coming during the day to cast their vote, the secrecy of the ballot, the announcements made prior to and the declaration of the elected, after the polling closed fascinated me, even then.
Like me, most of my generation are not placard carrying politicians, who call themselves patriots. Yet we love our country and want it to be the best. Our wish list is not complicated. We would like to belong to a society where there is law and order, where fair play (call it good governance) is prevalent, where people thrive in diversity and we can have hope that there will be a conducive atmosphere in which the next generation (our kids) can live in, or at least one that offers them a choice against making another land their home.
I have been fortunate to have traversed this land widely. My parents were typical government servants who took us children along, when they were transferred from station to station. Born in Badulla, I was privileged to have grown up in Kandy, in an environment which thrived in the richness of diversity among many races, religious beliefs and different stations. Sports and co- curricular activities in school contributed much to our interaction with others and took us to many a place around the country. I finally moved to Colombo. These opportunities I believe have given me a wide perspective of the country and help experience both the best and worst of this nation.
I remember the anguish I felt as a child, watching weeping families board the train at each railway station on the upcountry line, as I took a train ride from Badulla to Kandy. Weeping as families had been separated and were being sent away to India. Not fully comprehending why until many years later, that it was due to a pact signed by two politicians, Sri Lankan and Indian to repatriate a group of human beings they called stateless. We had forgotten their contribution in the plantations, once the backbone of the economy.
The words “curfew” and “insurgency” were words I learnt during 1971. We had an extended April school holiday, so we were not grumbling. The adult conversation however was centered on a friend’s son who had been arrested and some talk about youthful frustration. Had we missed something? In the ensuing years bread queues and food shortages were not uncommon, as the country experimented with economic policy.
The Standardization of university entrance was another political decision taken in this time frame. We missed the opportunity to harness the best brains into our systems, instead opting for mediocrity, and triggering off frustration among the university aspirants.
1977 was a watershed year. J R Jayewardena was in with a 5/6th majority in parliament. The electoral map my brother and I were colouring was a sea of green. My father’s comment that “this is the beginning of the end” still echoes in my mind, referring to the power that the country had presented JRJ with, virtually absolute power. President Jayewardena had it all and yet missed the bus. 6 years later and into his second term he allowed Black July of 1983, which turned upside down the lives of thousands of families and changed every structure of this country.
To witness the migration of friends and family was painful. Some went because they no longer felt safe, some because they couldn’t trust the systems, some for economic reasons. They went, leaving a vacuum of intellectuals, businessmen, professionals and basically decent human beings.
Some of us decided to stay back. For deciding to stay back I’ve been repeatedly told not to look through rose tinted glasses. But I continue to believe, that this is where I was planted and this is where I will bloom.
The ensuing years saw a conflict erupt in the north which had many twists and turns. There were bombs in Colombo and there was bombing in the north. There were peace talks and ceasefires before the fighting began again.
Terror in different forms became part and parcel of normal life during this era. I have seen terror perpetrated by militants in the north and south and that by the state. Disappearances and killings. Bodies blown up, bodies chopped, burnt and thrown, with not an iota of respect to the human form. Public servants, politicians, teachers, students, activists, clergy and children, most often the common man, victims of a wasteful conflict.
The insurgency in 1988 and 1989 in the south was no different. Uncertainty again prevailed as some began to voice their suppressed opinion with a gun in their hand. The insurrection was brutally suppressed by the state, not without casualties as we saw another round of migration of talented people who would now contribute their skills to another land. Many moved out of the country, uncertain of life in a troubled country.
‘Hope springs eternal in the human breast’* and so it was when President Kumaratunga was elected in 1994. The popularity she had in the north however, did not go down well with the LTTE who used the inexperience of her peace negotiators as an excuse to resume hostilities.
Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s attempt at reconciliation in 2000 was another opportunity lost on the LTTE, who instead brought the people in the north under their jackboot.
