This is an extended version of an article that appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday January 15 2015.
The regime has changed. Now is the time for mentalities to change too. Uditha Devapriya.
The People’s Verdict
The people have spoken! Four years ago, I was among those who believed politicians allowed personal considerations and pure weakness to persuade them to support or ineffectually oppose the 18th Amendment. It was left to the people themselves to shout a resounding NO to a third term for Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Although some have branded me a Rajapaksa supporter (more about that later), I felt a certain lightness of spirit on the morning of January 9, 2015, when it became clear that a change had been effected. After several depressing weeks of gloom, rain, floods and landslips, the clouds have gone. A Jimmy Cliff song keeps going through my mind.
Not Groundhog Day
On January 10, I woke at 4.41 am precisely with a cat on my face. I was somewhat spooked to recall that on January 9, I had woken at precisely 4.41 with a cat on my face. Was this Groundhog Day? On January 9, just before waking, I dreamt that I met Mahinda Rajapaksa in a street market. I had never met him or any of his family in real life, although I did once make eye contact with him at Nuwara Eliya flower show when he was prime minister. I awoke at 4.41 to find that he had conceded defeat and left Temple Trees.
On the morning of January 9, the sun was bright in a clear blue sky and there was an invigorating, chill breeze that had a cleansing effect.
A Surprising and Welcome Result
When I first heard last September from the then president’s local agent (that is one poor fellow who must be looking for a new job) that there was to be a presidential election in January, my immediate thought was that , for good or ill, there was no one who could defeat the incumbent. If I had a hat, I would eat it now but will instead consume a slice of humble pie. I knew of Maithripala Sirisena but never imagined him as a presidential contender. I offer my sincere congratulations to him on a successful strategy.
Even during the course of the election, I wondered if the NDF’s (National Democratic Front) success in wooing Tamil and Muslim politicians would be reflected among Tamil and Muslim voters, considering the influence of the Sinahala Buddhist Nationalist JHU (Jathika Hela Urumaya – National Heritage Party) in the NDF. In the event, NDF majorities were highest in areas with significant minority populations. These figures were impressive and were not undermined by the fact that these areas also had the lowest turnout. Jaffna, Mannar, Killinocchchi, Batticaloa were in the 60% bracket, which is very high compared to less than 43% in the last EU elections. The turnout in the recent US mid-term elections was 36.4%.
The Tribe, the Herd
When I was around ten years old, I was fanatical about Aston Villa because my handsome cousin played for them and gave free tickets for my father and myself. It was not possible to be a Villa supporter without despising Birmingham City. Later, I lived in Manchester and had the privilege of being able to see George Best and Denis Law up close. I was more of a Manchester City fan, though, and spent more time at Maine Road watching Rodney Marsh, Colin Bell and Denis Tueart. Up to the age of about 15, I was a very devout Catholic and prayed fervently for the rest of the world to be converted to “our team”. I was educated at Sir Thomas Rich’s School; the other grammar school in Gloucester was Crypt. We never played each other at rugby because of the fear of mayhem. Kolombians might see a parallel in the rivalry between St Thomas’s and Royal. There has been discussion about the composition of the new cabinet- 12 Royalists in 27-member Cabinet.
Thus we shape our identities through dichotomies, feeding our sense of self by hating or mocking the Other.
I enjoy reading polemical writers like Hazlitt, and in contemporary times, Nick Cohen and Julie Burchill. I have read and quoted Tisaranee Gunasekera’s impassioned articles. I have read and quoted Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena and am currently reading her thoughts on torture. I do not do polemic myself. I do analysis and criticism. For an international audience, I wrote articles critical of the 18th Amendment, the imprisonment of Sarath Fonseka, the failings and misdeeds of the police, environmental crimes, child abuse through vehicle emissions, the errant entitled thuggish sons of ministers, crime in politics; I frequently accused the government of living on immoral earnings by depending on migrants’ remittances and tourism. I wrote an article condemning BBS and asking why there were no prosecutions.
This was not enough for those who called me government shill.
