Dr Dayan Jayatilleka, in one of his articles, referred to his father Mervyn De Silva’s comment: “the road to Temple Trees runs through the paddy fields” of Sri Lanka. In the days when politics was not overburdened by skulduggery and heavy handedness, Mervyn De Silva’s comment was very appropriate. It is a fact, even now, that the village vote plays an important part in who runs the country. Whatever constrains faced by the present day paddy field voters in their decision making, rapidly changing socio-economic circumstances are helping them to make objective assessments in a fairly broader manner.
Mahinda Rajapaskse’s regime has numbed the media by sheer force of violence, threats and intimidation. Sinhala language media is heavily constrained compared to the English media to control the opinion of the paddy fields to exclusively propagate the authorial government.
My recent two week visit to Sri Lanka gave me the opportunity to gauge the situation in a broader sense. In my ride through Colombo in the three wheelers (tuk-tuks) and speaking to people I bumped into, they gave me a fair understanding of the mindset of the people. Tuk-tuk drivers are the village people who come from the paddy fields of Sri Lanka to earn a living in Colombo to better their lives.
To understand the thinking of the village people, one need not walk through the villages these days. I found the tuk-tuk drivers who are fathers and sons from the villages were more eloquent in their observations, analysis and political articulations. They are the best opinion makers that the constrained media does not duly reflect.
With my mediocre Sinhala fluency, I always have good engagements with the tuk-tuk drivers whenever I visit Sri Lanka. This time, when I asked them in Sinhala ‘Rata Desapalana Kohamatha?’ (how is governance in the country?) the responses were overwhelming. Until I reached the destinations, I was given heavy political sermons with my intermittent murmurs to confirm my interest. Of the dozen of tuk-tuk trips I undertook, except for one, all the others expressed nail biting political comments. One exceptional tuk-tuk driver was a Muslim who showed disinterest possibly due to fear or disregard.
The overwhelming responses from the tuk-tuk drivers were highly critical of Mahinda Rajapaksa government. Almost all of them were bludgeoning the government for the unbearable cost of living conditions and serious financial corruption in the government. When I asked them about major road works undertaken by the government, most of them questioned: ‘Para Kaala api jeevitha venda puluvangthe’ (Can we eat the road and live?).
These views are a serious yardstick to measure the discontent that the ever weakening democracy does not reflect through independent opinion polls or media reporting. These tuk-tuk drivers are the pulse of the nation who stretches beyond the paddy fields to reflect the mood of the people.
The opinion they expressed overwhelmingly in support of the President Mahinda Rajapakse before and after the 2009 final war when I visited Sri Lanka was the true reflection of the way people in the paddy fields voted for Mahinda in the past. They were saying: ‘we must give a chance to Mahinda to finish off the Tigers once and for all’ and that: ‘he did a good job to finish off the terrorists’. After over five years down the line, it is not the Tigers anymore and it is the belly aching hunger and suffering that is dictating the people. Mahinda Rajapakse cannot expect a blank cheque from the village people any more however the constrained media portrays him as the saviour of the nation.
One tuk-tuk driver even went to the extent of pointing a four or five story modern office building in the heart of Colombo of the Bodu Bala Sena-the extremist monk brigade that is causing havoc for the Muslim minorities. The driver’s pointed question was: ‘from where the hell have they got the money to manage a office like this within a short time’ and in deep frustration he further said: ‘BBS is part of the game of the government to cover up the cost of living crisis facing the people’.
In their cost of living comments, most of them were cursing the government further for the high energy costs.
I had luncheon with a Sinhala family in the outskirts of Colombo. Our olden days memories to the present political situation were talked about. Of the many present to welcome us, only one was reflecting unmitigating loyalty to Mahinda Rajapakse. She was so grateful to Mahinda Rajapakse for eliminating the LTTE and bringing peace to the country once and for all. All the others were grudging critics of the government over the cost of living and undemocratic heavy handed governance that they felt are throttling the very fabric of governance. With the limited media exposure of facts in the Sinhala media, none of them understood the international pressure on Sri Lanka.
The disquiet is a worrying trend and it has started to rock the multi-horse cart rule of Mahinda Rajapakse. The rockers in the multi-horse wagon are only reflecting the cries of the tuk-tuk drivers- the real voices of the paddy fields.