Colombo Telegraph

What Is This “Change” We Say We Want?

By Kusal Perera

Kusal Perara

The talk of “Change” at the coming January 08 presidential polls is more a Colombo Sinhala middle class discourse. In a very general manner, other Sinhalese join in to say “yes”. The common feeling around Sinhala urban centres with no particular interest on any serious issue tends to agree for a “Change”. This has now been translated to mean, “Rajapaksa should go”. Pushed for explanations as to why he should go, one would come against answers like, “mega corruption, dictatorial family rule, breakdown of law and order, drugs and ethanol” and more of such allegations. This list that justifies ousting Rajapaksa unfortunately does not include, “militarisation of society, State sponsored violent Sinhala Buddhist extremism against Muslims, refusal to seriously and honestly negotiate a political solution to the Tamil question, or even the issue of establishing civil administrations in North and East.”

Yet, those rallying round Common Candidate Maithripala Sirisena keep saying, this presidential election is crucial and the opportunity to oust Rajapaksa should not be missed for whatever reason. Ousting Rajapaksa they say, would create new “space”. Thereafter the “rest would follow” is the loud call. In plain language what we are told is, “Rajapaksa should be defeated at any cost”. There are those who add, “never mind who or what comes thereafter”. While there is consensus this Rajapaksa regime has to be completely uprooted, these simplifications raise many issues for those who wish to have a clear political definition of the term “Change”. This “Change” for which the Rajapaksa regime has to be ousted, cannot be a vaguely interpreted, populist term.

It is very superficially touched upon in “A Compassionate Maithri Governance : A Stable Country” as liberating the “noble motherland and all its people from the tragic fate that has befallen them” (p/05 – first para). This “Change” could also be understood to mean, that in the future there would be very much less corruption, much like in the pre Rajapaksa era and all political parties would unite to build a less corrupt country.(My Vision – p/06).

While such “change” to a country with tolerable levels of corruption is also welcome, this country now needs to “change” in to a country that will stop marauding State sponsored Sinhala Buddhist goons resorting to violence against Muslims and different Evangelical Christian faiths, will de militarise society at every level from North to South, will move towards a secular State that will not burden other ethno religious communities of living in a further regimented State under Sinhala Buddhist dominance. Socio economic development needs to be talked of in such a free and democratic country. Is this the “Change” that we are asking for and is this the “Change” that we are being promised after Rajapaksa is defeated ?

When elected President, democracy is promised by Maithripala Sirisena through Constitutional Reforms. The fundamental reform that was aspired for is the abolition of the Executive Presidency and shifting back to a parliamentary system of governance. That now will not be the case. Need to abolish the Executive Presidency that forged a consensus in the Opposition for a reliable common candidate, is now a deformed solution for democracy (Sobitha Movement in Retreat – Sumanasiri Liyanage : Not quite sure though, what Purawesi Balaya Sumanasiri is referring to, pre Maithripala). In Maithripala Sirisena’s manifesto, the “change” in Executive Presidency instead of “abolition” is based on the JHU concept of a President with selective Executive powers. The 19 Amendment to the Constitution publicly proposed by JHU MP Rathana thera on 14 October under his label “Pivithuru Hetak”, includes provisions for such a Presidency that retains overall authority over the Cabinet of Ministers as well. Rathana thera’s 19 Amendment clearly includes Defence and Provincial Councils with executive powers to the President and that was Maithripala Sirisena’s position when he spoke to BBC Sandesaya. These executive powers are stressed by Champika Ranawaka as untrammelled power in promising a “Unitary State” under new reforms written into Maithripala Sirisena’s manifesto.

It is with such convoluted politics the promised “change” is offered. Reading Maithripala’s manifesto from cover to cover to see how much “change” there is, one would not know or realise that this manifesto is for a country which bled for over 30 years with a brutal war. That this manifesto is for a country that had over 240,000 Tamil citizens barbed wired as refugees in Menik farm. That it is for a country that still has refugees evicted from their ancestral land occupied by the military. That this is for a country with 88,000 young war widows in the North-East alone. That it is for a country that still has the military controlling the lives of Tamil people in North-East. Yet it is incredibly true that none of those atrocities and militarisation has any mention in any of the 62 pages. Therefore this “Change” is defined only in terms of Sinhala Buddhist dominance.

