Kishali Pinto Jayawardene
The three years during which Sri Lanka breathed (or was it gasped?) in freedom’ seems to be the rather messily translated refrain which the United National Party at least is trumpeting to all and sundry as this month (August 2018) notes three years of the National Unity government being voted into power.
No call for fireworks and jubilation
On its part, the other coalition partner, the remnants of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and President Maithripala Sirisena is markedly silent in its celebration of this anniversary, in equal parts sullenly and awkwardly so.
Certainly there is no denying that this three year passing is not a marvelous thing of fireworks and wild jubilation. As images crowd the nation’s eye of a solemn President with minimum fanfare and little cost, pledging to the nation at Independence Square that he will lead the people from the crushing decade of Rajapaksa misrule in January 2015, even the cynical and jaded among us, took a step back.
Used to hearing politicians make promises and break them with impunity, we caught ourselves believing for just a moment that perhaps this was going to be a break from the past. Those first six months had their disappointments but as a new Government took control just months later and even with all its flaws, a 19th Amendment reversing the ills of the 18th Amendment in some part was passed, there was still some reason to hope, even with increasing skepticism as the case may be.
A reminder regarding the perils of the past
Alas, the years thereafter proved those beliefs to be as naïve as any in the past. In fact, given the extreme manipulation with which those in the seats of power took their political agendas forward, each one rivaled by the other, a different outcome would not have been possible. Thus, the many failures in fulfilling Rule of Law promises on the part of both partners in this mismatched collation are well traversed ground, leading to bitterness and national discontent which before long, significantly eroded the good will with which a new President and a new Government was elected into power in 2015.
That said however, as the Government recites its litany of the improvements in governance that it has brought about, it must be conceded that there is some measure of truth in that telling as well. This week as former President Mahinda Rajapaksa stammers and stutters when facing the media following a visit made by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) to his house to question him over the brutal abduction and torture of journalist Keith Noyahr and professes ‘I don’t know’ and ‘I can’t remember’ in regard to vital aspects of that case, we are reminded of the terrible perils of the past in no uncertain terms. That was a time when even the bare form of a democratic process was discarded for one family ‘autocrazy.’
The awful power that came into play during that time is studded by nefarious abuses, from innocents dying when the army shot at unarmed protestors at Weliweriya demanding that water contamination in their area be stopped, ‘rape centers’ being run in villages by Rajapaksa acolytes in local government bodies to Tamil students being abducted and killed for ransom by a well- coordinated group at the heart of the then Government’s military apparatus with tentacles stretching to every corner of the government machinery and protected at the highest levels. These are abominations in regard to which, as tested on the crucible of any religious teachings, the perpetrators will be accountable to, at some point in their lives.
The precise extent of our degeneration
So there is no comparison between then and now. But even so, this anniversary calls for a somber and solemn reflection on where we stand three years hence. And perhaps, the gain most made during that period was not linked to political successes or grand advances such as a brand new peoples’ Constitution in the style of the inspirational South African model or the redressing of tormented cries of the war afflicted in the North and East for justice and for recognition of their pain.
Rather, it was to be faced head on, with no prospect of burying our heads in the sand, as to the precise extent to which we are in deep crisis, as a country, a society and a people. Never again can it be said that (mere) regime change or the replacing of one bunch of politicians with another will suffice to set this country back on the democratic track. Our institutional erosion is far greater in extent than what we could ever have imagined. Let us be clear on that.
Most recently, unconscionable proposals have been made to increase the salaries of parliamentarians, municipal councilors and urban councilors and one provincial council has been narrowly stopped in its crusade to get ultra-comfortable chairs at the extravagant cost that it would take to build houses for the poor in several villages. It is the height of absurdity that government politicians should try and take credit for having stopped the parliamentary salary increases when such a proposal should have been entertained in the first instance given the parlous state of our economy and the increased taxes that are being imposed (in some cases without rhyme or reason) on the people.
An irrefutable truth to be recognized
So as this year winds down and we face increased turbulence in the months ahead, the complex intertwining web of thievery and roguery between all political parties and their political leadership is the national political consensus on which Sri Lanka’s political system is run.
At each point, this is the irrefutable truth that emerges, stark and dangerous in the message of utter hopelessness that it holds out. Indeed, this is the political vacuum that will emerge with all its dire consequences if no credible alternative platform is created. Yet it is far better (if one is to borrow from Greek mythology) to face the terrible face of the Minotaur and recognize the monster for what it is rather than to wander bewildered and dazed round and round the maze of the Labyrinth, seduced by political rhetoric and winning formulas by national clad rogues of one dispensation or the other, as the case may be.
This is a mistake that the people made in 1994, in 2001 and in 2015. Let that mistake never be repeated again.