By Tisaranee Gunasekara –
Post-Rajapaksa Sri Lanka suffers from a deadly absence. It has a democratic government, but no democratic opposition.
Had Sri Lanka been a normal democracy – with a democratic government and a democratic opposition (however flawed) – the burgeoning crisis of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government would not have become democracy’s crisis. Elections would have acted as a pressure-releasing mechanism, by ensuring a peaceful transfer of governmental power from one democratic political party to another.
Unfortunately, in Sri Lanka of 2017, the only available alternative to the government is a political formation which is proudly anti-democratic, and extremist in the full sense of the word, without even the saving grace of economic populism.
The ouster of the Rajapaksa regime required a never-before-attempted coalition between the UNP and a segment of the SLFP. This coalition created a vacuum in the Southern oppositional space. The main oppositional party in parliament, the TNA, is democratic but its politico-electoral presence is limited to two provinces. Had the JVP been able to make the transition to a social-democratic party or even a democratic-socialist party, it could have filled this vacuum. It hasn’t; on the contrary the JVP is moving away from political moderation, in an attempt to overtake its latest offshoot, the extremist, über-archaic FSP. Consequently the Southern oppositional vacuum is being filled by the Joint Opposition (JO), that motley collection of parties committed not just to the return of Mahinda Rajapaksa to power but also to the restoration of Rajapaksa power.
During their two-and-a-half years in opposition, the Rajapaksas have become more anti-democratic, more retrogressive and more extremist. There has been no self-criticism, no rethinking, no reset; their defeats were and are blamed on minorities and imperialists. Their agenda is purely revanchist, starting with the destruction of whatever advances made towards democracy and reconciliation since Jan. 2015. They are not coy about what they intend to do – restore familial rule, disembowel democracy from within and use a Sinhala-Buddhist supremacist superstructure as both window-dressing and a dam against inevitable popular disillusionment.
President Sirisena’s antipathy towards and fear of the Rajapaksas are sincere. But Ranil Wickremesinghe is allowing the Rajapaksas to grow in the hope that their growth would hurt only the SLFP. If the crisis festers and explodes, the Rajapaksas won’t need to break up the SLFP. They will take over the SLFP, leaving Maithripala Sirisena with just a handful of supporters. But they will also manipulate a schism in the UNP. The groundwork is already being done, via a manufactured-division in the UNP between ‘patriots’ and ‘anti-patriots’. In this rendition, ‘patriots’ are soft on Sinhala-Buddhist extremism; they are politically and socially illiberal; they equate strong government not with an effective democracy but with any autocracy. When the crisis reaches the breaking point, the Rajapaksas will take over the SLFP and break up the UNP, absorbing the so called patriots into their fold and leaving Ranil Wickremesinghe with a rump. So what is at stake is not just the fate of the SLFP or Maithripala Sirisena. What is at stake is the fate of the UNP and Ranil Wickremesinghe.
Fragility of Democracy
Chaos is not democracy. Drifting into disaster is not good governance.
How did a government which began with so much hope, credibility and legitimacy sink to this level in mere 30 months? The short answer is that it didn’t do what it promised and did what it pledged not to. It stubbornly repeated Rajapaksa errors while ignoring its own good-governance promises. The crisis is a self-made one, as evidenced by a triad of preventable woes.
The Uma Oya project was first mooted in the early 1990’s and abandoned due to its environmental repercussions. Its environmental unfeasibility, as revealed by a feasibility study, meant that no respectable bank would touch it. It was resurrected by the Rajapaksas, as part of their megalomanic plan to turn Hambantota into a world-class city. Those mammoth white-elephants, the Hambantota Port and the Mattala Airport, plus the proposed Hambantota industrial zone needed water. Satiating this gargantuan thirst was the main purpose of the Uma Oya project. The devastation the project would cause in the Badulla district in general and the Bandarawela area in particular did not concern the Rajapaksas.
Since no reputed bank would touch this disastrous venture, President Rajapaksa sought help from his ally, the then Iranian President, Mohammad Ahmadinajad. Mr. Ahmadinajad talked to Iran’s Exim bank. A loan was approved with no feasibility study. The project was inaugurated, with the usual Rajapaksa hype, during Mr. Ahmadinajad’s visit to Sri Lanka.
By January 2015, the ill effects of the project were becoming glaringly obvious. Houses were compromised and wells drying up. People protested and President Sirisena ordered the suspension of the project. But a few months later, the project was recommenced, with no changes in the modus operandi, and no attempt to deal with the consequences.
Now 80% of the project is over, and environmental degradation has reached unimaginable proportions. The project has been suspended again and foreign expertise sought. The proposed solutions include scaling down the project to Uva-Wellassa and the use of a more sophisticated (and supposedly less damaging) earth-digging machine. Why weren’t these solutions implemented in 2015? Why did the government wait until the issue exploded?
A similar trajectory is discernible in the garbage crisis. The government has begun to take concrete steps to deal with the garbage issue at the points of creation (the ban on certain plastic items), collection (sorting of garbage) and disposal (turning garbage into electricity). Why weren’t these measures undertaken in 2015? Why did the government wait till the Meetotamulla tragedy to do the right and doable thing?
