Kishali Pinto Jayawardene
As the United States erupts in outrage at the killing of George Floyd, the question posed by multi-racial protestors on the streets is simple. Why are there two Americas, one for the whites who do not fear death, deprivation or insults when stopped by the police and another for ‘communities of colour’ whose lived realities are entirely different?
The beam in our own eyes
That same question is very relevant in the rest of the world. In Australia for example, demonstrators in Canberra, Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne raise their hands not only against Floyd’s death but also in regard to discrimination directed against aboriginal communities and people of colour.
In France, rampant racism targeted at migrant black communities is the target of Parisian angst even as they protest the ills of the American justice system.
A covid-19 traumatised world has metamorphised into an extraordinarily spectacular global eruption of anger against injustice. There is a connection there which perhaps philosophers or psychologists may point to.
In Sri Lanka however, most have latched on to the ‘trending topic’ of ‘Black Lives Matter’ while cosily ignoring evils at home. Regardless, those waxing eloquent on the fate of the African American are advised to look to the beam in their own eyes, not the mote (if that may be referred to as such) in others. For there are two Sri Lankas, at different overlapping levels. One Sri Lanka is for the Sinhalese with special elevation for Sinhala Buddhists and another for Tamils and Muslims who face far more brutal treatment at the hands of state agents.
These are not new realities as I wrote in a collection of essays titled ‘The Other Lanka’, more than a decade ago. Rather, as in the case of the United States, this is the grim weight of historical baggage that we carry. And there is also a different Sri Lanka for the political elites and their hangers-on as the wholesale breaking of quarantine restrictions during the funeral of the late Arumugam Thondaman amply demonstrated. Contrast this with the autistic child in Beruwela who was mercilessly assaulted by the police for ‘disobeying’ covid-19 curfew last week. No further arguments are needed.
Covid-19 is tackled best by strengthened democracies
This is what feeds dissent, anger and ultimately militancy. In the United States, the rage of the young on the street is not a ‘conspiracy,’ notwithstanding incitement to violence by provocative elements. Rather, it is an exhibition of raw fury against racism and abysmal political leadership. There is a lesson in this for would-be strongmen everywhere.
And the other argument of right-wing, military idealogues that human rights cannot be sacrificed for preservation of the health of the population must also be resoundingly debunked.
For that artificial dichotomy between human rights and human lives, increasingly parroted by supporters of the Rajapaksa Presidency, is false. It was precisely because of Sri Lanka’s functional public health system with democratic checks and balances, (despite the preponderance of the military), that the impact of covid 19 was mitigated. Across the globe, democratic leaders have successfully dealt with the global health pandemic, New Zealand, South Korea and Taiwan to cite a few. In contrast, strongman rule by leaders whose sanity is questionable, from Brazil to the United States has led to nation-wide chaos. Hungary’s right wing Government has used the covid-19 emergency to tighten its grip, giving President Viktor Orban ‘open sesame’ approval to rule indefinitely by decree. Central oversight agencies such as the Constitutional Court and the Office of the Prosecutor have succumbed to Orban’s iron grip.
However, there is hope despite the gloom. Undeterred, Hungary’s opposition mayors have become the front lines of resistance. Budapest’s mayor is solidifying his base by setting up shelters for the homeless and the hungry who have lost their means of income. In a rural outpost, another opposition mayor is opposing a so-called development project started as an emergency covid-19 measure without environmental approvals. This is spirited and concrete resistance in the face of authoritarian aggrandisement , not merely bleating before television cameras and rushing to courts. It has had its results with the Government’s plans to strip Hungarian mayors of political autonomy being rolled back.
The Opposition as well as the Government is the problem
What do we have in contrast? Sri Lanka’s parliamentary, provincial and local authority opposition politicians are embroiled in corruption scandals as much as their government counterparts. Our mayors largely make the news about their children entering politics, disappearances of stray dogs or inordinate funds spent on refurbishing buildings. On the national stage, the main Opposition has lost its way, most pitifully.
That this has happened at the very point that the country faces a perilous entrenchment of the right wing in the corridors of power is a tragedy. It was once observed in these column spaces that the law does not exist in a vacuum. Equally so, lawful societies cannot be built by Task Forces even though President Gotabaya Rajapaksa seems to be on a merry trail of constituting military (Sinhalese) led Task Forces, one to protect archaeological sites in the multi-ethnic East and another to build a ‘disciplined, virtuous and lawful society.’
A ‘lawful society’, (though the Victorian-ish reference to virtue calls for rude ribaldry) can be built only by the law, as properly implemented. Is the President envisaging presidential rule above the law? Combating these challenges is vital. But an important caveat has to be kept in mind. Neutering the growth of military right-wing ideology requires a clawing back of blindingly naive ‘liberal’ posturing in Colombo-centric opposition. This does not oppose, but rather enables, or strengthens that ideology.
Our ‘reaction to illiberalism’ must be bottoms-up
For it is precisely due to the oblivious disdain of‘yahapalanaya’ grandees for the greater populace, Sinhala, Tamil or Muslim as the case may be, that we are in this perilous state. In the wake of those colossal governance failures, reconstructing democratic resistance or, as retired Marine General John Allen pithily worded it in his stinging rebuke of US President Donald Trump’s threat to call the military into the streets of New York and Washington, ‘the reaction to illiberalism’ (‘A Moment of National Shame and Peril – and Hope’, Foreign Policy, June 3rd 2020), which title is modified by this column with apologies, must start bottoms up. The very term, ‘liberal’ must be restored to its rightful mooring of constitutional rights, of equality and non-discrimination rather than left loose to wander in the strangely twisted realms of neo-liberal cliques, whose sole claim to ‘activism’ lies in manufactured confines of social media.
This means that resistance must be rooted in everyday struggles of life and livelihoods of communities from the South to the North, left pitilessly to live or die in covid-dystopian nightmares. There is no other alternative. The answer to this crisis does not lie in television appearances, appeals to the Supreme Court for a moribund Parliament to spring to life which appears not to have been graced even by the courtesy of a reasoned refusal, faux anger on Facebook or pleas to Geneva and New York.
That much is clear.