What is it after a year we can celebrate? Much, I would argue.
There are photos I’ve taken with my phone of the scene in front of Temple Trees at daybreak, one year ago. Commandoes, armed, were just beginning to disperse, muted camouflage green and brown, with black muzzles, against red buses. They ringed the junction at Kollupitiya. They were walking up Duplication Road. Temple Trees was silent. No one was out. The roads were deserted – this, on a weekday, in the heart of Colombo. There were no Police to be seen. The check-posts looked unmanned. We couldn’t see inside. Around ten minutes earlier, an SMS announced Mahinda Rajapaksa had vacated his official residence. It was incredible, in the fullest sense of the word. A few hours earlier that day, counting stopped for close upon two hours. Explanations offered at the time to media who called up to ask why were unbelievable. In the weeks after the election, stories around what happened plus the rather sad partial amnesia of those present at the time with the then President in Temple Trees, appeared in the mainstream media. We braced for the worst – the re-election of Mahinda Rajapaksa, despite a majority vote in favour of Maithripala Sirisena. It was hard to see how the fiction could be maintained over the longer term, but a cornered rat – not unlike the Rajapaksa regime at the time – doesn’t resort to sane logic when cornered. Anything was possible.
The Rajapaksa’s evisceration of democracy is a project worthy of serious study. 2015 revealed the colossal losses incurred by state-owned enterprises, large scale projects like the Mattala Airport, massive convention centres in the middle of nowhere and truly bizarre creations like a botanical garden in the dry zone (which involved the daily transportation of water in bowsers). The number of trailing zeroes behind each of these projects is mind-boggling – somebody, or a small coterie, invariably made a small fortune on each of them. Even more tellingly, Siril Wijesundara, then the Director General of the Department of Botanic Gardens said at the time the botanical garden was opened that “We had all our gardens in the Dry Zone during the time of Sri Lankan Kings”. Kings have subjects, not citizens. Kings hold court, with scant need for Parliament. Kings are above the law. Kings are the law. Mahinda Rajapaksa was a King. Being a King made it possible to build, and indeed, justify without any public outcry, the four-lane Colombo-Katunayake Expressway, reportedly the most expensive highway ever built in terms of cost of each kilometre – an eye-watering 1.8 billion per kilometre. Vanity projects, with no transparency, were undertaken because the family never imagined they would be voted out of, or lose, total control. From the curtailment of the freedom of expression to the atrocious calibre of diplomatic appointees, from the devastation of the natural environment and wildlife to the violent eviction of thousands from Colombo, from the violent targeting of critics to the silencing of dissent, from the creation of a parallel, dark state anchored around pervasive surveillance to the extraordinary intelligence gathering of citizens, the overt and more hidden devastation of our religious, social, political and economic fabric by the Rajapaksa’s was unprecedented.
All this bears re-telling now because what I, and many others, are upset or angered over governance today pales into insignificance in light of the existential threat the previous regime posed to our country. The absence of the Rajapaksa’s is not however the presence of democracy. The baseline for decency, dignity and democracy don’t lie in the years 2005 to 2010, and for the present government to remind us how much better they are than the Rajapaksa’s is an utterly moot point. The realisation of hope one year ago revolves around how different, not just in word but in deed, the present government is. How faithful it is to promises made to abolish the Executive Presidency. To what degree it can convince the South that the Tamil national question needs to be addressed meaningfully, and also to what degree it can hold at bay shrill elements in Tamil polity who still see Siresena as Rajapaksa, because they know of no other way to engage. Millions didn’t vote for Sirisena – and yet he is their President. How he embraces their resistance is critical. The UNP generally holds the value of much of what they say and do as self-evident. It is certainly not so. Communicating why and how policy is made, and creating avenues for public engagement and dissent, is important. The Right to Information needs to emerge from an elephantine gestation and empower citizens to prise open not just institutions, but they very culture of secrecy that defines government, even today.
Much needs to be done. And yet, on the 9th of January 2015, at around 6.30pm, so many gathered at Independence Square half-expecting the man taking oaths to succumb to some last minute evil machination that prevented him from taking office. Hoarse, tired, incredulous, excited, relieved, apprehensive, happy, hopeful, we had voted Sirisena in and cheered him on.
The vote was for change. Change isn’t an endpoint. How it is achieved matters as much as what is achieved. Much remains to be done. And yet, warts and all, what we have today was unimaginable just over a year ago. If nothing else, that’s worth celebrating.
Published in The Sunday Island on 10 January 2016.