By S. Sivathasan –
“Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty”. Absolutely true and Sri Lankans know it. It is also said that “Threat of revolt is the final guarantee of all freedom”. This too is a proven truism. Both together make a potent amalgam. It may show its strength in Sri Lanka in a short while, the same way it did in 1994. From where comes a renewed momentum? From a convergence of wholesome factors.
Whittling Down of Freedom
For over three decades all Sri Lankans to the last citizen have been chafing against restraints and yearning for liberty. The mayhem and bloodletting of July 1983 gave plausible cover to successive governments for creeping limitations on personal freedoms. From individual to collective was but a few paces away and imperceptible was the advance. The first to feel the rigour were the minorities; ethnic and linguistic. The majority was not much away not to get engulfed. The years 1989-1990 saw the country aflame and drastic reductions in personal freedom encompassed the whole nation. A lingering war pushed the whole of society to the limits of tolerance and yet they put up with loss of rights with hopes of freedom to follow. The end of the war in 2009 suggested a new dawn, of hope and promise. But this was not to be.
To Churchill the sun never sets in the British Empire. To percipient citizens the sun cannot rise in benighted Sri Lanka. Mis-governance for nine years shrouded the country in a cloak of darkness. The first few years of increasing controls were said to be necessary to contain separatism. No streak of light was allowed to peer through. Acquiescence of even the more vigorous activists of rights was enlisted either with consent or by coercion. Those resisting were eliminated fascist fashion. Lasantha Wicrematunge the editor of Sunday Leader was done to death to remove a thorn and to deter resistance. Undeterred the journalist community rose in stubborn opposition. A successor to Lasantha, Frederica Jansz, among the boldest of journalists was hounded out till she found a safe arbour in a western democracy. Weapons used were impunity and immunity found only in the war chest of authority. It’s a chest where executive, judicial and legislative powers remain fused. It is this apparatus which the people now seek to throw overboard.
The incumbent President prated in 2009 that ‘terrorism’ was defeated. Terrorism is a term used ad libitum to befuddle humanity. It was employed against social upheavals and also to counter minority assertions. Keeping the Tamils in thrall for long was and is the primary agenda. The UNHRC never to be diddled, is forging its unrelenting cuffs nonetheless.
Darkness at Noon
Since May 2009 the citizens are caught up in ever enveloping darkness. In every country that had been at war, the end of war signified the advent of peace. Consolidating the process implied reversal of policies of war time relevance and executing programmes of societal importance.
An end to war is sought to eliminate death and destruction. The size of the military expanded to make a killing machine more deadly is scaled down when the necessity goes off. Very importantly financial resources are saved and channeled to give a different life to the people. In Sri Lanka the whole citizenry had suffered deprivations for a quarter century and more. Their expectations of a breather were legitimately insistent. Impoverished sectors of education, health and agriculture looked for revitalization. Only an aching sense of denial and dejection are visited on them and are writ upon the nation’s face. Highways, ports and Colombo metropolis apart, no other prospect pleaseth. A few faint rays cannot dispel the darkness. A receding dawn that withheld the light has now cast a pall of gloom even at mid-noon.
A nation’s sagacity is seen in the way it subserves the present to benefit the future. Austerity today for prosperity tomorrow. Pare off the military to rational numbers and curtail the wartime high in expenditure of Rs 150 billion in 2009 to around Rs 100 billion or so. Instead annual increases maintained a steady tempo to reach around Rs 225 billion for fiscal 2015. Education languishes with an allocation of about Rs 80 billion in 2009 increasing to around Rs 100 billion for 2015. Impoverishment of the Health sector is equally woeful. Is there rationality or sense or sensibility in such apportionments?
The days of direct democracy are millennia past. Today in the rule of the demos (people) is there even an attempt to reach for their pulse? Definitely no. Bread and circus for the Romans. Lesser the bread more the circus (night races) for Sri Lankans. To interdict this harrowing descent and to reconnect the people and their representatives to the governance process is what the emerging movement sets out to do.
