By Mohamed Harees –
“A journey, towards a mirage, never ends.”― Ehsan Sehgal
Another Annus Horribilis indeed! Sri Lanka appeared to be continuing on its disastrous path on all fronts, this year too, (thanks) to its disoriented, beleaguered leadership as it faces further domestic woes and foreign policy hurdles. Yes! the people are now increasingly getting disgusted and angered, and now baying for the blood of yet another government that had failed them. However, as it is often said, ‘the lesson of history is that no one learns’. Thus, with a slavish electorate with a short term memory, which is typical in Sri Lanka, there aren’t any visible signs in the horizon that public activism is aptly geared to counter the growing political comical drama and at best appears to be confined to mere rhetoric and memes in the social media. Ultimately, come the next election! there will be a re-enactment of the same drama as witnessed in the past, ignoring all the irreparable damage, caused to the nation during their tenure of office. Sad but true!
Sri Lanka is the perfect example when it comes to stereotypes of mismanagement in the post-colonial developing world: rampant corruption, lavish elitism, and nationalist policies that cater toward the majority to manage the remnants of colonial antiques in the post-colonial era. Sri Lanka also represents a classic case of a country degenerating on the ethnic and political fronts when pluralism is deliberately eschewed. Multiple issues including colonialism, a sense of Sinhalese Buddhist entitlement rooted in mytho-history, economic grievances, politics, nationalism and communal violence all interacting with and stemming from each other, said to have pushed the island towards majoritarianism. This, in turn, then led to ethnic riots, a civil war accompanied by terrorism that ultimately killed over 100,000 people, democratic regression, accusations of war crimes and authoritarianism.
However, given this majoritarian mindset that has become embedded as well as the undermining and weakening of state institutions that nearly three decades of civil war and post-conflict authoritarianism promoted, it was just wishful thinking that the lessons learned can then enable a more inclusive society that emphasizes common citizenship over divisive ethno-religious identities. Sadly, this majoritarian trend went to a new peak, when in November 2019, the people of Sri Lanka, the much talked about ‘69 lakhs electorate’ which predominantly comprised of the majority Sinhala Buddhist voters, enabled a ‘military strongman’ Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s ascent to the presidency. On the heels of a well- orchestrated Islamophobic campaign after the terrible Easter Sunday attacks, this historic win made his supporters euphoric that the country is finally on the path of security, development and prosperity. After a Yahapalana spell which was another disaster, the Sri Lankan public thus yearned for a Leviathan who could give them stability, prosperity, and, especially, security.
Authoritarian populism thus returned to Sri Lanka. It was the expectation that a combination of Gotabaya’s military technocratic efficiency and non- political profile, and Mahinda’s hard-nosed political stature will prove wonders for Sri Lanka. The Post 2019 victory in Sri Lanka, portrayed two realities. One, a new regime buoyed by its triumphant support base and eager to consolidate an iron political grip. Second, weakened political opposition, with ranks in disarray. These dynamics of power consolidation and unbridled triumphalism and widespread fear across the voter divide began to threaten the democratic space which was gained over the previous Yahalapana time (only significant gain). However, despite all conservative expectations, the country ended the year 2020, questioning Rajapaksas’ self-proclaimed technocratic credentials as the domineering president also failed to prevent a third wave of COVID-19 infections, despite some initial successes.
One and a half year later, there seems to be no real government in power. The cabinet has a vicious reputation of having a bunch of comedians and idiots. Their various statements are looked upon as comical memes in the social media. For example, Namal (knowing his family rule) says no more nepotism and Mahindananda wants to import fertilizer without micro-organisms! Many SLPP heavyweights appears to be falling silent and also keeping a sense of aloofness. Gotabaya dream has been dubbed as a mirage and called as, in the social media – a misfit, inefficient, joker, comic in a circus and also a ‘cardboard Sando’. Many of his so-called Sinhala Buddhist camp including prominent monks and nationalists have started to desert the sinking ship. Gota’s vain attempts to salvage his pseudo ‘Sinhala Buddhist champion’ media image through employing two veteran media men (Sudeva and Kingsley) was called as an attempt to stop the diarrhoea by tightening the groin cloth. Economic crisis has become uncontrollable, with a spiralling cost of living, Sri Lanka has been carrying its begging bowl to its (once poorest) neighbour B’desh, in order to bridge its foreign exchange deficits. The recent fuel hike led to a hilarious episode of the governing SLPP calling for the resignation of the minister in charge. Infighting has become the norm!
One might argue that the coronavirus could slow down the government’s consolidation of Sinhalese Buddhist majoritarianism, and may push it in a more pluralist direction. Conversely, as economic conditions worsen and the regime’s popularity tanks significantly, Gotabaya and his hyper-nationalist entourage appears to be tempted to whip up ethnoreligious mayhem to mask the political blowback from COVID-19 and many other crises, as a diversionary tactic. COVID-19 actually allowed hate groups and their opportunistic political patrons to fan Islamophobia, including the irrational forced cremation policy which was only reversed due to international pressure.
