It boils down to this. Three years into the yahapalanaya government, is our support of it now contingent on the fear of the Rajapaksa’s coming back into power? If that is the case, to what extent do we gloss over and excuse the trappings of power, and the failure of this President and Prime Minister, to actualise the promises they made before coming to power? To what degree to we posit the visible failure of reform on how difficult it is to reshape a political architecture founded on corruption, nepotism and violence, and the lack of genuine political leadership, courage or vision? To what degree does traditional civil society, which championed this President, now countenance what is three years in a record of a steady decline into parochialism, and an overpowering interest over political survival over the heady, selfless ideals noted in his first speech on January 9th, 2015? Connected to this, what degree does civil society, now connected via instant messaging, email or a call away from friends who are significant figures in the Wickremesinghe administration, countenance the catastrophic loss of credibility on account of the government’s inability to pursue those they promised would be held accountable? In conversations with the diverse group of individuals who entirely organically came together – without any external support or funding – in order to get rid of the former President late-2014, there is a palpable sense of frustration, anger, sadness and far more disturbingly, apathy. In an election now overtly made into a litmus test of the current government with the statements made by the former President last week, it is unclear if those in power realise that the narrow margin of electoral victory in both Parliamentary and Presidential elections over 2015 was largely pegged to a youth vote, amongst the 18-34 demographic. This is a group that isn’t voting for anyone. They vote against what they see. The vote that brought the President and Prime Minister to power wasn’t a vote for a political party or individual. It was a vote opposed to what they saw as elements in the political fabric they wanted to get rid of, change or reform. This is a demographic that doesn’t carry to their grave a political party affiliation or loyalty. They will shift their vote, they will not vote at all. To what degree does the government understand this, in their political machinations to retain power?
I don’t want to be the Grinch that stole the promise of January 2015 (leave aside Christmas cheer around the corner). But the signs are now too obvious to ignore. We have a Minister of Media and Finance who is more vocal, courageous, open and principled than even our Prime Minister or certainly, President. We have a Foreign Minister who exists somewhere deep in the bowels of a Ministry that isn’t even making the inside pages of newsprint leave aside forging new strategic alliances with China – who we have to creatively embrace not always shun, India, who we cannot ever forget, the West, who hold the keys to our networking with a cosmopolitan future, and regional allies who remind us of our essential non-aligned past and present. We have other Ministers who now justify extra-legal censorship of online content just because it seemingly upsets the President, instead of the free and open domains for expression we were told we would enjoy. There are mothers of the disappeared quite literally dying in the North before seeing any justice, despite various public promises by the President. How he lives with that knowledge of letting down so badly and callously those who have suffered and lost so in war much is anyone’s guess. But political life goes on. And on the margins, now threatening to become a main act centre stage, are echoes of our violent past now in the guise of saviours – men who did good and great things. Men who defeated terrorism. Men who beautified our cities. Men above corruption, selfless, and visionary to boot. Men now capable of capturing a vote base that is upset with the non-delivery of promises by those in power.
And therein lies the rub. To what degree is our civil society championing the very ideals that projected this government into power? And if the default mode of public engagement today is a respectful deference, silence or worse, support without qualification – because to do anything different risks the ire of friends in government – what does it signal to those who look at civil society as a more critical voice, or platform? In trying to negotiate the optics of how government sees it, is civil society losing its credibility amongst those who were partial to its agenda late-2014? If then there was a clear, perhaps even coincidental overlapping of civil society interests and the interests of those who didn’t then overtly identify themselves as part of civil society to reject, reform and reboot a particular political culture and its chief proponents, the two have grown apart. Arguably, how it has negotiated the post-2015 politics had enabled it to work its way into the inner chambers of government – and this is not all bad. The President is cocooned, believing what he wants to believe because there is no one telling him anything that risks their privileged access to power. The only option is to access the Prime Minister, and with all the attendant risks, he alone has the intellect to comprehend what he is told, critically question and engage. But the bigger picture optics are awry. Civil society, President and Prime Minister operate in their own spheres of influence, and like bubbles, occasionally coalesce but exist entirely independent of each other. Seeing this, and without understanding the complexities of governance or coalition government, young voters are sick and tired of politics as usual, and the absence of any tangible reform at the pace it was promised. Without any coherent communications from government around why things that were promised aren’t done, or how they have tried but failed, conspiracy theories, gossip, rumour are the primary vectors through which voters now develop and cement their perceptions. The more emotive the message, the better the grip it has on the public imagination.
Civil society often blames government for this loss of public confidence. They also have to take some of the blame for it. 2015 brought to an end the oppositional nature of civil society and government, and it is clear that what’s needed now is a more nuanced, strategic approach to critical engagement without co-option, and a pragmatic realism around what can be done, independent of what was promised – incrementalism as a driving mantra in all domains, ranging from constitutional reform to foreign policy and economic development. But this overarching strategic foresight is largely lacking. In its place we have this interest in retaining access to those in power, seemingly at whatever cost, driven by the fear of what may happen if the old regime comes back into power. These twin dynamics fuel each other. The second is certainly a valid, existential concern for those who courageously stood up against the Rajapaksa’s violent, brutal, censorious authoritarian fiat. The first though is a fear that one gives into only to the detriment of a more principled approach to constant, critical review, and by extension, the vital support of those beyond just an echo chamber.
Silence is not an option. Even when our friends are in power.
First published in The Sunday Island, 17 December 2017.