“Democratic government is strengthened, not weakened, when it faces a vigorous civil society.” Tocqueville
The local government elections have been fought and won by the UPFA in 21 out of 23 Local Government bodies, an impressive result for an incumbent government in place since 2005. Contrary to normal response the incumbency factor worked for the government and not against it. One of the reasons given for the victory is the security factor – people’s abiding gratitude to a government that has given security by bringing to a close the thirty year war and successfully ending terrorism and their terror tactics under which all members of the Lankan polity were enslaved; no more deaths for young men and women soldiers; no more suicide bombers and ‘parcels’ exploding taking many lives and maiming many more. These have been high lighted before but each time people vote for the government it is clear that they recall them all and their vote becomes an expression of gratitude.
Perhaps yet another reason for the continuing support to the government is based on the public perception that the Sri Lankan government is being unfairly targeted by the international community with unauthenticated accusations of war crimes. Unaware perhaps of the intricacies of international politics and the concerns over human rights, many among the voters consider it unfair that Sri Lanka should be so ‘penalised’ despite the fact that Sri Lanka is the only country that has successfully defeated terrorism.
On the flip side of the coin there remains amongst some at least of the people the query that mass backing while it is a genuine reaction is but the response from a partisan and politically naïve majority. Questions are raised not only from the intelligentsia but from many amongst those who read the papers in Sinhala or Tamil and listen to TV news over the non government channels. The numbers are from the lower end of the spectrum drawn from the taxi and auto drivers, bus drivers and van drivers, clerical servants, peons, and the urban working class, men and women who are familiar with the insightful thinking nurtured through left wing politics.
No doubt another reason for the extension of support to the government is the coverage given to the vibrancy of the economy. That the economy grew by 4.5% to 5% during the war years and the post war statistics of an 8% growth rate gives encouragement and hope to the people. Also the visible accelerated development in roads, bridges, highways, ports, harbours, airports, sports stadiums etc is yet another factor in the government’s favour. In fact anyone who comes into the city cannot but see the changing face of the metropolis.
Air of Déjà vu continues
Despite these positive factors why then is there still a sense of uncertainty amongst the people? A feeling that there remains unfinished business that needs to be taken care of. An air of déjà vu continues; that the government is not ready to identify and act in the societal interests and needs. That the ‘poorly performing’ judicial system is working less for the people and more in the interests of the ruling elite. That the state officials have taken a position of independence from the people instead of being subordinate and accountable to them
During the recent past there have been many instances of the media functioning under severe strain, coming under attack mentally and physically while their offices have been ransacked and destroyed. Many cases of disappearances, kidnappings and killings have gone undetected. The white van menace and more recently the ‘grease Yakka’ syndrome have been terrifying experiences. All of it happened when it happened with great impunity, accountable to none; justice eluded for a variety of reasons but for the most part because follow up action was not taken to bring about a conclusion. Like the whirlwind these happenings blow in and blow out – with impunity.
On many matters there is no movement forward; no urgency to deal with matters that are urgently required to be resolved. All that appears to be important is the longevity of the government and to this end the political will is limited to making statements repetitively to underlie the popularity of the government with the masses. While remaining in this existential plane simple issues that can make a big difference to the people have been overlooked with what would in hindsight seem a humongous error in judgement.
Free and Fair Elections
The serious issue of the conduct of free and fair elections is one such matter. Elections have been conducted with regularity but then there has been since the 80’s questions about electoral fairness. The proportional representation system of elections introduced to give a fairer representation of people’s interests as well as to unify the people as the entire country transforms into one constituency to elect the Executive. These expectations have been proved to be mistaken expectations. The intra party rivalry and violence the system unleashes is destabilising and a danger to people’s security. The expenditure for the elections is so colossal that it is incredulous as to why the income tax department has hitherto failed to swoop down on the candidates to question the source of their income. The imperative for the successful individual to retain his/ her position is such that it creates its own spin, the vicious circle to start a collection for the next election and for the next generation to live in luxury. The type of candidates sponsored to represent the sovereignty of the people in the supreme legislative body is fast becoming a number one issue for debate. Are they to be educated people with an ethical and moral base, with a deep commitment to serve the public or are they to be men and women that have the potential to make money somehow, anyhow, with the backing of a mafia? What response should we have?
