STANDING UP FOR WHAT IS RIGHT (for them not the Country)
We, Sri Lankans, love to show off our country as the ‘Light of Asia’, the Dhamma Dveepa, the ‘Thrice Blessed Isle’, the ‘Pearl of the Indian Ocean’ and sundry other self-laudatory epithets. Amid all this syrupy self-labelling, we also had to face up to labels applied by others – labels quite denigratory. After the 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom, for example, we became known the ‘tear drop’ in the Indian Ocean. A little earlier we became known as the country with a Constitution that was (is) like a periodical journal with constantly changing content. More recently, we became known as a country suspected of genocide, or, at least, a brutal, counter-insurgency massacre.
On January 8, 2015, Sri Lanka also became known for near-heroic social and political struggles that toppled a bumbling dictator-plunderer who allowed sorcerers and astrologers to define his, and by default, his country’s destiny.
Although that historic ‘regime-change’ was hailed by many overseas as a ‘surprise’, those within the country who followed local politics, knew of the potential for change after the provincial election in Uva which showed a very clear waning of popularity within Mahinda Rajapaksa’s own Sinhala-centred support base. After the narrow shave for the UPFA in retaining the Uva administration, analysts were already doing their psephological analysis and coming to the conclusion that with the disillusionment of the Sinhala rural poor demonstrated in the Uva, any political force that relied solely on that vote bank now ran the risk of losing out.
Notwithstanding that political reality, the Rajapaksa regime thought fit – on the advice of their astrologers, not psephologists – to hold presidential polls two years in advance and lost it and, convincingly, at that.
Today, the nation faces another major electoral exercise – one that is as consequential as the last presidential poll.
That political miscalculations can occur not only among the ultra-superstitious and ultra-nationalistic, was demonstrated last week with the sudden decision by the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA), now under the chairmanship of President Sirisena, to include Mahinda Rajapaksa in its nominations list. Whether this was a genuinely collective decision by the UPFA high command or whether the announcement was more the sleight-of-hand by the more dominant faction within, remains to be revealed.
The fact is that the UPFA has forced the issue of a return to formal national politics by someone who, just six months ago, was soundly defeated in presidential elections and whose regime has, for several years, been accused of ridiculously ad hoc political management, severe corruption and brutal authoritarianism.
People outside this Blessed Isle may now ask as to how there could be such a paradox of politics and civilisation on an island ostensibly respected for its religious and civilisational legacy. This same question is being asked ad nauseam within the country as well as all those millions of Sri Lankan citizens who voted for change – and got it, courtesy of Sirisena and the allied UNP.
The answer lies partly in the realpolitik of Sri Lankan affairs and partly in the inner strength – in terms of values and intelligent deliberation – of the politicians as they attempt to manage on-going political dynamics. On the one hand, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party faces a split as it deals with the larger UPFA filled with restive political has-beens and wheeler-dealers all keen to cling to their one-time godfather in the hope of a return to power for the purposes of either their political survival or their safety from prosecution for plunder, authoritarian rule and even war crimes.
On the other hand, the political leadership is challenged to navigate this tortuous path of electoral strategy without compromising on their received electoral mandate on January 8. The challenge to “put country before party” is not easily met. The head of the UPFA, currently, has compromised on his presidential mandate although he may justify his actions as ones relevant to his internal party role and not his presidential role.
That he is now attempting to convince his electorate on this matter is clear by President Sirisena’s speech in Matara yesterday while inaugurating the last phase of the horrendously over-budgeted Southern Expressway. The ‘silent revolution’ of January 8 should not be reversed, he declared.
All those Sri Lankans who voted silently on January 8 for that ‘revolution’ were surely not merely thinking of regime-change. Rather, they were, and still are, looking toward a civilisational development that would take the country out of the depths and towards decency, genuine stability, social unity and planned economic development rather that so-called ‘beautification’. All these Sri Lankans will remain steadfast in their faith in those political parties and groups who have, with creative unity, joined forces across ethnicity and ideology and, begun this movement out of the darkness.
President Sirisena’s own party, the SLFP, may, no doubt, be weakened by the selfish opportunism of many within its ranks. But as long as the current leadership stands firm and remains in clear consensus with its principal ally, the UNP, there is hope that Sri Lanka may move towards a new political firmament that enables free choices within the framework of decency, pluralism, meritocracy, rational deliberation and genuinely democratic representation.
A unity of all such progressive forces will surely enable the flushing out of the remnants of treacherous opportunism, authoritarianism, unintelligent superstititon and plunder. It will be up to the voter to ensure that even the parliamentary opposition will be framed by such values and quality.