Groundviews

A systems approach based on a rights framework for the governance of Sri Lanka

Photo via FT.lk

I read the article titled Re-visiting the Rajapaksa Hegemonic Project (Groundviews 05/09/2014) by Dayapala Thiranagama with interest. It looks at the construction of Sinhalese Buddhist supremacy model, strengths and weaknesses of RHP, and the weaknesses of the opposition and the TNA. The points made are interesting as the article is using ideas of Gramsci in a theoretical sense. One weakness in the argument presented is that the RHP is conceived as an all powerful, unified entity while the opposition is conceived as disjointed, lacking a coherent appeal to the Sinhalese Buddhist electorate, and even a vision of governance. In the conclusion, the author states

‘The political deconstruction of the RHP is going to be linked to the restoration of rule of law, respect for basic human rights including right to life, and the devolution of political power to the Tamil community. With the space for Sinhalese chauvinism and nationalism so successfully occupied by the RHP, those who have been displaced need to prepare for a very long and arduous democratic battle to find a new political path, learning from victories as well as disappointments while at the same time bringing forward a new generation of young leaders’.

If this is to be the case, a fundamental contradiction emerges for the opposition in trying to advocate devolution of power to the Tamil community and appealing to the Sinhala Buddhist electorate simultaneously? If the political and moral supremacy has been achieved by the RHP by the factors claimed in the article, the opposition parties are compelled to follow the same political lines as the RHP i.e. me too philosophy or evolve a different political line and a governance logic based on the actual concerns of the populace in the country e.g. restoration of economic, democratic, environmental and civil rights. This article examines this conundrum further.

For a start, I do not believe that the Sinhalese Buddhist electorate is a unified and monolithic entity that is a slave to one or other political project such as the RHP on its own volition. In a country where the ‘manufactured consent’ is strongly at play at the elections, elections alone cannot be taken as a fair barometer of the electoral wishes. Sinhalese Buddhist electorate is a highly diverse entity in class (and economic), caste and cultural (including linguistic due to the spread of Sinhala and English medium) terms. While major sections of this electorate may be strongly influenced by the rural origins of the Rajapaksas in a symbolic sense, and its survival instincts well served by the hegemonic project after defeating the LTTE, plus the road development projects in the rural areas, the bread and butter issues affecting the daily lives, employment and housing issues, issues of civic and political rights/freedoms form the bedrock of the formation of pro or anti government sentiments that are crucial in a national election. Nonetheless, the impact of media manipulations and transmissions promoting one kind of reality/future and constructing Sinhala-Tamil/Muslim binaries as the main pillars of the political discourse instead of ‘the neoliberal economic and social project’ cannot be under estimated.

Thus the Sinhalese Buddhist electorate is there to be won – not abandoned thinking that it is too hard a venture due to the existence of RHP. Construction of a political and moral discourse around the key issues of economic, political, environmental and civic rights and freedoms in a manner that is easily understood by the population is a primary necessity in this context. Each of these rights and freedoms has to be further elucidated in a language that the Sinhala Buddhist electorate understands, and any erosion in them clarified. The way to restore these rights and freedoms needs to be carefully articulated including necessary changes in the system of governance. If the latter is the focus without the former, then it is a situation of putting the cart before the horse. Any action part has to be preceded by a relevant context –in this case the rights and freedoms context – which has universal appeal not only in the country but elsewhere around the world. The context provides the meanings, and the meanings provide food for thought. If the opposition parties develop such a proposition and an action plan, then it can even become the catalyst for the RHP to change its course depending on the mass appeal that the opposition parties are able to generate in the Sinhalese Buddhist electorate.

There are situations where opposition parties have come to power by using a mix of ‘me too philosophy’ (meaning following the RHP in this case) and campaighning on popular discontents on bread and butter issues. A famous example in the Australian context is how Kevin Rudd came to power defeating John Howard. Howard was seen as an undefeatable leader in his third term who was campaigning for a fourth term. However, Rudd adopted some of Howard’s own policies, rhetoric and told the Australian electorate that he could do them better. This was popularly labeled as the ‘me too policy’. He claimed that he could establish better relations with countries like China due to his Chinese language and diplomatic skills, traditional labor party platforms such as education and health were shown as areas where the labor will have more credentials, issues such as housing, petrol price and living costs were addressed by using various promises. Most of all he was a good communicator. He built a following among younger voters by using modern social media and a tea shirt campaign. To add to his advantage, the electorate at the time was ready for a change. I do not believe that he could have been able to achieve the same result if there was no free media in the country. This is going to be an obstacle for any future political movement built on ‘a rights and freedoms platform’ in Sri Lanka. In this context, ways of developing a creative public pedagogy i.e. Strategy to market the principles, meanings, symbols and action plans commonly known as policies needs to be conceptualized with a proper understanding of the pain that the electorate is feeling, if any. Policies and strategies have to be rooted in the grass roots communities.

One question that everyone –young, middle aged, old, Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim-have to ask is what rights and freedoms have they lost due to the existence of RHP? Law and order issue seems to have captured the imagination of many commentators. However, some would argue that there is no mass scale assault on the rights and freedoms of people in the country and people are free to move around, express their views through various public media, and even move between countries for work and other purposes. While there is a media discourse about the dismantling of various constitutional and other mechanisms that existed before to protect citizen rights and freedoms, this discourse is largely restricted to a few individuals and organisations writing in English. Moreover, it is being circulated by using Internet media accessible to the diaspora rather than through the national media. In this sense, the terminologies used and arguments advanced by reference to even Western thought and knowledge available in English medium sources may not be the suitable terminology to educate the Sinhalese Buddhist electorate at grass roots levels.

