By Siri Gamage –
A dark cloud hanging over the sky in the tiny Island of Sri Lanka has started to move away into the Indian Ocean after the defeat of Rajapaksa regime in the election held on the 8th of January 2015. Millions of Lankans who demanded security of person and property for years in a just society governed by rule of law without much success may be expressing a sigh of relief at the news of the former President leaving office voluntarily in the face of his opponent’s impending victory. As I stated in my previous post (Colombo Telegraph, 7 January 2015) the day marked a crucial national moment in the history of the country at which the voters from all walks of life were able to put an end to the prevailing lawlessness, corruption, partisan governance and family rule that was eating slowly but systematically into the very fabric of society and its core values while the roads being built. My projected win for the opposition candidate on the basis of an analysis of previous election results (Colombo Telegraph, 5 January 2015) has been realised. Now the people have spoken. The message is clear. ‘Implement change’. Make everyone in society safer and give him or her his or her due rights and freedoms without state interference.
Rajapaksa downfall was due primarily to his regime’s inability to get out of ‘the security state’ and associated ‘mentality’ plus ‘ideology’ developed during the war years and it’s failure to start a democratic transformation in the governance structure and style. Instead the Rajapaksa clan engaged in an exercise for expanding the security state and associated rhetoric, ideology etc. in the name of patriotism and the need to prepare the country for any re-emergence of terrorism from the LTTE elements and to face any Western conspiracies. It in effect was an exercise in wanting to take society into an era that existed during the war years psychologically rather than an ideology and program for the future in line with the public mood.
Apart from those connected to the ‘extensive system of patronage’ that has been built during the last ten years extending to the level of provinces even and the unsuspecting public who were brainwashed by the pro government media -including ridiculing of opposition politicians as unpatriotic- not many voters seem to have bought this ‘clan message’ which seemed far removed from what it should be.
In this context, the message of the then opposition, which included democratic reforms via constitutional reforms, had significant traction in the community, particularly ethnic minorities and sections of the majority. Though some commentators stated that the constitutional reforms were attractive only to the urbane professionals and the intelligentsia-not the rural masses-the election result shows that rural voters were tuned in as well. However, they would have had other concerns about the security state, clan rule, corruption, cost of living etc. also dominating their thinking at the time of voting. The Sinhala and Tamil media -not controlled by the clan-covered the constitutional reforms agenda extensively and there is no reason to believe it did not reach the rural masses to a significant extent. Repeated propaganda through the state media has had its impact but some were able to see through them though as tired onlookers. I have heard stories of people turning off TVs when such propaganda started.
The majority of voters in the end had the wisdom to put an end to the ‘clan project’ to prevent it being converted further into ‘a dynastic project’ and seek a democratic alternative contrary to a pseudo monarchical option. They had the wisdom to see the deep malaise being developed in the name of patriotism and Sinhala Buddhist nationalism whose ownership was claimed by the ruling politicians. They also understood the need for developing a governance system and style that serves the interests of many rather than a chosen few.
The new opportunity will give the Maithripala government space to restore dignity of everyone, the institutions and procedures required for good governance, checks and balances in the system, division of power between the executive, judiciary and the legislature and respect for the judiciary; An impartial but effective police force that looks after the interests of the people rather than politicians; A public service that is truly committed to the service of people; International relations conducted by professionals; the promised constitutional reforms to bring about a Presidency with reduced powers and a Prime Minister responsible for the cabinet and legislature; Information rather than propaganda through the state media. There are many challenges ahead in all these. But this is a time to rejoice, reflect and take the next steps calmly with wisdom.
The turmoil that existed in the North and the South due to the breakdown of law and order, rule of thugs turned politicians, and preferential treatment of citizens by their colour or opinion rather than citizenship, and increasing militarisation of society need to be reversed. Respect for everyone based on his or her human nature rather than class, caste, political affiliation, etc. can be reintroduced. Racial harmony and true reconciliation among various ethnic groups could be attempted without the climate of fear generated by heavy-handed methods of governance style instituted by an all powerful and partisan executive President.
In the last few years, especially since 2009, many wounds have been created. Many injustices have been imposed on those who do not belong in the inner circles or those who dared to disagree. These wounds need to be healed.
After the conclusion of the war, people wanted to be free from the war rhetoric and the rhetoric of terrorism. They were ready to embrace peace, reconciliation and co-existence while looking forward to a brighter future without the war and with correct leadership. However, the Rajapaksa regime continued with anti terrorism rhetoric and a fear about a pseudo Western enemy for political purposes while engaging in an economic project centred on family and close associates in the guise of governance. In other words, they were building an empire with restricted access in a glasshouse. The inevitable outcome of such an exercise is that there are winners and losers, and those included and those excluded. The numbers in the latter category enlarged with each year of their governance making many within the party and coalition unhappy. This led to the defections at the most critical time in the electoral cycle.
Rajapaksa governance was underpinned by the Rajapaksa economic project-characterised by mega projects- and the symbolic project-characterised by the terrorism and anti-Western discourse. The security project was also a key plank in their governance style. It stood at the core of their power more than any popular support they were able to garner. Popular support was manufactured by buying in opposition politicos and using indirect threats to retain those who were about to leave government or dissent. The net effect of this entire project was the disintegration and brutalisation of civil society on the one hand and the concentration of economic, politico-security, and symbolic power within the family and a close circle on the other hand. This was resented by many in the ruling political class itself and by those in the outer circles who came to understand their real modus operandi. The population at large also started to get indications of this smelly system little by little. After the declaration of the election date more allegations of corrupt activities started to come out in public. Social media also played a critical role in disseminating stories of corruption, intimidation of political opponents etc. while the state and some private media played the music of the powerful.
