By Mohamed Harees –
With the Presidential Elections due by the end of the year, Sri Lanka has already become a hive of activity much visible both on the streets and in the media. The electioneering and campaigning have already started on an adversarial note, with more heat being created than light. What we Sri Lankans go through to pick our President is not only crazy and unnecessary but genuinely abusive. Hundreds of millions of rupees are spent in a craven, cynical effort to stir up hatred and anger on both sides. A decision that in reality takes one or two days of careful research to make(if based on policies and track records), is somehow stretched out into a process that involves relentless, suffocating mind-warfare, an onslaught of toxic media messaging, fake stories and news sensationalism, directed at an unsuspecting public, that by Election Day makes every dinner conversation dangerous and literally divides families. A corrupt and racist political system is much to blame for this, but the media too have to take responsibility for the damage they do to the public psyche in the name of election coverage; not forgetting the naivety and the gullibility of the Sri Lankan voter.
The 1978 constitution has not delivered political stability, though it was drafted and adopted for that purpose. With the benefit of hindsight, Sri Lanka’s executive presidency it created, has failed under its own terms. The nation’s four decades tryst with the executive presidency, has thus not been in its’ best interests. The crisis or the conflict President MS unleashed on October 26,2018 rekindled the debate on the abolition of the executive presidency. In fact, he reached a Faustian bargain with MR- the man whose 2005-2015 presidency brought democracy under siege. MS is now in the unenviable position of being dubbed a crackpot trusted by no one, while Yahapaalana government has become a rudderless ship. This coalition government, which came to power defeating MR regime on the platform of bringing the corrupt sharks of that time to justice and to bring national reconciliation failed on both counts. Further, the national outcry to abolish and/or to introduce more checks and balances is still not being given ear to. However, despite the media hype, consequent to the 19th Amendment, this election will only elect a President with much less power than the incumbent who came to power in 2015.
In this context, it is a tragicomedy of our times that the main parties who have been holding power in Post- Independence Sri Lanka (UNP, SLFP and PA/ breakaway SLPP) are once again seeking a fresh mandate, despite their tainted track records. Gota and Sajith (if nominated) represent a bankrupt political system which has taken Sri Lanka aback to the point of a failed state. Sri Lanka’s social integrity and economic stature have been compromised beyond repair under these two major party rule. They have turned Sri Lanka into a divided nation. Frustration with the corruption, divisive/racist politics, loss of confidence in politics and rule of law, and the lack of orientation of the country’s elites to the common good and the interests of young voters in particular, have led to a generation no longer using their right to vote and withdrawing from political life. The polarisation of society and political culture has made it more difficult for young people to become politically-active. Sri Lanka’s rulers have thus repeatedly disregarded the country’s best interests for personal gain.
With the socio- economic systems in dire peril when compared against international indicators and our heads shaking in bewilderment at the ever-worsening political climate that surrounds Sri Lanka, our questions are: Have we reached the tipping point, where our democracy hangs in the balance? Has our country reached an existential crisis point? And what can we do to prevent this? My question to all who continue to support the two party system: What more will it take before you accept that this corrupt ill-gotten system has already led us – and perhaps gleefully – to assume political serfdom and into dictatorship and poverty of all forms in the seven decades of Post Independence era? Should we not be part of a social re-engineering movement to change this evil status quo? Isn’t it time opportune to have a paradigm shift in our political thinking?
There is however good news in the horizon beyond the narrow confines of the two party- continuum. A tipping point indeed! In sociology, a tipping point is a point in time when a group—or a large number of group members – rapidly and dramatically changes its behaviour by widely adopting a previously rare practice. Journalists and academics have applied the phrase to dramatic changes in governments, such as during the Arab Spring. The latest positive development has been the challenge taken up by the numerous intellectuals and political activists banding together forming National People’s Power (NPP), to change the political culture from ‘personality based’ to a ‘policy based’, and to challenge the status quo where power has been moving to-date along a two- party continuum. NPP has put forward JVP’s Anura Kumara Dissanayake as their candidate whose track records in public office are comparatively credible. Besides, there is also public interest than ever before to challenge the status quo and to weed out the wretched political pests and leeches in the highest echelons of power, who have been ruling, sans any shades of shame and integrity, robbing public wealth at will. One of the main challenges for the next president will be to prove himself to be a national leader bringing the people together, rather than being a tribal leader and to clean up the stables while ensuring a credible political culture.
One of the biggest tragedies of our time is the emergence of intolerance and raw racism in the social and political fabric of this country, especially in the last few decades. Once upon a time, we Sri Lankans prided ourselves on our tolerance of difference. According to the story we told ourselves, we forged “one” people out of “many” in our schools, neighbourhoods, social interactions and political for a, as the US motto ‘E pluribus unum’ projects, tolerating a wider range of religious beliefs. We won our independence on a united platform. Unlike some other nations that rooted citizenship in blood or soil, we (eventually) became more willing to accept birth-right citizenship. Therefore, it is pathetic that Sri Lanka had to face the challenges to democratic values and human rights principles posed by racism and related intolerance. Incidentally, in the 2018 report of Bertelsmann Stiftung, a Germany-based think-tank, Burkina Faso and Sri Lanka were classed as defective democracies, having been classed as moderate autocracies in the 2016 report. ‘It is not so much the slight increase in the number of autocracies that is worrying. More problematic is the fact that civil rights are being curtailed and the rule of law undermined in an increasing number of democracies as well,” says this latest report.
