Groundviews

The servant and the king

Photo courtesy TVNZ

15 January 2015. Mahinda Rajapaksa is not the president of Sri Lanka.

I pinch myself.

I have been doing so for the last six days.

He still is not. He was democratically voted out of power a week ago. One person was killed, many were attacked, state resources were abused massively. The election was not free or fair, but he was democratically defeated by Maithripala Sirisena – who has since referred to himself as the foremost public servant of Sri Lanka. The main servant. Servant.

9 January 2015. Rupavahini and ITN – the state media that spent the previous 50 days hurtling lies and abuse at Sirisena and his coalition – run documentaries glorifying him. The next day, the Daily News editorial hails his election as president. The state media is schizophrenic. It is lost. It responds the only way it knows how. By replacing one form of blindly partisan propaganda with another. Independence lost is difficult to rediscover. It will take time. But Sirisena must demand it. He must be acutely uncomfortable with his glorification and with the abuse of state resources to do so. He must not even for a moment believe their lies.

10 January 2015. I skim through social media. One post catches my attention. “What Prabhakaran failed to do with the bullet, Sri Lankans did with the ballot. Shame on democracy!” I ponder. Apart from the obviously objectionable, this statement is factually incorrect. It should really read “What Prabhakaran started with the bullet, Sri Lankans ended with the ballot.”

17 November 2005. Mahinda Rajapaksa becomes the fifth president of Sri Lanka with the slimmest of majorities – 180,000. In the north, the LTTE ordered boycott is largely respected for fear of reprisal. The story of a single voter having his finger chopped off by the LTTE for defying them permeates. The LTTE bullet brings Mahinda Rajapaksa into power.

December 2014. The Rajapaksa campaign accuses the Sirisena camp of conspiring with Western forces and the LTTE remnant diaspora.

10 January 2015. Rajapaksa is hanging out of a window in Medamulana. Rajapaksa is shouting out of a megaphone. His subjects cannot contain their despair and anger. They call him their king. He says Eelam votes defeated Sinhala democracy. Eelam is to blame. Tamil and Muslim votes defeated democracy. Mahinda Rajapaksa remains the king of the Sinhalese and Sirisena is the president of Eelam.

31 August 2009. J.S. Tissainayagam is sentenced to 20 years rigorous imprisonment under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. He had been detained since 7 March 2008, the first six months, without any charge. His crime, inciting communal hatred through his writing. His incendiary words: “It is fairly obvious that the government is not going to offer them (the Tamils) any protection. In fact it is the state security forces that are the main perpetrator of the killings…” and “Such offensives against the civilians are accompanied by attempts to starve the population by refusing them food as well as medicines and fuel, with the hope of driving out the people of Vaharai and depopulating it. As this story is being written, Vaharai is being subject to intense shelling and aerial bombardment.” 85 words, 20 years, three months per word.

8 January 2015. A total 81.59% eligible Sri Lankan voters turn out to cast their ballot. The highest ever at a presidential election. In the Kilinochchi electorate, Mahinda Rajapaksa wins an unprecedented 24.68% of the vote. Of the Tamil, Kilinochchi vote. Up from 15.78% in 2010. In the South, his popularity hits an all-time low. He secures less than 37% in the Galle electorate. He loses Panadura. His percentage in Matara District drops from over 65% to below 58%. Mahinda makes a net-loss in the South. He blames Eelam for his defeat.

Eelam is Tamil for Lanka.

18 September 2014. Scotland votes on independence. By a close enough margin, the vote is a ‘No’. Among the most relieved are leftist liberals in England, who feared being eternally saddled with a conservative government, had Scotland gone its own separate way. The reality in Sri Lanka is the same. Seperatism would ultimately serve Sinhalese and Tamil extremist nationalists. It would consolidate their voter base and give them a perpetual enemy. This is why Tamil extremist nationalists – many living abroad – pushed for an election boycott. Tamil extremist nationalists are the new Prabhakaran. Mahinda is the old Mahinda.

12 January 2015. The Cabinet of Ministers is sworn in. Ravi Karunanayake is the Minister of Finance. Remember Sathosa? The road ahead will be challenging. But at least, there is a road where none existed before. We need to support the president. We need to relearn, that criticism is the cornerstone of democracy. We need to unlearn that corruption can ever be acceptable.

Sometime between 8 and 9 January 2015. A coup is reportedly on the cards. Public servants refuse to bow down to the force of power. Public servants who in the preceding days imposed injunctions against the abuse of state resources and the violation of election laws; who resigned from their posts for being prevented from doing their duty; who stood up to a corrupt, powerful, vengeful regime. Public servants who endured years of indignity at the hands of their masters and ridicule at the hands of an increasingly frustrated public.

8 September 2010. The 18th Amendment is passed by parliament. Two lone voices stand in opposition. The JVP and the TNA. The same two parties that refuse cabinet positions on 12 January 2015. The same two parties that campaign tirelessly for the public to vote Mahinda Rajapaksa out. The same two parties that are the remnants of (or closely associated with) two insurrections against inequality and injustice.

8 January 2009. Lasantha Wickrematunge is murdered in broad daylight in Colombo. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa asks “Who is Lasantha?”

7 January 2015. The cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo are murdered in broad daylight in Paris. Mahinda Rajapaksa condemns the cowardly terrorists for killing journalists.

16 June 2014. Muslims are attacked in Aluthgama. Parliament and national leaders are largely silent.

May 2009 onwards. Tamils in the north face mass interment in Menik Farm. Their crime – having endured decades of terrorist rule. Their lands are grabbed. Urban slum dwellers in Colombo are forcibly evicted. The city is beautified. The poor are forgotten.

8 January 2015. The victims have the power. Silent, unostentatious, anonymous power. They use it. They vote. The king is no more. The servant is elected.

Democracy is a beautiful thing. It is a difficult thing. Let us take a moment to bask in its glory. Then let’s begin the real work.