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Need For A Modest Hand On The Reins Of State

| by Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena
Courtesy: The Sunday Times

( December 15, 2015, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Sri Lanka’s former Army Commander and 2010 Presidential elections candidate General Sarath Fonseka has never been at loss for a catchy turn of phrase in the wittiest Sinhala idiom possible.

And as the Government’s defensive posture in relation to the common opposition’s accusations of misrule by a grossly corrupt family cabal reminds one of the cat proverbially yowling with discomfort on a hot tin roof, the repartee has become even spicier.

Need for a more nuanced focus

So the droll comment this week that the Sri Lanka Freedom Party’s SWRD Bandaranaike’s 1956 ‘Pancha Maha Bala Vegaya’ (five great forces of the clergy, physicians, farmers and workers) have been grotesquely transformed into Rajapaksa’s ‘Pancha Maha Bhootha Vegaya’ (five great apparitional forces of drug dealers, ethanol dealers, bribe takers, rapists and murderers) gives rise to a hearty chuckle.

Indeed, this has become a campaign refrain of the ‘Maithri’ opposition. Strategically, this is aimed at using a ‘patriotic’ mantle to attack the Government in contrasting SWRD’s SLFP with the modern-day ‘Raja-pakshaya’ (Rajapaksa Party). Given the formidable religious and social anti-government forces now gathering strength in the South, this political strategy may have popular thrust. However weeks into the opposition campaign, there must also be a more nuanced focus on ethnic reconciliation and reparation as distinct points of concern that post-war Sri Lanka needs to address.

In short, the Maithripala Sirisena campaign needs to occupy itself not by a continued emphasis on the political forces of the fifties which arouses atavistic fears and reawakens old bogeys or even by a passing reference to the 2011 recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC). Instead, the focus must be on a modern Sri Lanka, informed and humbled by the injustices of the past (including of the fifties) and enlightened enough to accommodate an equitable constitutional framework for all its peoples. To fear that this nuanced focus would alienate the majority is to unforgivably underestimate and insult the Sinhala people. And complacent thinking that the minorities would vote for the opposition by default or by their opting for the lesser of two evils is certainly a grave mistake.

Significant markers of the opposition campaign

That said, there are certain significant markers to the opposition election campaign. Perhaps for the first time in Sri Lanka, senior Buddhist monks are in the forefront in urging the restoration of the Rule of Law. Even awkwardly, the language resorted to is of communal and racial inclusivity rather than an incessant harping on Sinhala-Buddhism. That, by itself, should be recognized as a major and undoubtedly positive feature notwithstanding the predictable disparagement of Northern-based ethnic segregationists who incline (albeit in hushed voices) towards an electoral boycott.

And surely the price of stubborn refusal to constructive engagement with the South has already been catastrophic. Despite vainglorious boasts by the radical Tamil diaspora of taking Sri Lanka’s political command to the Hague, (which the Government is using to the full as might be expected), there is a painful cost to pinning all hope on external pressures as seen in 2009 when the Wanni waited in vain for miraculous intervention.

In contrast to the failures of the past by the majority and the minorities alike therefore, the Tamil and the Muslim afflicted must join hands with the Sinhala afflicted at this pivotal moment. This may indeed prove to be the last such opportunity of its kind.

Government braggadocio and ministerial crudities

This then is in regard to the Sirisena campaign. What about the Rajapaksa campaign? Rather than genuine course correction, what we see unfortunately is distasteful braggadocio, open use of state resources, state media and state personnel and insincere promises of an Eldorado of Rajapaksa good governance opening up after January 2015. We should be fools indeed to believe this.

And worse are campaign crudities on the part of Ministers. The disgraceful prediction by Minister SB Dissanayake that once the Government wins the elections, former President Chandrika Kumaratunga will be thrown to the ground, stripped of her clothes and forced to walk naked in public is one such case. In any functional system, this would have led to his immediate resignation. Here on the contrary, the Minister concerned represents the subject of Higher Education. What lunacy is this?

Neither is this a mere aberration uttered in the heat of the political moment. Rather, such crudity has come to symbolize this Government from members of its cabal slapping others at public functions overseas to the obscene use of state funds. In other respects, what we see is a circus. One Minister cries on national television bewailing the fate of the SLFP (but continues in government) while another erstwhile firebrand leftist Minister who has no fire left in him threatens quite absurdly to commit suicide if the Executive Presidency is not abolished in his lifetime.

Sober considerations in issue

Separating ourselves from this madness, there are infinitely sober considerations in issue. First, we should stop looking for reflections of ancient kingships, whether from the Rajarata or the Ruhuna, from politicians of the current order who possess little of the sagacity and wisdom that characterized the ancient world. We have had enough of monarchical delusions and of ‘charismatic’ leaders with gleaming smiles.

Instead, Sri Lanka needs a modestly firm and light hand on the reins of State and a willingness to share the balance of power equally through an executive answerable to law, a responsible Parliament and an independent judiciary staffed not by charlatans but by honest men and women who understand the awful burdens of judicial office. Second, the argument that a centralised executive Presidency is imperative for the national security of the country is sheer nonsense. The stability and strength of a political system depends on the democratic equity of its comparative parts, presidential or prime ministerial system as it may be. We have lost all sense of this equity under the Rajapaksa Presidency.

Restoring that essential balance must therefore be the primary preoccupation of every Sri Lanka citizen traipsing to the polls with yearning dreams of a better future, come January 2015.

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