Photo via The Daily Beast
So you see, democracy is not just a system, a structure; it is also a feeling. It is a feeling within each one of us; a desire to be led, a desire to be led by the things we believe in and the people we see those things in. It is a desire to stand up, to feel powerful in our own way, to wield that power in the face of despair and frustration. It is a feeling that inspires other feelings; it gives us courage, it gives us hope. It allows for Army officials – men who have made their entire careers out of respecting rank and taking orders – to say ‘No’, when they are asked to deploy their troops to help a desperate and frightened man stay in power; best of all: the idea that they said ‘No’ with pride, that we all said ‘No’ with pride.
So, here we are. What many of us dared not imagine was possible, has happened. All our cynicism and nay-saying, all our criticism about what an illusion ‘democracy’ is, must, at least momentarily, be wiped clean. For that moment, for this moment, we must all try to be bigger and better than we have sometimes been – we must allow ourselves the optimism of which we have, for so long, been deprived. We must make ourselves believe. We must make ourselves ready.
For me, there is no way to argue that Mahinda Rajapakse does not deserve this. I have nothing to thank him for. I feel no need to reflect on all the ways in which his regime may have made our lives better. I don’t need to temper my unbridled joy and relief at his defeat, with a ‘balanced’ point of view. For those of you who feel you must, I say, ‘Don’t!’. Don’t let him take this from you, too. We don’t need to give him that. He has taken enough. This is our moment to take back the dignity they destroyed, to take back our nation that they stole from us.
Why? Because I was tired of how terrible it felt to belong to Sri Lanka. I was devastated to find myself feeling like I wanted to leave, and never go back. I am angry at how they took that from me, from us all – the right to enjoy that feeling of citizenship, the ability to embrace the place to which you belong, to live in it freely, to love it freely. I am angry at how impossible it became to enjoy Sri Lanka – how, every time, I felt joy or experienced beauty, I was immediately overcome by the feeling that I was doing something terribly unjust. I was tired – as you should have been – of having become so deeply complicit in all the awfulness. I was tired that we found ourselves living in a nation where we had no choice but to be complicit. No matter what we did – every road we took, every time we shopped for groceries – we were complicit.
Why? Because it was personal, too – I believe it was personal for us all, alike. The Rajapakse regime humiliated, intimidated and threatened my mother – and so many countless others like her, so many countless others less able than her to have stood up to it – and ensured that she lived what turned out to be the last years of her life away from Sri Lanka, much against her will; away from her family, friends, comrades and away from the work which was her life. The Rajapakse regime was responsible for the violence inflicted on countless journalists, in a variety of ways; my brother, who was beaten up and had his equipment taken from him while he was monitoring election violence at the previous Presidential election in just one incident, saw his friends and colleagues in the media being subject to things far worse. The Rajapakse regime cruelly punished FUTA (the University teachers’ union) – which included my father and so many others we know – and all its members by forcing them to go for months without salaries, for standing up to them, for demanding academic freedom.
If you think that it couldn’t be just as personal for you as it has been for me, I believe it just means you haven’t thought about it for long enough – if you feel you weren’t personally, directly affected by the Rajapaksas, then I ask you to just look around yourself. Someone you know, perhaps even someone you love, was. They took something from each one of us: freedom, money, courage. We came up against dead-ends trying to build normal, every-day lives. They took our vitality, our identity. They took away our right – and our urge – to think, to speak, to resist, to demand better. For me, Sri Lanka under the Rajapakses was a lie – not a country.
And that is why this moment is a moment not just wrought with the euphoria of rediscovering and transforming national identity and some amount of something I recognize as pride; it is also very, very personal: I feel a great sense of deeply personal joy and optimism. I think we all should.
But in the rapture of the moment, in the wake of the possibility of a brave, new world for us all, let’s not forget that our job does not end here. Let’s not be quick to let our democratic enthusiasm die out with the election-day selfies on Facebook. Because democracy is about us, too, not just the leaders we elect. Now begins the hard work; we must change the rotten political culture of Sri Lanka, by changing our role in this culture, as well. We need to be democratic, we need to feel democratic: let’s not be quick to yet again place a human being on a pedestal, make a hero out of him, worship him and then be inevitably disappointed in some years. Let’s create the leaders, and the government, we want to be led by, and let’s continue to play a part in resolving the challenges they will face.
Let’s also not slide back into notions of nationalism, chauvinism and mindless triumphalism – these notions become dangerous quickly and make us get away from ourselves. Let’s not replace that sincere sense of pride for what we achieved, with overblown ideas about ‘Sri Lanka’ as a nation. We need to be humbled by this victory, not have nationalism yet again blind us to all the flaws, all the work there is yet to be done. Let’s not rally around ideas of ‘patriotism’, let’s instead rally around ideas of achieving equality and true social justice. Let’s not let the feelings of joy and optimism make us for a moment imagine that we are perfect: as we walk forward, let us celebrate, but let us create new things we can all celebrate, too. Let’s strive for equality, from which unity will follow naturally, I believe; let’s strive for integrity and transparency and accountability.
So if someone says, ‘Let’s forgive and forget, it’s time for a new Sri Lanka’, we should say to them: We can forgive, but we must never forget; there is no new Sri Lanka without the old; we cannot build a future that does not acknowledge the past; we will not live in a nation in which we have not all, without exception, been given the chance to rebuild our lives, and the very luxury of the choice to forgive.