Thursday, June 4, 2009

Take the party where it's not been before.

Watching all the pomp and revelry on display in Colombo recently, I am taken aback by how one can get cought up in all the euphoria while a large part of the country lies in ruin with hundreds of thousands of people in genuine agony. I have always admired the resilience of the Sri Lankan people and that indomitable spirit, that good humour always on display through all the bombs and checkpoints and incessant barrage of bad news. But I wonder if the pageantry in Colombo is food for our battered souls or just a gimmick of politicians to keep us distracted. Something to mask the challenges ahead. Does Colombo really need a military parade? Do our soldiers want to be prancing around the streets of Colombo or are they just putting up a good show because the powers that be ordered them to? I think what Colombo, and those who call the shots in Sri Lanka from the safety of it, really needs now is some perspective.

When I read this article about a 16 year old Tamil girl who was abducted on the 14th of March to be canon fodder in the last stand of the LTTE, I was struck by how very different our lives were though we are both Sri Lankans living just a few hundred miles apart. As I tried to imagine her being dragged from her home screaming for help, I wondered where I might have been that day. I don't recall for sure, but it's probably a safe bet that on March 14th, being a Saturday, my friends and I were enjoying ourselves somewhere idyllic in Colombo. "Life must go on.." we say and get on with it when carnage and mayhem disrupts our daily lives once in a while in Colombo, but I think some perspective is in order when the north is in ruins and we in the south celebrate in the way we were always capable of celebrating.

Colombo is a happening place. Maybe it is not the regional hub it might have been had there been no war. It certainly is not as developed as it should have been had Sri Lanka not set itself back decades by that short sighted 'Sinhala Only' move and it's ill effects. But regardless of all this, Colombo is a party town. People have fun here. The residents go out at night without worrying about what will happen to them (unless they are journalists).

Children go to school in their thousands each day here. You would probably never see as high a concentration of school uniforms as at 7 am or so on the streets of Colombo. At the end of the school day these children spill out on to the streets again and go home. Children skip school for all sorts of reasons here, but no one stays home in fear of forced conscription. No parent in Colombo worries that a child who is late to return home might have been abducted by a terrorist organization.

When my husband woke me up the day Prabhakaran died and said "Wake up. You are no longer terrorized", perhaps it was my subconscious that replied "I was never terrorized".

But having read that article and the many others slowly filtering out from previously inaccessible places and filled with accounts from those who endured the real horrors of this war, I know what I mumbled that morning is true. It also explains why I cannot bring myself to celebrate and why I am embarrassed by the parades taking place in Colombo. Don't get me wrong. I am a child of '83. It is true I have only known a Sri Lanka at war and now I look forward to what Sri Lanka can be in peace. I too feel the pride of having crushed this ruthless terrorist organization. In some fleeting moments, I too feel like roaming the streets draped in the beautiful Lion Flag. But I also look back and have to admit that this ‘victory’ will not change much in my life.

The war never hampered the great education I got in Colombo. I have lost no brother, no father and no friends either to terrorist bombs or bullets on the battlefields. It is true I have been lucky - the terror threat was very real- but my story is also the story of many many people in Colombo. I have not had to watch my husband go away to war not knowing if he'll return while also knowing that is the 'best' way he could support a family. Mine is not the town with almost every other street named after a fallen soldier. I have seen those towns too, they are far from Colombo and we 'Colombo people' only travel through them on en route to our preferred holiday spots.

I am embarrassed by the celebrations in Colombo because I wonder how this party is different to all the other celebrations that take place here. What are we celebrating? Are we celebrating because those far off places that feed the army will stop receiving flag draped coffins (the coffins that are collected and sent in 'village groups' to save costs)? Are we celebrating because our countrymen in the north no longer have to endure horrors we in The South would find hard to even imagine? Are we celebrating because we thought of the war and those dying in it every single day and now we can stop? Or are we yet again playing into the schemes of the politicians: isn’t this euphoria just a mask to hide the real problems we are faced with? What happens now to the displaced people? Will we ever really know how many people paid for this peace with their lives? I don’t just mean the civilians. Will we finally be told how many were lost from our armed forces? And what about rehabilitation? What about compensation for disabled war veterans and the families of those that fell? When will the IDP’s go ‘home’? The challenges are as real as the horrors that preceded them and more than enough to exhaust the resources of a powerful and prosperous nation supported by an economy more robust than ours. So how will Sri Lanka surmount them? Is there a politician who can tell us how it will be done? I would much rather hear about a rehabilitation plan than see so many resources expended on dragging out our surely exhausted troops for a pageant.

