An Open Letter to the New President from a citizen
It was Dr. N.M. Perera, the Sri Lankan politician I admire the most, who said in the 1970s that there were no resting places on the road to socialism. At this point in time, we do not have dreams of socialism; only a hope of democracy. Therefore let me say, there are no resting places on the road to democracy.
The masses that gathered around the common candidate against the Rajapaksa regime, consciously or unconsciously were demanding democracy. The presidential election split the country into two camps -- those who stood for democracy and those who wished to see dictatorship continue. But if we start celebrating now thinking that democracy has already been established we will only get on to the wrong track. Democracy needs to be gradually built up in Sri Lanka. It can only be done by educating the people and changing their mindset, starting with those who are on the winning side.
What the country now needs is a Mandela and not the kind of president we are used to having.
The country you are destined to lead has been pushed to the brink of the abyss, politically, culturally and economically. The Rajapaksa family rule spawned a soulless society where individuals were willing to shamelessly commit any dastardly act for the sake of power and self-interest. I am sure you are aware that many of the people who took advantage of the former regime have now flocked to your banner, thinking that this is a mere change of faces and nothing else.
From the very outset, it should be made clear to those who are expecting ministerial positions and appointments to government institutions that this is not a mere change of power. What is required is to have a small Cabinet of Ministers, who are given modest salaries and the essential requirements to carry out their duties, not to replace one set of faces with another.
Under the previous regime the country was a haven for people who were willing to set it alight with racism and communalism so as to preserve their power. The embers of the fires they lit are still smouldering. The hearts and minds of many people who voted for Mahinda Rajapaksa are filled with the toxic smoke from those fires. The only way to extinguish them is by offering a political solution to the ethnic problem in Sri Lanka, not by promising to uphold the unitary state. The unity of the country will be preserved only by enabling the minorities to live with dignity and self-respect. It cannot be postponed. I need not remind you that former President Chandrika Kumaratunga missed the opportunity to settle the ethnic issue by waiting too long.
Every state institution needs a structural change. Until experts from each area are summoned and their plans for restructuring are implemented no appointments should be made from the top.
Mahinda Rajapaksa had pushed the society to the brink of superstition and ignorance. Religious and media institutions in the country played along with the leader, feeding his feudal cravings. It is salutary to remember that those who ridiculed Rajapksa by mimicking his manipulation of the ‘charm ball’ were also wearing thick ‘pirith ropes’ which are no less a sign of superstition than the charm ball. Anybody has the right to wear ‘pirith nool’ but they should not be turned into a spectacle. Making religion a spiritual and not a political issue should be one of the priorities of democracy. The political leader’s visits to places of religious worship should be personal affairs, not media circuses.
The Rajapaksa regime’s election campaign was full of lies that misled the people. Propaganda that sows distrust among communities to garner the Sinhala Buddhist vote is inimical to the well-being of a pluralist society. The election result shows that these lies have had some impact. Unless the spreading of such lies is made an offence we will never be able to save the country from this idiotic and pernicious political culture. Therefore complaints such as the one brought against Tissa Attanayake for spreading a canard about a pact to divide the country should be carried through to the end.
Similarly, action should also be taken against those who abused the state media. If they are not punished they will be back to their old game under the new regime and the new generation of media personnel will emulate them.
The rule of law is as important as ideology to change the mindset of a people who have been used to feudal ways of thinking and values. Therefore, it is imperative that steps are taken immediately to ensure the independence of the judiciary, the police and the government service. Changing the electoral system that has corrupted our political culture is also a priority. Moreover, while implementing the 100-day programme of reform, steps also need to be taken to bring a new vision and direction in the field of culture. Here are a few suggestions:
The Departments of Culture, Education and Mass Media should be brought under one minister. One should not be hasty in replacing ‘Mahinda’s people’ with Maithri’s people’ (even though at the time of writing this, such appointments are likely to have been made). The important thing is to make structural changes that turn them into independent institutions.
The artistes and intellectuals who supported the Rajapksa regime bolstered dictatorship, not democracy. They should be allowed to defend their positions during public debates without letting them lie low or change sides.
The Arts Council (Kala Mandalaya) is an important cultural institution. Nominees for the Arts Council should be selected through a general assembly of artistes and writers. In the present context, this assembly should be chaired by a group of leading artistes -- comprising those who supported the common candidate such as -- Parakrama Niriella, Gamini Viyangoda, Sarath Wijesuriya, Dhramasiri Bandaranayake and Chandraguptha Thenuwara as well as of the people like Rohana Weerasinghe, Carlo Fonseka, Ravindra Randeniya, Malini Fonseka and Jackson Anthony who upheld the previous regime. Provisions must be made for converting the Arts Council into a full time agency and the nominees for drama, literature, cinema, music, etc. councils should also be appointed in the same manner (through an assembly of artistes from relevant fields).
The military should be removed from the Nelum Pokuna Theatre and its administration handed over to the Arts Council. The Nelum Pokuna Mawatha should revert to its former name, Ananda Coomaraswamy Mawatha.
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