Kishali Pinto Jayawardene
A comfortable sense of political amnesia has currently gripped all contenders and would-be contenders on Sri Lanka’s Presidential election platforms. From opposing stages, we are being asked to believe that the ruin of this land is not their collective fault. That is too great a lie to be uncritically accepted. Indeed, if there is one common and typically perfidious characteristic on display, this would undoubtedly be it.
Casual admittance of ‘mistakes
From the ‘Pohottuwa’ stage, fire-breathing supporters of the Rajapaksa (could it be anything but?) candidate, the former Defence Secretary and the former President’s brother, Gotabaya Rajapaksa reject with force, questions about multiple gargantuan financial frauds, the killings, the mayhem and the murders on their watch. When pressed to the wall, there is a casual admittance that ‘mistakes were made.’ But it ends there.
So if the Pohottuwa campaign is to go beyond the extreme nationalist Sinhalese fringe and bhikku supporters who call for a ‘Hitler’ to rule the country, there must be a more considered attempt to grapple with the realities of its terrible past.
While it may be too much to expect this from its leaders, at least seniors in the alliance must recognise this fact. True, the ‘Pohottuwa’ glossing over of Rajapaksa sins has been enabled by ‘yahapalanaya’blundering, from awkward constitutional reforms to clumsy prosecutions.
This clumsiness was in part, deliberate and in part, inevitable due to hubris on the part of the leadership of the United National Party (UNP). Even where efforts should have yielded better results for the ‘yahapalanaya’ coalition, they did not because mediocrities with largely yes-men and yes-women led on key fronts, including amendment of the Constitution, anti-corruption efforts and transitional justice reforms.
In fact, ‘yahapalanaya’ defenders stoutly supported the Government even when it became apparent that something had gone terribly wrong, scarcely before the lights of the January 2015 electoral victory had dimmed.
That failure reflected far and wide. Though some aspects of the 19th Amendment reversed evils of the Rajapaksa-engineered 18th Amendment, its lack of internal rigour led to a constitutional crisis which was deftly deflected by a Supreme Court ruling. However, its varied contradictions have framed a national debate where Pohottuwa detractors yell with gusto, ‘off with its head.’ Quite apart from the slick argument that the 19th Amendment is a ‘transitional’ step to a healthier constitutional status, confused clauses call for a constitutional trimming, as it were.
A ‘yahapalanaya’ Act, in three stages
The same remains correct on other fronts. Indeed, a practical difference in Rule of Law reforms was evidenced only in relatively few areas which progressed independently from political agendas. Gross corruptors of the previous regime were acquitted after delayed and hesitant prosecutions. And lest we forget, manipulation of the legal process went beyond clumsiness here.
The Government’s anti-corruption thrust was perceptibly compromised with that infamous phone call to the now disgraced Inspector General of Police (IGP) by the UNP’s then Minister of Law and Order Sagala Ratnayake, where the IGP assured in the full glare of national television cameras that he will not bring a Rajapaksa favorite before the law. Recently, a UNP frontliner admitted that the special High Courts dealing with bribery and corruption should have been activated much earlier but that this was prevented by the ‘leadership.’
And the list goes on. War victims in the North and East are sullenly burning with anger at being deprived of justice for their disappeared children and ripe for any provacateur who will come their way. This would not have been the case if (at least) state perpetrators of emblematic human rights abuses such as the inhumane killing of students in Trincomalee and executions of aid workers in Mutur at point blank range during the Rajapaksa Presidency had been punished.
In fact, there is an element of awful inevitability about the UNP’s post 2015 downfall, much like the Aristotelian depiction of classic Greek tragedy, where fatal errors or misjudgements by rulers induce suffering. loathing and fear in the populace. In the telling of those gripping tales, such portentous consequences resulting from a grievous flaw or mistake on the part of the tragic protagonist led to valuable insights being gained.
However has the evident tragedy of the ‘yahapalanaya’ Act, told in three dismal stages (elation, disappointment and fury) yet imparted any knowledge to its proponents or its supporters? It seems not. And therein lies the seeds of an electoral miscalculation if that lesson is not taken to heart.
Going beyond populist refrains
As at this date, the United National Party has not yet announced its formal candidate for the polls. Meanwhile the Sajith Premadasa bid for the Presidency gathers momentum, in Badulla and in Matara. Whatever it may be, the counter-Pohottuwa campaign by the UNP or for that matter, by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) must look to itself to render an honest accounting of failures during the past four years.
It must not hide behind prevarications and just plain nonsense. If the emerging Premadasa campaign is taken as an example, it must go beyond a mere repetitive cry that the ‘voice of the poor’ will be privileged over the elites and the rich.
As rousing as that populist refrain may be and as satisfactory as it may be to visualise shudders going up the spines of many who will be aghast at this potential upending of the status quo, that is not the issue. In fact, the most formidable challenge to Premadasa will not be the decades old echo of human rights excesses committed in his father’s name but questions pertinent to far more recent misdeeds.
For example, what was he doing when the most egregious frauds were committed by a Government of which he was a part and by a party in which he ranked as Deputy Leader, chief among which is the Central Bank bond scam? Individual non-implication in the scam should not suffice as an excuse, particularly if others who were very much part of the insider circle which shamefully perpetuated that fraud seem to have hitched their wagons to his rising star.
Finally, the most important truth is this. A prominent fallacy is that the 2015 electoral defeat of the Rajapaksas was due to the ‘minority vote.’ This fallacy is being skilfully played on by leading Buddhist monks who implore ‘all Sinhala people’ to vote for the ‘Pohottuwa’, going on to say in that same racist breath, that this is the ‘last chance’ for Sri Lanka.
But that vote four and a half years ago reflected public anguish and wrath at the country becoming a playground for corrupt, racist and venal politicians. Maithripala Sirisena was not a ‘minority’ President installed in office. Rather, he was the choice of Sri Lankan democrats, across ethnic and racial line who wanted constitutional democracy back and their rights as citizens secured.
It is that disenchanted constituency that must be delicately and honestly wooed anew. And it is wise if Presidential aspirants courting ‘Sinhala Buddhist’ votes keep that fact in mind.