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Pride with a difference

by Dr. Radhika Coomaraswamy

- on 01/14/2015

There are times in ones life when one

becomes very proud of ones country. For many it is when we win in cricket
or in war. This is triumphant pride where we defeat someone else- an
external sports team or an internal enemy. For this kind of pride we need
an other whom we compete against or dislike without restraint. It is a
mixed blessing, filled with pride, but especially in the latter case also fear
and hate.
However there are times when pride can transcend the obsession with the
other. In Sri Lanka it could be when we are immersed in its astounding
natural beauty or when we live up to our own values and expectations. For
me the elections last week were a very important moment- at least for my
own personal connection to this island.
Democracy in Sri Lanka had taken a bashing for decades but especially
since 2009. We saw things that were absolutely surreal- like something out

of a bad Fellini film. And yet we were constantly warned against change,
pointing to the possibility of chaos that an Arab spring could bring such as
in Libya, Egypt and Syria- no-one of course mentions Tunisia where its has
been a great success.
What saved us was the courage of individual politicians who by acting
jointly have given us the following moments to savour in our lifetime -no
matter what happens in the future:
Firstly, our public servants, including our rule of law institutions and the
security forces showed us what they can do if there is proper leadership
and an atmosphere which even holds out a prospect where their
professional independence is respected. :- a judiciary that refuses a last
minute effort to break election laws by state media institutions; an Elections
Commissioner who is proactive in ensuring a free election, constantly
surrounding himself with monitors and the press so that no-one could get
at him; a police force that finally does its job arresting those who did
wrong and thwarting many acts of violence and intimidation, an army that
refused for the most part to allow soldiers out of the barracks and if stories
are true refused to pervert democracy and shoot its own people. (Egypt,
Libya and Syria failed because the armed forces did not show this restraint
unlike in Tunisia) Also if reports are true, an Attorney General who refused
to push for the Proclamation of Emergency. We must also remember the
countless public servants who made this election a success. This
commitment to democracy by our public services and institutions more that
anything will convince the world that given the proper leadership we are
not a failed state or a banana republic- the image the rest of the world
presently has about us and that brings shame to many of us working in this
Secondly, after years of being ruled from the top by people with a
monarchical dispensation, it was wonderful to see dialogue and discussion
slowly begin to take the place of threats and scaremongering. Particularly

interesting has been the slow transformation of the rhetoric of both the TNA
and the JHU. From bottom line thinking, inflammatory language and vitriol,
both sides have publicly begun to affirm the need for discussion, dialogue
and understanding. For many of us who have been watching the political
scene for decades this has been extraordinary development. It is also
interesting to see the slow transformation of the rhetoric of the UNP and the
JVP- the former beginning to speak of limitations to neoliberal policies and
the JVP agreeing to serve on the Advisory Council. The JVP and the JHUs
indefatigable struggle against corruption will hopefully continue holding the
feet of the present government to the fire as well to ensure that this
election is not another recycling of the spoils. These are all good signs,
moving us away from the bottom line, boycott politics of the 1970s and 80s
that got us into this mess in the first place to a more deliberative
democracy focusing on process and substance. If this holds we are truly
moving toward becoming a modern democracy.
The inauguration of the 6th Executive President was an absolutely chaotic
affair. For some, freed from years of repression and intimidation, it was
nostalgia and an affirmation of freedom and spontaneity- a carnival for a
peoples president. Others, having been accustomed to years of a
disciplined Colombo, were mortified- believing that this was a sign of things
to come and that the coalition will lead us down the road of chaos and
disorganization away from the stability of the last few years. The Cabinet
appointments as well as the appointments of Secretaries and Governors
should dispel such fears. These are appointments for the most part- though
not all- based on merit and competence. We hope at least they will
contribute toward effective governance.
There are still many obstacles are ahead and the promises and the
expectations may never be fulfilled. In addition, the discourse and rhetoric
of fear, rumour, darkness and hatred is still trying to make a comeback. It is
true that the minorities did make a difference in this election but we must

also ask why the former incumbents share of the Sinhala vote dropped
from 65% to 55%- that is what made him lose the election since the
minorities have always voted against his policies. It is the split in the
Sinhala vote more than the minority vote that delivered this election to M.
Sirisena. To see it as anything else is to deliberately obfuscate the issues.
We have also not resolved the ethnic issue and a lot of political landmines
remain in that area. Yet we must ask- how can the terrorists and violent
rebellion ever come back?. There is no leader, the people of Jaffna have no
stomach for violence and even the irresponsible and self-absorbed diaspora
are strangely talking about Mahatma Gandhi. The western countries and
India, especially after this election, will not tolerate fund raising or
clandestine mobilisation. Where is this threat? The issue is not military- it is
political- how do we find a political solution, how do we win hearts and
minds, develop the economy and livelihoods and treat people with respect
and empathy. The appointment of a civilian governor to the northern
province with familiarity on these issues is a step in the right direction.
We still do not know if any of the pledges of the Coalition will be fulfilled in
the next 100 days. We have two active, political parties- the JHU and the JVP
as well as a reinvigorated civil society that will now have the freedom to be
vigilant to make sure it happens. If the pledges are implemented, we will
have fundamental transformation in our political system and our rule of law
institutions- hopefully they will ensure that democracy is entrenched no
matter what happens after April.
At this time we must also remember all those who are not with us who
would have also savoured this moment- among them- my mentor Neelan
Tiruchelvam and his wife Sithie, Charlie Abeyesekere , his daughter Sunila
and her son Sanjay along with RKW Goonesekere, the longtime Chairperson
of the Civil Rights Movement. I also have to remember Bishop Lakshman
Wickremesinghe and Father Tissa Balasuriya who taught me the importance
of peoples rights, interfaith dialogue and humility- and also, though we had

very strong and divergent political views especially on the ethnic question,
HL de Silva and SL Gunesekere who in their life time fought very hard for
democracy and the rule of law. We must also not forget the many civil
society and media activists who were literally harassed- often into exile as
well as those who gave their lives fighting for our liberty- Lasantha
Wickrematunga for one who had democracy vindicated on his death
anniversary. As Sunilas daughter Subha wrote in a moving piece,
So you see, democracy is not just a system, a structure. It is also a feeling.
It is a feeling within each one of us; a desire to be led by the things we
believe in and the people we see those things in. It is a desire to stand up,
to feel powerful in our own way, to wield that power in the face of despair
and frustration. It is a feeling that inspires other feelings; it gives us
courage, it gives us hope.
The arrival of the most popular religious figure in the world the day after the
appointment of the cabinet of ministers seals this moment we can savour.
We may not all be of the same religion or even religious at all but this is the
Pope who has said that religion and religious institutions are not all that
matters- it is ones own spirituality and doing what is right that is the most
important. May his blessings entrench our gains, help us transform hope
into reality and vengeance into justice with mercy.
Posted by Thavam