While being relieved that the war is over, I cannot bring myself to celebrate because the people who have real cause to celebrate cannot. They have problems that are not solved yet. The people who were oppressed and traumatized by the LTTE are still not free to live their lives as they wish. They have lost everything they ever had in this world. Many have never received an education. Their families are in tatters. They have no homes to return to. They have real physical and psychological traumas that may never heal. Not just the trauma of wondering if the bus one just boarded will end it's journey in smithereens (a threat that is now, alas, almost universal). That fear was, no doubt, a real enough trauma but I can't help but feel the celebrations in Colombo demonstrate a lack of perspective. The people who lost family members in the armed forces or in terrorist attacks are probably not celebrating but wondering why this day could not have come soon enough to have spared their loved ones. Why were there parades but no day of national mourning for all those who lost so much?

Perhaps I cannot celebrate this victory because all I have personally lost in this war, my right to free speech, still remains lost. Silently watching while my nation's democratic ideals were trampled in the war effort is the only tragedy I observed and endured. The biggest shock I have suffered lately was hearing of Lasantha Wickrematunge's murder. No, not just that a journalist of his stature could be killed in broad daylight (and no one brought to book) but also later hearing ordinary people talk about it as if it was an expected occurrence and nothing to be shocked about. I wept for my country that day. So maybe I'll celebrate when the day comes that I don't feel the need to use a pseudonym. But in the meantime, if there must be a celebration, take it north. At least there, it might be a spectacle they haven’t seen before.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Need for a Viable Opposition Grows Stronger: Mr. Wickremasinghe Must Go. Quickly.

The Executive and Legislative branches of government, an independent judiciary and a free media are traditionally considered the four pillars of a democracy. But in a country such as Sri Lanka where the judiciary and media are under attack, a fifth pillar becomes vital to democracy's survival. This fifth pillar made up of a strong opposition was never more needed than today as Sri Lanka stands at a crossroads following the cataclysmic end of a long drawn out civil war. Alarmingly, this fifth pillar embodied by the opposition United National Party appears to be crumbling under the weight of its own resistance to change. Judging by its lackadaisical response to recent events, the UNP has declared itself as irrelevant as it has indeed become.

In the days following the military victory announced by the Government of President Mahinda Rajapakse on May 17, 2009 a notable absentee from the fire-cracker-smoke engulfed capital Colombo has been opposition leader Ranil Wickremasinghe. When last heard of, he was on a visit to Norway to address human rights abuses in Sri Lanka. As one of the Tokyo Co-Chairs group of major donors Norway is important to Sri Lanka and perhaps it was only Norway that would lend him an ear (unlikely scenario considering the UK, France and the US have been clamouring for a chance at intervention in the war zone) but this visit was never going to help Mr. Wickremasinghe’s badly damaged image at home. Due to its leadership of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission, which many Sri Lankans believe largely turned a blind eye on ceasefire violations by the LTTE, no foreign nation is more reviled by ordinary Sri Lankans than Norway. Yet, to add political suicide to what might otherwise have been a fairly innocuous foreign visit, Mr. Wickremasinghe is yet to return to the island. Nor has he thought it fit to issue a statement (no difficult task in this technological age) on the historic events playing out in his absence.

His party, in the meantime, managed to cobble together a nearly incoherent statement harping on the past and issued two whole days after Mr. Rajapakse’s victorious address from Jordan (where he had been attending a World Economic Forum). This statement, issued through the UNP’s nearly septuagenarian deputy leader Karu Jayasuriya, set forth no clear ideas regarding how the UNP would help rebuild this fractured nation. The UNP appears in dire need of new leadership and a new message.

Mr. Wickremasinghe was never a man seen as one with the masses of Sri Lanka. With his rarefied upbringing and interests (a member of Colombo’s wealthy elite, he is an avid opera lover with a media collection that sometimes includes over ten different productions of a single opera) it is easier to imagine him at one with the people of Europe than of Sri Lanka. Indeed, Sri Lanka’s unease with him (exacerbated by his alleged links to the violent suppression of youth movements in the 1980s) has been illustrated by many an election loss and has caused members of his own party to clamour for his resignation for years. The highly able and widely respected Mr. Jayasuriya long seemed a viable alternative but he has been made to languish in the wings for over a decade until he is now too long in the tooth. He will be nearing 80 when Mr. Rajapakse, who few doubt will secure a second term as president having delivered what none before him managed, is ready to pass the baton.

But hope remains. There are signs that the UNP is not blind to its own decay. It recently attempted a makeover by enlisting into its membership Rosie Senanayake, a former Mrs. World and talk show host and other more youthful members. But alas, the UNP remains an aging Old Boys Club dominated by Colombo’s old money and it is going to need more than one beauty queen to change it’s image. A makeover requires more than a pedicure to effect a real change and the UNP must start with a face lift - it must change from the top. It is imperative that Mr. Wickremasinghe is shown the door or hauled out of it if he won’t go quietly. There is talent in the UNP ranks able to present the blossoming Rajapakse dynasty with a real challenge when the time or need arises. However loathed I am to further the dynastic nature of Sri Lanka’s politics Sajith Premadasa, the son of late President Ranasinghe Premadasa, awaits his chance and appears a man who might succeed where Mr. Wickremasinghe so resoundingly failed.

