“A critique does not consist in saying that things aren’t good the way they are. It consists in seeing on just what type of assumptions, of familiar notions, of established and unexamined ways of thinking the accepted practices are based … To do criticism is to make harder those acts which are now too easy.” – Michel Foucault
The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government will fall, and it will fail. It is a question of when, not if. Saying this now is a bit like vomiting on the Pope – it’s not considered very polite. It is however something those interested in good governance must never forget.
A small group I was part of recently was asked by a visiting dignitary whether civil society was too harsh on what was termed ‘the new government’. Perhaps the question was driven by the international community’s desire to gloss over growing scuff marks on yahapalanaya’s initial sheen. Perhaps in some quarters within Sri Lanka, the still vivid memory of what the country was on the 7th of January and ensuring we never again return to that time fosters silence in the face of what is going wrong, instead of constructive critique. Others, seeking favour, co-opted into government, profiting from new enterprise or simply tired, have gone quiet. A few good women and men, fresh in government, are striving for change from within, harnessing the reach and power of state structures to re-shape the core architecture of governance, those like myself from outside have little chance of accessing or achieving. They have their work cut out. Not unlike the promise and expectations around President Obama’s first term in office far outstripping what he could and did eventually achieve, yahapalanaya’s promise, around the reform of government and governance is far removed from what can and will be done. Everything from coalition dynamics and intra-party power tussles to partisan, expedient political gain and inter-party rivalry will stymie reform, at every single turn.
To flag this openly isn’t to damn the government and everything it does, or seek to dampen justifiable optimism and hope around what it can and should achieve in office. Caution is necessary if only to temper the vaulting ambition of what the government itself has set out to do on two key fronts – putting into action and creating structures that give life to the vital OHCHR resolution in September it co-sponsored and the facilitation of an entirely new constitution, and through it, essentially the re-negotiation of our social and political fibre. What we have around the first and enduring questions around accountability are promises by Sri Lanka’s foreign minister. What we have around the second are pronouncements by the Prime Minister. The first half of 2016 will see how and if the government goes beyond mere words. Both endeavours need to take into account a vital constituency of young adults – those between 18 – 30 – whose expectations around political reform and systemic change are entirely independent of any real understanding around deeply entrenched structures of nepotism, corruption, bias and inefficiencies of government. Disenchantment with the pace of change, especially if the government fails to communicate what it is doing, why and with whom, is a real risk. Furthermore, for these digital natives, disenchantment first expressed over social media can quickly spill over into unrest, disobedience and obstruction in the real world.
There is another problem and indeed, a rather large embarrassment for the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government. Flagging the monumental corruption by the former regime, citizens were promised special tribunals soon after the Presidential election in January and throughout 2015. In March for example, the Cabinet spokesman claimed the government had “information that more than $10 billion, more than our country’s foreign reserves, is kept outside the country by those closely related to the last government”. The World Bank, British financial experts from the Serious Fraud Office (SFO), International Monetary Fund, a Financial Intelligence Unit functioning under India’s Central Bank and US federal authorities were at various times highlighted as agencies or authorities helping the government identify money trails left by individuals in the former regime and close, known associates.
And yet, tellingly, not a single shred of evidence has made it to the public domain. This begs the question – is the evidence, such as it exists, now part of backroom negotiations around what the government wants to push forward? Does it buy support and passage for what could otherwise be blocked or delayed by those in Parliament close to the former President – a devious Damoclean device as it were, using the threat of full disclosure to harness votes? What of public perception around this enterprise? What could happen when what was promised in terms of prosecutions around the waste of public coffers slowly fades away?
Despite this and for now, with apologies to Tolkien’s original quote, one can argue there is some good in this government, and it’s worth fighting for. A central challenge over 2016 will be for those in government to embrace sustained, sometimes even harsh criticism over what is done, or not. There simply can be no yahapalanaya without making it insufferable for the present government to revisit, however briefly, the failings of the previous regime.
Silence is not an option. A critical gaze can only help cement, well beyond this government, what so many of us on the 9th of January at Independence Square, witnessed with hoarse wonder, and hopeful eyes.
First published in The Sunday Island, 13 December 2015