International community has been referring to the situation for human rights and the rule of law worsening on a “daily basis” in Sri Lanka. The Rajapaksas have continued to militarize public life, render the country as a debtor and tributary to China, entrench marginalization of minorities, intimidate activists, and abandon the transitional process in the aftermath of a vicious war that left more scars. Intimidation and harassment of civil society in Sri Lanka had led to the shrinking of civil space, and had had a “chilling effect”. Amnesty International said in a recent report it had witnessed an “alarming crackdown” on civic space and the targeting of minorities, including Muslim communities. Investigators looking into wartime abuses have been jailed, forced to flee the country or put under travel bans, in a clear message that the government sees accountability for past crimes as an affront.
The UNHRC resolution against Sri Lanka spoke about this situation loid and clear and was a diplomatic defeat for Gotabaya’s government. In fact, in February 2021, the UN Bachelet report said: “Sri Lanka’s current trajectory sets the scene for the recurrence of the policies and practices that gave rise to grave human rights violations.” A number of UN officials and independent experts, including four former high commissioners signed a letter describing Bachelet’s report as a “compelling case” for decisive international action and praising its focus on prevention. Bachelet’s report documents a pattern of surveillance and harassment of civil society organisations and human rights defenders.
Democracy and freedom are concepts like beauty in the eye of the beholder. They mean many things to different people, under different contexts. Democracy implies that every single citizen gets a “voice” and/or a vote, however due to the large population it would be impossible for everyone to have a voice for every single issue (this would simply slow down the voting process and little would ever get done), instead democracy is more of a republic with people being “represented” by those who share their same ideals. It is a reflection of a failure of democracy, of a democracy that has been hijacked by special interests. In any democracy, reforming the existing and well entrenched system can be challenging. Even if the reforms are acted upon, they may not necessarily work as expected. These challenges owe largely to inherent characteristics that defines our democracy i.e. freedom to speak to be heard, freedom to protest.
The strong public perceptions about the power of money in politics of governance have existed in any democracy as the emanating point of corruption. Election funding has propensity to define and dictate contours of policy making. As a result, most acts of governance, policy making and visuals of fighting corruption are looked at as partisan. Despite change of governments the old system often finds its way back with greater vigour, more systemised and legalised to the extent that slush funds become something that nobody sees as a crime. If today any political outfit claims to have not benefitted from such fund is taking liberties with the truth. Irony is that the honesty and integrity in public life is invoked in a way that the world of appearance hypocritically conceals the world of facts. Such is the power of money over politics that even the movements that start as social struggles to counter the hegemony of capitalism soon get set into the prevailing system.
Having said that, despite many inherent ironies and challenges, democracy is the only feasible possibility for us towards ensuring citizens’ participation in any form in the act of governance and the only possible way towards a shared future as an inclusive society of values and laws. The path of democratization rarely runs smoothly. Sri Lanka has witnessed that public perceptions have resulted in the change of the government through democratic means. Similarly, examples of failure of communal agenda to win elections in the past have been the gratifying moments in our democracy. Thus, it is not the end of the road. Sri Lanka has the resilience and vitality to bounce back, if only the people wake up from their slavish slumber and start to speak out and protest.
Social media platforms have today transformed the way see, receive and share information. Its emergence has also altered and ushered new dynamics, raising a lot of ethical and legal concerns. But legislating social media is a slippery slope as it may result in filtering of inconvenient truths. The best way out is moderation and regulation from the social media companies themselves with limited government involvement and co-regulations to meet certain specific requirements to best serve the public interest.
The need of the hour is public activism uniting progressive forces across all racial and religious divides to hold this government to account, and also against the Islamophobic forces that have gained traction among the majority population, arising from the political agenda of the rulers. Due to attempts by the rulers to sue racism as a political tool, there are lurking fears of an aggressive form of nationalism attributable to political and social articulations to attitudes like so-called misplaced ‘pride in the nation’, mistrust in perceived out-groups, ranking national identity over other identities etc. A government formed on the basis of racism and ultra-nationalism will never serve the public good, as the Sri Lankan electorate saw at their peril, after much damage to the social fabric and international image. Trumps and Modis, also took their nations on a disastrous political journey and down the precipice. If this reality is not understood by Sri Lanka, and duly rectified, the Leviathan will develop into a militant nationalist fanatic that will spiral out of control.
And, there is also the need for dissent — in parliament, in the public sphere, and within communities. If polarising and dividing form the mechanics of consolidating power, it is through bridging divides and uniting people — across ethnic and religious groups — that resistance can hold. Organisationally, trade unions and social movements should prepare themselves to be part of this struggle as was seen in the ‘golden’ past.