I realised that the problem with some Sri Lankan readers of my articles was not that I was praising Rajapaksa – I knew that I was not. At one stage, I thought the problem was that I was not attacking the government. Then, I thought I was not criticising the president himself abusively enough. There were many talented writers doing that job with great gusto. I came to realize that UNP (United National Party – Uncle Nephew Party to its critics) supporters were unhappy that I criticised Ranil. Most who read my article in Le Monde diplomatique got that I thought the !8th Amendment was a bad thing. I could see no argument in favour of it. All one of my persistent bêtes noirs got from the article was that I was critical of Ranil.
Groucho Marx said, “I would never be a member of a club that would accept someone like me as a member”. I have found myself added to a number of groups supporting one political viewpoint or another. I have swiftly withdrawn. I have lingered a little longer in a couple of groups which had the ostensible mission of building bridges or encouraging philosophical discussion. They quickly become hotbeds of dissension and entrenched views. My attempts at neutrality win me hate mail from all sides. As well as being called a Rajapaksa sycophant, a Sinhala-Buddhist chauvinist (strange label to attach to someone brought up as an Irish Catholic) I have been branded an IRA fugitive who regurgitates Tiger propaganda. This is spite of the fact that a piece of mine condemning both the IRA and the LTTE got 5,000 viewings on Groundviews.
The great, if today unappreciated, English essayist William Hazlitt was an admirer of Napoleon. Hazlitt’s views on Napoleon and, most other topics, were diametrically opposed to those of that other great wordsmith Edmund Burke (a Trinity man). Despite their different philosophies, Hazlitt’s guiding concept of “disinterestedness” meant that he did not trust anyone who did not believe that Burke was a great man. The disinterested thinker can empathise with views with which he or she does not agree or even opposes. As another loquacious Irishman, Tom Paulin, puts it in his book on Hazlitt, The Day Star of Liberty, “The disinterested imagination takes a position, but it is not entrenched, obdurate or rigid; rather it is based on an active and flexible way of knowing that is essentially dialogic. It doesn’t talk to itself”. Hazlitt believed he could do an enemy, “justice or more than justice, without betraying a cause”.
As an impartial foreign observer, I really, sincerely, do not have atavistic emotional attachment to one side or another. Why would I? Why would I support one Sri Lankan party over another unless I was paid to do so; I assure you I am not paid (except by Ceylon Today). My modus operandi is to say, “on the one hand…and on the other hand”. I have quoted Uditha above. I was amused to see someone berating him because he was “too neutral” in his public utterances. The poor man was trying to adopt a balanced approach but his scourge condemned him because he would not tell her to whom he planned to give his vote.
Indi Samarajiva’s analysis of the new cabinet was rubbished by two commenters because he had previously said some positive things about Rajapaksa. Someone thought he should not be heeded because of the politics of his father. This was a man who had clearly said he was going to vote for MS and had advised others to do so.
Rajiva Wijesinha played a vital role, with his constant flow of informed comment and practical advice on good governance, in the downfall of the Rajapaksa regime. Most people welcomed his ministerial appointment but someone objected because he had once supported the outgoing government and had questioned Channel 4’s Killing Fields in a TV interview.
My social media contacts are ecumenical and eclectic. There are Catholics, Anglicans, Hindus, Muslims, and Atheists, gay men and lesbians, jazz fans and folk singers singers (even banjo players), rock musicians (even drummers). There are people who hate the Rajapaksas with venom. There are those who think he was a great president. There are those who think Ranil walks on water. I enjoy dialogue with right wing conservatives and lefties from various sects. I am friendly with staunch supporters of Israel and those protesting at the treatment of Palestinians. I even resisted a strong urge to “defriend” someone singing the praises of Tamil rapper and Tiger supporter MIA. I open my mind to all these influences to challenge my own ideas. I am willing to change my opinions but sometimes I just do not know what my opinion is and I set out different viewpoints for my readers to chew over.
