By Shiranee Dissanayake –
I thought of addressing this article to you as Sri Lanka now stands at a very critical juncture in its political history. But first things first. Before going further, we must extend our grateful thanks and pay the highest tribute to all genuine protestors who took up the formidable challenge of ousting the most powerful and corrupt of all regimes which governed the country since independence in 1948. Hats off to the aragalaya (protest) for their peaceful protest based on NON-VIOLENCE, and LOVE. which continued against all odds and finally emerged victorious with the departure of Gotabaya Rajapakse and his siblings Mahinda and Basil.
Having said that let me take this opportunity to congratulate you Mr. President, on your appointment as the 8th Executive President of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. There are many arguments (which are technically valid), put forward by politicians and citizens alike, against the legitimacy of your post. On the other hand, many are of the opinion that the need of the hour is a person who has the ability, experience, and international clout to effectively handle this problem and pull the country out of this economic morass. Against this background you have succeeded in being appointed constitutionally to the post you now hold at a time when the survival of the nation is at stake. Now that you are in power, it is up to you to prove to the people that you can justify your current position by:
1. Speedily and sustainably resolving the immediate problem of starving people dying in fuel queues which has brought normal life to a point of chaos.
2. Ensuring the rule of law and working together with all stakeholders to bring about the system change that the aragalaya initiated.
The objective of the initial aragalaya was to rid this country of the corrupt, selfish, insensitive incompetent 74-year political system which got progressively worse until the people could take it no more. The aragalaya was supported by citizens of this country who wanted the Rajapakses out due to their political/economic bungling inflicting immense suffering on the people of all walks of life. The educated youth initiated the aragalaya as a non-partisan, peaceful, non-violent protest to bring about a change in the current detestable system which had brought the country to what it is today. Sri Lankans abroad too joined in to register their protest signaling widespread rejection of the rulers and current system of governance.
The most significant victory of the aragalaya is the change in mindsets of the youth of all communities. They decided to unite for a common cause, casting aside all differences of race, caste, creed, social standing etc. which divided our nation and propelled it towards ruination. The most striking feature of the aragalaya at its commencement was its policy of:
* Brotherhood, and unity of purpose among all communities
* A steadfast resolve to change the current despicable system of governance for a better tomorrow for all Sri Lankans.
In simpler terms it meant peace, unity, and love for our fellow beings. They have vividly demonstrated by the victory they achieved that the above approach could form the basis for the new system of governance that all Sri Lankans are looking forward to. Indeed, there are many lessons to be learnt from the events of the past three months.
As the aragalaya gained momentum it was evident that political parties whose individual protests had little, or no effect also decided to join the aragalaya. It is your duty Mr. President to ensure that the victory of the aragalaya is not abused by politicians including yourself and your supporters to put their own interests and selfish political ambitions before the welfare of the people. We hope that you will use your vast knowledge and experience to address the immediate issue of starving people dying in queues due to lack of food, medicine, and fuel. The long-term solution to this problem will depend on the establishment of a stable government who will put their differences aside and work together to come out of this political/economic quagmire.
However, what we have observed so far is that political parties representing various races and political hues are even at this cataclysmic stage haggling to further their own narrow political ambitions. It is time they started thinking seriously about whether they want Sri Lanka to survive as a nation or perish. Let us hope that sanity will prevail.
A plan of action should be drawn up in consultation with the initiators of the aragalaya, the public, all parties in parliament and experts in the relevant fields for future implementation to put Sri Lanka on the road to recovery. May you be guided to take the correct decisions to ensure law and order and bring about a peaceful system change envisaged by the people, who made it possible for you to be where you are today.
The decisions you take at this juncture, will decide the economic social and political destiny of Sri Lanka for better or for worse. This indeed is a very decisive moment as your decisions can either make or break our beloved motherland.
In your new position you now have the glorious opportunity to change the old ineffective corrupt order which prevailed both within parliament and without and install a system of governance devoid of hypocrisy, bribery, corruption robbery, indiscipline, incompetence, and inequality which have been the hallmark of the political system adopted so far.
Having said that, let me highlight some of the factors which contributed to the downfall of Sri Lanka politically, economically, and socially over the past 74 years. It must also be mentioned that a paradigm shift in the mindsets of not only the political leadership but also of the people is needed to ensure that democracy is meaningfully incorporated into the political and social systems for the good of all citizens.
Is Sri Lanka a Democracy?
To all intents and purposes Sri Lanka is known to be a country that is governed based on democratic principles. Abraham Lincoln once said, “democracy is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people”. However, if you take a good look at the way that rulers have ruled over the years, it would be more appropriate to say that in Sri Lanka “democracy” is a government of the politicians, voted in by the people for the politicians.
