uring his first year in office, President Maithripala Sirisena sailed a perfect, politically-correct political voyage. He struck a contrast not only from his predecessor, but also from many other political strongmen (and women) currently ruling the roost in the developing world. To a greater degree, he eschewed aggrandizement of power and trappings of an executive presidency. He publicly announced in his inauguration not to seek a re-election and oversaw the clipping of excessive powers of his own office through the passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. None of his predecessors could match his feat.
Since power breeds desire for the absolute power, Sri Lankan politics has for long been a victim of power maximizing manoeuvrings of its self- interested politicians. President Sirisena’s immediate predecessor was the epitome of that crude exercise, but, from first Prime Minister D. S. Senanayake, whose administration disenfranchised Tamils of Indian Origin in order fend off an electoral challenge from left parties, Sri Lanka is awash with such individuals.
For whatever reasons, President Sirisena opted not to tread that path. Therefore, it is a shame that as he concludes his first year in the office, he shot himself on the foot at a meeting in the agrarian town of Ampara, where he resorted to a common place village expression that the organizers of a recent musical concert in Colombo ought to be ‘whipped with a stingray tail’. He mentioned an incident of a woman throwing a bra at the stage and also complained about the high-priced tickets. Inadvertently, he caused the perfect media storm. Cartoonists lampooned him, social media lambasted him. One of his own ministers came to his defence to say that the President did not seek a ban on foreign artistes. The media sensation over President’s remarks is self-explanatory. In the first place, the whole incident is what would make a ‘sexy’ news: a female fan tossing her undergarment and the Head of the State thinking that it was worth commenting on. But, there is a second reason; perhaps, there had been no other strong enough context to pick on the President. He has not sacked a Chief Justice because she gave rulings against his wish, or endorsed white vans as an official policy, intimidated media, civil society and family members of disappeared Tamil youth with military intelligence operatives or appointed his entire extended family and their cronies to the foreign service.
"Since power breeds desire for the absolute power, Sri Lankan politics has for long been a victim of power maximizing manoeuvrings of its self- interested politicians. President Sirisena’s immediate predecessor was the epitome of that crude exercise"
Also, when the President became the object of lampooning, editors did not receive threatening phone calls from the President’s Office nor were media owners were told to tone down the coverage or risk repercussions. Cartoonists were not given white van rides. The BBS did not come forward (with the tacit approval from the powers that be) to wage a cultural crusade against western cultural influence and to incite nationalist support for the President’s remarks. The woman that threw her undergarments did not receive death threats. BBC that first reported the remarks on ‘whipping with a stingray tail’, which was later republished worldwide (perhaps because the expression was so colloquial that local media did not find anything interesting in it at first sight) was not given marching orders. But, all of that could have happened a year ago. That is the major contrast between the incumbent President and his predecessor. In a way, what transpired since his remarks on the bra tossing is microscopic of the political transformation that Sri Lanka had been through since January 8, last year.
That change is remarkable and was unimaginable one year ago. Not many countries in the world increasingly beset by violence and undemocratic governments can claim for that record.
Momentary idiosyncrasies of the new government (And this time of the President) cannot dampen the profound positive impact of that transformation. Again, there is a clear difference: Such idiosyncrasies, be they amending the budget proposals for the umpteenth time or addressing local villagers with an expression they are familiar with are way less dangerous than the well calibrated sinister manoeuvrings of the former regime. They are less frightening than broad-day light abductions, extra-judiciary killings and turning a respected judiciary into a kangaroo court.
For the first year of the presidency of Mr. Sirisena, that judiciary has regained its independence. The arbitrariness of the political powers has been reined. Old habits die hard, so the politicians and their cronies could well indulge in thuggery, nepotism and other less salubrious deeds, but the police are free to hound them, unlike in the past. Independent Commissions have been reinvigorated, if they fail in indicting the corrupt doers of the former regime, they would at least have a restraining effect on the holders of the current administration. For the first time in recent memory, a bipartisan reconciliation effort is currently underway. Tamils feel freer today and share a sense of being stakeholders of the State. Self-serving nationalism is kept at bay, primarily because the new government refused to patronize those elements. (The President himself asked his predecessor not to incite ethnic passions to win votes).
In the highly polarized Sri Lankan politics, no good things can happen easily. If the President is held back by the rent-seeking elements of his own party, who are being led by his own predecessor, the TNA leadership which struck a conciliatory note has been hamstrung by fringe elements within the Tamil community led by one time respected jurist and the Northern Chief Minister C.Vigneshwaran. Again, that there is a collective effort by both sides to navigate away from petty ‘ethnic bidding’ that characterized Sri Lankan politics in the past is a pleasant contrast. The former regime is distinguished by the absence of any genuine commitment.
"Tamils feel freer today and share a sense of being stakeholders of the State. Self-serving nationalism is kept at bay, primarily because the new government refused to patronize those elements"
If domestic politics is becoming more democratic and pluralistic, Sri Lanka has garnered international recognition for those positive changes. Foreign policy muddle has been sorted out. Diplomatic isolation in the free world has ended. Democracies from India to Japan and the USA are willing to be seen with us. Such a rapport, if correctly managed, would bring far reaching economic benefits in the future.
Again, none of that could have been possible if the election went the other way on January 8 last year. If that were the case, we would still be living under the shadow of white vans, officially sanctioned extra judiciary killings, suffocated media and a kangaroo court to hear our grievances. It is in this context, that the difference between the incumbent government and its predecessor looms large. Even with its mild idiosyncrasies, “Yahapalanaya” is indefinitely better than its predecessor. One would hope it would retain that qualitative edge.
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