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Why change is essential

13 January 2015 08:13 pm - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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This column would not have been published if Maithripala Sirisena didn’t win. I’m not saying that with any sense of irony or bitterness. It simply reflects the realities which governed us and our thinking under the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime. As it became clear who the winner was, my relief as a liberal writer and democratic citizen was huge. The  changes between today and yesterday are virtual rather than real and tangible, but they are seismic in magnitude.

No journalism, left, right or centre, is totally impartial. We are all biased by our personal politics and views on personal freedoms. I understand that not all journalists, politicians and citizens are pro-democratic. But constitutionally we are called a democratic republic and, since the election of Mahinda Rajapaksa as our president in 2006,  left increasingly wondering why that was so. The main thing, whether as writer, artist, politician, bureaucrat, lawmaker, soldier, monk or pawnbroker, is to grasp what is right and wrong, what is just and unjust, while holding on to our personal political views and utopias on how the world should be run. This was where most of our media, politicians, artistes and people in every   sphere failed during the tumultuous and agonisingly long Rajapaksa years.
When I read what I wrote last week, my own fears seem so absurd, even if my wording was mild. All I did was to state my reasons for not wanting Mahinda Rajapaksa to win a third term. But even that was made to look subversive by the  existing standard of ‘self censorship’. This is how the will of intelligent, reasoning people is broken; by instilling fear and guilt that the ruler is above criticism and sacrosanct and perfectly able to rule forever. I wasn’t broken, but there was nothing I could do about the ‘self censorship’ except, in case of another Rajapaksa term, to descend from intellectual subversion to a physical level, a painful and dangerous decision to make if you are in your element churning out words in front of a computer screen.

 

"But I’d still opt for change because I firmly believe that no individual should be the national leader of a country for three times running"
 


Happily, we have been spared from that worst case scenario by fate. The column which should have been published last week  now follows:
Change is at the heart of mental well-being. This is true of individual psychology as well as socio-political change. In other words, the possibility of change at the top is the best New Year gift I can think of.

If I trace my path as hopeful voter or disillusioned non-voter along the old calendars of our turbulent political history, many years were difficult and full of foreboding. But the past eight have been the toughest in memory because of my liberal views on everything from politics and art to sexual mores. This is not to forget the economic squeeze. But, keeping in mind what Samuel Johnson said about reaching a man’s heart through his stomach, we need freedom of expression to avoid being brain dead long before the physical functions cease.

 

"It’s all a question of perspective. Granted that one could not have written this column in Kim Il Sung’s North Korea even after his death, or in Myanmar till very recently. But our geo-political circumstances are different."



But I am at a point in my life when, even if Nostradamus comes back to tell me that re-electing Mahinda Rajapaksa for a third term will guarantee me a slashing of my home bills by half for the rest of my life, I would still vote for change, because neither man nor woman lives by rice and curry alone. The freedom in the air we breathe is more important if we are not to be intellectually stunted and to become a more backward country than we already are.

I am fully aware that I could have woken up on Jan. 9 with dashed hopes and wishing I was born in another country where leaders don’t try to win third terms in office because they know they won’t be allowed to, even though the moment for change is gaining momentum dramatically day by day. But, assuming that the promise of change is realised, I am ready to be disappointed on many of my fond hopes for full freedom of expression and a long-lasting restoration of liberal values in our politics and society.

But I’d still opt for change because I firmly believe that no individual should be the national leader of a country for three times running. It’s too much for anyone, leave alone someone politically obtuse like Mahinda Rajapaksa. Even Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the best and most humane president the United States has seen, had to forgo dreams of a third term, as did Hugo Chavez, the best-loved populist leader to emerge from Latin America.  A third term would have turned him into a despot.

I have often wondered what life must have been like (and what it must be like now) in countries where the same man has been in charge for a decade, sometimes for two, three or even four decades – Gen. Franco’s Spain, Stalin’s Soviet Union, Nicoale Caucescu’s Romania, Mao Tsetung’s China, Gen. Pinochet’s Chile, the Kim Il Sung family’s North Korea, the military junta’s Myanmar and Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.

These are dreadful examples. One could protest that today’s Sri Lanka can’t compare with any of the above. Just look at the new roads and impressive socio-economic data. Just look at the new cars on the roads and crowds at restaurants and shopping malls. But that criteria could apply (with the possible exception of the austere communist examples, where the gloss was reserved for the political and military elite) to every place where someone ruled with an iron hand till death or illness removed them from office. We have vociferous critics of this regime, but they all live under a dark cloud. Two have been killed, others assaulted (singer and activist Jayathilake Bandara being the latest victim), tortured and harassed, and no one knows who the next will be. That’s not exactly a thriving democracy with a freedom of expression.

