Kishali Pinto Jayawardene
There is a familiarly relentless logic to the political trauma that is currently paralysing Sri Lanka. The too-premature, too-euphoric frenzy that preoccupied ‘yahapalanaya’ (good governance) grandees and their coat-hanging enthusiasts in the aftermath of the 2015 electoral win for the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe coalition as they pronounced the electoral demise of the Rajapaksas is one definitive factor.
That history cannot be dismissed by casual waves of hands at this stage by civil society ‘leaders’, notwithstanding their culpable ‘co-opting’ into Government ranks without keeping an independent distance. That is clear.
Disposing of irrelevant propaganda
But there is more to this terribly shortsighted tale. Drivers of opinions which led the ‘yahapalanaya’ regime to certain disaster still peddle their fatuously imbecilic points of view, obscuring clear-headed public discussions.
One clear example is blaming Deputy Leader of the United National Party (UNP) Sajith Premadasa for perceived as well as real ‘sins’ committed by his father, former President Ranasinghe Premadasa.
Certainly, Mr Premadasa’s frequent invocation of his father at Monday’s rally in Badulla when announcing his intention of contesting the forthcoming Presidential elections, has its good side and its bad.
Sri Lanka’s poor who remember the former President as perhaps the only state leader who singularly cared about them, may hail such references with unconditional joy.
On the other hand, the Ranasinghe Premadasa era was noted for the unnerving phenomenon of enforced disappearances as the Northern war and the second Southern insurgency were met by waves of state sponsored counter-terror.
Then as now, arguments may wax and wane as to how terrorist wars and civil insurrections may be won.
Yet if we go down this path, who can wash their hands of blood, a la Pontius Pilate at the crucifixion of Jesus Christ?
As countered sarcastically by the United National Party’s late Ossie Abeygunesekera at a debate at that time with a young Mahinda Rajapaksa, when Rajapaksa exclaimed over the killings of Sinhalese youth laid at the door of the Premadasa-led UNP, ‘So were Sinhalese young men and women floating in the Kelani river in the seventies because they had drowned after trying to swim?”
This was a reference to the tactics used by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) Government led by Sirimavo Bandaranaike to quell the first Southern insurgency. From that time to 2015, Sri Lanka has been plagued by extra- judicial executions and enforced disappearances. No head of state or politician, whether in the UNP or the SLFP can disallow responsibility for that legacy of blood.
Airy accusations and puzzling questions
So the finger-pointing by the Rajapaksa camp aimed at the young Premadasa in regard to the excesses of his father’s era is farcical. Under the Rajapaksa Presidency, civilians, journalists and dissenters were extra-judicially killed. Even after the war ended, atrocities continued with high military officers engineering enforced disappearances and abductions of children to exhort ransom money from their families, as reflected in the chilling details of court cases presently being heard.
The Rajapaksa refrain is a predictable political counter to the possibility of a Premadasa campaign. But the parroting of this airy accusation against the rising son of a controversial political father by some civil society activists is far more baffling.
If that is the case, why was this same accusation not leveled against the UNP’s Ranil Wickremesinghe during the electoral campaigns of 2010 and 2014, dogged as he is by alleged complicity in atrocities committed at the Batalanda torture camp during the Premadasa era? Or are accusations deemed suitable for the Premadasa gander not thought to be de rigueur for the Wickremesinghe goose?
Internet spaces have provided a regrettably expanded domain for light-headed critiques by many masquerading as civic ‘activists,’ who propagate a particular brand of political propaganda.
At one time, activism used to be home grown and rooted in Sri Lanka’s soil, reflecting lived realities of communities and societies. By forming powerful opinion blocs against aggrandising Governments through legitimate and non-political critiques, principled activism blocked power hungry politicians from having their way.
Now, ‘activism’ is ‘professionalised’ and run on ‘social media soundbites’ that obscure the complexities of underlying issues and thinly gloss over political partialities. It used to be easy to distinguish the ‘enemy’ as it were. Now it is not so. That is unfortunate to say the least.
So propaganda can come in many forms, as much as in ostensible opposition to the ‘evil’ Rajapaksas as in direct support thereto. Recognising this reality is important as Sri Lanka girds itself for bitterly contested Presidential polls. In the run up to the polls, our positions and perspectives must therefore be formed by experience of the precise points at which things invariably go wrong in this country after each and every election, with that same unhappy invariability with which a roll of thunder accompanies a lightning strike.
Critically sharpened citizen-responses
That acknowledgement needs to underpin a critically sharpened citizen-response to the forthcoming Presidential polls. Former Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and brother of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa has been nominated as the ‘Pohottuwa’ candidate. The UNP and others are yet to name their party candidates.
And to be clear, there is no point just calling for candidates to present plans and policies on how they, (where the Pohottuwa candidate is concerned, he along with his brothers), plan to rule the country. That is all hogwash.
Glossy election manifestoes are not worth the paper that they are written on.
A few days ago, a concerned reader wrote to me asking as to the manner in which election manifestoes can be made legally enforceable. The answer is, of course, that these manifestoes are meant only for entertainment.
Or if the paper quality is good, these manifestoes may be useful for the poor to make paper bags from, to sustain their families. But that question underscores the agony of citizens confronted with election candidates who lie through their teeth to get the win they salivate over.
What this country desperately needs is a clean start and a new life. On the ‘Pohottuwa’ stage, the former Defence Secretary needs to free himself from the long judicial shadow of multiple legal inquiries, ranging from gross corruption and abuse of power to implication in serious human rights abuses.
In counter and if a realistic balance is to be provided in the polls fight, the UNP leadership should abstain from the luxury of trying to fool the public one more time. Men and women who have dominated the face of Sri Lankan politics must gracefully take their bow and depart from the national political stage.
Each constitutional and political crisis that ultimately precipitated Sri Lanka into domestic Islamist jihadism was hand made, crafted by cunning proponents obsessed by ambition to the extent that national priorities were subordinated.
Given these costly mistakes by the ‘yahapalanaya’ regime, the luxury of debating over ‘best’ or ‘better’ is over. Only pragmatic choices remain.
For even if the scales are balanced realistically, there is a formidable battle ahead. That challenge must not be taken lightly.