By Santhushya Fernando –
Thank you Friedrich Naumann foundation for this invitation for that generous introduction. Ladies and gentlemen, seventy-three years have passed since our token dominion from the British. Forty-nine years since our actual independence in 1972, when we became a republic. We still role play like this to visit our promised land where professional, meritocratic women pretend to be “running the country”. It’s interesting.
So, what would I do, if I were leading this nation?
First of all, I would understand that we live in the age of populism, anti-politics and in fact, post politics. It’s a social paradox. People disbelieve politics; mock politicians. They want the parliament to sink in Diyawanna. Yet they seek political patronage from the very same politicians they elected to shake up the system. You only have to look around to see The Great Vaccine Dilemma to understand this. Let me challenge you. How many of you used your links to politicians and privilege to jump the queue and obtain the COVID vaccine?
I think our main predicament is the failure of the moral imagination of citizens.
If I were leading this country, I would, most importantly, work towards passing a secular constitution. A secular constitution would not mean that there is infringement on the place already given to religion in our current constitution. It means we understand that the current constitution is based on Roman, Dutch and English laws which are centuries old. Which in turn means it is based on Victorian logic and religious values, and alien morals. Italy, the Netherlands and England that conceptualized these laws have long abandoned them and moved forward as secular states in this world. We are still in stuck in their dead past. Under this constitution we cannot achieve a universal minimum age of marriage; a woman cannot lay claim to the reproductive rights of her body; a gay man, a Trans woman cannot have equal rights and recognition; our laws and administrative processes are not documented in gender neutral language. It is this warped constitution and its legal framework that has led to 32 men contesting the appointment of the first female deputy dig of Sri Lanka on a linguistic technicality. Apparently, we’re unsure whether the concept of woman is embodied in the in the word -man. And it is the year 2021.
The word civilization is derived from the Latin word civitas- literally meaning big city. The idea of civilization of the ancient west meant big roads, big cities big money. The Sinhala word for civilization is ‘shishtaacharaya’(ශිශ්ටාචාරය)- ‘shishta’(ශිශ්ට) means non-violence, considerate, just, elegant, refined, and soft;’ shishta’’ (ශිශ්ට) means compassionate-‘shishtaacharaya’ (ශිශ්ටාචාරය) is far from what the ancient roman Dutch and English meant by civilization. It is closer to what the Buddha preached. The Buddha avoided categorizing who’s alive as men, women, gay, straight, animal or not- he referred to them all as සත්ව. The secular constitution that I conceptualize will protect all religions and protect all from religion. Where there is constitutionally sanctioned justice and fair play, the true era of women politicians will arrive. It will be the world that our ideological foremothers such as Daisy Bandaranaike, Serena Perera, Selestina Rodrigo, Aisha Rauf, Kumari Jayewardene dreamt of. There will be thousand other Maheshi Ramasamys, Neelika Malaviges, Malathi De Alwises shining in that world. From that country Sri Lanka’s woman Ambedkar will emerge.
Because I consider myself a සත්ව like the Buddha suggested, as a leader I would behave like a creature belonging to a larger eco system. I will display the moral imagination and the humility to understand that everything here on earth is not for us to log, deforest, consume; that climate change is real. I will remember the lyrics by the Sinhala poet Ruchira Paranavithana, beautifully sung by Sri Lankan Nightingale Deepika Priyadarshani Pieris:
“රෑන ගිරව් කටුසු කොබෙයි උරග නාග සකුණි වනේ
නුඹට වගේ මයි අපටත් දුක් පිඩා විඩා දැනේ”
(“parakeets- chamaleons- serpents-snakes and birsds of the wild
Like you, we too feel sorrow and wearinesss”)
They too feel thirst, hunger, heat and weariness. I will be the leader of citizens, animals, trees, aadivaasis, rivers, seas.
I would lead with the conviction that apart from the spheres of national security, judiciary, free health, free education, social welfare and environment, less government is more government. I will believe in internationalism and have confidence in the private sector as much as I believe in public sector. Economic protectionism regardless how well-intended will create wheeler-dealers, bribe lords, insider traders within government. Only a cautiously liberal economy can fracture the energy mafia, big pharma mafia, media mafia.