It’s all a question of perspective. Granted that one could not have written this column in Kim Il Sung’s North Korea even after his death, or in Myanmar till very recently. But our geo-political circumstances are different. Though we have internationally become a  bad joke and a pseudo-pariah state, Sri Lanka is officially the head the Commonwealth. It has diplomatic ties with almost all countries in the world except North Korea and Israel. It still has the trappings of democracy in place, if only nominally. The fear was that the steady erosion of democratic values since 1972, gathering greater force since 2006, would have damaged the voter’s desire for freedom beyond repair. Events during the short span of one month since Maithripala Sirisena’s defection have proved otherwise.

Put another way, this column is the direct result of the ‘December spring’ we are currently experiencing. To work inside the straitjacket of ‘self-censorship’ imposed by the Rajapaksa regime has been nerve-wracking and humiliating. It’s not any comfort to say that journalists have always been strained by this self-censorship. The threat of doom and broken bones for stepping out of line has never been greater, except perhaps during those bleak years when the JVP and the Premadasa regime declared war on each other. The biggest irony is that it’s the English-medium mainstream media that the regime feared and  
focused on.

But it’s the vociferous Sinhala ‘marginal’ media which became the voice of freedom-loving artistes, writers and other ‘malcontents’ dismissed by the regime as too insignificant to count. But this could well be a classic case of a Sinhala-speaking David toppling Goliath. Mahinda Rajapaksa’s mistake was to assume that he could rule for a lifetime riding on his hero status. But the geopolitical realities which produced presidents-for-life could well be a thing of the past. People like Mugabe are relics of a past which cannot be repeated.

If Maithripala Sirisena wins this election, we won’t get utopia but we’ll hopefully  see a peaceful transition to a more democratic, law-abiding state with the losers allowed to take back seats gracefully without being thrown unlawfully in prison. If he loses and Rajapaksa gets a third term, we will see the greatest suppression of democratic freedoms seen in Sri Lanka since modern governance was introduced.

What we have here is an invisible force of people’s power rather than an ordered movement with cadres and recognizable faces and a structure. President Rajapaksa needn’t berate anyone that we don’t need an Arab spring here. The time, place and circumstances are different. A fair election will be seen as a substitute for an Arab spring, which happened in countries where there is no tradition of fair elections in living memory. But, if Rajapaksa wins and continues to suppress freedom with a vengeance, an Arab spring will come here like a tornado sooner or later.

This invisible people’s movement didn’t materialize like the genie in Aladdin lamp from nowhere. There was a small but courageous and vociferous group of artists, activists and writers who took great personal risks since the war’s end (and even before that) as strident critics of the Rajapaksa regime. The Sinhala newspaper Ravaya, in particular, played a signal role in this historic endeavour with contributors such as Gamini Viyangoda, Thisaranee Gunasekara (writing bi-lingually), Kusal Perera and Nuwan Udaya Wickremasinghe, Lasantha Ruhunage, Tiran Kumara Bangagamaarachchi and others, all of them living in Sri Lanka throughout this very difficult period.

Artistes such as Dharmasiri Bandarnaike, Jayathilake Bandara, Chandragupta Thenuwara and Parakrama Niriella as well a group representing the new generation have been in the front ranks of this protest wave. Veteran actress Deepani Silva’s You Tube plea,  and the passionate role played by the younger generation represented by Samanali Fonseka, Jagath Manuwarna, and others too, (while facing thugs) had a significant impact. In the English medium (excepting  the Sunday Leader during the Lasantha Wickrematunge-Frederica Jansz years), it’s the electronic media such as Lanka E News and the Lanka Guardian rather than the mainstream newspapers which carried this heroic burden, with contributors such as Dr. Paikiyasothi Saravanamuttu and many more.  Let’s hope their labour has not been in vain, and their travails  will not increase exponentially  after the ninth of January.

In any case, now that the ‘December Spring’ has exposed the regime’s bullying bluff, it will become harder to silence criticism and dissent with mere threats. As youth unrest mounts, another Sinhalese-Tamil rebellion will be inevitable, and that of course will be crushed by this regime with a ferocity which will make the Premadasa years look like a walk in the park. This doomsday forecast will happily never happen. It’s up to the voter.

And now, a few hours after Mahinda Rajapaksa made his exit from Temple Trees with dignity, instead of staging some ‘known devil’ fiasco, we can look back on the above passages with déjà vu. I personally could chastise myself for not being more courageous in the face of professional adversity. Living under a regime which can break your bones because of what you have written makes you face litmus tests of moral courage every day. All I can say is that I didn’t bring myself down to the level of defending a maniacal regime and its autocratic ruling family simply because they ended the war for us at a time when sycophancy became de rigeur. One Sinhala gossip magazine went so far as to have a picture of Gotabaya Rajapaksa on its cover with the title “An officer and a gentleman.” It’s sad, but that’s where many of our big name journalists ended, save for that courageous few who wrote to Ravaya, the electronic media and a handful of alternative publications. The new president, his prime minister and key advisers must treat us (I mean every citizen, not just the media) with respect, and earn ours in return. It’s sad but true. I have absolutely no respect whatsoever for the Rajapaksa family because of the way they contemptuously bullied and bulldozed us for ten intolerable years. Contempt can only earn contempt in return.

 
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