The bra effect

The Government announced last week that it would set up a website to gather public opinion on issues related to reconciliation. This came after an announcement earlier in December that the government intended to establish a secretariat to coordinate activities of various players engaged in reconciliation. In September came the announcement that the government would set up a South Africa-style truth and reconciliation commission to look into atrocities committed during the war. The website of the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR) led by former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga notes that it was established to lead, facilitate, support and coordinate matters related to national unity and reconciliation in Sri Lanka. Meanwhile, there is a Ministry of National Co-Existence Dialogue. Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister is on record, both in Sri Lanka and abroad, as being open to and interested in setting up structures for truth seeking and transitional justice. Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Justice and the Attorney-General’s Department, however, as flagged by journalist in exile J.S. Tissanayagam recently, remain silent.

It’s all quite mad. A year into the Sirisena government, policy incoherence, confusion and a marked lack of and disinterest in public consultation colour policy making. A cogent example is the fate of any coherent, coordinated plan around reconciliation – if ONUR saw itself as the apex body for reconciliation, do we now have a secretariat above the apex body, to coordinate reconciliation between a Ministry which has no discernible mandate, a Foreign Minister who has no influence over domestic institutions, and government agencies which are largely silent, and disconnected from each other? The confusion is beyond laughably tragic. It is what overwhelmingly colours what at various time and by various individuals is called the rainbow, national or unity government.

There is a clear crisis of prioritisation, and it is growing apace.

The President’s recent and embarrassing obsession with brassieres is a case in point, but instructive for more than what is flagged in online and mainstream media to date. To my knowledge – as someone who was deeply embedded in, aided in the design of and also significantly involved in the mechanisms through which social media played a role in the Presidential Election – not a single courageous individual belonging to the main demographic involved in what at the time was an extremely risky business had tilled soil or walked in a paddy field, which is our President’s new pre-requisite in order to know what is best for the country. United by a common goal to see the end of a heinous regime, a diverse group of individuals who brought with them a spectrum of experience and expertise helped bring Sirisena into power. Clearly, Sirisena knew this – because earlier this year, in his first address to the nation on television, he specifically thanked those on Facebook for their help, as he saw it, in his electoral success. This diverse coalition was united not by any bias towards Ranil Wickremesinghe or the UNP. They were interested in a Sri Lanka markedly different in spirit, tone and identity than what was endured since 2005. They were interested in a dignified, democratic country. I personally wanted the chance to be angry at individuals and a government who weren’t controlled by the Rajapaksa’s or their cronies. That wish was granted, and how! The anger today is around wasted opportunities and the loss of political capital – soft power. President Sirisena, was – nay still is – a beacon of hope for what everything Sri Lanka can be. As an individual and particular, inhabiting the office he does, Sirisena imbibes into our national psyche – through word and deed – normative standards the rest of the country is then encouraged to mirror. Even without Executive fiat, Sirisena commands soft power – something which he and his advisers haven’t, sadly, grasped the full potential of. And so, instead of inspiring us to become better than what we think we can be, we have the maddeningly depressing furore over a brassiere, and caught in a bind, a Presidency that reverts to the inanest nativism to justify an essentially injudicious comment.

Instructive to highlight are the vectors of opposition to the President’s comments on ‘alien cultures’ and suchlike. Rather than gloat at Sirisena’s self-inflicted trauma, the UNP should use the episode as deeply instructive around what lies ahead over 2016 for constitutional reform. The government can use this episode as instructive too, to more fully realise that the very mechanisms, groups, media and content that brought them into power, they don’t really command, control or indeed, have any demonstrable ability to censor. This is where the confusion around reconciliation is pertinent. Incoherent and uncoordinated policy making leads to frustration around the lack of delivery and pace of change. Expectations, in particular for first and second time voters since 26th January 2010, numbering in the millions, are shaped by social media and untethered to an appreciation around the complexities of coalition politics and parochialism that still defines government, defying change. Anger this group, and the snowball effect would play to, by design or inadvertently, the hands of those opposed to everything this government has promised it will do.

This would be such a waste.

Meaningful reconciliation, beyond the farcical model of the previous regime which prioritised development over truth-seeking, was promised by this government. Pegged to issues around demilitarisation and a political settlement to the Tamil national question, public consultations were promised around mechanisms for transitional justice. The contours of the state will be redrawn and redefined next year as part of the constitutional reform process. So much can be done, and without much effort, to make all this dynamic, exciting and proactive. To harness the interest of so many, who may not vote for the same individuals or political party, but are united in their interest to see a country where disagreeing openly and on principle with those in power doesn’t result in a white van abduction, torture or worse. And yet, to date, all the government has done is to demonstrate its ignorance around the use of freely available, easily adaptable, multi-lingual technologies to facilitate public deliberative mechanisms and add to the significant confusion over existing mandates around, for example, reconciliation, by adding even more administrative structures.

All this sadly fuels sections of our society who still wistfully recall the halcyon days of President Premedasa and more recently, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who just got things done. A more democratic country today has resulted in a more confused state of governance, the disinterest in pursuing public opinion over the long-term and a deeply flawed prioritisation of issues in government.

It should not be so.

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Published in The Sunday Island, 2 January 2016.

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