Open public defiance has beaten the ‘white van’ culture by Kishali Pinto Jayawardena –
Oscar Wilde’s bitingly satirical remark that ‘high hopes were once formed of democracy’ but this has come to mean simply ‘the bludgeoning of the people, by the people, for the people,’ could not be better suited for Sri Lanka’s election processes.
Nature of the electoral push
Nevertheless and despite being bludgeoned by bloody conflicts, grave misrule under successive Presidencies and the absence of an enlightened and courageous ‘intelligentsia’ (if we ever had such leadership), this country’s wearied peoples, now beset by devastating flood waters will go to the polls in January 2015 with far more at stake than your typical liberal blue blood exchanging political theories over a glass of Chianti in a swanky Colombo restaurant.
Put simply, the electoral push against the government will come from that segment of the majority Sinhala vote eking out a miserable existence in the face of unbridled corruption, waste and Rajapaksa family nepotism. And religious and ethnic Tamil and Muslim minorities with their backs against the wall will express civic anger that is far greater and much more determined than at any time in the past, irrespective of the contortions of their various political representatives. It is as basic as that.
In the meantime, the useless blathering of former sinners (political, judicial and otherwise) in the opposition frantically trying to cleanse themselves for another chance in the sun, big business types typically brokering with both camps for advantages post elections and politicians distastefully jumping grasshopper-like from one party to another may provide an entertaining side-show.
The government’s manufactured populism
This is precisely why President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s smile seems a little bit more forced day by day on the election stage and why his gestures have an increasing tinge of desperation to them. This is also why an earlier natural electoral gravitation to witness the Rajapaksa ‘magic’ during previous occasions has been replaced by party supporters of its patronage system being brought by hundreds of public transport buses to election rallies while the actual people of the area look on disinterestedly.
Earlier this week, this columnist was an unwitting first hand witness to the unholy chaos that took place prior to the government’s Ratnapura rally when during just half an hour, more than two hundred buses from depots as far away as Nittambuwa and Matara blocked the main road, some full of thoroughly inebriated ruffians jeering and shouting political slogans. Besides putting to shame the government’s ‘Mathata Thitha’ policies, this unnerving spectacle was something that any self respecting voter would have shied away from. Mahinda Rajapaksa, the strategist of even five years ago would have been the first to realize this. But these are apparently not matters of any consequence now.
So in this environment of manufactured populism in the ugliest sense of the word, it is little wonder that the President has the audacity to declare unabashedly from the election podium that he did not interfere at any point with the Sri Lankan judicial institution. Out of all the Presidential untruths that have been uttered in recent weeks, this must surely rank among the most astounding.
It is this same shameless audacity that surfaces even as a ministerial thug who was implicated in the attack on an opposition rally in Wanduraba passed unhindered through official channels at the Katunayake airport a few days ago and went overseas despite a warrant being issued against him. Indeed, this state of affairs has got to be so shocking that the officer-in-charge of the Wanduraba police stations laid aside his uniform and left the service saying that he could no longer function honourably. It does not require much effort to underscore the grievous plight of the Department of the Police. This unprecedented degradation of the police command hierarchy by government politicians, from the highest to the very lowest, has been a constant theme in these column spaces.
Unforgivably naïve to expect miracles
That said, to expect miracles ahead would be unforgivably naïve. One must raise one’s eyebrows at the sight of politicians not particularly known for their allegiance to the Rule of Law being welcomed by the Sirisena campaign with open arms. Thus, former Minister Rishard Bathuideen infamously known for involvement in the attacks on the Mannar Magistrate’s Court was hailed as a young politician of great promise upon his crossing over this week.
The opposition may well say that these are reformed characters who have accepted their principles before joining their ranks. Apologies have also been issued by ministers, parliamentarians and an ex-Chief Justice in opposition ranks for sins committed in the past. Nonetheless we may be forgiven for extreme cynicism regarding the true genuineness of this apparent contrition.
Consequently as much as the Rajapaksa campaign has undoubtedly put itself beyond democratic course correction, the Maithripala Sirisena alternative still needs to rise above the ordinary. Coping with extreme state violence and besieged from all sides, perhaps this may be too much to ask. Yet otherwise, whatever victories won may only be pyrrhic in nature.
Need to continue popular resistance
So while the popular thrust must prevail against this Presidency which has virtually cast us into the yawning abyss, continued watchfulness is needed as regards the alternative that is on offer. Certainly there is acute understanding of these bitter realities in present day discussions in the Sinhala vernacular, from ordinary wayside conversations to televised political debates. This is in contrast to the glaring paucity of similar debates in the English medium.
One positive fact is however crystal clear. The sharp shift of political discourse critical of the government that we see openly has resoundingly beaten the white van culture of intimidation and fear. This did not emerge from the blues as it were. Rather, public anger had been seething and bubbling under the surface as repeatedly observed in these column spaces. If Sri Lanka is to drag itself back to even the basics of democratic functionality, this pressure core of popular resistance must continue beyond the January election, regardless of who is elected to power.
We would not have learnt much from our ruinous history otherwise.
– Courtesy Sunday Times