Protests are part and parcel of a healthy democracy. Another crucial element of a functioning democracy is the Rule of Law which includes legal protections, enforcement where necessary and recourse to the courts in the event of perceived infringement of rights. So we have the executive, legislative and judicial arms of the state to attend to these things. Where there is failure, therefore, we must first and foremost look to the faults of the system or the errors of those paid and/or mandated to keep the system functioning.
The detractors of the government, especially the Opposition, naturally point out flaws and errors. There is exaggeration in this exercise and also the typical political blindness to flaws created or ignored when in power and of course the errors. That’s politics. President Maithripala Sirisena was part of the previous government, so he can’t point fingers. There are others in this government who were like him key members of that government. They don’t have the moral authority either. As for those who were then in the Opposition, well they also governed this country. They can’t complain about selectivity.
In any case, this government pledged to correct these wrongs. Their competence has been reduced to periodic laments about the legacy that the Rajapaksas bequeathed upon them. If, as key members of this regime whisper, the Rajapaksas have been condemned to the dustbin of history, it seems that this is a government of scavengers.
Forget the Opposition and its traditional role of criticizing anything and everything; there are people who supported President Sirisena and the United National Party who are using descriptives that actually echo the Opposition. They criticize the government for indecisiveness, vacillation and policy paralysis. That’s my fellow columnist Ranga Jayasuriya, by the way. In an article titled “Protests and strikes: What would MR have done if he was in power?” where he also throws in names such as Augusto Pinochet and Deng Xiaoping, Ranga argues that whether or not they are ideal types (in terms of being democrats) “leaders have to take tough decisions if they are to truly serve the long term interests of their people”. This side of white-vanning, he interjects.
Ranga proposes that where it is mandated [the Government] should make use of legitimate coercive power of the State to make its future vision for the country a reality. ‘Legitimate coercive power’ is a problematic term. From where is legitimacy obtained? What kind of legitimacy flows from mandates when one also uses terms such as policy paralysis, indecision and vacillation (to which of course we have to add incompetence and corruption)?
Gazetting the Development Lotteries Board under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is enough to stop all talk of competence. That word cannot be used to describe this Government any longer. Nepotism is thriving under this Government. There was a Facebook post recently that puts the issue of corruption in perspective: if you want to rob, go for the big bucks and make sure you tie a politician to your project. Big bucks were made in the Central Bank bond issue scam. Politicians are implicated. Good governance has been observed in the breach. Time and again.
If this is the case, what moral right does this government have to use coercion on anyone? Cracking down on protests has boiled down to political survival. Nothing else. Today there are protests to protest the use of force on protestors. We have seen discussions being followed by petitions and petitions being replaced by boycotting of lectures. There have been other discussions, more protests and a general escalation. When someone says ‘the students will have to resort to armed struggle’ it is not advocacy but a common-sense prediction. Of course the protestors are not gaining any moral high ground by breaking the law. They have damaged public property and they have intimidated journalists. These are and have to be read as signs of desperation and cannot be be pooh-poohed as international conspiracies, the result of incitement by those condemned to political dustbins and such.
What is worrying is the likelihood (given political history) that this is the one scenario that the government needs at this point, i.e. the ‘need’ to coerce. This is what the eighties were all about: the July 1980 strike and the crackdown on trade unions, the intimidation of the Opposition and rigging of two key elections in 1982, a look-the-other-way approach compounded by unleashing the union of the ruling party on Tamils in 1983, the shooting of two students in 1984 and other such moves sent agitation underground. When J R Jayewardene capitulated to Rajiv Gandhi is July 1987, the ideal conditions were created for an insurrection. That Government survived. The cost to the UNP was deadly, literally. And we know how the country and the citizens suffered.
The crisis here is legitimacy. That which took Mahinda Rajapaksa almost 10 years to lose, this Government started losing in the very first week after Maithripala Sirisena was elected President. The rate of losing ground increased before the much talked of ‘100 Days’ was over. The Government has two options. It must go before the people for a fresh mandate even in the form of the delayed local government elections. It can also talk of “legitimate coercive power of the state’. That however involves the acknowledgment that the good governance rhetoric was a cheap lie. Moreover, few will buy the ‘legitimacy’ claim.
We are at a critical political junction. There are vultures in the middle and vultures approaching the middle. No prizes for guessing the inevitable prey: the people.
Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer.
Blog: malindawords.blogspot.com. Twitter: malindasene.