Prof Sir Michael Marmot the living legend who headed the World Health Organization’s commission for social determinants of health, famously said- “all ministers are health ministers”. So, if I were to lead this country, I will remember that all PRESIDENTS must also think like health ministers. Health cuts across all aspect of human life and all aspects life affects health directly or indirectly. I will deliver distributive justice in health and all aspects of civil life. Distributive justice simply means that our decisions benefit the most disadvantaged first. It means, that during this pandemic, we first re-patriate our migrant workers stranded in the Middle East before we re-patriate the privileged friends. Because this well-crafted reality of ours- we owe it to our expatriate workers who contribute the most to our economy.
In a country I lead, the health system will respond to the effects of social inequity such as alcohol, tobacco, addiction, disability, gender-based violence, mental health issues and chronic non communicable disease. I would use the best of science to uplift this nation, irrespective of ethnicity, race or religion. The twenty-day old Muslim infant who dies of COVID-19 will go to meet Allah sleeping like a doll on a bed of roses- not as a tin of ashes.
In my dream country, education will be modernized and de-brutalized. Childhood would be de-brutalized. Every two hours a child is sexually abused in Sri Lanka; few days ago, a little girl was caned to death by a witch doctor. It took Sri Lanka 46 years since independence to elect our first female president Chandrika Kumaratunga. It took a WOMAN president to introduce the child protection bill and established the national child protection authority. I would implement the full force of the child protection policy within 24 hours of being sworn in. In the country I run, 1.3 million school days will not be lost annually by young girls due to menstruation. If I had 800 million to spend, I’d rather spend it to make sanitary pads an essential item; to provide dignified spaces, running water, disposal facilities for menstrual management. And if they brand me Padwoman, I will wear that like Susanthika’s Olympic medal! Today, for the first time in 15 years the cabinet ministry of women’s affairs is abolished and remains downgraded.
The country I lead will have punitive justice and restorative justice with regard to crime. According to a research done by United Nations Population fund and the College of Forensic Pathologists of Sri Lanka in 2016, thirty six percent of the unnatural deaths among women are due to violent assaults by an intimate partner.
Thirty percent of those women are between 30 – 40 years. How many of you shared suitcase jokes on Facebook and WhatsApp today? If you have, you are a part of the problem.
If I were the leader of this country, I would have won an election. But I would conduct myself humbly, knowing the limitations of victory, the limitations of power. I will remember that the constitution of Sri Lanka doesn’t contain the term “executive president”. I will remember my muse, my poets, my art. Khalil Gibran wrote –
“That to be enthroned is to be enslaved”
I will remember his words.
I will control my ego, words, anger and my biases. I will re-narrate morality; redefine modernity; I will do all in my power to re-ignite the magic and the romance of politics because in spite our anti-political predicament, politics is still our best and only weapon against despotism. I will open the road to forgive atrocity and surrender my ego in asking for forgiveness for atrocities whether they were committed by enraged communities or misguided governments. I will say to those with unhealed wounds” forgive me for the blood we shed. For the lives and love we all lost. Let’s make peace within our life time”.
අපි අපේ ජීවිත කාලය තුළ සාමය ඇති කරමු (Let’s make peace within our life time).
එමද පිල්ලෙයිහල් නන්පර්ලාහ ඉරක්කට්ටම් (Let our children be friends ).
Although my Tamil is broken, my commitment to love and peace is not. If I led this nation, my quest for peace will include all ethnic groups. No ethnic group owns peace. Peace cannot be imported from the international community, or imposed by a United Nations remotely. It has to grow from within. I will re-plant that seed.
I will live and lead as a person who believes that another ශිශ්ට civilization is possible.
That another country is possible.
That another world is possible.
Because…… it is possible.
*Speech delivered at the International Women’s Day celebration organised by Friedrich Neumann Foundation and NextgenSL