Groundviews

Collective awakenings and watershed changes in society: Are they in the offing?

Photo courtesy Asian Tribune

When the Berlin Wall fell as a result of continuous and determined efforts of the people of then East Germany, and the Perestroika initiated by Gorbechev, it was not only a watershed moment in Europe but an inspiring, momentous event characterised by the sufferings and future aspirations of millions of East Germans and their sympathisers around the world. Similarly, when Nelson Mandela was freed and he became the President of South Africa not only millions of his countrymen and women celebrated the events but also his admirers around the world expressed a sigh of collective relief. In the case of Sri Lanka, one event that I can remember with similar magnitude was the SWRD Bandaranaike victory in 1956, the nationalization program of foreign owned companies, making of Sinhala the official language, cultural revival associated with his victory, and his unfortunate demise in 1959.

As a nine-year-old boy growing up in a small village in the Hambantota district near Walasmulla, I remember how the country’s population from the city and village wept and mourned publicly. I also remember the long line of weeping men, women and children spending hours if not days to pay their last homage to a fallen hero at Attanagalla. It was truly a moment of national grief. The Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation used to broadcast music to fit the occasion with commentary in between. As a schoolboy in the primary school at Horewela Primary School, I used to draw SWRD’s picture with his signature smile and spectacles on drawing paper. His picture was available in newspapers published in Sinhala. The family photo in color with Anura, Chandrika, Sunethra and the two parents hanged on many walls in the village households including ours. Such was the admiration and familiarity of the Bandaranaike family in the late 50s. The family photo of the country’s leader, quite appropriately, represented the aspirations of many millions of other families, i.e. two parents posing with their young family. In real life, people in the country had aspirations for their children’s future with a cultural revolution deriving strength from the Sinhala countryside in particular after the long neglect and the adverse effects of the heavy-handed British colonial administration with the support of local chieftains collaborating with the alien colonisers at provincial levels. Looking at the personal transformation of AWRD Bandaranaike from being an Oxford educated orator -whose father held the most influential position of the British colonial administration in Ceylon-to someone whose life mission became the service to the common people of the country, it was abundantly clear that he was ‘a transformational leader’, who understood the pulse of the nation and what it aspired to.

In a sense, the 1977 victory by JR was also a watershed moment that drove the country out of its rotten circumstance (agadhaya) at the time and brought some happiness to many people through the construction of Mahaweli settlements, the relaxation of many restrictions of freedoms that had been curtailed between 1970-77 after combatting the 1971 JVP insurrection and imprisoning thousands of detainees in rehabilitation camps at Sri Jayawardenepura University etc. Popular resentment toward Sirima led coalition that was showing signs of inner cliqusim was directed towards the government by then because of the extension of the term of parliament by two years without seeking a fresh mandate from the people. People felt that the ruling party had lost the common touch, members of the party and government were living in another planet while the average folk were suffering from the policies implemented – including the restrictions of taking rice from one district to another, non availability of imported food items such as salmon tins, milk powder, clothes, medicine etc. Police checkpoints or barriers (Hal Polu) to check if people are carrying rice more than two kilograms or pounds were everywhere. There was a common belief that Felix Dias Bandaranayake (Finance minister), Sirima and a few other influential ministers formed a kitchen cabinet for decision making and the coalition partners had very little say in the government decisions. This was resented by the average folk who read stories in the newspapers relating to the governance style. Atta newspaper produced by the Ceylon Communist Party was one outlet people looked for as it provided critical commentary on the government actions.

George Rajapakshe represented Mulkirigala electorate in the parliament during the 1970-77 period. One of his election strategies, in addition to visiting remote areas in a sarong and short leaved white shirt, was to attack wealthy UNP supporters in front of stages erected in towns and villages claiming them to be collaborators of foreign imperialists. The need to free common people from the grip of imperialists and their collaborators (yatathvijithavadeengen rata Bera Ganna Ona api) was a argument he repeated against thunderous applause from the audiences(By the way George was also an orator). I remember the meeting attended by Sirima Bandaranaike and George Rajapakshe at Walasmulla town toward the finishing days of 1977 election campaign and the speeches given by both, in particular by George criticising wealthy people like Francis Silva-a resident of Walasmulla town, and K.S. Silva, a resident of Katuwana (father of Ananda Kularathne who became UNP MP during J R’ s time). Inspite of this kind of political rhetoric, the people in 1977 based their voting pattern on their own experiences during a period of immense hardship imposed by a government controlled by a few ministers close to the ruling family. If my memory is correct, the LSSP and the CP left the coalition government before the 1977 election due to their disagreement about the way the government was heading. The economic and social transformation brought about by JR and his government together with the introduction of an executive presidential system does not need further comments as most people have experienced their positive and negative consequences over the last 30 plus years.

In a sense, 1994 victory by Chandrika and the 2005 victory of the present President Rajapakse can also be treated as significant watershed moments. The victory over the Tamil Tigers by the government led by President Rajapakse is admired by millions of patriotic Sri Lankans within and outside the country. It opened the way for a period of calm without the constant and unpredictable armed attacks by the Tigers, allowing all to live in relative peace –though there are other public concerns about personal safety and security, having to live in fear of reprisals by politicos, lack of media freedoms and fundamental human rights, absence of rule of law, dilution of democratic institutions and processes. Chandrika’s own contribution to political and social transformation was not characterised by any major significant achievements as such. She ruled the country at a time when the war with the Tamil Tigers was continuing and people were suffering. Her efforts at constitutional reforms ended in failure. She promised ‘development with a human face’ but that also did not materialise. A centralized governance style continued during her period. Once she took over the leadership of SLFP her own colleagues from the Mahajana Pakshaya and others started to criticize her for lack of people friendly, progressive policies. Notwithstanding her governing style that appeared to be in contrast to people’s expectations, people had a soft corner toward Chandrika due to the personal tragedies she faced including the assassination of her father and the husband and near death she faced due to the bombing of her election meeting and loss of an eye. I narrated these details from the political history of the country and one of its Southern corners to highlight the nature of transformative and watershed moments in a political and sociological sense.