If one studies the laws and constitutional amendments brought about in the past, it becomes abundantly clear that many of them have been initiated and passed in parliament to benefit the politicians rather than the people. The 20th amendment is the most glaring example where laws have been passed to accommodate the objectives of the Rajapakse family. The same applies to many of the previous regimes as well.
A matter that also should be given serious thought by the people is whether they themselves practice democracy. Do they think of the wellbeing of the country as a whole or do they think only of what they as individuals can get out of this exercise when they cast their vote? Democracy becomes meaningless if people are selfish and approve manifestos with undemocratic undercurrents. Food for thought!
A Flawed Electoral System
The electoral system which prevailed in the past has proved to be a failure as no standards are set to be eligible to contest an election. Those who enter politics have no idea of what governance is all about. Most often, nominations are made based on personal loyalties, friendships and relationships ignoring their suitability in terms of ability, qualifications, and moral character. The people are compelled to select candidates from among the nominees selected by leaders of the various political parties. Therefore, it is imperative that they are selected based on their knowledge, previous performance, ability, and their moral character. They should be given a training in governance and leadership before entering parliament. It also should be mentioned that race/religion based political parties have not served its purpose of safeguarding their constituents on whose vote they thrive. The new approach of unity of all communities working towards a common goal initiated by the aragalaya should be extended to parliamentary practice as well. The concept of Sri Lankans serving Sri Lankans, should be adopted where politicians of all races/religions should see their role going beyond the confines of a particular race or religion. In this context religion/race-based parties have no place in democratic governance.
The current sorry state of Sri Lanka can be attributed to the cumulative effect of decisions taken by successive governments over the past 74 years, which failed to address the real hopes and aspirations of the Sri Lankan nation. Sri Lanka is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious nation of Sinhala. Tamil. Muslim Burgher and Malay communities of different socio-economic backgrounds. They belong to Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, and Islamic faiths. Being a nation made up of such a mix of citizens it is imperative that pluralism and diversity must be recognized, and all citizen treated as equals with equal rights. Being totally insensitive to this diversity of race, religion and socio-economic needs of the nation was one of the grave mistakes made by successive governments. The greatest mistake made by S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike in 1956 by adopting the Sinhala only policy to get the majority Sinhala vote was the first step towards disaster. As it stands most political decisions are based on doing what it takes however ill-conceived, corrupt or immoral, to get as many votes as possible to come into power and remain in power. A case in point is the tax cuts given by Gotabhaya Rajapakse as an election pledge, which deprived the government of a sizable part of its regular revenue.
A Corrupt Political Culture
Regrettably as time progressed the political culture of Sri Lanka deteriorated to the extent that they even started bribing the people to vote for them. That’s not all according to reports when a majority was required to pass a motion in parliament, political parties and their leaders had no qualms about offering large sums of money to parliamentarians to buy votes. The tragedy is that some parliamentarians succumbed to the temptation of getting rich overnight. This reflects the quality of the those who represent the people in Sri Lankan politics. It is also evident that raising their hands in support of a motion is not based on any moral principle. A classic example is current politicians giving the nod to the 18th 19th and 20th amendments which are contrary to each other. Some have even gone on record saying that they don’t have the time to read the whole document. As such the quality of governance itself has dropped to a new low. The behavior of provincial council members and MPs within parliament as we have seen in the media reflects their inaptness for the positions they hold. . The quality, background and purpose of the people who enter politics in future must be carefully evaluated to ensure decent moral behavior, honesty, efficiency, and good governance.
The current electoral system has seen enormous amounts of money and personal services being provided by the business community and other individuals to ensure the election victory of a particular party. Of course, there are strings attached to it. We have seen undeserved privileges being granted in return. Key positions in government and parliament are given to people based on personal friendships, relationships, and loyalties. All this has contributed to mismanagement and a sharp drop in quality and productivity.
In addition to the political blunder of SWRD Bandaranaike in 1956, feeding racist sentiments of the majority was a tactic adopted by the Rajapaksa clan who dominated Sri Lankan politics for over two decades. It is heartening to note that the youth who participated in the aragalaya provided a model of true brotherhood and equality among all sections of the community accompanied by peace, non-violence, and love. Indeed, there are many things that the current politicians can learn from the youth of this country.
After the end of the war in 2009 the development programme of the Rajapaksa regime was based on securing enormous loans to implement so called ‘development projects. One such project is the infamous Nelum Kuluna (Lotus Tower) which has so far served no useful purpose but stands tall as the political symbol of the SLPP- the political party founded by Basil Rajapaksa. The cost of this which is a loan from China must be borne by the people of this country. Such was the perverted thinking behind the political decisions of the Rajapaksas which did nothing more than feeding their own ego.
