It is fittingly ironic that end-of-year debates in regard to Sri Lanka’s future reform agenda on accountability and the Rule of Law have been eclipsed by President Maithripala Sirisena’s ill-judged outburst regarding the conduct of one or two frenzied fans at the Enrique Iglesias concert recently.
The agony and the ecstasy
The President’s agony was carried worldwide by leading international news agencies, probably tickled pink to see the bespectacled face of Sri Lanka’s rainbow revolution whipping himself up into a puritanical frenzy in threatening the concert organizers with strange medieval punishments. Adding more spice to the mix was the fact that two renowned Sri Lankan cricketers were hapless owners of the company which organized the musical event.
Some may chortle with glee at the sheer nonsensical nature of this incident. But the controversy also raises serious questions. Does the ecstasies of a few fans in throwing underwear at a musical concert for Colombo’s elite or leaping up to the stage to indulge in fun and frolics, (which is anyway all par with the course), warrant a Presidential response? Surely not, one would think. And is similar executive outrage shown in response to society’s systemic dysfunctions which directly target ordinary Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim, or Burgher women?
These include scandalously high levels of sexual harassment when using daily transport to travel for work or at the workplace itself. Meanwhile the rape and murder of girls, women and even infants represent the tip of an alarming and steadily burgeoning iceberg across Sri Lanka, as documented by the Department of the Police.
Need for Presidential priorities
President Sirisena should therefore apprise himself of two stark facts even as he expounds on Sinhalese Buddhist traditions and ‘village culture.’ First, he is the President of a multicultural and multiracial population against which this repeated insistence on the moral value of one religious or racial tradition is not only distasteful but simply wrong.
Indeed, this is a statement much in line with what his predecessor Mahinda Rajapaksa may have said. But for this President who came into power with the pivotal support of Sri Lanka’s minorities, these remarks strike a discordant note which goes beyond simple annoyance with disorderly behavior. Instead it betrays a mind frame which is out of step with the people’s expectations during that historic game changing Presidential vote in January 2015.
Second, sexual violence directed against women is regularly evidenced in Sri Lanka’s remotest villages rather than only in the ‘big, bad cities.’ Examples are many including the recent rape and murder of little Seya Sadewmi from Badalgama. The rape of teenage girls by local level politicians in the deep South has been well documented. Similar patterns are reported from the country’s ancient capitals, Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, notwithstanding the fact that these are the repositories of the very same culture that the President spoke about and probably where ‘he had walked in the village paddy fields and bunds,’ (the Daily News, December 30, 2015). In 2011 for example, child protection agencies and activists reported that perpetrators of the majority of child rape cases in the North Central Province were traditional father figures, namely male relatives, teachers and religious dignitaries. Such incidents increase with each year.
Examining the brutalization of society
Girls of minority ethnicity are at an even greater risk. At the close of last year, the Nuwara Eliya High Court sentenced the rapists of (then) seventeen year old Jesudasan Rita in finding them guilty following one and a half decade of legal battles. She had been molested in 2001 when walking home after a church service in Talawakelle. In the North and East, Tamil women and girls face perilous threats from underground networks of predators including army deserters, former terrorist and paramilitary cadre along with provincial politicians.
Perhaps President Sirisena may direct his state funded policy advisors to undertake a study of Sri Lanka’s brutalized society in the villages and in the towns which frame and enable this terrible phenomenon of sexual violence. For better measure, this effort may also include the examination of a faltering legal process which typically takes seven to ten years to conclude a rape case, quite apart from the deep insensitivity displayed by systemic actors including judges and lawyers to rape victims themselves.
This exercise would be more useful than swearing that he would not allow people to walk naked on the streets, as reported in the state media. This rather surreal statement may have been prompted by nightmarish visions of thousands of women throwing underwear around in public in the capital. We can only surmise. In any event, as I was reminded in a chance conversation on Saturday, did we not see crowds of loincloth clad farmers jostling outside Temple Trees recently in protest over the Government’s failure to grant them subsidies? Whence our prudishness in regard to this, one may well ask?
The Loss of Innocence
I referred to the irony implicit in this ridiculous controversy for a specific reason. As far last year’s expectations for a new Sri Lanka were concerned, the cruelest blow was dealt not by ecstasy ridden Iglesias fans but by President Sirisena’s clear inability to rise above political wheeler-dealing, nepotism and backroom party deals.
On its own part, the United National Party has much to answer for in its handling of government including its failure to put systemic reform at the top of the accountability agenda. Opposition parties characterized by their complicity in this failure are equally culpable. Cumulatively, the loss of innocence on the part of the citizenry in expecting better from its leaders is profound.
Some may take refuge in the refrain that ‘well, at least this is better than during Rajapaksa times.’ But this analysis of relativities is illusionary. The Rajapaksa bar was set so impossibly low that even the most minimal of change would have sufficed. As a new year dawns with the colours of the January 2015 rainbow revolution getting increasingly drearier by the minute, such compromises need to be rejected. Sri Lanka’s impossibly problematic political leadership, whether of the Sirisena, Wickremesinghe or Rajapaksa brand, must be critiqued head-on.
Battered, beaten and bereft of last year’s bright rays of hope regarding the reform of the nation, the Sri Lankan citizenry from the North to the South may however yet prove itself equal to that task.