By Laksiri Fernando –
Sri Lanka is definitely at cross roads after Aluthgama. It is not merely a question of the magnitude of the events, but the way the events were unleashed and the purported investigations were/are conducted by the police and the security establishment. It is very clear that the government or, more correctly, some sections of the government are behind the carnage. If there is any threat of ‘fascism’ in the country, then that definitely comes from those sections. The BBS or other similar organizations are obvious tools of that threat or the organized movement to overthrow democracy.
A Bizarre Government
By the way, what is the government in Sri Lanka today? It is completely a bizarre situation. It was just few days back that the ‘Prime Minister’ walked out of Parliament complaining he was not allowed to speak at an important debate. ‘Minister of Justice’ complains that the police has meddled with the post-mortem investigations to cover up the shootings at the Aluthgama events. There is verbally a vociferous ‘Minister for National Integration,’ but he couldn’t be seen anywhere near the Aluthgama events, at least to see what had happened. The rightwing and the extremist Ministers (JHU, NFF etc.) hold the roost in all debates. They set the agenda. The so-called leftwing ones make some noises, but don’t do anything to arrest the deteriorating situation.
The President is not a bystander. He is the benefactor. The game plan seems to be to create some chaos and ethnic hysteria (of all sides) even at the risk of economic setbacks before the presidential and parliamentary elections. For what purpose? To install a more authoritarian and a ruthless regime. That is their ideology and the interests of the Rajapaksa family, and their close associates. That group has now become a ‘politically new rich’ social stratum.
‘Politically New Rich’
The socio-economic roots of this ‘politically new rich’ stratum are within various political and state institutions and their activities combined with privileges, commissions and contracts to them or their families with corruption. I am here not referring to the state bureaucracy or the public servants. Along with are certain private sector new businesses and inside trading in the stock market. These are not the traditional socio-economic bases of the SLFP or the UNP. Although the present government is, at least nominally, led by the SLFP, many of the traditional sections are out of this circle.
What is at stake is not only democracy, justice or human rights. But also the civilized business sector, entrepreneurs and the industrialists. ‘Robber Barons’ have and are replacing them. Along with it or separately is the onslaught on the traditional trade union movement and workers’ rights.
Rajapaksa instincts are political. But for the political survival, they require the backing and now the expansion/consolidation of this ‘new class.’ On what basis, I am saying this? I have partially seen this development or manipulation as a Director of the Colombo Stock Exchange during 2010 and early 2011 before I resigned. There are considerable other information regarding this development even with foreign connections, sidelining or replacing the traditional business or industrial sections. The attempt is also not to allow the new businesses emerging from other ethnic communities i.e. Muslims in the South.
UNP and the SLFP
The UNP and the SLFP are the two major parties which have governed this country since independence for better or for worse. Whatever the deviations from democracy after 1972 or more particularly 1978, those recede to the background given the present deviations and imminent challenges. These two parties have major responsibilities in rescuing the present situation. The SLFP seems to be largely hijacked by the Rajapaksa clan. However, it should be and can be rescued.
One predicament of political parties in Sri Lanka is that the parties go along with the leaders, and not the other way round. This should be changed. The UNP under Dudley Senanayake and JR Jayewardene were completely different. Look at the difference of the SLFP under Chandrika Kumaratunga (CBK) and Mahinda Rajapaksa (MR). Similarly, the present SLFP could be rescued if the leadership is changed. It may appear hard at the moment but it could be done, and that is the right thing to do. But in the case of both the SLFP and the UNP they have good democratic traditions and legacy. These should be resurrected. Weaknesses of the economic policies should be corrected.
No one can say that the economic policies under CBK (SLFP) or Ranil Wickremesinghe (UNP) were vibrant. Perhaps that was a predicament of the time. The Asian resurgence had not properly taken off by that time. However, there is something to learn from MR but without turning the economy into a clannish dominance. Even Wimal Weerawansa says that the Rajapaksa policies have failed at the micro level, creating large economic/class disparities. The situation should be utilized by the opposition.
The deterioration of democracy is partly a result of the ethno-nationalist war (1983-2009). But not fully. Now the war has been over for five years. Nevertheless, the move away from democracy has increased and not decreased. Why? Simply said, the Rajapaksas don’t believe in democracy. It is something alien to them except conducting elections.
