By Harini Amarasuriya –
Recently there has been a spurt of interest in defining what January 8 2015 truly meant for Sri Lanka. This discussion has emerged in a context where the government is being accused of betraying the mandate on which they were elected. This is supposed to be the ‘yahapalana’ government (a loose translation of the term ‘good governance’) but the question today for many people is ‘whither yahapalana?’
What exactly is the mandate of ‘yahapalana’? What brought that citizens’ movement together to deliver the election result of January 8th? The messiness of the broad alliance that forms this government as well as of its supporters makes this a difficult question to answer.
When considering the issues that the campaign mobilised around, it is hard to find a clear connection between them. Various groups mobilised around different issues: corruption, deterioration of democracy, abuse of power, the emergence of a particularly virulent form of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism, economic woes etc. The term ‘yahapalana’ was vague enough to accommodate all of these concerns. The issues were serious enough for individuals and groups to unite briefly, putting aside their differences. Despite the incoherencies of the yahapalana campaign and the might of the Rajapaksa regime that it was up against, yahapalana triumphed.
To understand the triumph of yahapalana, it might be useful to also consider it in the broader context of what is going on in the rest of the world. Who would have imagine Donald Trump as the Republican Presidential nominee? Not even the most optimistic of us could have predicted how close Bernie Sanders came to clinching the Democratic nomination. A few years, ago, none of us had heard of Jeremy Corbyn. In Spain, the radical left party Podemos is tipped to emerge second in the upcoming elections in Spain and to be a major player in forming a coalition partner in forming a new government. In Greece, Syriza came into power defeating established parties from both the left and the right. All this reflects a sense of frustration with the existing system, with establishment politics, with political parties and governments who are out of touch with people. This is the mood around the world – the disenfranchised, the marginalised, the excluded are speaking out and are searching for alternatives.
The mandate of January 8th has to be understood in this context – it was an expression of frustration with the system; a desire for change of the established way of doing things. It is for this reason that the energy for the January 8th campaign came not from established political parties or politicians but by a motley crew of civil society activists: artists, intellectuals, religious leaders; social activists. The inspirational figure was Reverend Maduluwawe Sobitha – a figure who had made it clear that he had no interest in any position in the government. It is good for both the President and the Prime Minister to remember this: January 8th did not happen because of them: it happened despite them. It is especially important for the Prime Minister to remember this: people did not think he could even be a figure head leader for the campaign – he was never seriously considered as the Common Candidate. Political leaders were simply the vehicles through which people worked out a change that they wanted. People were not inspired by their political leaders – they were simply a necessary evil to be used to bring about change.
The fact that the government seems to be forgetting this is rapidly increasing the sense of disillusionment with yahapalana. Recent events like luxury cars for Ministers; the deeply problematic appointment of the Central Bank Governor; the housing scheme in the North; the arrogant pronouncements and blatant abuse of power by various members of the government are proof of how readily politicians have forgotten the message of January 8th. Those in power believe that deals and manipulations are the means by which to govern. The most important message of January 8th, that people are sick of being manipulated and lied to by their elected leaders, has been forgotten.
However, what is equally disturbing is that the leaders of civil society (and I use the term leaders as well as civil society loosely to mean the public figures and groups who campaigned around the January 8th campaign) are in danger of forgetting this as well. This government is using multiple tactics to silence critics: one of its most effective has been through the promise of reform and the cooption of activists into the reform process. Whether it is constitutional reform, transitional justice, women’s rights, law reform, economic reform, education reform or whatever else that requires reform in this country, multiple commissions, committees and task forces have been set up. And the government is doing just about enough to raise expectations that these reform processes provide a much needed space for engagement for civil society to influence policies and processes. And so, civil society is forced to choose: do we keep quiet on x and y, because it’s really important to try and influence z? Also, because there seems to be even a semblance of a space to dissent, mobilise and influence, should we simply knuckle down and do what we can instead of worrying about what cannot happen? Because the alternative is a return to the pre January 8th situation which clearly most of us do not want. So we have knuckled down, at least in public. As one well known civil society actor quipped, it is ‘death by cooption’! As a result, those who led the campaign for change are as responsible for the current situation as our elected representatives. Perhaps, even more so, because people did not expect anything different from their elected representatives – the expectation was that the mandate of January 8th will be protected by civil society.
In my view, it is exceedingly important for civil society to consider which issues seem to have moved forward and which issues have not shifted at all. While there seems to be some movement on reconciliation, improving international relations and creating space for dissent, there are other areas where there has been little change. Corruption is one – not only have wrong doers not been brought to book, but it is ongoing. Certain Ministers and friends of those in power are racing to make up for lost time and to make the most of their time in power. Nothing is being done about that. Those in power, their families and friends continue to abuse power and to get away or to certainly try to get away with it. As the recent resignation of Dr Sumith Pilapitiya showed, there is no room for independence in public service. On issues to do with the economy – certainly there seems to be no space for influence, dissent or discussion. The upcoming reappointment of the Central Bank Governor, Arjuna Mahendran is a case in point. The question is not simply whether Mr Mahendran has done something wrong or not – it is also that he has lost credibility and his integrity has been questioned and that the government seems to be shielding him beyond all that is decent and necessary.
The Daily Mirror of the 18th of June 2015 reported the Prime Minister as stating that the government is going ahead with ECTA, the Port City Project and the Western Megapolis project – all highly controversial projects that have drawn lots of criticism. The Prime Minister reportedly dismissed all such criticism as emanating from ‘outdated theories’. What exactly does he mean by this? Any criticism that he does not agree with need not be taken seriously? This government needs to look around at what is happening around the world – what is ‘outdated’ are natural resources heavy, inequality generating, environmentally unfriendly ‘big’ development! Such statements do nothing to allay fears that the yahapalana government has failed to learn lessons from the past or that it is not paying attention to the changing mood of the citizens of this country. It suggests a degree of intellectual and political arrogance and disregard for people that is completely unworthy of this government: a government that came to power on the shoulders of citizen activism.
Civil society may feel it has to pick its battles – and therefore choose to be silent on some issues. But that is to think and act like politicians who are fighting to stay in power to maintain power and privilege. Civil society has a broader responsibility – that goes beyond competing for power, privilege and position. January 8th in Sri Lanka marked a turning point for Sri Lanka in many ways – not least because it provided people with some hope: hope that change is possible. And that change is possible not because we trust our politicians, but because we believe in our own power over politicians. Getting too cosy with those in power, even with the best of intentions, will only serve to dilute that power.