Given below are some glaring examples of wasteful expenditure;
1. Providing housing security, staff, and vehicles to retired presidents and their widows at state expense.
2. Paying pensions to MPs after 5 years in parliament.
3. The number of official vehicles provided to MPs.
4. The number of security personnel provided to politicians.
5. Foreign trips and the size of the entourage taken on such trips.
6. Payment of telephone, water, and electricity bills of MPs.
Considering their contribution to the welfare of the country, is providing facilities to members of parliament over and above that provided to the public service justified?
It is a well-known fact that many members of our polity, are accused of various forms of corrupt practices. They include demanding/accepting commissions for awarding tenders and other projects, misuse of government facilities and resources, drug trafficking etc. It has been observed that no action is taken to bring to book these offenders who rob the very people who elected them to power.
The rise in unemployment following the Covid-19 pandemic and the economic crisis has resulted in a rise in poverty levels. Talking Economics reports that more than 20% of children under 5 years are underweight. and that says it all. A study published by the Journal of Affective Disorders on Depression has revealed that “lack of basic amenities and poor financial resources are strongly associated with depression among men in Sri Lanka. However, prevalence has been found to be higher in females”. The current economic situation has increased the levels of depression and made it into a nationwide phenomenon.
It is true that from time-to-time people must undergo various difficulties due to changes in local and international political circumstances. However, the nature of the current crisis is not a mere economic downturn affecting some sections of the community, but a multifaceted nationwide economic and political catastrophe with far reaching consequences on the survival of the entire nation. Can we afford to ignore this?
The Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation although it claims to be the “National TV Station.” in practice it is far from it. Being a journalist who has worked there from the inception as a pioneer who was a witness to how the station progressed through the years, I think I am qualified to speak about it with authenticity. After the inauguration of the station in 1982 we the pioneer producers who were given a thorough training on all aspects of professional news reporting. documentary production and presentation etc. installed the standards to be followed in implementing the people’s right to information. It must be mentioned that during that time we had the freedom to report the truth with no interference from the management whatsoever. However, after the first year or so, we watched with dismay the collapse of professionalism when politicization crept in. The National TV Station was gradually being converted to the trumpet of the government in power. However, the pioneers defiantly kept the professional practices alive although the freedom to report objectively was curtailed to a certain extent due to political dictates.
Now that the time has come to overhaul the entire system, serious thought should be given to make the Rupavahini Corporation independent of government interference particularly in its appointments and editorial functions. It should be used to promote the welfare of the people and not that of politicians. With the advent of social media access to information has increased. However, although there is a certain amount of truth in the posts in social media the stories may not be entirely accurate. It is the duty of the National TV Station to ensure the people’s right to know the truth by checking on the authenticity and giving an accurate balanced picture of the news. Independence of the National TV will indeed help to gain credibility and win the favour the public.
We all know that education moulds the life and character of an individual. Crime, drug trafficking sexual and domestic violence, robbery bribery etc. have been observed to be on the increase in recent times. It is evident that the knowledge training and skills provided by the current education system are inadequate to produce a dutiful citizen with social values that uphold inclusiveness, equality, honesty, and love for their fellow beings. Additionally, covid 19 and the economic crisis have compelled people to adopt a different lifestyle in keeping with the current economic and social climate. The future education policies should strive to address the above issues in its effort to reorganize the system.
Unity of Purpose
Amid a volatile international climate where the danger of a war is looming in the horizon the strategic position of our little island has made it a location favoured by many powerful countries who are opposed to each other. It is indeed a complex game of chess when it comes to foreign policy. Understanding the implications and making the correct strategic moves in this tight-rope walk will decide the future destiny of Sri Lanka.
In the current dire circumstances, unity of purpose is a vital factor that must be understood and adopted by those in power. Therefore, it is vital that you succeed in summoning the support of all factions concerned to diligently work together with love to lift the country out of this tragic situation.
Mr. President this is the last chance to save the nation from the misery and deprivation brought about by 74 years of political bungling, insensitivity, corruption, robbery, and lack of direction. Your decisions today will determine whether Sri Lanka will be able to survive as a nation or perish. As James Freeman Clarke said, “a politician thinks of the next election, a statesman of the next generation”.
It is our fervent hope that statesmanship would be the underlying principle of your brand of governance. Good Luck to you Mr. President. May you be enlightened by the Almighty to see things clearly and act accordingly so that the efforts of the Sri Lankan youth who initiated the process would not be in vain.