Debacles – Domestic and Foreign
Successive governments perhaps conscious of their incapacity to weld a nation, pursued divisive policies from day one of independence. Where programmes failed, pogroms followed. They have produced disastrous consequences. The legislated jettisoning of Indian Tamils has left the community poorer by a million when their natural increases are reckoned. Burghers were cajoled to emigrate in lakhs, their merited contribution notwithstanding. Muslims and Malays to emigrate in large numbers do not have to wait for long if the current regime continues. When the world’s diaspora counts 3% of their numbers in parent countries, Tamils are at 30%. For this feat, the state never abjured violence against them. Tamils know it best because they have felt the heat most for 58 years from 1956. The Sinhalese are not far behind with their diaspora at more than 5 lakhs. All emigrants with their natural increases are estimated at not less than 2.5 million, a colossal 11% share of the nation’s population.
Middle East and Allied Employment
What is designated as foreign employment with locations in the Middle East and elsewhere is low end for semi-skilled, unskilled and some skilled personnel. Trained employees are not too many. Per capita earning is poor but remittance is sizable on account of numbers which exceed 2 million. They are female or male head of the family who leave behind 3 members on average for the sake of this employment. The social impact of this employment is that life in 2million homes is affected for 8 million persons. The government so inept as not to be able to create employment opportunities, is guilty of this default.
In a similar fashion 100,000 Tamil refugees are yet in Tamil Nadu, with no means provided for their return, rehabilitation and reintegration with the social environment from which they were plucked away. Failing to do this even five and a half years after the end of the war is just dereliction of duty.
Where has the diaspora gone to for permanent residence as places of choice? To western democracies like Canada and US, to advanced countries in Europe and to Australia and New Zealand. They have been received as productive assets and the young as trainable resources. Sri Lanka has had the best of relations with these countries where democratic values flourished and scope for self-development is great. The current regime in Sri Lanka however seeks to veer from them and to dance attendance on two of the centrally planned economies of the UN Security Council, China and Russia. Trade relations are advisedly weighted in their favour for their veto value in the UN particularly with an impending stricture at the UNHRC. Are the people’s views ever solicited through their representatives? Does the Fourth Estate have its views heard? When did the country last have an independent, fearless and impassioned discussion or debate? Why is democracy perverted so ridiculously? The answer is simple. To make the people voiceless so that Familial Rule can prevail without demur.
Why should familial rule persist? Not for reasons of patriotism. Neither is it for people’s redemption. It is not without foundation that the air is rife with talk of unprecedented corruption. The people see no transparency in any of the country’s transactions. When estimates are quoted in astronomical terms, the casualty is credibility. Corruption it is said is not confined to domestic projects or issues. It had made its foray into foreign affairs years back. The movement for democracy gets much of its traction and impetus from this reeking corruption.
Revulsion to the Regime
The birth of the regime in 2005 did not have much glamour. There were no comets seen. The aura of legitimacy was far too thin. Tamils who had a tilting weight refrained under duress, for reasons well known now. Odium of a dubious implant surrounded the new one. Yet the war victory of 2009 erased everything that looked odious. In 2010 they endorsed their benefactor. But the populace that turned opiates did not become addicts in perpetuity. Under attack by loss of freedom and economic pressure, they got rid of their hangover. Now with the fullest awareness of realities, their revulsion to the regime is complete. They are with the front of opponents.
There is a further default of a moral dimension which has alienated the citizenry both well learned and less educated. It has been offensive to their ethical sense. Not once but several times the government and personally the President have violated several pledges given with an air of solemnity to international institutions like the UN, UNHRC, to Heads of governments and to persons of eminence. Dishonouring promises to surrendering militants, the international community will not pardon or forget. So are pledges to the Chief Minister of the Northern Provincial Council which were met in cavalier fashion. The President showed his lack of rectitude and the polity has lost its respect for the office and the occupant.