Thus Sri Lanka has seen political transformations and watershed moments in cyclic terms every ten or so years irrespective of the centralized power of the ruling parties at the time-by way of executive Presidential system or kitchen cabinets under the Westminister style parliamentary system. People came forward to correct the habits of the ruling class and the course of history in varying forms when they felt the collective national interest was at stake or the rulers had lost the common sense and common touch once they were firmly in vested power long enough. When people felt a change is necessary to bring sanity to governments that had been seriously eroded in democratic terms there was massive affirmations of core values, collective interests and common aspirations through elections. Voters made such decisions irrespective of the expensive party propaganda, often conducted at state expense. It is a credit to the intelligence of the Sri Lankan voter who has grown with democratic traditions and conventions starting from the 1930s.

Looking at the recent developments in the political front, it appears that we are witnessing another watershed moment in the country’s political history. It also appears that significant sections of the society have lost faith in the current governance model and the governance style for differing reasons. An existing view is that through this governance model and style, people’s core values, interests and freedoms have been undermined repeatedly and beyond repair. They feel that the gap between the elected representatives and themselves have grown larger and larger, and those at the middle to lower layers of society are receiving only the crumbs while the politicians and mega deal makers are enjoying a lavish life style at the tax payers expense (nagareta kiri apita kakiri). There seem to be a mismatch between theory (of development) and practice as well as the rhetoric of the leaders and the reality. The breakdown of law and order situation, erosion of judicial independence, lack of media freedom, nepotism and corruption, high cost of living, and the lack of basic freedoms seem to be common problems facing those outside the ruling party apparatus. One law for those who are ‘inside the party tent’ and another law for those ‘outside the ruling party tent’ seem to be operational drawing much criticism and anguish from the public. These are at least the perceptions spread throughout the populace creating a lot of anxiety and worry.

People’s inner desire to be free and living in a just society governed by virtuous rulers seem to have been unfulfilled due to this executive governance model and style. Hence the emergence of a common opposition and a common candidate with the support of a range of parties and groups representing a cross section of the fractured society along ‘who is in’ and ‘who is out’.

In the coming weeks, we will witness a barrage of advertisements, campaign meetings, rallies, and of course some degree of politically motivated violence also. The key question in the campaigns and the election is ‘whether there is a level playing field’ for the various parties to compete for the public vote? If there is no level playing field the result can be a foregone conclusion. This is not good for democratic governance or the legitimacy. At a time when Sri Lanka is the chair of the Commonwealth, it cannot afford to conduct elections in a way that breaks commonwealth norms.

Returning to the watershed moment and transformation of society. If as the common candidate proclaim the Executive Presidential system of government is abolished and a cabinet system answerable to parliament is truly reinstated, it can become a much needed correction to the current governance model and style, especially if it receives the blessings of most parties and key organisations including the Buddhist clergy and other religious leaders. As I wrote in a previous article recently, accountability is a key norm and value, which can help leaders to maintain the trust of parliamentary colleagues and the people.

People would like to know about the debt levels, whether the borrowed money is used wisely, and the prospects of medium to long term benefits of specific development projects. Though the poor and lower classes in the country may not be politically active as a whole, they are not by any means politically illiterate. When the time comes, they know how to exercise their vote irrespective of the many distractions imposed on their five senses by those desiring a long lease on power. In South Asian political systems, power means wealth, status, prestige, and much more. In fact everything for the politicians, their families and friends. Unchecked power can be quite destructive for the interests of the many. We have learned that democracy is government for the many not the few. But this was a message being lost in the previous decades from the emerging generations due to the lack of education on democracy and government –compared to our time in schools in the 60s.

Has Sri Lanka reached a watershed moment in its political history? Has the governance model and style broken to an extent that key stakeholders of politic and governance have lost trust in them? Do the politically literate despair at the future of governance and their fortunes? Has the society lost its core values due to mismanagement, corruption, and monopoly of power by a few? Do people feel insecure in society due to the loss of judicial independence, lack of rule of law, and the unequal power (formal and informal) exercised by politicians? Are the institutions of governance operating beyond their mandates? Has the necessary distance between private and public been eroded? These are some questions that have disturbed the minds of many Sri Lankans in the last few decades and need satisfactory answers – not political party propaganda. The outcome of forthcoming election will no doubt provide one resounding answer, as there seem to be a renewed interest in the forthcoming election across the board. It is a healthy sign for a healthy society-if only it is conducted without violence, physical harm, threats, bullying, and intimidation. In the meantime, as a election slogan some parties may try to preach the voters that we have to salvage the country from the imperialists (yatathvijithavadeengen api rata beraganna Ona) who are trying to undermine the integrity of the country and state. The real question is whether salvaging is to be in real fact from the imperialists or the outgrown ruling class with unequal access to power, wealth and artificially manufactured prestige?