Featured image courtesy Washington Post
Two things trouble and pain me. The Mullivaikkal “remembrance” on 18 May, of the dead and missing people due to war, whose families are still agitating to know the “truth” and want justice and now in the South, reports coming in on the same day of the displaced, the dead and the 03 buried villages due to what would be called a “natural disaster”; unprecedented rains, earth slips and floods. I tend to believe, over many decades we invented and invited these earth slips and floods – though not the heavy downpour. That disaster is “manmade”, no different to the war we went through. Numbers may differ between North and South, but both have left us with tragic deaths, displaced and helpless families wanting permanent and reasonable answers.
Are we serious and do we intend finding permanent, sustainable and civilised answers to these issues after the 2015 January change dubbed a “Rainbow revolution”? Maybe people want to. Maybe there are collectives of concerned citizens who want to have decent answers. Yes, there are. No society is wholly dumb; but what denies them answers ? We are in a vicious trap. In a “Catch22” situation that needs to be effectively unlocked. Here, I am trying to comb the heaped chaos in search of decent and permanent answers.
The “war”, call it separatist, terrorist, liberation or patriotic. I said it was manmade and therefore I still believe we could have avoided it. If not at the earliest times when it was being hatched, then while it was developing into a brutal, protracted war. But we, nay, the political leaders were not willing to. So it is with all the floods and earth slips. All environmental disasters are created by political arrogance. We should and can avoid them, but our political leaders don’t. And we keep electing them, election after election. We call it “democracy”.
Elections are a part of democratic life in abstract form. But the elections that we go through are not. Today, elections don’t give people a choice any more to have their own collective representation. Not after we were left in a free market economy called “neo liberalism”. It’s not the fault of the electoral system per se. It is not because of the Proportional Representation (PR) system and its preference vote that President Jayawardne left us with to elect MPs. If the PR system and its preferential vote is the culprit in ruining democratic elections, in establishing a wholly devalued parliament, then the Indian electoral system cannot elect this Lok Sabha that sits today. In India they still live with our old, “first past the post” electoral system. Yet Indian politics is wholly corrupt. In the present Lok Sabha, across all political parties 186 MPs have criminal charges filed in Courts out of the elected 541 MPs. That’s an increase from 158 in the previous Lok Sabha. We both now live in free and open market economies and they can’t exist without corruption and crime.
Are we any better? At only 1.6 per cent of the Indian population in terms of size, we are comparatively far worse. Despite all the hype about “transparency”, about “accountability” in this “Yahapalanaya” (good governance) rule brought about on January 2015, what is the Parliament made of? Who are the Cabinet ministers that run the country? It is the same old men and women from the two main political parties, that people have to vote for. That’s what the political parties offer for people to select from. Some in the Cabinet of Ministers have strings of allegations on corrupt dealings. They feel so powerful, they don’t even answer summons from the Bribery Commission. Ministers accuse each other over mega corrupt deals. Even those discarded by the people at the last elections are brought in and are placed as powerful Ministers. And then the corrupt tells media they are cleaning up governance by punishing the corrupt.
The environment is also at the ruthless battering end. Talking of transparency, why didn’t this “Yahapalanaya” rule make public the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) of the Colombo Port City project for scrutiny? That was a project they vehemently opposed for many reasons, including heavy corruption while campaigning against the Rajapaksa regime. A project, fishermen and their organisations especially North of Colombo, more concentrated in and around Negambo, who backed this “January 08 Change” still oppose the Colombo Port City project as environmentally hazardous. They are totally ignored by the very government they elected to have answers for their issues.
Why is this “Yahapalanaya” government headed by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe still covering up for the Governor of the Central Bank who is accused of a double scam? Why is President Sirisena happy keeping his brother as the Chairman of SLT, also accused of corruption? Why is he appointing suspect characters as his party electoral organisers?
This is not just about personalities in politics. It is about the economic order that we are living through. Since 1978 when we were pushed into a free market economy, the business community (we don’t have a developed “capitalist class”) tied up firm with political power. Most if not all investor openings were decided through political affiliations, where the State was a necessary facilitator in making profits. For their own advantage, these business entities and individuals bought over powerful politicians, moved into politics and in the process have bought over political parties.
