A conversation with a close friend visiting Sri Lanka last week was an opportunity to reflect on the relative merits of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration, nearly two years after gaining power. We met in the wake of the incident in Hambantota where the Navy Commander, on Human Rights Day, verbally abused a journalist and then proceeded to assault him. Unlike incidents in the North and East, where equal if not far more brutal methods of quelling dissent and bearing witness continue unabated even post-war, this episode went viral over social media and was well covered in the mainstream electronic and print media. Responses to it are revealing.
The PM’s initial response was that the journalist went to the wrong Police Station to complain about the incident. An investigation into the behaviour of the Navy Commander was initiated and a report handed over the PM. Nothing by way of reprimand or disciplinary action resulted out of it. Instead, the Navy Commander was praised by the government and feted by the PM for ending blockade of the Hambantota Port. The Director General of Information said that the central issue was around the violation of media ethics. In a strangely worded press release, though condemning the brutish Navy Commander, the Director General strongly suggested that the journalist was somehow more to blame. The Deputy Minister of Media condemned the attack on the journalist and the foul language used by the Navy Commander, noting that it ran counter to the mandate given by the people to the government. Erstwhile Army Commander and now Government MP Sarath Fonseka was reported in the media stating that “everything had happened in an acceptable manner” and that the Navy Commander had merely “pushed [the journalist] away from the security circle”. There is no comment from the President on the incident to date.
Though much can be taken from this inchoate spectrum of responses, there is a simpler question to ask. If a former Army Commander, now an MP in Government, is wilfully blind to violence of word and deed, in the full glare of media in the South, can he and by extension, this government led by a President who so openly sides with the military, be expected to deliver on promises around accountability? The incident became, unsurprisingly, a platform for the Rajapaksa’s to pontificate and the JO to agitate. Many flagged how the military was used in Rathupaswala against citizens agitating for clean water. Few if any, however, openly drew parallels between behaviour now rewarded by Prime Ministerial commendation and the impunity with which the military conducted operations in the North and East, out of sight, out of mind. It is a sobering reflection of the power the military machinery continues to wield, and how before what will be a historic year for political reform, the government will be entirely unconvinced of openly disciplining bullies and brutes in uniform.
In early 2015, Sri Lanka emerged from ten years of kakistocracy, or rule by the worst possible people, to what was hoped would be a government that restored the faith in and practice of democracy. That heady optimism was entirely misplaced, and we knew it then. What continues to surprise is the degree to which that early promise keeps being reneged. A pragmatic assessment would be to accept that negotiating the military, the various nefarious deals that glue a coalition government, the sundry interests of those in the coalition including around political aspirations to higher office, the inherited secrets of the former regime including around the end of war, the monumental debt and its repayment, a West full of obsequious praise yet short on funding and China, close to the old regime and with a heavy footprint around the country, requires government to stay the course and ignore any higher ideals. The plaintive cries of civil society are a headache for those in power, but nothing yet another visiting American diplomat full of praise, another military exercise with Navy SEALs, another tender with China, another international bi-lateral trade agreement, news of a new concessionary loan by the World Bank, some non-committal reference to the Volkswagen factory, the imminent launch of Google Loon with free Wi-Fi for all or a good innings by the Sri Lankan cricket team can’t fix. Sri Lankans dwell deeply on daily matters, but over the longer term, are perfectly happy to accept what sporadically, they rave and rant against. This is well-known, and abused by government. Systemic reform won’t be the result of yahapalanaya as entrenched in government writ large, but the spirit of yahapalanaya appropriated by singular individuals in the State machinery, civil society and a demographic whose votes placed this government in power. This will take time.
Meanwhile, appreciating what is overall a progressive bent in politics, despite what appears to be overwhelming evidence to the contrary, requires the assessment of what we endure today with what we fought against just two years ago at around the same time. The tension at the time of the stakes around the Presidential election, and how much of effort was put into entirely organic, non-hierarchical, social media powered structures that creatively adapted to attacks, challenges and opportunities is now already faded from memory. The Rajapaksa’s were a cancer, and the rot of their nepotism, corruption and violence, from Temple Trees to everything we touched, saw, read or experienced, had reached a point where even those within the regime and yet biologically removed from the first family saw an uncertain political future, where constant veneration only ever resulted in a limited theatre for parochial gain and corruption. We are right to constantly hold this government up to a higher standard, set not by us, but by yahapalanaya’s founding principles as noted in Sirisena’s Presidential election manifesto. It is not necessary to always remind readers of what we suffered from in the recent past, and how different a country it is today, warts and all. It is vital though that in our criticism, we also steer well away from efforts at appropriating our intent, words and action by those from the old regime, who through utterly false equivalence deviously delivered, suggest what is wrong today is no different to what they were blamed for doing.
The Director General of Information, as wrong as I believe he was in his assertion that the journalist was himself to blame for the assault by the Navy Commander, organised a public meeting to discuss the incident. Anyone with an opinion on the matter was invited to attend, and the meeting was held at the Media Ministry premises. He was openly taken to task. Journalists openly expressed their disgust, disappointment and anger, including through personally identifiable social media accounts. Protests were held across the country. The incident and the various responses to it became a front-page news story. None of this could have been even remotely dreamt of just over two years ago.
The challenge today is not just to vehemently oppose, decry and condemn excesses of power. It is to constantly engage with government, and for those in power the realisation, tough as it is, that some of the most vocal critics outside Parliament may in fact be those most interested in protecting yahapalanaya’s democratic legacy. Negotiating the complex, constantly morphing terrain that frames this tension between being inside and outside government will define the year ahead. Success, seen as the establishment of a political culture that is more democratic than what we enjoy even today, will rely on the imagination of those who will engage with this tension, in turn requiring humility, courage, imagination and wit in far more measure than we see today, from everyone concerned.
First published in The Sunday Island, 18 December 2016.