By Siri Gamage –
Politically acquired power is dominant in countries like Sri Lanka even going beyond the sphere of governance to the extent of claiming exclusive rights and privileges in the name of representative democracy. There is a lot of unhappiness among well-meaning Sri Lankans of all ranks about the current state of play in the political arena. Democratic system of governance and associated institutions have been diluted over the decades by introducing an executive President, politicisation of institutions and tampering with the constitution. The safeguards that average citizens can expect from a text book parliamentary democracy are not in existence. Politics as a means for acquiring power to govern have become extremely antagonistic and acquired power by the elected politicians is not utilised for the benefit of many.
In this context, we need to look for another force that can guide the country out of the mess that have been created collectively by our political leaders since independence. In my view, this force is none other than the moral force already existing in the broader society in various forms. As the Buddhist monks in ALUTH PARLIMENTUVA (26.12.2018) argue, the religious leaders may be called upon to organise a liberatory national movement without succumbing to further political pressure. After all, the moral order in societies like Sri Lanka with a history of culture, civilisation, religious pluralism is much stronger than the political order which is subject to various divisions, distortions, upheavals and conflicts. When politicians fail, moral power has to be invoked collectively to become a force for positive change.
The best example of a moral leader making demands and commitments from political leaders and parties in Sri Lanka in recent times comes from the role played by Rev. Maduluwawe Sobitha (1942-2015) and his National Movement for Social Justice before the 2015 Presidential election. At the time, political leaders of various colours visited Naga Viharaya day and night to obtain his blessings for the party or coalition they represented. Rev. Sobitha had a blueprint for good governance. He did not deviate from it when meeting different political leaders. He occupied the moral high ground in a country where the corrupt political culture had eaten into the core of body politic. It was beginning to impact on the moral order as well. Unfortunately, before he demanded accountability and transparency in government decisions in accordance with his blueprint for which present leaders made commitments, he passed away. This was the misfortune of the people and country. Had he lived this long, perhaps we may not have witnessed a bond scam. Punishments for corrupt behaviour of elected and public officials in the previous regime would have been meted out. Ruling class, instead of serving themselves once in power, would have been made to understand that their prime responsibility is to serve the people at large. Executive Presidency would have been abolished. In its place, a more representative democratic parliamentary system of governance would have been installed. Most of all he and his organisation would have been able to keep an eagle eye on any deviations from the commitments made in the name of Yahapalanaya.
Unlike in some other countries such as Cambodia, since democratic and solidarity space for change is not completely overtaken by the state and/or governing political parties, even today initiatives of such nature shown by Sobitha phenomenon have the potential to occupy the third space over and above mainstream political coalitions formed to acquire and retain state power in order to bring about much desired positive change in governance with a humanistic slant.
Politics of Disunity, Self Interest and Privilege
Already, there is enough criticism of the existing political culture and behaviour of elected politicians. This has been the case for decades. Criticism alone is not going to deliver the anticipated results in terms of Yahapalanaya if we rely on the existing ruling class itself. We need to look beyond. The ruling class has been transformed in the last few decades, especially after the introduction of Provincial Council system in 1987. Layers of politicians from lower socio-economic classes, with low education and poor moral convictions have entered the field of politics from the provinces. Some of them have entered national politics and national government also. Thus, the composition of national parliament today is quite different to what it was during the time of Dudley Senanayake, N.M.Perera or Colvin R de Silva etc. Instead of a house of debate, disciplined critique, consultation and compromise for the national interest, it has become a place of petty rivalry, division, pseudo heroism and conflict.
What we have witnessed in the last few months, especially after October 26th, 2018, highlights the importance of power in controlling the lives of people, institutions, public revenue, and how conflicts among those holding formal power in the ruling class can lead a country to a very chaotic situation. Formal power is acquired by leaders of political parties during elections that are colourfully conducted with grand shows, advertising, manipulation of media to galvanise support from the party hierarchies spreading into rural hinterland. Political parties are the vehicle on which leaders of parties gain formal power. Before, during and after elections politics within such parties and outside involve a lot of horse trading, promises, commitments (public and private) by the leaders. No one in the right mind will engage in party politics merely for symbolic purposes –though this cannot be completely ruled out at the grass roots level where party symbols have made some individuals and families lifelong supporters irrespective of what the party offers them after the elections
For some, politics has become a fulltime vocation; they live and die in politics. For them, there is no life without it. With such individuals and families, political dynasties have been made. Members of such families remain in politics, one after another supposedly to serve the people! Any emerging politician from the provinces outside such families has an uphill struggle to become successful in the face of subtle competition political dynasties built over decades mount. Once in power, those who occupy seats and levers of power have access to public assets and revenue. They have to make individual and collective decisions about how to distribute the rewards of politics, to whom and in what proportion? Should they make decisions regarding such public assets for the benefit of many or should they at times act to serve their own families and close friends? In the last few decades, Sri Lanka has failed miserably when it comes to the behaviour of elected politicians and parties on this count. Corruption cases such as the Bond Scam have proven time and again that the population cannot put their trust in the politicians they elect to the parliament and exercise power on their behalf to make the right decisions with moral convictions. Political order has taken over the entirety of public life and space to the detriment of age old community values and public aspirations. Playing politics has become an exercise in gaining power, wealth and privilege rather than a way to serve the communities elected representatives represent, especially those without a voice. Those without a voice, the majority, are preached with political sermons on a daily basis by using the mass media. I wonder how often these politicians listen to the people in order to understand their mindset, needs and aspirations?