I become uncomfortable when someone is loud and bullying in his or her partisan stance. During the election process there were instances of commenters on social media “naming and shaming” those who did not seem to be voting the “correct” way, or even for not speaking loudly enough for the approved candidate. One woman was exposed in a public forum despite her protestations that she had voted for MS. Her crime was that she had shared an article by Dayan in which he had said, after much deliberation, that he would himself be voting for MR. This mental attitude goes beyond the totalitarian mantra of, “If you are not with us, you are against us”. “If you have a friend that we disapprove of you are our enemy”.
Some people cannot consider ideas without being overwhelmed by emotion. Some people cannot understand that to explain is not the same as to advocate. UNP/SLFP (Sri Lanka Freedom Party) dichotomies do not seem relevant in these days of fissiparous alliances. The victorious alliance this time has made a good start without being stuck with a party doctrine.
Why did I feel invigorated and optimistic at the election result? There are many excellent proposals in the new government’s work plan. Here are some that attracted my notice:
- A Cabinet of not more than 25 members, including members of all political parties represented in Parliament.
- Repeal of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution with legislation to establish strengthened and independent institutions.
- Relief to the people by reducing the rising Cost of Living.
- Proposals to replace the current Preference Vote system .
- An Ethical Code of Conduct will be introduced legally for all representatives of the people.
- A Right to Information Bill will be introduced and passed within three weeks.
- Special Commissions will be appointed to investigate allegations of massive corruption in the preceding period.
- Laws will be passed swiftly to put a stop to ill-treatment of animals
Before the election, I echoed Dayan Jayatilleka’s concern that voters would be casting a vote for Sirisena but giving power to Ranil, for whom no one was voting directly. The voters clearly did not see this as a problem and accepted the opposition package as offered. The UNP’s organisation and vote bank contributed to a change that allows the possibility for beneficial developments for the governance of the nation. The people clearly want change and the NDF electoral strategy has opened up possibilities that would not have existed had Rajapaksa won. Ranil was extremely gracious in victory and I look forward to seeing him govern as the gentleman many of his admirers have described to me.
Although there was great relief (and surprise) at the swiftness and smoothness of the transition, (compare with Bush versus Gore where the Supreme Court handed the presidency to the candidate with fewer votes) there is a dispute about how gracious Rajapaksa really was in defeat. There is speculation about what his future plans might be. If I were him, I would relax and enjoy retirement. There are stories going around that he plans to recapture the SLFP and get back into parliament and stake a claim for the prime minister job which M3 and Ranil would have made the power centre. Thus, he might be able to block the governance changes for which we hope. As I write, the issue of the SLFP leadership is confused. MR and MS seemingly both consider themselves in charge but one paper thinks CBK will make a bid. Apparently, Karuna still considers himself SLFP vice-president. In all this confusion who is the official opposition? Is it the JVP (Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna – People’s Liberation Front) with just three MPs?
Good out of Bad
Some have found a good deal of amusement at the sight of former supporters of Rajapaksa, who did not cross over before, now pledging support to Sirisena after his victory. One commenter expressed this pithily: “Their brown noses will never change. Same nose different object.” They may be keen to back the winner. They may be hopeful of preferment – with a reduced cabinet, let us hope they will be disappointed.
There is a positive side. It was a conundrum how the positive changes could be effected within the timetable set by the incoming regime when the UPFA (United People’s Freedom Alliance) still had a majority in parliament. Constitutional changes require a two-thirds majority so a general election was thought necessary. That in itself would not guarantee a two-thirds majority for constitutional change. Nimal Siripala de Silva has announced that he and the current UPFA MPs will not stand in the way of the new president’s programme. Will we have a government of national unity? Do we need an opposition? However, it seems that some defections are causing dissension in the ruling coalition. A clean machine does not want Vinayagamoorthi Muralitharan, Sajin Vaas Gunawardena, Anura Vidanagamage and Udith Lokubandara.
At this point in history, it is good that we appear to have peaceful change and are moving towards a government of national unity. There is the promise that mechanisms will soon be put in place to guarantee that it does not become a one-party dictatorship. The sun is shining on the mountains and I am optimistic.