Ineffectiveness of the Elections Commissioner and the Office of the Elections Commission
Because of the ineffectiveness of the Elections Commissioner many have been the instances of violation of election laws. The Office of the Elections Commission has not taken action against anyone for violating the law regarding posters, canvassing by the ministers and their officials with a retinue of government vehicles visible to all but remained invisible to the Office of the Elections Commission. The primary duty of the person of the Elections Commissioner is to prevent election offences. Had he or the police been able to object to canvassing with firearms the tragedy that occurred on the 10th of October, 2011 could have been avoided and lives saved. The inability of the Commissioner’s Office to assert his authority and neutrality gave leeway, for the supporters of the candidates from the same party to carry firearms, with intent to harm and then, in fact proceed to fearlessly attack and kill. Perhaps they were under the hallucination that protection from the law is a prerogative of the office they hold. That police were not around or were unable to act which is symptomatic of police immobilisation, a condition of being ‘out of practice’.
Police powers to be reviewed and strengthened
Internal upheavals arise due to a certain amount of lawlessness and unrest consequent, to the establishment bending the rule of law, with impunity. Since the army is already out of their barracks during civil strife restoring law becomes their call, while the police without protest are seen to be relinquishing their legitimate role of the maintenance of law and order, however ineffectively they performed it, to the services. The public perception of the police force as the custodian of law and order no longer exist which distances the police from the community. Inertia that creeps in, in such situations has in fact overwhelmed the police force. Having no particular image to maintain they have let themselves be imperceptibly drawn into abusive behaviour as reported recently – of a person in remand found dead or as in the case of a remand prisoner who reportedly drowned while being transported by boat. Both these incidents are when the deceased were in police custody; these are deaths that should not have happened. Under these circumstances it behoves of any one to object to the spontaneous mob attacks on the police or even on the services when provocations could no longer be overlooked. What option is the country left with after the removal of the 17th Amendment which has tightened the political linkages to the institutions of the rule of law.
Resolution of the issues raised by the minorities – a much discussed five decade old problems
The war in the North and the East is over but trust and confidence building measures have been slow in coming. The co- terminus between ending the war and popularity of the government must be transformed to actual pursuit of peace to secure long term sustainability of progress in the country. The proposed Parliamentary Select committee to resolve the problems related to minority issues have got diluted in the manner in which the agenda for the Select Committee has been set up. The contention that there is a slowness to tackle matters of urgency gains justification with the undue delay in tabling the proposal for the Parliamentary Select Committee. The resolution of this much vexed issue will to a large extent remove the international pressure over the war crimes as it will carry some conviction of the intent of the government’s fairness approach towards the minorities. The government is morally compelled to show a sense of justice and fair play to the minority demand for a share in governance, having already given the impression to the international community of the intention to resolve outstanding differences between the communities following the end of the war. No possible reason can be given for procrastination. It is not as if the subject has to be studied anew; it has been examined from all angles for over five decades, with no aspect of the majority/minority concerns left unexplored. It therefore defies imagination as to what aspects, the many sessions with the TNA and the government are engaged in and yet be unable to reach common ground to this vexed problem. However, the minority to the conflict must look within themselves and within the boundaries of the country to seek remedial solutions rather than attempt to involve any other country over an entirely internal matter. Working within the national boundary will also be a confidence building measure. Resolutions will have sustainability only when the end result is an indigenous effort, no opposition to agreements thus crafted can be carelessly provoked.
It is the hope that the proposed Select Committee will not end up raking up communal hatred but will function where the entirety of the members will have only one agenda –to close this matter for all times to the satisfaction of all. Hitherto the experience has been of a total lack of accountability by the legislators from both the majority/ minority divide, whose inconsistency on these matters has become legendary. Today, the ray of hope is from the civil society that has taken the lead to engage in the communities in confidence building activities through active engagement and participation with the North and the East. Presenting to the Select Committee pre agreed consensus arrangements should hasten the process without acrimony in the shortest possible time. Members of the Legislature should be able to support any reasonable agreement for unifying the people and the country; it is the prayer that yet another war will not be necessary to make the people and policy makers wiser.
Politics and politicians must move to ‘another’ level
It is time the legislators spend their energy on seeking a larger vision for the people and not confine themselves to their personal self- interest. The only role for the legislator is to serve the people and look for constructive ways and means by which such service can be made profitable and meaningful. In the absence of such an approach people’s enchantment with the politicians will turn to apathy not only towards politics and the politician but towards democracy as well.
