Picture courtesy Colombo Gazette

“Want to buy some illusions,
Slightly used, second hand?
They were lovely illusions,
Reaching high, built on sand….”
(Marlene Dietrich in A Foreign Affair)

“After emergency laws are lifted, constitutions are drafted, and elections are held, policymakers in the Middle East will be faced with a tough practical challenge: how to create economic opportunities for the region’s teeming millions.” This was what two analysts, Bassem Awadallah and Adeel Malik, wrote in October 2012 [i]. The importance they accorded to economics in bringing about and sustaining positive political change is valid beyond the Middle East.

The need to be free of autocracy did play a role in ushering the Arab Spring. But it was just one contributory factor. For the vast masses, economics was more important than politics. They wanted their political rights. But for people who were mired in economic want, the right to life also meant the right to a liveable life, characterised primarily by bearable living costs and decent jobs.

For this majority, democracy was a means to an end. If democracy did not bring about an immediate, real and lasting improvement in their living conditions, their faith in democracy eroded. Extremism, ethnic, religious or tribal, is the main winner, when the democratic experiment fails. This is as true in Colombo as it was in Cairo.

A plethora of reasons contributed to the defeat of the seemingly invincible Rajapaksa juggernaut. Among these, economics played a pivotal role. The minorities turned against the Rajapaksas for obvious political reasons. But this loss in and of itself would have been insufficient to defeat the Rajapaksas electorally. If the Siblings managed to retain their 2010 support-level amongst Sinhala-Buddhists, Mahinda Rajapaksa would have scraped through on January 8th. That was what he was counting on.

As the CPA survey of 2014 revealed, 58.1% of the Sinhalese wanted the regime to focus on reducing living costs [ii]. The Rajapaksas did anything but. They believed that a combination of patriotic rhetoric, toxic attacks on the minorities and shrill warnings about international conspiracies could make a sufficient number of Sinhala-Buddhists forget their very real economic problems.

In 2011, 70% of Sinhalese thought the general economic situation will improve in the next two years. In 2013 only 38.5% of Sinhalese thought the general economic situation will improve in the coming two years [iii]. Official figures confirmed the trend. According to the Department of Census and Statistics, 53% of the urban population, 73% of the rural population and 81% of the estate population did not receive the minimum income necessary to pay for food and other basic needs [iv].

In the end, everyday experiences trumped grand slogans; real facts trounced imagined fears.

It is not absolute poverty which gives birth to political dissent, but relative poverty. The ruling family atop a bloated political caste enjoyed the good life at public expense even as ordinary people struggled to make ends meet. The regime’s refusal to acknowledge the economic sufferings of the people added insult to injury.

The vote against the Rajapaksas was a vote in the main for a more responsive and caring economic regimen. If the new administration forgets this fundamental fact, the advances made on the political front will be at risk.

Imitating the Rajapaksas?

Last Monday, the police baton-charged a group of protesting villagers in Bandagiriya. The protest was peaceful, the police attack indefensible and the government silence about the anti-democratic response baffling.

The protestors were demanding clean drinking water. Bandagiriya is in the Hambantota district, the bastion of the Rajapaksa clan. The fact that the people of Bandagiriya are without access to something as fundamental as clean water, after almost a decade of Rajapaksa rule, is a damning indictment of Rajapaksa economics.

It is also a warning to the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration.

During the Rajapaksa decade, no expense was spared to turn Hambantota into a megapolis. A port, an airport, an artificial island, an international cricket stadium and an international convention centre were among the many infrastructure projects Hambantota was saddled with. Another Rajapaksa term and Hambantota would have ended up like Naypyidaw, the massive ghost-capital Myanmar’s military rulers built, a place replete with buildings and bereft of people.

In the rush to provide Hambantota with all the trappings of a glitzy super-city, the Rajapaksas forgot the ordinary needs of ordinary people; such as water. Hambantota’s innumerable new additions include a botanical garden, with many wet-zone plants. To keep them alive in this rain-poor district, bowsers of water are brought from outside. “If people know the true extent of the water being wasted here, there will be a riot,” a university professor, who refused to be named, told the AFP [v] .

That is what the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government should have done. Told the protesting people of Bandagiriya what the Rajapaksas did with their water.

The Bandagiriya protest provides incontrovertible proof of the failure of Rajapaksa economics. In the Rajapaksa development plans, the people didn’t count and their needs were de-prioritised. So living costs soared, basic requirements went unmet and hopes for a better future eroded. The gap between the Rajapaksa rhetoric and the everyday experiences of ordinary people widened. The regime did not understand what the people were going through and the people lost faith in the regime’s capacity to improve their lives.

Mahinda Rajapaksa lost the presidency. History was made.

During the time between the presidential and parliamentary elections, the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government acted as if it has learnt the necessary lessons from this Rajapaksa-failure. Since that victory, the new administration seems to be inclining increasingly towards Mahinda Chinthanaya, not just in matters such as leader veneration and family bandyism but also in the all important area of economics.

Had the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration remained sensitive to the ordinary needs of ordinary people, it would have embraced and not ignored the Bandagiriya protest. This protest over something as basic as clean water in the Rajapaksa-heartland revealed the hollowness of Rajapaksa development. With the money spent on any one of the mammoth infrastructure projects, the entire populace of Hambantota could have been provided with clean drinking water. The Rajapaksas didn’t do it. That shows their real nature.