We have seen the resurgence of ultra-right/ religious movements expressing racial, religious, national or ethnic hatred. We have also heard political voices from the highest echelons of power which echo and even actively advocate racism, majoritarianism, demonizing and scapegoating minority and vulnerable groups. Many writers have argued that the rise and institutionalisation of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism in post-independent Sri Lanka bear much responsibility for today’s ethnic conflicts between the majority Sinhalese state and the minorities. Ironically, the competition among the Sinhala ruling classes, for acquiring state resources and political capital, has turned nationalism into the ruling ideology and the state ideology of Sri Lanka. Social Analyst Dr. Jayadeva Uyangoda argued that “Sinhalese Buddhism (Not Buddhism) has made no significant contribution to the evolution of a non-violent social ideology. On the contrary, the Sinhalese Buddhist historiographical tradition and ideology inherent in it supports ethnic political violence”. In his Foreword to Farmer’s book ‘Divided Nation’, Lord Soulbury expressing his dismay on the Sinhala-Tamil conflict said, ‘the reconciliation of Tamils and Sinhalese will depend not on constitutional guarantees but on the goodwill, common sense and humanity of the Government in power and the people who elect it.” Yes, with no political will at the top to ensure that the constitutional rights of all communities to enjoy their religious and cultural rights are duly protected, the extreme elements have been operating without fear of sanction and impunity prevented them from receiving any punishment.
We therefore saw violent attacks motivated by State sponsored racism, and related intolerance, alongside persistent and profound discrimination against numerous groups, which led to their marginalization, exclusion and diminished participation in society. 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom, Aluthgama, Digana and Post- Easter anti Muslim violence resulted from government inaction. How JRJ acted during 1983 riots, MR during Aluthgama and Yahapalana rulers during the subsequent ones showed the State complicity. Both Tamils initially and then Muslims become part of this marginalization and hate campaigns spearheaded by extreme groups with patron saints in the governments. We have also witnessed some sections of the Sinhala national newspapers carrying out a well-orchestrated campaign against the Muslims in the recent past. Even the law enforcement authorities do not act fairly whereby some enjoyed special rights than others; specially the rogue Buddhist monks and politicians.(ICCPR application was a case in point)
The profound and toxic assumption of racial superiority thus undermines the foundations of democracy and the rule of law. This debasement of groups of people is deeply and fundamentally contrary to every principle of human rights, which under international human rights law is tantamount to a criminal offense. It is also contrary to the spirit of the country’s Constitution too. This is profoundly dangerous as we saw in our bloody history, where by sharpening divisions in society, dehumanising certain groups and creating acute grievances, racism prepared the ground for bloodshed. Racism and racial discrimination sharply limit opportunities for political participation and representation and the protection and inclusion of minorities and other groups. A society that does not fully respect the equal right of all individuals to participate in public life and decision-making is not fundamentally a democratic society. Democracy seeks to respectfully accommodate differences – whether ethnic, racial, religious, political or others; to enable all individuals to fully realise their potential; and to extend the full and equal protection of the State to all. It demands an active respect for the other – every other.
Democracy doesn’t just crumble on its own. We, the people, are supposed to be its caretakers, just as we are its beneficiaries. We aren’t blameless in its decay, as we become spectators of its’ decaying process engineered by vested political interests, where our morals and social norms are desecrated, our social interactions and conversations are polluted by the cesspits of racism and ghetto-ism. Isn’t it time to change the course of history to struggle and sacrifice for our own good as the question of how we will live together is raised and decided. We are left to ask what 2020 will bring: a push back for robust democracy within an inclusive Sri Lanka, or yet another year of decline, where divisive politics will further fragment our country along racial and religious lines. Towards this, it is up-to us to ensure that the forthcoming Presidential elections will herald a turning point for Sri Lanka. Let us make it a tipping point to show our determination to clean up the political culture, and to make policy based politics, the basis of our decision to elect our next leader. For many decades, we have voted for personalities- and poverty, corruption ,inequality and intolerance were the ultimate results. Let us therefore question the effectiveness of the policies the Presidential contenders bring forth and weigh the pros and cons of their track records in terms of their honesty, integrity. Let not the ugly history not repeat itself.
Particularly the responsibility of political parties, platforms and organizations in taking decisive action against racist discourse is paramount. Also will be developing internal disciplinary measures against public statements and actions that encourage or incite racism, racial discrimination, and related intolerance. People should ask those who seek power to fight this cancer of racism and divisiveness head-on- through (1) education in eliminating racial and other negative stereotypes, (2) Effective judicial protection and remedies for victims of racial discrimination,(3) duly prosecute and sanction those responsible for hate speech and racist violence. It is also fundamental that public authorities and elected officials openly speak out against discrimination and intolerance in all fields. Towards this end, public has a vital role to play by raising their voice against racism and to vote responsibly without being slaves to communalist emotions. The opportunity should be seized to make sure that the next government has the broad national credibility, internationally endorsed, to begin the process of knitting together the Sri Lankan society battered by its recent traumatic history. Here comes the tipping point in our country’s journey, when we decide to a ‘stop and search’ and our emotional police bring us to a standstill, and restore the fault lines in the cluttered tale of its’ life. Otherwise, ‘those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it’, as the philosopher George Santayana said.