Where the will of the people prevails in a very real sense, dovetails into the process of governance and manifests in elevating their quality of life, people value democracy and live or die for it. In the absence of the essence, the voice of the people is muffled or stilled, the citizens are made into non-persons, the shell is traded for substance and the eyes of the world are covered with layers of wool. To put up with this inane order of things, the people are in no mood to be always accommodative or interminably docile. They are now converging into a single force, determined not to digress, waver or dither but to go purposefully, directing their energies to reinstate democratic values and way of life, acceptable by several of the political formations, ethnic entities and of religious persuasions.
To move forward politically, sections in Sri Lanka that matter are educated enough. Over time their influence has seeped pervasively country wide. A lesson from history has been that a society in ferment ends up in an upheaval. Arab Spring in domino style is a classic case in point; besides the states, for a vast region. Failure at evolutionary formulations is the stuff that makes for turmoil as in Egypt and Syria. Sri Lanka has failed since 2009, to capture the peace dividend. A single familial monolith interposing between the state and the citizen has usurped power, monopolized authority, placed the levers of policy under the thumb of that monolith, deflected governance in unsavoury ways and derailed democracy. The polity that has revived from the trauma is now set to change course.
Erosion of People’s Power
How has this family set about its business? In 2005, it correctly identified the prospective winner, selected the game changer at the Presidential election, employed means most foul to entice it and secured all levers of state power into a single hand. Having done so, the monopolist President retained the lion’s share and assigned the balance, diligently and selectively to three of his siblings who were and are on a tight leash. Defence, the coercive apparatus and the backbone of the state is with one brother, the economy with another and the legislature under the surveillance of the third. The impeachment (of the President) episode of 1991, drove home the Speaker’s unchallengeable discretionary power to accept or reject an Impeachment Motion. The President’s brother as Speaker is precisely to forestall even the placement of an Impeachment motion in the legislature. The President sits atop this familial tripod the way Hitler had Hess, Goebbels and Goering in his iron hand. The legislature and the Judiciary are reduced to a nullity, there is no separation of powers, democracy turned into a caricature and the people are made nondescripts. Against this ghastly spectre the voters are consolidating their mighty power – Franchise, for a convulsive push.
Among the fundamentals to fortify democracy are, Periodic Free Elections. In Sri Lanka in the last nine years, they have been aplenty and more than periodic; Presidential, General and Provincial. The operative word is FREE. Was any election free since the Incumbent President was first elected in November 2005? None. Keen students of the political scene, vigilant observers of the election process and analysts of results have noted them quite perceptively. The litany is long to describe all the misdemeanours.
Preparatory to manipulation has been to make the media – Press, TV and Broadcasting – state oriented in whatever they disseminate. Writing or speaking anything not favourable to the victory of the ruling caucus was seditious. Media personnel as avant garde of resistance bore the brunt of reprisals. Those who dared not to submit or to yield to rewards, fled in numbers to foreign climes in pursuit of their commitment to fight on. When the print media closed, electronic media opened for them. It is the oppressor who is now getting oppressed.
Thiruvalluvar’s advice to a ruler “Even if you entail the wrath of the soldier, do not incur the displeasure of the writer”.
Armed marauders protected by the Police and supported by the forces struck down opposition and Challenge. Individuals with independent views considered harmful to electoral success suffered heavy personal injuries and near destruction of their institutions or their property. Well documented evidence is endless. Intimidation of voters and preventing access to polling booths are too common and so well known to merit mention. After piling up all the misdeeds, victory is announced for government candidates. To have credibility, unwinnable opposition enclaves are allowed some space. Such deeds have concealed the death pangs of democracy. Yet seething anger, simmering discontent and surging opposition are making known their strength unmistakably.
Keeping the date of the election close to his chest, the President is keeping the opposition guessing. If one can go by reports, time available is very short. Yet conclusion can be reached on the name of the common candidate. The monitoring mechanism for local and international personnel to work together should be in place early and monitoring should commence at least 6 weeks ahead of voting. Monitoring should not be a 2 day sham. The most intensive monitoring should be closing of poll, to counting of ballot and announcement of results.
Looking at the support for a new order that is snowballing, stakes will be very high for the outcome. International institutions should paralyze any hand intent upon mischief.
*The writer was Advisor to the President, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga.