| by Shanie
Do you hear the people sing?
Lost in the valley of the night.
It is the music of the people
who are climbing to the light.
For the wretched of the earth
There is a flame that never dies,
even the darkest nights will end
and the sun will rise.
Will you join in our crusade?
Who will be strong and stand with me?,
Somewhere beyond the barricade
is there a world you long to see?
Do you hear the people sing?
Say, do you hear the distant drums?
It is the future that they bring
when tomorrow comes!
(Lyric in the musical version of - Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables)
( January 26, 2013, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Over Sunday and Monday of last week, Barack Obama was inaugurated as the President of US to serve his second and final term in office. On Sunday, he took his oaths before the Chief Justice to comply with constitutional provisions. The next day, he gave his inauguration address before hundreds of thousands of people who had gathered at Capitol Hill for the occasion. Jonathan Freedland, the UK Guardian’s columnist put it in elegant words: "America on Monday (witnessed) its quadrennial act of political alchemy. The base metal of a previously partisan candidate (was) transformed by the incantation of a few, solemn words into gold, becoming not just a head of government but a head of state – the only figure capable of transcending low politics and representing the republic itself."
Many commentators felt that Obama could have done better in his first term, particularly on issues of human rights and domestic issues. The Guantanamo Bay detention centre still remains despite his efforts to close it, his efforts to provide health care to all citizens were inadequate, bigots continue to suppress those who hold different views on religion, sexual rights and so on. No doubt he had to contend with a hostile legislature with which he had to compromise on many of his proposed reforms. But in his second inauguration address, however, he was in a more combative mood, determined to push through many of the promises he made to the American people. Many had seen him wanting to leave behind a legacy of progressive reforms before he finally leaves office. Despite having to contend with a vociferous lobby that does not hesitate to use violence, he has promised equal gay rights, immigration and health care reform, tighter gun laws, positive action on climate change and more equitable tax reforms in favour of the lower income groups. In his own words at the inauguration:
"Our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers and our daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts. Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law – for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well? Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote. Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity. Our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for, and cherished, and always safe from harm."
Most commentators seem to believe that this was not pure rhetoric. His failings in the first term were due to a large extent on having to compromise with the Republican dominated House. Trying te reach a consensus brought US to the verge of what has been termed ‘a fiscal cliff’. He now seems determined to take a more strident approach and it is believed he will carry a vast majority of the American people with him if he pushes through the promised reforms, and thereby break the back of a hostile Congress.
Lessons for Sri Lanka
The second inauguration provided many lessons for Sri Lanka. For his re-election, Obama received the support of a wide cross-section of the American people despite his being an African American. They voted for him because he stood for equal rights for all – the economically marginalized and the vulnerable. Mitt Romney’s campaign managers got it wrong when they focused on clearly partisan issues. It was not meant to unite a nation. Obama’s inauguration address was as the leader of the nation, to leave partisan politics aside and to treat every man and woman with equal dignity. This is where Sri Lanka’s leaders have failed us. Even President Rajapaksa has soothing words for the minorities only when he addresses them. But his actions have not inspired any confidence among the ordinary minority communities. His speeches to exclusively majoritarian groups should be a call to treat people of all communities, particularly the minorities, with equal dignity. On the contrary, some of the speeches and actions of some of the cabinet ministers closest to him not only display a scant disregard for accommodating the minority groups but actually arouse hate feelings against the minorities. There is no evidence that the President has checked them or disagreed with such sentiments.
Obama’s inauguration address also showed that the US leaders were prepared to espouse the cause of people who have been the victims of discrimination. Thus Obama championed the rights of immigrants to be provided with equal opportunity; for gay and lesbian people to be treated with dignity: for women to receive reasonable wages for the work they do. These marginalised groups needed encouragement and support. And that was provided by an enlightened leader. Obama was appealing to all American people to provide these marginalized groups with dignity. He did not reserve these sentiments to be spoken only when he addressed these marginalized groups.
Bi-partisanship and healing wounds
This is not to say that politics in the US is always by consensus. There is bitter rivalry in the affairs of the Congress, more accentuated in recent years because the Republicans have a majority in the House of Representatives. Like in Sri Lanka, there are hot heads unwilling to compromise and unwilling to listen to any opposing view. But unlike in Sri Lanka, the leadership puts the above petty partisan politics. That is why the Republican Speaker was able to negotiate a compromise with the Democratic Vice President to avert an economic crisis for the country and for the world.
It will be recalled that a decade earlier the US also found itself in the midst of an impeachment crisis. The then President Clinton was charged with perjury and obstruction of justice. The House of Representatives, with a substantial Republican majority, found Clinton guilty. There was cross-voting but the voting went largely on party lines. In the Senate however, where also the Republicans had a majority, Clinton was acquitted with some Republicans supporting acquittal. But the proceedings in both arms of Congress were conducted with dignity and fairness, in sharp contrast to the impeachment of the Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake where parliamentarians, including cabinet ministers, disgraced themselves with their rowdy conduct using insulting language. The fact that no action has been taken against the miscreants and no apology has been forthcoming leads one to conclude that such rowdy behavior was condoned by the President or, worse, had his prior blessings. What a disgrace for our nation!
Impotence of Sri Lanka’s Opposition
The impeachment of Chief Justice Bandaranayake followed a flawed trial which denied her any form of natural justice. It was also in keeping with the past actions of the Rajapaksa government that only sycophancy will be tolerated and punitive action taken against anyone who dares to show qualities of professional independence. The succession of editors at state-owned newspapers, the fate of the former Army Commander Sarath Fonseka and now the flawed impeachment proceedings against Chief Justice Bandaranayake are examples of the strangulation of democracy. But President Rajapaksa is able to get away, at least for the present, with all this is because we do not have an effective opposition. – an opposition that is willing to play its legitimate role as the government–in-waiting. Instead, it seems more intent on in-fighting and abandoning its legitimate role.
The government manipulated the 18th Amendment to the Constitution to remove even the minor checks and balances to unlimited Executive power. The principal opposition party obviously has a similar mindset. Those hierarchy of the UNP, once the Grand Old Party, have manipulated the Constitution to give their leader almost unlimited power. He too will tolerate only sycophants and take revenge against anyone who does not toe his erratic line. The denial of the Deputy Leader post first to Karu Jayasuriya and now to Sajith Premadasa deprives the party of any credibility. It seems that the leader and his cronies want to lead the party to collective suicide.
Any democracy needs both a stable government and a strong opposition. The opposition must not only be vigilant in ensuring that the programmes and policies of the government are people-friendly but must also unmask authoritarianism that seeks to deprive people of their rights and freedoms. As The Island editorially stated last Thursday: "All it takes for a dictatorship to emerge in a country is the impotence of the political opposition. The onus for revitalizing the Opposition and transforming it into a robust countervailing force against the current dispensation intoxicated with power is on the incumbent UNP leadership ... The UNP has a pivotal role to play in strengthening democracy in spite of its past sins and it has to live up to people’s expectations if it is to make any headway. Political beheadings like that of Sajith may serve the purpose of a handful of UNP bigwigs who feel threatened by him but certainly not that of the party or the country. It is high time the UNP stopped digging itself into a hole; the way out is not for it to do anything new as such but to undo what it has been doing all these years."
The lyric at the top of today’s column is taken from Tom Hooper’s musical film version of Victor Hugo’s novel Les Miserables. The novel begins in 1815 and continues over the next several years of upheaval in France. Do you hear the people sing? That was the refrain of the of the angry revolutionary idealists behind the barricades, the harassed and the wretched who struggle and go on to overthrow rulers demanding justice.