The boxing day Tsunami was a moment of truth – The best and worst emerged as people rallied around to assist those affected and displaced. Unfortunately the goodwill created by normal individuals was not harnessed effectively by the leaders on both sides of the divide to allow peace to take root. On the 10th anniversary of the Tsunami in December 2014, over a million people in Sri Lanka were displaced by the inland flood waters, almost twice the number displaced by the Tsunami. Whether we will be politically displaced, the coming election will reveal.
With the war in the north coming to a close in 2009, President Rajapaksa had a war weary nation eating out of the palm of his hand, their gratitude genuine. However the euphoria seen when the war ended, did not outlive the ground realities of reconciliation. What the President or his advisors possibly did not see, was that roads and infrastructure alone would not bring the desired result and alienated the northern populace further. A golden opportunity, missed again.
We’ve also celebrated together. The nation stood proud as one when our cricketers won the world cup, a nation bonded by a common thread of sport. For this country is not only about war. It is also about a land richly blessed by nature, in its flora and fauna and marine life, oceans and beaches, its mountains and plains, rivers and waterfalls. It is about a mix of rich cultures and religions often misunderstood. A resilient economy that has grown around 5% even in bad times. A quietly courageous people with an immense depth of potential. An opportunity to reach greater heights if properly harnessed and shared equitably.
Sri Lanka is a contradiction. Blessed by God and tortured by man.
We are again at a critical juncture. This election will decide where our nation is headed for. The incumbent, President Rajapaksa does not seem inclined to make changes and seems to believe that the current trajectory with a little fine tuning is what we require. The war is touted, citing that the country still needs to be protected from international conspiracies. The allegations made by the opposition, of large scale corruption, authoritarian rule, family bandyism, the lack of law and order and good governance have not been refuted, and thus seems to be a given in the incumbent’s rule. Is this what we require? The challenger Hon. Maithripala Sirisena (a former insider of the current government) with a wide coalition of partners has called time on his rule. He wants to bring change in the system of governance that will protect the voter and administrator. The battle lines are clear and the decision for the voter seems to be straight forward.
Change however is not to be cosmetic. We need to change, if we want this change to be real. Civil society has a greater role to play. We need to change our attitude towards politics and politicians and be more involved in the process, in our day to day lives, if real change is to happen and sustained. Mr Sirisena himself appears to be a clean politician; however the same cannot be said of some of those who would support him. We need to be vigilant, as a majority of politicians are unlikely to change their ways with no motivation. Reform needs to come where the political structure favours the voter and not the voted. Where there are checks and balances to prevent, and recourse against actions that are detrimental to the public and public life. To get caught in the romance of change alone would be foolhardy. Freedom is never free and if we don’t fight for it and be actively involved it won’t be long before someone takes it away.
This election is not about personalities or their achievements. It is about freedom it’s about justice it’s about fair play. The outcome will define the way we live.
I have often pondered why the price we have paid as a nation is still not sufficient for us to have lasting peace and prosperity. So When I stand in that queue to vote, I will remember many. I will remember the mother who still does not know the fate of her child, members of the security forces who paid the supreme sacrifice, the militants in the north and south, citizens of this country, the child soldiers in the north who’s childhood was robbed, the innocent civilians caught in the cross fire, the farmer who needs clean water, the migrant worker who’s tears sweat and blood sustained our economy, the journalist and activist and all those who stood up fearlessly for justice and paid with their lives. In order that their sacrifices are not in vain, I will vote for the future. This vote is for you my son and daughter, for all the sons and daughters of this country that they may one day be proud to call this country their home. This is for the future.
In a conversation that took place at the beginning of 2014, where politics was being discussed a friend made a statement, that the Rajapaksa regime has planned so meticulously that they will remain in power for the next twenty years. My rejoinder to his statement was “what if a Black swan event occurs”? Whether the white swan of Maithripala Sirisena will create an unexpected event, only the poll of the 8th January, will tell.As the 8th of January dawns, I will pray, that justice will prevail, and that soon all citizens of this country will get an equal opportunity to enjoy the potential of what this land has to offer. I will also hope that this election will not be another missed opportunity.
*From an Essay on ‘Man’ by Alexander Pope (1688-1744)