Photo courtesy VOA News

The New Year 2015 began yesterday, 9th January 2015! Though there were the traditional celebrations on the 1st, these were on a subdued note, given the fears and uncertainties of an election that was a week away.

But yesterday it was quite different for those of us who wanted a new beginning. There was a huge sigh of relief countrywide, with the realization that democracy had won a decisive victory and the people had given their verdict. This is a country where even after 5 years, the wounds of a brutal 30 years war have not been allowed to heal. A war which saw thousands of its youth on both sides of the communal divide sacrifice their lives – the Tamil youth, who as a last resort took to arms in the hope that they could bring dignity and freedom to their people not realizing that that struggle would take them and the country down a trajectory of fascistic terror and the Sinhalese youth, who thought they were protecting their ethno-religious heritage by defending a government that responded in like to keep the country undivided within a unitary majoritarian arrangement.

Following the military defeat of the LTTE in 2009, a window of opportunity was opened for bringing peace and healing to the country through stretching a hand of reconciliation to the battered Tamil people. However Mahinda Rajapakse’s election in 2010, saw a victor’s justice being enforced and tribal triumphalism reigning supreme. It also had the ideological underpinnings driven essentially by Gothabaya Rajapakshe and hard line factions in the military , Buddhist polity, clergy, and business people , who unleashed a hegemonic Sinhala Buddhist project to subjugate a crushed people.

Beginning with their incarceration in refugee camps, ringed with barbed wire fences and armed sentries, the war affected Tamil people were humiliated into submission, even if a relatively accelerated resettlement process was to take place subsequently. Check points at every turn, military cantonments, garrison towns and military administrative authorities permeated the day to day lives of the Tamil people. The Omanthai check point, was a daily reminder to those entering and leaving the Northern districts as to who is in-charge. It is a humiliating ritual. When the night buses reach the check point at mid-night, it is heart wrenching to see elderly people woken up and ushered brusquely by gun toting soldiers to join long queues with their baggage for checking at the security counters. The subtle attempt to change the demographics in the the North and East regions through resettlement programmes (emulating and probably under the advice of the Israelis ), the land grabbing that took place under the guise of security considerations, the intrusion into their cultural space through the erection of Buddhist shrines and statues, created helpless resentment among the affected Tamil community.

While the holding of the Northern Council election was seen as a positive step, the Tamil people sent a resounding message to the government about their discontentment, by electing the TNA to power on a platform of seeking political autonomy. The Rajapakse government in its arrogance, did not heed this message and the failure of the government to cooperate with the council and facilitate its functioning, negated whatever positive outcome that this election could have achieved. The appointment of a retired military commander who prosecuted the war, as the governor, further aggravated a situation fraught with misgivings.

This oppressive Sinhala Buddhist hegemonic thrust, spearheaded by the Defence Secretary and backed his Presidential brother, did not limit itself to the Tamils but extended to the Muslims and the Christians. The sponsorship and patronage provided to extremist clergy led groups like Bodhu Bala Sena (BBS), were clearly seen as part of the regime’s strategy. The Aluthgama conflagration and the failure to bring to justice the BBS who instigated this violence, reflected that the government condoned and passively supported such racist behaviour.

The opportunity of 2010 became distant dream when the nepotism and the dynastic ambitions that fueled it, took centre stage. Its link with the infrastructure drive that became the main economic platform for development by the Rajapakse regime under the Mahinda Chinthana Idiri Dakma, became evident. Consequently these mega projects were riddled with accusations of corruption involving Rajapakse acolytes, political cronies and members of the family.

The introduction of the 18th amendment and the dismantling of the checks and balances that were in place to curb authoritarian rule and promote good governance, was in effect the removal of a centre beam that held up the country’s democratic edifice. This enabled the culture of impunity to engulf the country, and with it a brazen disrespect of the rule of law. The impeachment of the chief justice through a highly compromised process, the appointment of the new chief justice, the padding of the higher judicial intuitions with pliant judges, debilitated the judiciary, an important institution of the state. This resulted in many politically motivated judgments which reeked of executive bidding.

While one could feel that the victory of the 2010 Presidential election by Mahinda Rajapakse was an opportunity lost for peace, reconciliation and economic prosperity , it could be seen also as an opportunity grabbed by those ethno-religious forces to gain hegemonic control of the state and consolidate their political and economic interests.

Patriotism through protecting Buddhism and the mother land and fighting imperialism was their ideological pretext for creating an non-inclusive form of governance which discriminated against the minorities and denied them of their human, political and economic rights and sometimes even their civic rights.

The creeping militarization was an attempt to buttress an autocratic, authoritarian and kleptocratic rule. The only way this could be achieved was by taking control of the democratic space that could resist and confront these tendencies. Therefore the Rajapakses sought to compromise every social, political, economic, cultural institution through a parasitic crony network, and a compliant psychophantic gang of ‘Yes’ ministers and bureaucrats. As time passed, even the institution of the state itself was being compromised with the conflation of the Rajapakse family and the Sinhala Budddhist project with the remit of the state.  Inducements or bribery was a key instrument in achieving this goal. Even religious dignitaries of all faiths were not spared if valuable services were to be obtained from them. These inducements came in different forms – conferment of public and professional titles e.g. Presidential Counsels, appointments and promotions to various government and semi government institutions, foreign postings, foreign trips as part of government delegations, government contracts and sometimes even direct financial inducements. The carrot of post retirement goodies were dangled before incumbent senior officials in the civil service, the Police, and the security establishment thus undermining the integrity of these institutions including.

In the light of this backdrop it is clear that this election brought together an array of forces representing political parties and groups across the right and left of the political spectrum, including the major minority parties (the role of the Tamil and Muslim people in this democratic effort was immense and the opportunities and possibilities it opens up must not be underestimated). In effect, it turned out to be a democratic movement that involved farmers, workers professionals, academics, civil society, the clergy etc. It was a last ditch effort to pull the county from the brink of destruction. This coalition of diverse forces had as its aim to restore good governance and claw back that democratic space that would allow their voices to be heard and their interests to be represented, however flawed the institutional architecture in that space would be.

The first hurdle in this gigantic social transformation task has been achieved, but the challenges ahead are daunting. The first challenge is to keep this highly fragile coalition of disparate and contradictory interests together, at least until the road map they had signed to, is complete.

The next challenge is the reforming of the state as an instrument of social cohesion and balancing of political and economic interests. The third is the economic or development challenge of delivering on the promises made to the people in the manifesto. This is by no means an easy task given the inherent contradictions that will arise out of the current neo-liberal tendencies one sees in the broader economy and which vested interests, within and without the coalition, would readily promote if not resisted.

Another formidable challenge is finding a solution to the Tamil question and addressing issues of the Muslim minority. This is one big hot potato that will test the coalition to breaking point. The Tamil and Muslim minorities across the country have helped restore democracy and it is their right to expect the democracy dividend.

An oft forgotten challenge is that of the rights of women including their right to political representation. Finally in these times of climate induced extreme weather conditions and the environmental disasters it brings in its wake, the issue of the environment vs development looms large. The destruction of forests, wetlands, animal habitats in the name of development and greed , must be addressed if an ecologically sustainable future is to be envisaged for the fauna (including humans) and flora that inhabit this island.

Given these challenges, the democratic task of the citizens of this country does not end with this election; every effort must be made to prevent another golden open opportunity not being squandered, as happened in the case of the Presidential Election that brought Chandrika Bandaranayake in 1994 and Mahinda Rajapkase in 2010.