10th September 2000

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Focus on Rights

Hope or doom for new alliance?

By: Kishali Pinto Jayawardene

Peoples Movements throughout history have claimed to themselves definite powers in changing the tide of events. It is their strength that has succeeded where everything else has failed. Thus, through non political non partisan pressure, they have reformed corrupt governments and rejuvenated institutions such as the judiciary that hold the balance of power in curbing the excesses of politicians.

For the reasoning is simple but nevertheless powerful. Politicians, by virtue of their very being, cannot be expected to look out for the people. Though the basis of their political mandate is precisely to serve the people whom they govern, that ethic has long since been disproved. Given this reality, the crucial edge lies in the ability of strong and effective democratic forces to counter problematic political actions. Traditionally, this power lay not only in the hallowed hands of the judiciary but also those in "watchdog" roles such as the media and civil society leaders. Where these forces renege, become political or are co-opted into the system, the underlying structures of democracy itself break down.

We exhibit the most pitiable manifestation of this breakdown in recent times. Sri Lanka has now a name that ranks equally along with the worst trouble spots in the world. And the deterioration has come not only in terms of the actual war itself. On the contrary, the insidious displacing of our moral legitimacy as a people has been far more troubling. Witness thus the wholesale politicisation of our public administration, our police and finally our very ethos of living. And what hurts most of all is that all this has happened with the minimum of resistance, barring scholarly analyses that are limited to words on paper. Which says much, of course, for the quality of our people. Throughout the years, we have shown ourselves to be outraged, if at all, only in a reactive sense and not in a proactive sense. We are outraged only when we are provoked to the very limits as what happened, for example, in 1977 and in 1994. But these spontaneous eruptions of political rage are as far as it goes.

And there again, it is the choosing of one political force against the other. Throughout the years, this buffeting of the people from one set of rogues as opposed to the other has had all the trappings of a ball being haplessly tossed from one grasping hand to the other. We have miserably failed to create forces of accountability that consistently counter this buffeting process irrespective of whichever party is in power. And for this, history will hold not only our politicians but also our civil society leaders, our academics, our professionals and indeed, the entirety of the people in this country responsible. Assuredly, we get the governance or the misgovernance that we deserve.

Contrast thus the position in India. Interestingly, it was none other than President Chandrika Kumaratunga herself who thought it fit, this week, to comment on Indian "media morality" as opposed to the situation here. Her position was that media freedom is a must for democracy and what the country lacks today are media persons with a backbone who can stand up to their bosses in the state media or private media. This is, of course, rich coming from an executive who now rivals or even surpasses her predecessors in using state money to run media institutions that are sickeningly unashamed government propagandists. Not to mention the airy disregarding of recommendations of her own committees on redefining media structures and redressing some of the more obviously problematic media laws. And lesser said the better on the upcoming parliamentary elections being held under the cover of a media censorship on military information. But let us take President Kumaratunga's comparison with India beyond the media. India's vibrancy has been fashioned through a variety of forces including not only the media but her intellectuals, her professionals, her judiciary and her civil rights activists. Their collective strength has restrained India's politicians up to a certain point and vested her people with a strong sense of civic identity despite their teeming problems.

In contrast, this level of social consciousness is something that we, with all our resources and our much paraded literacy levels, have woefully failed to exhibit. Instead, we have proved to be past masters at the art of deceiving ourselves into asserting that nothing is really that wrong with the system, that things, in fact, could get a lot worse and that we are, even now, better off than many others in our neighbouring states. This is how we accept flawed election verdicts, increasing brutalisation of our society and the deifying of our politicians. Again, this is why we stand bye with nary a protest when city streets are terrorized during rush hour by vehicles filled with the screaming supporters of one political candidate or the other leaving the police helpless as what happened recently in Colombo. As a people therefore, we have succumbed most easily to a lamentably figleaf state of democracy, a mindset exploited to a fine art by all our politicians with the Peoples Alliance being no exception. One can only point to numerous recent examples, some of the most blatant being the now almost complete de-legitimisation of the Bribery and Corruption Commission, the attempts to throttle free expression and the increasingly sophisticated manipulation of the electoral and constitutional process. So much so that for the first time perhaps in all the electoral history of this country, the people will go to the polls this October with virtually no political choice in their hands.

And so we come back to the power of peoples movements to arrest subversions of the democratic spirit. It is here that this column has occasion to comment on an interesting development in this era when profound disillusionment holds sway. This is the formation of a mass campaign by the name of The Alliance for Democracy calling for the formation of a civilised society in Sri Lanka, with its most immediate objective aimed at a free and fair October election. Characterised by its membership, which commands a significant lobbying strength, it spans a broad range of trade unions and mass organisations including the GMOA, the Telecommunication Engineers Union, the Ceylon Bank Employees Union and the Post and Telecommunications Officers Union. Numbering 60 such lobbying groups in all, its inauguration this Monday will see the mass tying of yellow arm bands on the people to signify their desire for a violence free and corruption free election. Appropriately enough, this has been named as the "Swarna Bandhana" campaign. Organisers of the Alliance affirm that Monday's programme will be only the start of a country wide mobilisation extending beyond the coming elections. Importantly, no politician will be allowed membership in the organisation, though politicians will be urged to respect its objectives.