Elections despite what the system is, leave main political parties dependent on big money. From where do candidates nominated by these political parties, and the political parties themselves, get their bag-loads of money that they lavishly spend on election campaigns? It is openly said, one candidate in Colombo spent over 200 million rupees at the last elections in August 2015. Most others would have spent at least half that sum. Where did that money come from? Certainly, they are not funded by the ordinary men and women who run around campaigning. It’s big money spent by big businesses and often its “black” money earned from politically patronised “deals” in a free market economy. That is the reason why small political parties cannot run in these elections except in handing over nominations. Businesses don’t have any use for small political parties, other than to call elections democratic in a multi party system. Do the elected then feel obliged to represent the people who elects them? The system is such, it’s money that makes people vote, whatever the choice. Huge hoardings and billboards, large convoys of vehicles, meaningless but colourful advertising and money to transport people for rallies decide the people’s choice in consumerised elections. Having elections thus is only a “democratic ritual” and not a functional democratic process in electing a parliament representative of people. Democracy now is not about Citizens electing their representatives, but about consumers trading their votes for a market to be governed by “big and black money”.
In market economies run by big business, finding answers to our crying needs is not their business. Environment and reconciliation bring no immediate profits to them. This unrestricted free market is all about today’s profits and not about tomorrow’s decency in life. Colombo Port City is decided on profits defined as “development”. Fishermen who are dependent on marine resources and make a living out of it is no important human factor in that “development”. The poor and the under-served in Colombo don’t count in the Megapolis project. They have to be moved out for the rich to have their casinos, recreational centres, jogging paths, hotels and shopping malls, condominiums and car parks. Families living in Panama for generations over have to be moved out for hotel complexes to be built for tourists who come for surfing. This development is all about investments and profits.
In this economy, the Tamil people never had a good day. In July 1983 their businesses, their property, their hard earned livelihoods were all flattened and burned. They had to leave and where they had to flee for safety, cannot be called their “historical land”. It was a Sinhala State sponsored take-over of a Colombo-centric growing market. Muslim businesses that crept into the crevice left by Tamils leaving, were under heavy pressure. They were insulted, threatened and attacked, again with Sinhala State sponsorship.
Yet it is their vote, the Muslim and predominantly Tamil vote, that helped the Sinhala South to have Rajapaksa ousted. But what have the Tamil people in the North and the Vanni gained by giving their vote for the January 08 change? Reconciliation is being reduced to economic factors. They are called upon to give up justice and democracy for livelihood projects. The military will have to stay, the probes on crimes committed during war will have to be stalled, a political solution can be discussed again, in lieu of “rupees and cents living”. The helpless, war devastated Tamil life can be exploited. The USAID funded Colombo big business entities to start apparel factories that employ poor and helpless women in the Vanni and the East at below minimum wage and without any opportunity for collective bargaining. Factory management have the advantage of the military presence in maintaining a silent labour force, often abused in very many ways. Elected provincial councils in North and East have no say in any of these business projects decided and approved by the Colombo based BOI under the central government. After all it is big business that funded the election run to power.
This free market economy ironically is run on the strength of Sinhala sentiments. It needs such racist power to control its militarised State. India is seeing it too. The State backed and hyped Hindutva psyche allows suppression in the universities, in the mountains with natural resources and in Adhivasi lands. So is it here. The Sinhala South takes pride thinking they dominate national politics and control the economy. They celebrated war victory on the streets, lit fire crackers, cooked and ate “kiribath” and wrapped the national flag around their waists turning it into a Sinhala flag. But they are also as marginalised as the Tamils are. Among them there’s rampant poverty. Over 21 per cent of the children under 05 years of age are malnourished in Sinhala villages. Sinhala villagers have no real livelihood and cannot economically hold a family together. Young mothers leave to Middle East as housemaids, despite all the publicity about nailing and torturing. Rape of women and sexual abuse of children goes on the increase in villages where hard drugs make good money.
Their environment is being eaten into and neglected. A 24 hour rain floods them, displaced them and buried them in whole villages. In return they get full page coverage in media and calls for flood relief. Ministers promise quick relief and compensation. They will only have early warnings to leave their homes when the next rains come. People displaced due to the Meeriyabedda landslide were also promised quick relief and compensation in October 2014. They are families still living as displaced in temporary shelter.
There is something awfully wrong in how we see this “January 08” change. We don’t see the missing “human” factor in this “change”. Reforms called for, a new Constitution, the RTI Bill, a new electoral system, will they have “people” included in “development” that’s offered ? Will all that allow demilitarisation of society and provide for a new State sans ethnic dominance? Will they give the poor a chance to live a decent, cultured life? We need to look beyond “reforms” for human decency and dignity for all. For Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim people to have a shared life in development that would improve their quality of life in their own local areas. We need an alternate development model for such progress.