The failure of Rajapaksa rule was due partially to its ‘inflated patriotism’ manufactured largely by the state controlled media including its TV stations, radio and newspapers. Sections of the civil society did not buy into the line promoted by the ruling clan as it had serious contradictions. Patriotism is not something confined to the protection of land only. It is a good quality and to be respected if it includes all people in a given country. There are millions of Sri Lankans who are patriotic in and outside the country from all backgrounds. However to use patriotism as a political slogan and attempt to capitalise on it while describing political opponents as unpatriotic is a narrow exercise. In the end, Rajapaksa’s coalition had no any other ideology for the people and the country than to trumpet more and more patriotism to the extent of even waving national flags in pro-government political meetings. But people had other ideas, criticisms and intentions.
It didn’t take much time for the majority to realise the true nature of this inflated patriotic ideology propagated by the regime and it’s narrowness especially when contrasted with everything else going on under the rule of Rajapaksas, including stories circulating in the society about rampant corruption and accumulation of illegitimate wealth by the clan and it’s cronies. Maithripala and his campaign team gave further insights about this aspect of the regime within a short period of a month after the election was announced. With the defections of ministers and MPs, the empire started to crumble but the state controlled media and pro government private media etc. until the election results were known, kept it together before the public eye.
For a multi ethnic society such as Sri Lanka that had been accustomed to democratic traditions of governance, this sort of narrow patriotism and nationalism trumpeted by referring to a war victory accomplished five years ago proved to be an out of date discourse by 2015. People needed real solutions for real problems including tangible peace and reconciliation, an inclusive and free society, functioning institutions and procedures not diminished by political interference, and security of person and property. More importantly, they wanted a share of the cake.
The security state that has been built by the Rajapaksa clan by centralising enormous power in the hand of Mahinda and his brothers actually moved in the direction of exclusionary politics and governance. Only exception was when absorbing elements of the political class who complied with the ruling ideology of inflated patrotism and nationalism on one hand and the security state built by the expanding role of the military under the guidance of Mahinda’s brother – Gotabaya on the other.
Moreover, there were serious contradictions between their ideology and discourse and the actual practice. For example, the development projects introduced under their rule came in for questioning from the opposition. While the infrastructure projects such as road construction were admired by the general public, increasing taxes and the lavish lifestyle of the former President’s close family, ministers and bureaucrats came in for criticism too. One such example was the number of people the former President accompanied on foreign trips. People could see a super layer of economically and politically privileged clique being promoted even to the exclusion of many within the country’s political class itself.
The country’s free media had been muscled into compliance either directly or indirectly. A fear psychosis of a different kind enveloped the popular psyche even in the South while there were many more restrictions on the life and movements as well as the freedoms of people in the North. Experiencing fear, intimidation and the constant media onslaught by the state controlled media and other outlets under the grip of the clan in all parts of society was becoming in people’s experience a significant contradiction compared to what the post conflict situation should ideally have been. Yet dissent was only possible by the very brave, not by the innocent millions of average Sri Lankans. Dissent was muted within the broader society. It became clear after the election was announced that dissent had not been tolerated within the regime also by the clan.
The aspirations of millions of people from different walks of life, ethnic groups, religious groups, and layers could not be accomplished within a centralised system of governance that used brutalisation of society and curtailment of rights and freedoms as key tactics while building fear among dissenting groups, individuals and NGOs so as to prevent resistance. Yet these elements did not see a way out other than to comply with the dominant doctrine and system in place as they knew to do otherwise was to invite trouble. Trouble came in many shapes and forms. Examples were those of former army commander Sarath Fonseka and former Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake who lost not only their positions but also the dignity and respect. In the case of Fonseks, he even lost his medals and pension. There are many more instances of political persecution during the clan rule meted out to opposition politicians, journalists, artists and the rest.
People started to realise that there was something wrong with the rhetoric and the system with each passing day but it was the organisation for social justice that Rev. Maduluwawe Sobhita initiated and expanded that gave rise to a public view among dissenting groups, parties and factions that a change in the system of governance is needed. Some spokespeople from old left parties and even the JVP started to provide inputs to this platform but more importantly behind the scene discussions by Rev. Sobhita and his associates among politicians, professionals such as lawyers, and university academics allowed him to seek in principle and active support. After the election was announced, given the short time frame available for campaigning, various political and social forces started to rally around Rev. Sobhita and his organisation to create a broader political platform for the opposition. His attempts at convincing Rajapaksa and his coalition to accept the constitutional agenda prepared by his organisation failed. This paved the way for a range of opposition parties, civil society groups etc. to develop the agenda that finally brought down Rajapakse. Behind Maithripala’s political campaign was this moral message so committedly developed by Rev. Sobhita’s organisation and it’s affiliates. This provided a moral foundation for the opposition during the critical weeks in the campaign. While Rajapaksa offered more of the same, Maithripala offered substantial ‘change’ in the system of governance. In the end voters preferred change over the status quo.
It is a mistake to believe that the road will be easy or rosy. Once the dust settles, parties will start their usual bickering and competitive politics for electoral gains in a future parliamentary election. The challenge before the new government with new faces, smells and sounds is to work on its 100 day program systematically by using the collective wisdom of parties, groups, organisations and individuals before the heat of victory evaporates.