Photo courtesy Maithripala Sirisena Facebook page
There are times in one’s life when one becomes very proud of one’s country. For many it is when we win in cricket or in war. This is triumphant pride where we defeat someone else- an external sports team or an internal enemy. For this kind of pride we need “an other” whom we compete against or dislike without restraint. It is a mixed blessing, filled with pride, but especially in the latter case also fear and hate.
However there are times when pride can transcend the obsession with “the other”. In Sri Lanka it could be when we are immersed in its astounding natural beauty or when we live up to our own values and expectations. For me the elections last week were a very important moment- at least for my own personal connection to this island.
Democracy in Sri Lanka had taken a bashing for decades but especially since 2009. We saw things that were absolutely surreal- like something out of a bad Fellini film. And yet we were constantly warned against change, pointing to the possibility of chaos that an Arab spring could bring such as in Libya, Egypt and Syria- no-one of course mentions Tunisia where its has been a great success.
What saved us was the courage of individual politicians who by acting jointly have given us the following moments to savour in our lifetime -no matter what happens in the future: –
Firstly, our public servants, including our rule of law institutions and the security forces showed us what they can do if there is proper leadership and an atmosphere which even holds out a prospect where their professional independence is respected. :- a judiciary that refuses a last minute effort to break election laws by state media institutions; an Elections Commissioner who is proactive in ensuring a free election, constantly surrounding himself with monitors and the press so that no-one could “get at him”; a police force that finally does its job arresting those who did wrong and thwarting many acts of violence and intimidation, an army that refused for the most part to allow soldiers out of the barracks and if stories are true refused to pervert democracy and shoot its own people. (Egypt, Libya and Syria failed because the armed forces did not show this restraint unlike in Tunisia) Also if reports are true, an Attorney General who refused to push for the Proclamation of Emergency. We must also remember the countless public servants who made this election a success. This commitment to democracy by our public services and institutions more that anything will convince the world that given the proper leadership we are not a failed state or a banana republic- the image the rest of the world presently has about us and that brings shame to many of us working in this field.
Secondly, after years of being ruled from the top by people with a monarchical dispensation, it was wonderful to see dialogue and discussion slowly begin to take the place of threats and scaremongering. Particularly interesting has been the slow transformation of the rhetoric of both the TNA and the JHU. From bottom line thinking, inflammatory language and vitriol, both sides have publicly begun to affirm the need for discussion, dialogue and understanding. For many of us who have been watching the political scene for decades this has been extraordinary development. It is also interesting to see the slow transformation of the rhetoric of the UNP and the JVP- the former beginning to speak of limitations to neoliberal policies and the JVP agreeing to serve on the Advisory Council. The JVP and the JHU’s indefatigable struggle against corruption will hopefully continue holding the feet of the present government to the fire as well to ensure that this election is not another recycling of the spoils. These are all good signs, moving us away from the bottom line, boycott politics of the 1970s and 80s that got us into this mess in the first place to a more deliberative democracy focusing on process and substance. If this holds we are truly moving toward becoming a modern democracy.
The inauguration of the 6th Executive President was an absolutely chaotic affair. For some, freed from years of repression and intimidation, it was nostalgia and an affirmation of freedom and spontaneity- a carnival for a people’s president. Others, having been accustomed to years of a disciplined Colombo, were mortified- believing that this was a sign of things to come and that the coalition will lead us down the road of chaos and disorganization away from the “stability” of the last few years. The Cabinet appointments as well as the appointments of Secretaries and Governors should dispel such fears. These are appointments for the most part- though not all- based on merit and competence. We hope at least they will contribute toward effective governance.
There are still many obstacles are ahead and the promises and the expectations may never be fulfilled. In addition, the discourse and rhetoric of fear, rumour, darkness and hatred is still trying to make a comeback. It is true that the minorities did make a difference in this election but we must also ask why the former incumbent’s share of the Sinhala vote dropped from 65% to 55%- that is what made him lose the election since the minorities have always voted against his policies. It is the split in the Sinhala vote more than the minority vote that delivered this election to M. Sirisena. To see it as anything else is to deliberately obfuscate the issues.
We have also not resolved the ethnic issue and a lot of political landmines remain in that area. Yet we must ask- “how can the terrorists and violent rebellion ever come back?”. There is no leader, the people of Jaffna have no stomach for violence and even the irresponsible and self-absorbed diaspora are strangely talking about Mahatma Gandhi. The western countries and India, especially after this election, will not tolerate fund raising or clandestine mobilisation. Where is this threat? The issue is not military- it is political- how do we find a political solution, how do we win hearts and minds, develop the economy and livelihoods and treat people with respect and empathy. The appointment of a civilian governor to the northern province with familiarity on these issues is a step in the right direction.
We still do not know if any of the pledges of the Coalition will be fulfilled in the next 100 days. We have two active, political parties- the JHU and the JVP as well as a reinvigorated civil society that will now have the freedom to be vigilant to make sure it happens. If the pledges are implemented, we will have fundamental transformation in our political system and our rule of law institutions- hopefully they will ensure that democracy is entrenched no matter what happens after April.
At this time we must also remember all those who are not with us who would have also savoured this moment- among them- my mentor Neelan Tiruchelvam and his wife Sithie, Charlie Abeyesekere , his daughter Sunila and her son Sanjay along with RKW Goonesekere, the longtime Chairperson of the Civil Rights Movement. I also have to remember Bishop Lakshman Wickremesinghe and Father Tissa Balasuriya who taught me the importance of people’s rights, interfaith dialogue and humility- and also, though we had very strong and divergent political views especially on the ethnic question, HL de Silva and SL Gunesekere who in their life time fought very hard for democracy and the rule of law. We must also not forget the many civil society and media activists who were literally harassed- often into exile as well as those who gave their lives fighting for our liberty- Lasantha Wickrematunga for one who had democracy vindicated on his death anniversary. As Sunila’s daughter Subha wrote in a moving piece,
“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 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”.
The arrival of the most popular religious figure in the world the day after the appointment of the cabinet of ministers seals this moment we can savour. We may not all be of the same religion or even religious at all but this is the Pope who has said that religion and religious institutions are not all that matters- it is one’s own spirituality and doing what is right that is the most important. May his blessings entrench our gains, help us transform hope into reality and vengeance into justice with mercy.