[New Generation: Not sheep unwittingly led to the slaughter}
By Kishali Pinto Jayawardene -
There is a terrible toll that relentless state repression extracts from a country and its people. It saps them of strength, makes them fearful and angry, ready to snarl at the slightest hint of danger, real or perceived. Yet the miracle of the human spirit is that, as things seem at their darkest, the rational mind snaps back and powerful solidarity is shown against the worst forms of injustice.
Sri Lanka’s democratic resilience
This is precisely what Sri Lanka illustrated in all its immense wonder this week when a majority of the citizenry determinedly disregarded communal propaganda and voted out a President in whom public faith had dissipated. This resistance came not from plush boardrooms or conferences in five star hotels but from straight-speaking academics, professionals, journalists and the citizenry who publicly roared their defiance, rejecting the Rajapaksa majoritarian and power fuelled doctrine. Doubters of Sri Lanka’s democratic resilience were therefore proved wrong.
For years, I had been steadfast in dismissing the perception that the Sinhala people were ready
to believe government’s propaganda, even given the ruthless commandeering of the state media
whose propaganda hacks descended into the virtual gutter when attacking dissenters.
This belief in the basic decency of the citizenry did not find strength from those who colluded, looked away or wrung their hands helplessly when the 18th Amendment was brought. Indeed, such cowards included elitists of the legal community who permitted the destruction of the judicial system to take place right under their cynical and uncaring noses as it were. Rather, this stubborn belief was underscored by the actions of ordinary Sri Lankans even when the inflammatory Bodu Bala Sena was inflicted upon the Muslim people. Many of them bravely raised their voices against the communal tide, one of whom was respected writer Anne Abeysekera who unfortunately passed away just before the Presidential Election.
The real election victories
And this Thursday’s election result buttresses such belief in no uncertain terms. Slick and shrewd regime propagators masquerading in the cloak of intellectualism who warned of instability should the Presidency change hands were given the proverbial finger by thinking Sinhalese voters in Kandy, Bandarawela, Kurunegala, Colombo and Galle. Indeed, this is the true game changer of this election. Meanwhile besieged Tamil and Muslim citizens disregarded fears of targeted post-election punishment and voted en masse on a Rule of Law platform against an administration that had perhaps alienated them the most since independence. The rejection by Tamil voters of Northern ethnic segregationists who called to boycott the election saying that the Tamil people need not concern themselves with ‘Southern’ democracy, was unmistakable. This is what courage is all about.
That said, the calm determination by Polonnaruwa’s Maithripala Sirisena, now the 7th Executive President of Sri Lanka in the face of extreme provocation impressed even the routinely sceptical. As he said during a typically no-nonsensical oaths ceremony at Independence Square on Friday as the entire country watched in petrified amazement, no opposition candidate had been subjected such despicable personal attacks as he had been. Yet his response thereto was measured, contributing to a leap of electoral faith in the Rajarata’s unassuming son of the soil as a catalyst for extraordinary change.
Just prior to the formal announcement of the winner at the Elections Secretariat on Friday, as Commissioner of Elections Mahinda Deshapriya took a well deserved bow for a job accomplished against huge odds, he somberly recalled extreme pre-election violence. Newly appointed Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s exhortation to practice patience reflected this same spirit. Certainly the uncanny absence of systematic violence on polling day was Thursday’s actual victorious marker.
Lessons from the vote
There are valuable lessons that this election teaches us. Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa will go down in history not merely as the President who oversaw the end of war but also as the national leader who wantonly squandered a golden opportunity for Sri Lanka’s post-war reconciliation. The collapse of his Presidency was engineered by an insatiable craving for power and for wealth by himself, his brothers, sons and Rajapaksa ‘patronage’ recipients. Namal Rajapaksa’s Nil Balakaya modelled on Papa Doc Duvalier’s infamous thugs Tonton Macoutes in Haiti contributed a great deal to this public anger. I feel a certain rich sense of satisfaction therefore when, rather than human rights defenders routinely fleeing Sri Lanka, men who ruined this country took hasty flights overseas even as the anti-government wave became clear by Thursday midnight.
There are lessons for others as well. Judges should take heed that bowing and scraping to those in power assuredly does not constitute part of their judicial function. The destruction of the Sri Lankan judiciary from 1999 onwards under various Chief Justices was owing to actions of judges themselves quite apart from politicians. For honourable judges who dissented on the impeachment of Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake such as former Supreme Court judge Gamini Amaratunga, the late Justice S. Sriskandarajah and sitting appellate Court Justice Anil Guneratne who was repeatedly denied his promotion on this basis, this election vindicates their bravery. And the few President’s Counsel who descended to incredible cheapness as to advertise their pre-election support for former President Rajapaksa must surely rue the day now.
Sounding a note of caution
That said, a note of caution must be sounded amidst the jubilation. This is a great country. And its people have an infinite capacity to forgive and forget. But too often, our politicians have been forgiven by the people for past sins only to watch them making the same mistakes repeatedly. This time however, there will be no second chance. A continued healthy watchfulness is therefore needed. The electoral reprimand meted out this Thursday to a leader once thought of as unassailable needs to be kept in mind by the victors. Make no mistake, the people of this country are not sheep unwittingly led to the slaughter. Rather, this is a mature electorate willing to go only thus far and no further.
For the moment however, we are entitled to take a step back and tentatively enjoy the unfamiliar taste of what, at long last, hope must actually feel like.
[Original Caption:Peoples power brings down a presidency ]
Courtesy The Sunday Times