The UNP campaign in 1977 led by J.R did appeal to the masses not only because the people had considerable sufferings due to the policies of the then SLFP led coalition but also he was able to articulate the suffering and the way forward for the country by using vernacular language epitomized by the term Dharmishta Samajayak Ati kireema as his main slogan. Selecting a proper terminology to characterise the predicament of Sinhalese Buddhist masses in bread and butter terms, rights and freedoms claims and the way forward by the use of simple language that is understood by the average citizen is a key to any future oppositional political platform and its success. The country needs a strong opposition in the parliament and many stakeholders recognize it as a means of checks and balances needed for a functioning democracy.

Another important factor that needs careful consideration is whether such a political –social movement based on people’s rights and freedoms plus bread and butter issues should focus on the personalities –whether it is Rajapaksas or anyone else. My view is that while it looks a suitable strategy in the short term, to be successful in the long run, opposition political parties and other organisations concerned with the issues mentioned would be better served if their focus is on the systemic issues rather than personality issues. In my view, personality focus does not get the opposition anywhere –except temporary political scoring. Before batting, the ground has to be well prepared. The focus on personalities seems me to be a game of cricket without the ground being prepared well or even the audience being educated about the rules of the game.

There are more fundamental systemic reasons that the citizens need to be concerned about the expanding ‘neoliberal economic and social project’ in the name of so-called globalization rather than wasting much of political capital on the personalities involved in the contemporary governance. Such fundamental issues require asking questions about the long-term sustainability of an economic system built on neoliberal economic/market principles. At least in Australia, we are seeing a trend toward increased cost of living including very high utility prices, expansion of taxes and levies the user pay system, corruption among some politicians, decay in moral and value foundations that the society had been built due to the expanding consumerist-corporatist culture and lifestyle. One good thing about the Australian politico-bureaucratic system is that it still has liberal democratic fundamentals working in favor of the citizens including in built checks and balances, e.g. the Senate is not dominated by the parties that govern. Therefore the governing parties have to negotiate with minor parties to get government bills approved by the Senate. Yet the tensions between market forces and governance by elected representatives in a majoritarian democracy continue all the time. Citizens organize along various issues that matter to them and seek to change the minds of politicians who are in the governing seat, e.g. coalition against coal seam gas exploration –though well paid lobbyists from the big corporations are also active in doing the same.

In the Sri Lankan case where there is a majoritarian democracy (or for that matter RHP) and a rule from the top due to the existence of an Executive Presidency, organizing citizen views around key issues that matter to the people is not an easy task, especially in a climate of fear and the biases in the media. However, there is no alternative to doing so if the opposition parties and organisations concerned with rights and freedoms issues plus bread and butter issues for all of the country’s citizens are to establish a movement with a long term strategy.

Identification of key issues in mundane terms is the first task. It may be the cost of living, erosion of free education, poor health facilities, corruption, farmers’ problems, insufficient incomes, increased taxes and levies, land acquisitions, environmental issues, need for accountability, free media, hegemony of the political class or any other. Each of these issues needs to be identified and made into a coherent platform not only for political digestion by those holding office in various parties but also the general masses. While the masses may be suffering from any of these issues, unless some organization provides leadership and education using mass pedagogical strategies, the masses are not going to organize themselves to demand solutions. This is where the leadership and strategy come in to play.

As someone who is involved in the equity and social justice claims by academic staff in a university environment, I know very well how lethargic my colleagues can be even to come forward to claim their due from the organisation. I have to identify the issues, devise the strategy with the support of colleagues, implement it and seek change through the system of university governance by using various methods. Change does not necessarily come by adopting a hostile approach. Often, use of goodwill and a positive message not only to the target group whose claims are the bed rock of my strategy but also those in the governing seat is necessary to move the strategy forward. Seeking change in the system is thus not limited to developing an oppositional political or social movement. Change can also be achieved by working with those in the governing seats if the right strategies are formulated and implemented.

I think the future of Sri Lanka for all its citizens can only be assured by understanding the logic of governance and its weaknesses in the current phase, need for turning political and social discourses away from the Sinhala-Tamil/Muslim binaries, and focusing on a rights based framework for all of its citizens together with a focus on bread and butter issues and a long term strategy with grass roots appeal in the long run. The more the opposition parties and critical media focus on personalities and short term gains at the expense of long term goals, the RHP will be able to continue by assimilating more and more personalities from the opposing sides. How much political capital could be gained by linking the ‘devolution of power to the Tamils issue’ to an oppositional movement based on ‘rights and freedoms for all citizens’ need to be rethought. While there may be merits of devolution of power to the Tamils, if there is no mass appetite for this in the Sinhalese Buddhist electorate for the foreseeable future, adopting such a stance in the overall political and moral platform at a crucial juncture like today can be political suicide.

In short then, the best way to address the effects of RHP is to carefully examine its impact on the lives of people in a bread and butter sense plus moral, value and rights sense. A rights and freedoms based approach plus a critical approach to the neoliberal economic and social project to understanding the predicament of the citizens can be the catalyst for changing the system of governance –not the parties in the governing coalition per se. In such a case, the focus has to be on the systemic issues rather than personality issues. If the oppositional parties and movements are able to generate sufficient interest and enthusiasm among the masses from all communities for a long term goal of restoring various rights and freedoms to their acceptable and desired levels, the RHP may start to erode within as the Sinhalese Buddhist or any other electorate is not a monolithic entity but consist of diverse and contradictory elements based on class, caste, and cultural-linguistic factors. In my previous articles to Ground Views, I have dealt with the construction of domination-subordination in Sinhalese society showing the way such diversities function to produce domination and subordination.

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This article is part of a  larger collection of articles and content commemorating five years after the end of war in Sri Lanka. An introduction to this special edition by the Editor of Groundviews can be read here. This, and all other articles in the special edition, is published under a Creative Commons license that allows for republication with attribution.