This last caveat is particularly vital given the history of popular movements in this country. Hijacked by one political force or the other at some stage, their influences have been shortlived. What happened to the Mothers Fronts in this country is one classic example. Modelled on the Association of Mothers and Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo in Argentina, mothers of the 'disappeared' in the South and in the North raised their voices for justice regarding the fate of their loved ones. Their lobbying power was effective but not for long. In the North, the LTTE patronised the agitation of the mothers against the state but became hostile when they called for peace. In the South, the Mothers Front was taken over by two front rankers of the then opposition with very clear political agendas. When the opposition succeeded to power in 1994, the movement collapsed with the mothers relegated to limbo.

Other alliances in the country have become inactive due to lack of sustaining power as was the fate of the Business Leaders Alliance not so long ago. For the Alliance for Democracy to defeat this unhappy legacy of non-political mass lobbying movements in this country will not be easy. Yet, the implementation of the "Swarna Bandhana" campaign promises some hope for the tired spirit of this country. One wishes it well.


The sabre-rattling has begun

By H. Chanda Dhamma

It's precisely one month to go for the general election and the race is on. The candidates are in the fray, the walls are plastered from end to end and sporadic reports of violence, climaxing with the occasional death have been the trend so far. But in as much as the campaign is concerned we are none the wiser as to who the ultimate victor will be.

In the process of pondering about the poll, spare a thought for Ranil Wickremesinghe. The UNP leader and former Prime Minister must be pardoned if his dreams these days are of himself occupying the Prime Minister's chair in the eleventh Parliament.

After all, there is a palpable anti-government swing in sentiment and the main issues facing the country- the war, the ethnic conflict and the burdensome economy- remain unsolved after six years of PA rule. Then there is bickering within the ranks of the PA, which is threatening to fissure the already fragile partnership.

The rot started when S. B. Dissanayake, a Johnny-come-lately in the SLFP decided to contest Maithripala Sirisena for the post of general secretary of the SLFP. SB won that election but created many enemies within the Party in the process.

Then, there was the no holds barred battle between Ministers A. H. M. Fowzie and M.H. M. Ashraff over the latter's idle boast that it was he who decides who governs Sri Lanka next. Minister Ashraff had his say and Mr. Fowzie had his way and it was left to President Chandrika Kumaratunga to eat humble pie, apologizing to the Muslim Congress leader in the process.

These are divisions the PA could right now do without. Then, in addition to these setbacks, the government had to rather belatedly offer a one thousand rupee wage hike to government employees- days after the UNP offered double that amount, in a feeble attempt to turn the tide.

The constitutional reforms, the issue which gave the opposition a new lease of life and definitely alienated sizeable sections of the majority community away from the PA, is still in limbo with the presence of the likes of Dinesh Gunewardena and M. H. M. Ashraff in the same camp raising more questions than answers and acting as a deterrent against the on-the-fence voter deciding in favour of the Alliance. Then, the sporadic reports of violence that are emerging are mostly unfavourable to the ruling party, only giving credibility to the theory that the PA will win the poll by hook or by crook- or 'hondin beri nam narakin'- as one minister put it rather boldly.

That the PA is pressing the panic buttons is evident in their latest gambit- the launch of a military operation in the north for the first time since the debacle of Elephant Pass. President Kumaratunga seems to believe the Margaret Thatcher philosophy vis-à-vis Falklands-'win a war and win an election'.

But the President must know that she treads on political quicksand here: war, especially with Velupillai Prabhakaran is a double edged sword- if the advantage is conceded to the Tamil Tigers, the election will be as good as lost because there is a limit to which a censorship can conceal military losses.

But the government's real weakness in its fight against the UNP is on display only in the Batalanda saga- the attempt to implicate Ranil Wickremesinghe with the torture of youth in the late eighties. The latest episode of this drama involves the arrest of Bodhi Ranasinghe the well known Man Friday of the UNP.

This amiable factotum of the UNP leader had left for Hong Kong on a pre-planned visit. It just happened that the government decided to announce the contents of Senior Superintendent of Police Douglas Peiris' affidavit on Batalanda implicating Bodhi Ranasinghe, Mohomed Maharoof (the UNP organiser for Colombo Central) and Milinda Moragoda (the UNP organiser for Colombo East).

Upon Mr. Ranasinghe's return last Sunday night aboard a Singapore Airlines flight to Colombo he was arrested at the Airport and produced before the Negombo Magistrate the following morning. The UNP's legal eagle K. N. Choksy- who earned a commendation from none other than President Kumaratunga for his contribution to the draft constitution- made submissions before the Magistrate.