The new government’s incapacity to understand the explosive political potential of this incident is indicative of a malaise which, if left unattended to, can have devastating consequences.

Ever since the parliamentary election, the new government has succumbed to a Rajapaksa-like indifference about the adverse effects of its policies on ordinary people. The price hikes of the last two months, caused by the depreciation of the rupee and increased taxes, have caused living costs to jump up again. The sudden axing of subsidies has resulted in plummeting rubber prices, pushing small-and-medium rubber growers into a serious crisis. Tea sector is facing its own crisis while the government’s promise to make vehicles accessible to the new middle class is turning into a grotesque joke.

There is growing public impression that having secured power, the new rulers are acting with the same arrogance and callous disregard as the old rulers. With every mistake the administration makes, with every act of insensitivity, with every broken promise, the gap between it and the Rajapaksas erode.

A more dangerous situation for Sri Lanka’s restored democracy cannot be imagined.

Sustaining Reconciliation and Democracy

Vasanthy Ragupathy Sharma is Tamil, a mother of three and a prisoner. Recently the Colombo High Court acquitted her of the charges against her. By that time she had spent 15 years in jail under the PTA, for a crime she did not commit [vi] .

The plight of many PTA detainees is even worse, because they have never being charged. The war ended more than six years ago. Yet these men and women languish in detention, while the likes of Kumaran Pathmanathan (KP) are free. The least the Attorney General’s Department can do is to press charges where possible and release the rest.

That was the demand of the PTA prisoners who commenced a death-fast last week: press charges or release.

The government’s rapid response to the fast highlights a key positive difference between the past and the present. The Rajapaksas would have sent in the commandos. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration initiated talks and promised a resolution.

The Geneva consensus is far from perfect. Still it is indubitably a step in the right direction. Not just accountability and justice but even common-or-garden acknowledgement that civilian lives were lost was rendered impossible thanks to the Rajapaksa insistence on the myth of ‘Humanitarian Operation with zero-civilian casualties’. Since only ‘Tigers’ were killed by the military, even mourning for the war-dead became outlawed.

Israeli human rights activist and co-founder of B’Tselem, Daphna Golan-Agnon, points out that there are multiple layers of denial operating in Israel on the war crimes issue: literal denial (it never happened); denial of significance (these weren’t really war crimes); justification (we had no alternative). A similar system of collective denial was deliberately encouraged by the Rajapaksas. Even if there is no justice, this denial, the lie that the war was won without harming any civilian Tamils must end. The nature of the LTTE made the war necessary; but that does not mean it was humane or desirable. That distinction needs to be made.

The conviction of four soldiers by the Jaffna High Court for gang-raping two Tamil women in 2010 is a welcome development, but much more needs to be done, if Tamils are to gain some faith in the judiciary.

Accountability, reconciliation, hopefully even a political solution to the ethnic problem – for any of these to happen, there must be a minimum level of consent from the Sinhala South. Support would be ideal, but benign indifference would do. And that would depend primarily on how successful the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government is in alleviating the economic burdens of ordinary people.

Democracy, accountability and reconciliation require a minimum degree of economic contentment in the South. If people feel their economic burden has lessened, they will have hope for the future. Such a people would be more capable of resisting the lure of majoritarian extremism and minority-phobia. That was what happened on August 17th.

If the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration governed from January to August, as it is doing now, Mahinda Rajapaksa would have won the parliamentary election.

Internationally, democratisation projects suffered violent failures in the recent past due, in part, to the erroneous equation of democracy with neo-liberalism, a mistake to which both opponents and proponents of democracy are prone to. Newly emerged democracies need time to consolidate their gains, and this time can be brought not by imposing austerity on an already traumatised populace, but by providing much-needed economic relief to ordinary citizens.

Sri Lanka is a deeply divided nation, ethno-religiously. The Rajapaksas exacerbated these divisions as part of their political strategy. They failed because they did not get the economics right. Post-defeat, they are staying the Sinhala-Buddhist course, hoping to regain power the only way they know. And they might succeed, if the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration continues to get its economics wrong.

“Decent jobs are key to ending poverty in its most extreme forms and transforming the lives of millions,” ILO Director General, Guy Ryder, reminded the world recently [vii]. Youth unemployment hovered around 19%-20% at the end of Rajapaksa rule. Addressing this problem is another urgent task. High levels of youth unemployment played a role in making and unmaking the Arab Spring. It’s a warning Sri Lanka cannot ignore.

Marc Stears was former Labour leader Edward Miliband’s chief speech-writer. Recently Prof Stears argued that to win the next election, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour must do what Ed Miliband’s Labour couldn’t: convince the British public it ‘respects them’ and ‘takes their lives seriously.’ [viii]

The Rajapaksas didn’t and paid the price. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration must not tread the same path.

i http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bassem-awadallah/the-economics-of-the-arab_b_1196473.html
ii http://groundviews.org/2014/09/19/infographic-views-from-uva/
iii http://www.scribd.com/doc/182597529/Top-line-survey-results-Democracy-in-post-war-Sri-Lanka
iv Question Time reveals colossal waster of public funds while masses struggle – Chandani Kirinde – The Sunday Times – 27.7.2014
v http://srilankabrief.org/2015/07/hambantota-white-projects-eat-up-economy/
vi http://groundviews.org/2015/10/05/court-acquits-tamil-mother-after-15-years-of-detention-under-pta/
vii Daily Mirror – 17.10.2015
viii http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2015/09/day-earth-stopped