The whole manifesto seeps with extreme Sinhala Buddhist ideology of Champika’s JHU that kept saying even after the Aluthgama-Beruwala Muslim massacre the Muslims are fostering Jihadi groups and they have a sinister plan to dominate the Sinhala race. On 20 June, just 06 months ago, going on even keel with the BBS, Champika Ranawaka told media Hakeem should leave the Government (Rajapaksa’s) if he is ashamed of the inhuman and brutal assault on Muslim people in Aluthgama none of which he is prepared to retract even today.

It is such extreme Sinhala Buddhist ideology in Maithripala’s manifesto that promises, “As a real reply to allegations of human rights violations directed against Sri Lanka I will take action to promote humanitarian and environment-friendly attitudes both locally and internationally. On the advice of the Maha Sangha (emphasis added) I will make Sri Lanka again the centre of distribution of the knowledge and discipline of Indian as well as Asian Buddhists. I will prepare the ground for disseminating among the learned Western society Buddhism and its vision of impermanence and denial of soul that expressed non-violence, equality and great compassion for all. Thereby it will be possible to build a new image for Sri Lanka in the world”. (page 44 – Sinhala copy has more Sinhala Buddhist punch) The new image promised will thus be nothing but that of a Sinhala Buddhistva State. A saffron State the BBS can also be proud of. This “Change” certainly is not for Tamils and Muslims.

There is also a serious reason why the process for this mono ethnic “change” is problematic and not democratic. Assuring to conclude reforms within 100 days, it is this present parliament Maithripala Sirisena says he would be presenting the reforms for “change”. In other words, required two-thirds for constitutional reforms have been assured from the present 225 MPs in this parliament. That is not only hilarious, but an insult to people’s aspirations on democracy and good governance. With MPs crossing, who knows when from one side to the other, this parliament no more reflects the sovereignty of the people. They have proved over and over again, they are not bothered about citizens who elected them to parliament. A good majority of MPs have no social trust they would stay with the voters who elected them. Majority is such, the whole parliament lacks any credibility now. They thus have no moral and political right to represent the people any more. Should these wholly corrupt MPs who decide where they sit in parliament on very private and personal reasons, benefits, privileges and sponsorships be given the right to decide Constitutional Reforms on behalf of the people?

This in turn raises the issue, whether reforms spelt out in Maithripala’s manifesto could answer this question of people’s functional sovereignty in parliament (what is talked of is mere procedural and abstract), as the promise is to allow more power to the Legislature. Constitutional reforms as given in the manifesto and spelt out on platforms do not explain how the present hybrid of executive and legislative powers exercised by elected representatives right down to Local Government bodies will hereafter be dismembered for democratic reforms. Politics become corrupt and the parliament as a system of governance, when elected Legislators (MPs) are given the executive power with the right to decide appointment lists, financial beneficiaries and handle district allocations for development activities. Such executive powers going down to districts have turned parliament into a “supermarket” with every elected “product” having a price tag on it. More powerful the product becomes, bigger the price become. This hybrid of executive and legislative powers enjoyed by elected MPs have to be dismembered, leaving them with the responsibility they are elected for to the parliament as legislators only. A ruthlessly corrupt majority who decide where they sit in parliament for very private and personal reasons, will not want to lose such power in establishing democracy for good governance and accountability. These terms they don’t understand and would not want to understand.

Adoption of constitutional reforms thus needs to be channelled through an alternate process where serious public dialogue can see through the proposed reforms. People’s organizations and the mainstream media need to open up for debates on proposed constitutional reforms. People’s organisations and forums have to be allowed the opportunity to propose amendments and changes, before the final Amendment is presented in parliament. Unless such democratic, citizen participation is guaranteed, this rogue parliament that had never seen any serious intellectual debate cannot be entrusted with the responsibility of adopting promised reforms for “change”.

There is still time for such serious dialogue necessary that could sustain a strong people’s lobby for saner “change”, post elections. A lobby that could push the victorious “Maithri frenzy” beyond Sinhala Buddhist rhetoric and cosmetic “change”. But that would have to be independent and outside Maithripala’s election campaign from the start. Unfortunately that is not how the self appointed citizen’s representatives have defined their role, in ousting Rajapaksa. They thus would end up like the FMM and the Independent Artistes in 1994. Forfeiting such independent presence does not allow for independent lobbying post elections for “Change” this country needs. Or, is it mere ousting of Rajapaksa that we want for a change? A change of Sinhala names and faces? Tragedy it would be, if that is the “Change” we would stop with.

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