What is the alternative? My argument is that the disempowered population together with the guardians of moral order need to focus on the potential role of the same to preserve the civic order and sanity rather than rely on conventional professional politicians if they are to secure a truly authentic, corruption and nepotism free government (yahapalanaya) and a just society. Guardians of moral order needs to step in and galvanise the public through a new countrywide organisation demanding corruption free governance for the people. Unless this happens, the future of the country is doomed.
It is pleasing to see that 15 civic organisations have come together to form an alliance including Dr. Vinya Ariyaratne from the Sarvodaya movement. I read that they are even willing to enter the political arena to achieve their social justice objectives. Though the model adopted by this alliance is somewhat different to that adopted by Rev. Sobitha, it seems to have the national interests at heart. I admire their intentions, courage and vision for a better Lanka. It is concerning to note that the National media gave very little publicity to this alliance. Instead, their focus is the rivalries among the same, entrenched political class. Another example is the activities of a democratically minded youth group who recently organised a two-day seminar in Vavuniya i.e. AFRIE. ‘The conference participants established Youth for Democracy—a new collective with youth from multi-ethnic and multi-religious backgrounds who have a demonstrable mobilization capacity of 1,000 villages collectively for democracy, human rights and reconciliation. During the conference, youth activists together planned multi-ethnic initiatives towards strengthening democratic values for the next 5 years, which they deem important at the moment when democracy is at stake in the country, through eliminating corruption, human rights protection, promoting justice, ethnic unity and countering authoritarianism’. Recently concluded The Citizens’ Movement for Good Governance (CIMOGG) was one more example of a civic organisation fighting for democratic rights in the country. (The Island 28.12.2017). Latest episode of Aluth Parlimentuva broadcast on 26th December 2018 includes a useful discussion among a team of Buddhist monks, Christian priests and Mr. Edward Jayakody where the need for a national movement to address the current decline in political system is emphasised. Mr. Victor Ivan leads Punarudaya movement with a focus in building a social force for country’s redemption. I am sure that there are more civic organisations and religious leaders concerned about the current situation and wanting to do something to correct the path. If these initiatives currently conducted in isolation from each other culminate in a national movement, then the prospects for future action and capacity building may become a reality.
The aberration in the governance process enacted on 26th of October 2018 was corrected by the Supreme Court. This change has given added momentum to the UNF led by Mr. Ranil Wickeremesinghe and the UNP led coalition. The reinstatement of Mr. Wickremesinghe has been interpreted as a reinstatement of democracy. His and his colleagues’ struggle to retain the PM and cabinet position has been described as a win for democracy and democratic governance in Sri Lanka. There is some truth in this statement. However, the story does not end there. The economic policies that the UNF carried out before the change of government in October were neoliberal. His government actively encouraged foreign capital to come to the country and start mega projects. Little they did to encourage indigenous entrepreneurs to initiate new ventures. Instead of encouraging country’s agricultural sector to innovate and produce for the export market, the UNF encouraged more and more imports. It also encouraged a consumer culture through expansion of supermarkets. It looked after the top end of society and neglected the middle and lower classes. Government and the country experienced a heavy foreign debt trap. Concept of development adopted by the UNF was lopsided. National assets were alienated. If the same economic mantra continues, there will be resistance from the disaffected segments of society. They will look for a messiah to salvage the people and society. Taking he mantle of guarding democracy alone will not bring the bacon home for the UNF. It has to change its policies and policy making procedures. At the grass roots level, in cities and villages, disempowered people need to be liberated from the bondages of established hierarchies, parties, families and pseudo discourses that portray one group of people against another.
What is necessary to purify the corrupt establishment and by extension society at large is a centre of progressive moral leadership that can not only understand the predicament of society and its key institutions in non-sectarian language and devise a language, argument and discourse toward developing an agenda for reform. Those holding positions in apex hierarchies –whether they be political, religious, economic, cultural –have proven to be incapable of initiating and sustaining such a discourse. Rev, Sobitha displayed the necessary characteristics for a progressive reformist agenda as well as organisational capacity. We can learn lessons from this experience.
Corruption and mismanagement in the body politic and governance is such that it is time for another Sobitha to emerge from the apolitical, moral space to play a similar role together with civic society leaders and groups for the country to be placed on the right path. People cannot rely on Diyavanna house alone to look after their welfare and the country’s coffers. Such a personality can emerge from the religious leadership or civic leadership with a progressive bias. In this day and age where the modern technology is cutting across various boundaries and allow people, especially the youth, to organise collective action, such leadership can emerge from socially conscious, educated, concerned middle class layers of society also.
My wish is for a moral leader, a council of such leaders, or a civic organisation with moral courage and non-partisan outlook to embark on a renewed mission to safeguard the country from the corrupt political class by organising a countrywide movement for social justice and Yahapalanaya with a truly humanistic approach