BY ROYDEN D’SOUZA
The swan is deeply symbolic for Sri Lankans. Sinhalese craftsmen building the Buddhist temple in the ancient kingdom of Anuradhapuram (which had the greatest monastic city of the ancient world, dating back to the 5th century BC), carved a procession of swans into the semi-circular moon-stone leading to the entrance of the temple. The swans carved into the ‘sandakada pahana’ or moon-stone symbolise the distinction between good and bad.
It is a similar, basic, essential difference that Maithripala Sirisena seeks to symbolise, as he heads into a face-off with President Mahinda Rajapaksa in the Presidential election on the 8th of January, 2015.
Sirisena is a man of humble origins, with a rural, farming background, who served the incumbent President’s SLFP for 47 years, till he resigned as party general secretary on the 20th of November. This barely 24 hours after Mahinda Rajapaksa announced a snap election for the Presidency, at the astrologically designated hour.
Those 24 hours in between, gave birth to new possibilities in Sri Lankan politics where none appeared to exist.
The war ended in 2009, but President Rajapaksa was still a national hero. He was still the man who freed his country from decades of misery. Yes, there were murmurs of dissatisfaction about corruption, the huge gap between the rich and poor. Worse still, allegations of autocratic rule and the tyranny of the President’s coterie. But there was none that stood as tall as Mahinda. None to better represent Sinhala pride.
Former Sri Lankan Army chief, General Sarath Fonseka learnt a bitter lesson in the 2010 Presidential election. In a face-off between war heroes, he found himself politically outgunned, and then militarily cornered in a Colombo hotel with only a few of his ‘good men’ by his side.
Five years have passed. Sri Lanka has moved on. Political discourse has shifted its focus and issues of everyday life are largely what remain in the sieve of democracy. Sri Lanka finds itself at the crossroads, yet again. Only this time, it’s a democratic battle between what is being perceived as being good, versus being evil.
Millions being thrown at influential leaders from the government – if political whispers are to be believed – may have succeeded in stemming the gush of rebels breaking government ranks in the week after Sirisena’s coming out parade. The revenge crossover of Tissa Attanayake – general secretary of the UNP – engineered allegedly by no less than President Rajapaksa himself, may have soothed many a frayed nerve in the government. But with the window for nominations having closed, the focus is back on rebellion in both ranks.
The manner in which varied political interests continue to agglomerate around the political seed that Sirisena represents is fascinating. The Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), or the monks’ party, which was the first to snap ties with the government, has sought and secured the moral high ground by seeking a better and more equitable democracy for all Sri Lankans. With influential monks in the deeply Buddhist Sri Lankan society now willing to campaign for Sirisena in urban and rural areas, they will play an important role in consensus building.
The UNP – if it manages to keep its rank and file united– will bring in important urban, business class and minority votes. The quid pro quo being that Ranil Wickremasinghe be made Prime Minister, once Sirisena abolishes the Executive Presidency on being elected President. Differences and personal ambition saw the New Democratic Front (NDF) crack and wither in 2010, leading to a final-lap dip in fortunes for then-challenger Sarath Fonseka. But this time, as MP Karu Jayasuriya describes it: “We have come together as one, putting aside our personal interests, to fight for a better future for Sri Lanka.” Interestingly, right up till the announcement by Sirisena of his candidature for the common opposition, Karu Jayasuriya was himself – and admittedly so – one of the frontrunners to take on President Rajapaksa in the Presidential race.
The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) appear amenable to change. The SLMC – though still with the government – cannot afford to ignore the widespread anger among Sri Lankan Muslims over attacks allegedly by the Buddhist extremist Bodu Bala Sena. The Muslim community is unhappy with President Rajapaksa for having failed to crack down on the BBS, despite repeated attacks, and SLMC leaders in private are seething with anger.
Together with former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga – who appears intent on bouncing back from being written off as a political force – and the JHU’s Venerable Sobitha Thera, Karu Jayasuriya is serving to add much political gravitas and earnestness to Sirisena’s campaign.
Maithripala Sirisena’s move has so far proved to be far more devastating than a simple political rebellion. It has hit hard at the core of the United People’s Freedom Alliance’s and the President’s election plans, for the following reasons:
- It has completely transformed the political narrative from a jingoistic, nationalist Sinhala majority versus the Tamil minority (and diaspora) into one of economic development, unequal growth, corruption and accountability. So much so, that conspiracies floated by the President’s circles about this being a conspiracy by the Tamil diaspora, etc to target him over so-called war crimes, are not impacting voters.
- It has effectively divided the Sinhala vote along economic and social lines.
- The political baggage of the war has been largely left behind. Life has moved on and issues of everyday life, like cost of living, employment, corruption, etc are what people are really concerned about.
- The debate over how to better the lives of the average Sri Lankan and how to improve the image of the country has brought political allies of the President, like the JHU and SLMC closer to the Opposition. The challenge now lies in getting them together on a united and stable platform that can propel Maithripala Sirisena to victory in this Presidential election.
- In Maithripala Sirisena, the rural masses and even the have-nots in urban areas have found a rallying point of focus.
- The overwhelming view about Maithripala is that “he is a good man”, whereas there are very strong undertones of distrust and dissatisfaction with the functioning of the government – even if President Rajapaksa is still seen as the man that rid the country of the LTTE, and a symbol of Sinhala pride.
Interesting things have been happening in Sri Lanka, ever since Sirisena’s rebellion. More often than not, they have revealed more than intended about the mood in both camps.
Take for example the grand show put on by President Rajapaksa at a ceremony organised to return gold jewellery recovered from the possession of the LTTE to their rightful owners amongst Sri Lankan Tamils. Or the grand announcement made by opposition candidate Maithripala Sirisena that he would ensure President Rajapaksa is not handed over to any foreign court or country to face a trial for war crimes, were he to lose the election. Although, this was perhaps more a repartee to the government’s accusation that Maithripala’s rebellion was a devious plot hatched by the Tamil diaspora and certain Western interests.
Mostly though, the President has so far come across as playing catch-up. Faced with growing criticism over the Executive Presidency, Mahinda Rajapaksa had to own up to ‘imperfect governance’, promising to do away with the perpetual Presidency in his next term. His latest copy-cat move being offering concessions and aid to kidney patients, after Sirisena set up an aid fund.
Then there’s been the grand wooing of Sri Lankan Tamils with the return of ‘stolen gold jewellery’ and ‘illegally occupied land’, but no real promise of any real change on the ground. No forward movement on tracking down thousands of disappeared persons, or accountability for war crimes. With a consolidated vote bank of over 5.5 million voters, the Tamil National Alliance is sitting pretty waiting to see who woos them better in this election.
And so, while Maithripala Sirisena promises to symbolically lift his countrymen out of the cycle of decaying democracy, there are still many shades of grey that remain.
(Royden D’Souza is a new media professional and he is also a Guest Blogger with Canary Trap)