The gap between the requirements of a proper democracy and the existing awareness of the voters seem to be considerable. Political parties have been exploiting the ‘backwardness’ of the voters without educating them. This is where the party leaders should have been more enlightened or visionary. This is an area where the civil society organizations and the NGOs also have failed. It is not ‘gossip’ that the opposition should utilize to counter the government, but information, facts and education with publicity effectiveness.
The opposition also should be careful in handling security issues. Security is a concern for all sections. The attempt to change an undemocratic government is not an attempt to change the whole state structures. Only reform may be necessary after a change. There is also no point in antagonizing the military unnecessarily. What the opposition should ask from the military or the bureaucracy is to be neutral on political battles and competition between the legitimate political parties.
It is true that the country cannot wait to defend democracy until the whole masses are educated. There are certain natural instincts of the people that can be utilized. People by nature fear a dictatorship. There are considerable experiences even going back to the colonial period. There is a considerable awareness that the presidential system is dictatorial and it should be changed. But it cannot be the ‘Single Issue.’ People don’t like broken promises. They don’t like massive corruption or misuse of public funds. After all they have to pay. Increasing crime and the drug menace are of major concerns. Mothers and women are particularly sensitive to these issues. Not the Cinnamon Garden dames, but the ordinary village women. The opposition should move beyond Colombo. The list may be long, and I’m only giving a gist of it.
People don’t like exclusive family dominance in political parties let alone governments. Soft connections might be tolerated or understandable. Even the ‘Uncle Nephew Party’ slogan discredited the UNP in 1950s. Sympathy is generated if only husband is assassinated and the wife is contesting. People didn’t like the daughter being the President and mother being the Prime Minister. Added to that was an uncle running the defense. The SLFP has been more prone to family bandyism than the UNP. However, that was tolerated under the circumstances of the war. Yet, CBK couldn’t or didn’t nominate Anura Bandaranaike as the presidential candidate when Mahinda Rajapaksa was there. That was the right thing to do.
The SLFP will soon be facing the succession problem. That is an opportunity to change the leadership beyond the Rajapaksa family circle. As I have written in an earlier article, the President has no mandate or moral right to contest again. The SLFP should oppose the family dominance in the party without delay.
The above however would not mean that ousting Rajapaksas should be the single issue like changing the presidential system. There are many more issues. Economic, social and educational issues might be the most potent in an opposition campaign. Most fundamental before that might be some organizational matters.
There are factions, leadership struggles or internal frustrations in all democratic parties all over the world. These become acute particularly when a party is out of power for a very long period. The temptations are also high when pecuniary and other offers are made by a corrupt regime to the opposition members. The UPFA government has been using the ‘pork barrel’ to the maximum since 2005 to attract opposition members.
I may disagree with the particular economic policies of the UNP or its leadership, but I value it as a major party within the democratic system which can make a difference. Its role is decisive in saving democracy, decency and good governance in the country today. It was a good thing for the party to create a ‘Leadership Council’ when the leadership was disputed and there are obviously other legitimate contenders for the leadership.
Collective leadership for political parties might be little ideal for Sri Lanka. However, the leaders and the aspiring leaders should be able to work amicably setting aside their differences when the country is facing decisive challenges for its democratic existence. In the long run what might be best for all democratic parties is the membership based mass organizations.
The need of the hour for the UNP is to close ranks. For the SLFP, to oppose the Rajapaksa grip within the party.
The above doesn’t mean that the responsibilities only rest with the UNP or the ‘genuine SLFP’ to save democracy in the country. I am here talking only in respect of political parties. The role of the minority parties are equally important. The TNA, as the major party representing the Tamils in the North and the East should be able to look beyond their community interests. The fate of the minorities would largely depend on the question of saving democracy in the country.
The same applies to the SLMC or the CWC or other minority parties. A pertinent question might be to ask ‘what the hell’ the SLMC is doing within the government when violent attacks are unleashed against their community with the connivance of certain sections of the government.
The role of the JVP has so far been most praiseworthy while the old left parties being completely miserable. However, the JVP has to commit itself firmly to the democratic path given their past violent and insurrectionary activities. The same applies to many others who should completely desist from violence or extralegal activities. Struggle for democracy is not a struggle for mere power but for justice.