Sri Lanka stands at a crossroads with the war won but also with the democracy under siege. Its judiciary is intimidated and the independent media and its champions silenced (permanently in some cases). Political goons hold sway in Colombo and not even journalists dare speak their minds. The loudest voices on the political scene come from the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna and the Jaathika Hela Urumaya, two parties driven by Sinhala chauvinism – a dangerous development at a time that calls for national reconciliation. While Mr. Rajapakse’s star rises and Mr. Wickremasinghe grows more and more reviled, Sri Lanka is in danger of replacing the northern cult of Prabhakaran with the southern cult of Rajapakse. Not a healthy prospect for a democracy however deserving Mr. Rajapakse may be of the adulation. Now more than ever a strong opposition is needed to keep the country in balance. Maintaining as leader the man who lead the party to just one solitary election victory (and 7 defeats) in nearly two decades is not the way to ensure strength. Moreover, with or without Mr. Wickremasinghe, the UNP will lose the next parliamentary election and most likely the next presidential one as well. If the UNP is to mount a challenge thereafter, it must let new leaders cut their teeth in the campaign process. And they must chose new leaders with a feel for the pulse of the electorate that the charismatic Mr. Rajapakse seems to understand so well. The traditional UNP vote base longer seems enough to carry them to victory. It would also help to let people know what exactly the UNP now stands for.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

70,000 Votes Too Many: Why Sri Lankans Deserve Their Corrupt Politicians

Upon my return to Sri Lanka in mid February, I was assailed by a piece of news that has left me with a bee in my bonnet that has not budged in the month that has passed since. Not merely I but friends and relatives all appear to have been united by the feeling of disgust upon hearing that Lohan Ratwatte, son of former deputy defence minister Anuruddha Ratwatte and cousin to former President Chandrika Bandaranayake, has been elected to a provincial council seat.

Lohan Ratwatte received 70,372 votes, was placed third in the preferential votes, and is now the newest UPFA member of the Central Provincial Council. To give the people of the Central Province a measure of respect they, at this point, don’t appear to deserve, let us assume that the Ratwattes who are adept at ballot box stuffing rigged this to some extent. Let us be still more generous and discount the large extended Ratwatte clan and its cronies that must make up a sizeable number of people in the environs of Kandy. Even after the most generous concessions are made it pains me to think that at least 30,000 people must have voted for this man. Is Sri Lanka so entrenched in feudal style politics that the Ratwatte name (an extension of the Bandaranayake name) is enough to carry a mass murderer to success?

Lohan Ratwatte has been accused of multiple counts of voter intimidation, thuggery, ballot rigging and murder. The most serious of the charges levelled against him is his involvement in the cold blooded murder of ten muslim youths belonging to an opposing party in Udathalawinna, near Kandy, in 2001. He was also the chief accused in the murder of Joel Pera, the rugby coach who was brutally gunned down in Colombo. He is of course not alone in such infamy among the Ratwattes with both his brothers, Mahen and Chanuka, also accused of various misdemeanours and felonies including murder. If nothing else, one must judge the man by the company he keeps.

So what exactly were the people in the Central Province thinking of when they cast, in their thousands, votes for this criminal (the fact that he was never convicted in the Udathalawinna case is immaterial – what else is to be expected after the multiple disappearances of witnesses, strong armed removal/transfer of investigating policemen who executed their duties too thoroughly, assaults on investigative journalists, intimidation of magistrates etc. etc.)? Were they merely signalling their support of the UPFA government led by President Mahinda Rajapakse? If this were the case, did they still not think it appropriate to indicate displeasure at this most offensive of candidate choices, which must reflect poor judgement or a lack of principles in our Commander-in-chief who is reported to have invited Lohan to contest the election?

This particular election victory, if nothing else, drives home that the people of Sri Lanka deserve the corrupt politicians they are sometimes saddled with. Our people, however well educated the general public is and regardless of our exemplary standards of literacy, do not seem to understand that a vote is for selecting people capable of public service. Instead we have chosen the self-serving riffraff who govern us and curtail our freedoms with impunity. The Mervyn Silvas, the S.B. Dissanayakes, the Lohan Ratwattes of Sri Lanka are all of our own making. They are nothing without our votes. It is we who aid and abet their crimes by empowering them. Collective guilt is a term aptly applied to us all who vote to enable the rape of our motherland by these goons. We all have blood on our hands even if those hands have never done more than place a cross on a ballot sheet.