The SAITM issue provides a similar case in point. The South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine, like Uma Oya and Meetotamulla, was a Rajapaksa baby the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government adopted as its very own. It was set up with Rajapaksa blessings and active support. SAITM was granted the status of a degree-awarding institution via an extraordinary gazette (1721/19) on 30th August 2011. In the same month, President Rajapaksa gave the institute a financial leg-up when he granted government scholarships, each worth Rs. 7 million, to 10 students to undertake their medical studies at SAITM.
Every year, a significant number of academically promising students from ‘developed’ districts are denied access to government medical colleges, thanks to district-level standardisation, that monstrous instrument of academic levelling-down created by the UF government. Therefore there is an objective need for private medical colleges. The problem with SAITM is not its ownership but its dubious admission criteria and the questionable nature of its training. The government should have studied these issues in 2015 and proposed and implemented solutions, such as making SAITM degrees conditional on students sitting for and getting through a qualifying exam conducted by the Medical Council. That failure has enabled the GMOA to weaponise the issue, possibly as part of the broader Rajapaksa agenda of regaining power by pushing the country towards chaos and mob-rule.
Instead of charting their own path, the government continued on the Rajapaksa one, thereby alienating its own base and reducing the distance between itself and the Rajapaksas. The result is the current crisis.
Back to Tyranny via Ochlocracy
The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration’s crisis isn’t located in too much democracy, as some claim, but in its suicidal inability to distinguish friend from enemy or to understand the special nature of the current political moment. Every mistake the government makes helps not a normal opposition, but an opposition which is a threat to Lankan democracy. .
Elections are decided by people – and numbers. That is what the government has forgotten. In its determination to limp along the Rajapaksa path, the administration is antagonising those segments of the populace which enabled it to defeat the Rajapaksa juggernaut in January 2015, and to beat back a resurgent Rajapaksa challenge in August 2015.
The government has alienated the minorities with its toleration of the likes of BBS and the execrable monk Galagoda-Atte Gnanasara. It is allowing a segment of Sangha-extremists to decide how the country should be run, as if this is a Sinhala-Buddhist theocracy, a la Saudi Arabia or Iran. This caving into saffron-clad bullies is hardly surprising, since the government also caved into bullying by hardline Muslim clerics and washed its hands of the MMDA, inclusive of ending the egregious practice of child-marriage.
Little is being done to alleviate the economic woes of the war-torn areas. The government has also failed to satisfy those Sinhala voters who voted for it to gain some economic relief.
The UNP and SLFP segments of the government, instead of taking on the Rajapaksas, are too busy attacking and undermining each other.
In the hiatus created by the government’s lack of a common programme and direction, the Rajapaksas are thriving. The former first family seems unwilling to wait till the end of this government’s legal lifespan to get back into power. Their strategy is clear – render the country ungovernable and offer themselves to an electorate tired of the resultant chaos as ‘restorers of order’. As their encouragement of the immoral GMOA strikes (which punish the poorest of the poor) demonstrate, their plan constitute of exacerbating public misery to breaking point, pushing the country towards ochlocracy and using the resultant ‘great disorder under heavens’ to justify the return of familial-tyranny. They are also giving a religio-cultural complexion to economic discontent, and offering themselves to the Sinhala-Buddhist masses as the ‘saviours of a nation threatened from within and without’. (The collusion of extremist-Sangha in this plan is evidenced by their silence on the GMOA’s attempt to impose a continuous strike on the country at a time of Dengue crisis. This attempt failed thanks to the intervention of the Catholic Church and not the politically busy Asgiriya Chapter.)
The challenge before the government therefore is not an easy one. It must defeat a non-democratic foe, democratically. It must outsmart a foe who is angling for an excuse for violent action, non-violently. It must outrun an extremist foe, without resorting to extremism. But to do any of this, it must first understand the threat and the enemy. And so far, such clarity seems beyond its capacity. After a mere thirty months in office, the government has become contemptuous of ‘even the most common rules of commonsense’ and is suffering from a ‘radical loss of self interest.’ (Two of the attributes of Hannah Arendt’s ‘mass man’ – The Origins of Totalitarianism)
Lankan people don’t have very high expectations of their politicians, but Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government is failing to meet even the lowest expectations of those voters who enabled its victory. In the critical absence of a democratic opposition capable of providing an alternative to the current administration, the government’s crisis has become democracy’s crisis. It is reopening the door to a political formation which is exploiting ‘patriotism in the service of hatred’ and ensconcing ‘the sword as the modern God.’(Emile Zola – I Accuse) It is paving the way for a presidential election in which one of the two main contenders is the Ur-fascist Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the godfather of the BBS, who publicly stated that the BBS monks were engaged in a ‘nationally important task’ and mustn’t be feared or doubted by ‘anyone’.(Sri Lanka Mirror – 10.3.2013)The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration is not fiddling while Rome burns. It is taking ‘selfies’ on the railway track ignoring the hurtling express train.