Cartoon by Dharshana Karunathilake, published in Irida Lakbima, 3 Jan 2010. Translation: General Fonseka (on left): â€œI promise to give youâ€¦.” President Rajapaksa, interrupting: â€œWhatever he promises, I promise to give you all those!”
â€œCivilization is an interlude between ice ages,” said the noted historian Will Durant. We might adapt that to characterise the current presidential election in Sri Lanka as a brief period of liberty and relief in between long spells state oppression, neglect and impunity.
What else can we make of the government’s new found keenness to simultaneously ease up on a number of fronts where it has been completely unrelenting and uncompromising until now?
Just consider these few illustrative examples.
The militarization of the North remained firmly in place for seven months after the civil war ended in May 2009. Now, the same government is scrambling to dismantle the High Security Zones, resettle the displaced people, and remove restrictions on the A9 road. Yesterday’s suspects have become today’s darlings.
In its triumphalism over winning the territorial war, the government neglected and delayed offering a substantial and sincere political power sharing arrangement to the ethnic minorities. We were told everything would be sorted ‘in good time’. Indeed, the very existence of minorities was dismissed. Suddenly, we find the same president wooing the Tamil and Muslim voters with oh-so-sweet promises.
For years, the government’s ministers and officials pleaded that there simply was no money in the Treasury to increase public sector salaries. Yet, the same mandarins of public finance have found ways to offer an across-the-board hike of Rs. 2,500 for all public servants.
In December 2008, the government soundly ignored a Supreme Court ruling for petrol price to be reduced to Rs. 100 per litre to better reflect world oil prices, which had stumbled. Yet, as December 2009 drew to a close, local petrol price was suddenly reduced to Rs. 115 per litre. Never mind the world prices have been going up againâ€¦
Are these signs of rapid democratization — or desperate electioneering?
When it comes to eating their own words or taking complete about-turns with a straight face, few can compete with this government’s (well-paid) spin doctors and (unpaid?) apologists. They have ‘explained’ the spate of recent concessions with convoluted logic and mind-boggling arguments.
They assure us that these not mere election ‘carrots’. They also say that they are very sorry to have kept most of us (20 million people) on hold for over four years. But cheer up, folks: from now on, it is going to be Hakuna matata (Swahili for ‘have no worries’)â€¦
What can explain this sudden and rapid ‘thawing’ of an uncaring government’s hitherto icy cold attitude towards its own people? Surely, it can’t be the much-dreaded greenhouse effect that triggered this sudden warming of hearts?
There is another, simpler reason. Let’s call it the Fonseka Effect.
In some true blue circles, this new-found effect is far more feared â€“ and thus, much more maligned â€“ than the spectre of global warming. (If you don’t believe it, just listen to our fire-breathing Minister of Environment!).
If General Sarath Fonseka’s recent entry into politics surprised some, his rise as the principal challenger to the incumbent at the January 26 presidential elections has transformed our social and political dynamics. The current government (in office since April 2004), and the president (since November 2005), have never shown so much concern about the plight of the ordinary people â€“ as well as law and justice — as they are doing now.
All this would have been funny if the stakes were not so high, and the accumulated frustrations and suffering of the people so enormous. For most of them, the recent concessions come as too little, too late.
But there is no denying that the Fonseka Effect has effectively shattered the smug arrogance of the ruling oligarchy.Â Certainly, nothing attempted by our long impotent and divided opposition came anywhere close to this.
So what is the choice facing the little man (and woman) who walks into the little booth on Judgment Day, with a little pencil in hand to make a little cross on a (not so) little bit of paper? That is a strictly private and confidential decision for each eligible voter â€“ and long may that remain so!
What more signs of sudden warming and caring might we see in the countdown to the election? This is a moment not to be missed by social activists, trade unionists and other agitators in the public interest. They must seize the moment and quickly press their demands with the ever-agreeable government.
Just remember to mention the seven-letter F word. That seems to works better than open sesame these days!