His argument was that Bodhi Ranasinghe was still only a 'suspect' and not an 'accused' and that the only shred of evidence against him was an affidavit of a person who was not even in court, nor ever produced before a Magistrate.

Mr. Choksy asked why the CID has not investigated the truth of the affidavit made by SSP Peiris. He further submitted that the ex-cop was brought to Colombo from Chennai by the CID on a false passport and therefore the CID officer, Inspector Linton who accompanied Douglas Peiris should also be produced in court.

The Magistrate wanted a day to "think it over" and the next day gave an order to the effect that while he agreed he had the discretionary powers to grant bail, he was refusing bail due to the complicated nature of the case. He however directed that Mr. Ranasinghe be entered to a private hospital.

With Bodhi Ranasinghe out of the picture for the moment the UNP's Colombo campaign has got somewhat de-railed. Already the party media unit's telephone bills had been left unpaid and the telephones were disconnected this week. Another early casualty of Mr. Ranasinghe's absence was Milinda Moragoda, his employer. His much-heralded push to enter Parliament by contesting a seat was put paid to with 'General' Ranasinghe being detained.

Mr. Moragoda, who, some believe, is the UNP leader's financial advisor had also just been questioned for allegedly obtaining a false passport for Mr. Peiris. He then told his party leader that he now couldn't face elections- and despite his face appearing on city walls- scrambled into the national list, possibly his preferred option.

'General' Ranasinghe in the meantime had to face the music. A hotelier by profession who once helped Chandrika Bandaranaike run her 'Araliya' restaurant in Horagolla, found himself at a private hospital in Colombo, quite amused that for the first time in his life he had armed bodyguards to look after him. The drama that took place at Welikada before that is best left to Mr. Ranasinghe himself to write in his memoirs!

So, all the Queen's men and all the queens Pajeros have now been placed on what it seems is a do-or-die propaganda blitz on Batalanda and the allegations against the UNP leader on how certain suspects were dealt with during the 1989-90 'beeshana samaya'.

But, to what effect is the question. Batalanda is passe and hardly likely to be an issue at the forthcoming elections. Probably more of an issue-if the government is desperate- would be Mr. Wickremesinghe's connection- or alleged connections- with the LTTE, something that the state propagandists are repeating ad nauseum day in and night out! The UNP meanwhile in a rare show of aggression has tried to match this accusation with an accusation that the President has omitted two Sinhala Buddhist stalwarts of the SLFP, former Speaker K. B. Ratnayake and former Cultural Affairs Minister Lakshman Jayakody from her National List but included A. Varatharajah Perumal.

Mr. Perumal was formerly the Chief Minister of the North and East provinces who once declared a Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) in that province and was a puppet of India's external Intelligence Agency RAW which in fact funded his near five year exile in Rajasthan in India until his return earlier this year to support President Kumaratunga.The shock omission of party elders Mr. Jayakody and Mr. Ratnayake from the SLFP national list sparked off a furore at electoral level in Anuradhapura and Divulapitiya. Indeed, some SLFPers feel that the gang of four- Kumaratunga, S. B. Dissanayake, Mangala Samaraweera and Mahinda Wijesekera are slowly but surely purging the 'old' SLFP and that this is only the beginning.

These then are the minus factors for the PA. But, there is another side to the coin- a side that the ruling party fervently hopes will carry the day for the Alliance. Just consider the advantages of being the caretaker government. The state machinery is available for use, the Police looks upon the ruling party favourably and takes orders only from them, the government can offer concessions to the voters instantly and the state-run media is readily available. Then there is the tendency of the Sri Lankan voter to go with the winner- no general election (or Referendum, as in 1982) has been won by a party which lost the presidential election and indeed majorities were only enhanced during the later poll.

Also, there is the considerable charisma of President Kumaratunga though the impact of that will be less in this poll given the local flavour of the election. Even then, it is probably the most potent weapon in the PA armoury still has against the rather businesslike approach of UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. But, to be fair by the Opposition Leader, he is improving rapidly.

But political pundits, especially in neighbouring India, are speculating in their columns on what might happen if the PA fails to obtain an overall majority in the poll. Mr. Wickremesinghe has said he hopes President Kumaratunga will co-operate but declares that if she doesn't he could force her to.

The sabre-rattling then has already begun. The logic of numbers, popular sentiment and the electoral system are all poised to throw up a situation where, for the first time in Sri Lanka's history- barring the brief period of the Premadasa Impeachment- the executive and legislature are on a collision course. But commonsense also suggests that with S. B. Dissanayake in the driver's seat for the PA, he might try his level best to avoid that collision- and steer the PA through, perhaps knocking down a few democratic signposts in the process.

But if the collision is unavoidable, it will be democracy at its best. But then, this is Sri Lanka so in the end it might turn out to be politics of the worst kind- a foretaste of which we saw during the constitutional reforms debate only a month ago!

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