A recent interview with President Sirisena, conducted with the BBC’s Azzam Ameen, is recommended viewing for those who want to assess contemporary politics and the trajectory of governance over 2016 and beyond. Over Twitter, I averred that while some of the President’s answers were positively disturbing, the opportunity given to grill him, and the fact that Ameen is still alive, unharmed and living without fear of a white van abduction, is testimony to how much Sri Lanka has changed from the dark Rajapaksa years.
In a segment of the interview, the President is asked for his opinion on the disturbingly racist ‘Sinha-le’ movement, which has recently gone from random acts of vandalism and car stickers to boisterous, inter-city, Sinhala-Buddhist supremacist rallies and Police confrontations. The President dismisses the movement entirely, saying in effect that it is fringe lunacy and without any merit. Where he gets it completely wrong is in trusting the capacity of our society itself to negotiate violence and extremism. This, lest we forget, is the same society that countenanced the rise of the BBS, Sihala Ravaya and all manner of manic monks, were generally ok with the massacre of thousands at Nandikadal, ignored the plight of those interned in Manik Farm, gave rise to the bheeshana yugaya in the late 80’s, which reads and believes mainstream media that regularly conflates Tamils with Tigers, elects murderers and thugs to Parliament, support MPs who abduct citizens, countenances a brutal, corrupt Police force and are fine with rampant militarisation in almost every sphere of public life. Where the well-springs of hope the President has over society’s ability to discern and resolutely disavow the ‘Sinha-le’ movement for what it really is, is a mystery.
In another question, President Sirisena is asked about nepotism, and the optics around the fact that his younger brother was appointed by him as the Chairman of Sri Lanka Telecom. The President’s answer is revealing. He claims there is a difference between what he terms ‘family rule’ (he uses the example of Cuba) and the fact that Sri Lanka Telecom, by virtue of being under a line ministry and a government minister, is essentially outside his sphere of influence. Azzam presses on and asks the President about taking his son – Daham – to New York, to sit alongside him at UN sessions and the fact that his daughter has also been spotted at public functions in an officiating capacity. Though it isn’t mentioned in the BBC interview, the official Facebook page of the President, handled no doubt by the Presidential Media Unit, photo-shopped Daham out of images of the official UN delegation when faced with, at the time, a vocal media backlash, especially online. The President’s answer is to first ask whether anyone, with any sense, will question why taking his son to New York is wrong. He says fathers who have sons will understand the love for a son, and that it really isn’t a question over governance. In what can only be described as a tad delirious, President Sirisena then says that fathers who haven’t been lucky enough to have children are the only ones interested in critiquing Daham’s place in Sri Lanka’s official delegation to the UN. He says this is their misfortune. Becoming increasingly defensive, in tone and body language, the President then avers that those who question him on this are devoid of humanity. Claiming the public aren’t really concerned about these issues, he pegs critical questions on this score to political enemies.
Aside from his tragically twisted take on nepotism, the President’s larger mistake is to use, as he does in this interview, the Rajapaksa’s and their political culture as a baseline to judge his own actions, and those of the present government. A rough analogy would be to compare Sri Lanka’s democratic timbre with that of the Central African Republic, or the Democratic Republic of Congo. We can pat ourselves on the back that we are so much better than either country, but what does this really mean? Likewise, to use the Rajapaksa’s as a baseline is a bluff that must be called – as President Sirisena knows only too well, our democratic values were reflected far more in the plural social mobilisation that put him where he is. It is to those who saw in him the best of who we are and can be that he has to answer to, not to autocrats and their sons from the past.
Further on, the President’s take on critical web and online media is to equate them, carte blanche, to yellow or tabloid journalism. Much has changed then from his first televised address to the public in early 2015, where he explicitly thanked those who supported his candidacy online and on Facebook, against all odds, to his current position, where when the spotlight is on him and his actions, critical online voices become destructive, shallow and irrelevant. When asked about the full colour, full page ads taken out in print media by various ministries to celebrate his first year in office, he again gets very defensive and proceeds to indicate he either doesn’t mean what says, or says what he doesn’t mean. On the one hand, he says that circulars were issued to not publish advertisements, which cost tens of millions of rupees in the aggregate, taken from public coffers. When then asked as to what action he himself will take against ministries and public bodies that went against these circulars, he says a complaint has to be lodged with the Ministry of Finance, after which an investigation will be held. Yet again, he uses the excessive corruption under the Rajapaksa’s to suggest that things are comparably much better, and that change itself takes time.
We have a President who isn’t yet used to being a President. It is unclear he was coached on the answers around the questions he and his media team knew would be asked by the likes of the BBC. Maithripala Sirisena is still operating as if he is competing against Mahinda Rajapaksa. Clearly opinionated and believing he has risked more than most, the President may think this entitles him to an arrogance and stubbornness that in turn are effective firewalls against good advice. Critical commentary is taken personally, and sadly, ignored. President Sirisena’s most recent BBC interview will be remembered for a singular lack of vision and humility, which were hallmarks of Sirisena the Presidential aspirant.
It is not just his loss. It is ours too.
Published in The Sunday Island, 31 January 2016