Photo courtesy Al Jazeera

I just returned from a two-week stay in Sri Lanka with a mix of very different experiences. Since I have never done a proper meditation retreat in Sri Lanka, I stayed at Kanduboda International Vipassana Meditation Centre for six days, waking up at 4am to follow a well articulated daily routine of meditation practice and going to bed at 10pm each day. I felt those six days on ten-precepts to be the biggest gift I could give myself during the stay. Soon after, I got busy attending and international conference held in Colombo, which was attended by researchers in my area from 22 countries including many Sri Lankan colleagues resident in other countries. Then I was left with five days to spend with family that included several trips out of Colombo. No matter whom I met – research colleagues, relatives, friends, cab drivers, and three wheeler drivers – conversations touched upon the presidential election. I determined to be just an observer of conversations, political advertisements on TV, and what appeared on media in order to see things as they are without interference.

Going through my hometown, Galle on 25th December, I accidentally got the chance to witness a rally of president Rajapaksa. Long lines of very well organized people kept on pouring into the rally despite heavy rain. The determined people included very old people, two of whom slipped and fell off the curb into the drain right in front of me. But they were picked up and placed in the line by those who were cheering for the president. Due to some reason, those cheering squads did not respect the president’s motto – “matata tita (full-stop to alcoholism)”. When my vehicle turned to enter the expressway to return to Colombo, I saw more than 200 CTB busses (traditional red buses) parked on both sides of the road, and groups of people being guided off those buses in a well-organized manner. First we felt sorry for those elderly and poor people for what they had to go through in the heavy rain, but then it occurred to us that people usually do not get that treatment unless they deserve it.

Listening to different people from many different cross sections of the society, I could understand the main issues of this election. Many appreciated the expressway system that cut down the time to reach Galle and Matara from Colombo, as well as the time to reach the airport. Some had the concern that such development projects might get slowed down if the common opposition candidate wins. At the same time, people felt that increased dominance of Chinese in these mega development projects and their lack of transparency in lending posed a threat to the sovereignty of Sri Lanka. I was surprised to see this concern even among the three-wheeler drivers in Colombo. Rampant corruption was another common key issue people were concerned about. However, people had long memories about corruption. They reminded that corruption was there when Mrs. Chandrika Kumaratunga was in power too. Somehow people had come to the conclusion that corruption is an inevitable result of the executive presidency we have, with unchallenged powers with the president. People also felt that those who had connections with the Rajapaksa family enjoyed a separate law or virtually no law when it comes to criminal activity. At the same time, they reminded the “bhishana era” under UNP, and unanswered issues like the “Batalanda torture centre”. Again, people had concluded that the cover-up given by the immunity of executive president remains the root cause of such impunity. Some felt that ethnic unity is already demonstrated by the support pledged by the minority ethnic groups to the common opposition candidate, whereas president Rajapaksa still depends on radical Sinhala-Buddhist groups like Bodu Bala Sena that caused a lot of fear among minority ethnic groups. However, some others felt that president Rajapaksa has proven to be able to maintain stability despite many internal and external threats.

I felt some danger in some of the paid advertisements on TV. President Mahinda Rajapaksa in one of those advertisements divided the population to two clear groups – those who love the country and those who do not. He implied that he is the representative of the former group. The dangerous hidden message was that the other group does not deserve to be treated equal under law in a democratic contest of opinions and visions. Then, when I returned, I heard the news that a pro-government group including a provincial council representative on the Government side had openly attacked a group of young artists expressing their political views. It was not surprising at all given the political causes and conditions I had witnessed.

Finally I want the common opposition candidate, Mr. Maithripala Sirisena to note down the following:

If you come to power, please note that anybody who expresses views is a citizen worthy of respect. Do not divide the country along a fake notion of patriotism like we see today. Please demonstrate this buy avoiding to take any kind of revenge from those who expressed views against you. This includes editors of state owned newspapers and directors of ITN and Rupavahini. We do not know how much of the lies they say are voluntary. Even if there is a voluntary element, please pardon them and let them continue the voluntary element with total feeling of safety. This will unify the country under one umbrella of a sense of protection of the right of expression under the constitution. However, guarantee independence of the judiciary and the police to exercise full force of law against those who enjoyed criminal activity with full impunity. This too will unify the country around a confidence in rule of law. I think it is not necessary to remind you that we will be very disappointed if you do not keep your promise to abolish the executive presidency. Please be honest and truthful in that regard.

I am aware that you are a Buddhist. Me too. However, please stop using Buddhist clergy in politics. Gone are the days politicians could cheat masses by presenting yellow robes in front. People are grown up to see through your deeds than the cover-up given by politicians in robes. The best way to protect Buddha Sasana is to sponsor the forest Sangha community, and to provide lay people to seek refuge from them to practice Dhamma. Please take examples from the likes of King Walagamba, who built forest monasteries for the monks who walked the eightfold path with determination.