An effective civic culture must be developed to counter the imbalance in political influence and to put to use the ‘ social capital’ available in society. This means that the social relationships of trust and the need to work with the family, the community and institutions will strengthen the inter-linkages within the community. Such communion among the people will help to make studied responses to public policy for their own welfare and security. Trust and empathy to one another is what must be encouraged when the crisis of majority/minority relationships is reviewed. The different communities have lived together for many centuries in amity and even in times of discord have been able to suggest compromises to smoothen out differences. Let not the odd rabble rouser create chaos and confuse the people as has happened many times in recent Sri Lankan history.
Strict application of constitutionalism and the rule of law will help the country to become vibrant again. Social constraints have to work to prevent any individual or individuals from usurping the sovereign power of the people. This will be the only way that authoritarianism, political manoeuvres and the proliferation of corruption can be prevented.
To encourage the sustainability of such a system will require highly sensitive community of people, moral and ethical in its build up and an enlightened media that would safeguard the rights and dignity of the people and the system. To make people think with creativity access to education and economic power is imperative.
The resurrection of the JVP in its violent incarnation
The country has not yet settled into a peace mode as can be seen in the events of the last few weeks, not to mention earlier incidents of similar inflection. The news item that referred to the ‘ghost’ of the JVP being resuscitated by the revolutionary wing of the party in its previous violent format is disconcerting; that too, by a couple of ‘kallathonis’ who have caterpulted themselves into the party, from across the Pacific, from the land of the Kangaroos. The country cannot undergo another metamorphosis of violence no sooner than we have removed the menace of one such violent movement. None would want a replay of 1987-89, when violence was used to take over the mantle of state power which set the stage for the government of the time to act with equal ferocity. The entirety of the Lankan society was mired in violence or in fear of violence.
The tragedy though is that many of the causes of the ’71 insurrection, the father of the JVP movement, have not yet been successfully tackled. True, an attempt is being made to introduce English in schools that should help to remove the allegation that the English language acts as the ‘kaduwa’ repressing the progress of rural youth. One of the handicaps confronted in the implementation of this policy is the shortage of trained English teachers to spread across the entire country. More seriously, there is a serious lack of understanding of the modern techniques in teaching a second language. The first problem is receiving limited attention while the second is being short circuited by the claim that it is not necessary to learn English as spoken and written traditionally by the British, and that a Ceylonized version will suffice for our needs. Even learning English the ‘proper ‘ way, the end product to many in the best of times has not been perfect. The question begs to be asked as to what kind of English will this generation and the future be writing and speaking if the Sri Lankan version of English is taught? Obviously, the majority conversant in ‘Singlish’ will have to be content to be understood only within the boundaries of the country while the elite will certainly teach their children in the language as it should be, continuing the rift instead of bridging the brief. The ‘Kaduwa’ remains activated.
The other main contention of the JVP was that the majority of the graduates passing out of the University were (and are) unemployable. The problems of ’71 still remain, leaving ground for revival of the revolutionary spirit, transcribe violence, posing challenges to the state.
Weapon Free Society
The President is on record stating that the country is free of terrorism and that it is possible to administer under the normal laws of the country. Why then is there a need for so much security for ministers and Officials who do not even fall into the group that dealt with the war effort. On a recent occasion when edged into the drain by the wave of white gloves a count of seven vehicles was made with the army and black cats in attendance to protect one individual. Such wasteful use of the tax payers’ money and human resources is mind boggling. The VIPs no longer need the kind of protection their egos seem to demand. The President and few others who have had an active role in the elimination of terrorism will require armed protection. The rest of the by – standers should be relieved of armed security. There should be no need for security with police uniforms or otherwise. The statement must be convincingly made that the country is stable and at peace. A failure to send this message will contribute to dissident elements intent on gaining wealth and prominence from a host of nefarious sources to become active.
A weapons free society will give the flexibility for the people to function without fear of armed groups and their internecine struggles in which ordinary men and women become the victims; it will give the people the opportunity to have free discussion and dialogue; interact with promising new leaders, and work the wheels of democracy by asserting rights and liberties, demanding free and fair elections with multiple political parties that would confirm the principle of equity through a system of distributive justice. It will also help civil society “for opening access and transcending a predatory state by breaking down the vertical bonds of clientelism and dependency, fostering horizontal form of political participation and trust, generating new bonds of interest that cut across ethnic and social identities, and organizing citizens to demand “more effective public service”.
It may then be possible to exorcise the ‘ghosts’ that haunt us.