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Economic Needs of Democracy, Accountability

and Reconciliation

October 17, 2015, 7:00 pm
File photo: Police baton charge and disperse a
crowd demanding clean drinking water, on the Matara-Tissa main road at
Bandagiriya.
by Tisaranee Gunasekara
"When the social contract is abrogated, when trust between a government
and its citizens fails, disillusionment, disengagement or worse follows."
Joseph Stiglitz (The Price of Inequality)
The protest was peaceful, until the police intervened. The protestors were
demanding access clean water. This was October 12, 2015, in Bandagiriya,
in the Hambantota district, the bastion of the Rajapaksa clan.
During the Rajapaksa decade, no expense was spared to turn Hambantota
into a megapolis. A port, an airport, an artificial island, an international
cricket stadium and an international convention centre were among the
many infrastructure projects Hambantota was saddled with. Another
Rajapaksa term and Hambantota would have ended up like Naypyidaw, the
massive ghost-capital Myanmar’s military rulers built, a place replete with
buildings and bereft of people.
In the rush to provide Hambantota with all the trappings of a glitzy super-

city, the Rajapaksas forgot the ordinary needs of ordinary people; such as
water.
Hambantota’s innumerable new additions include a botanical garden, with
many wet-zone plants. To keep them alive in this rain-poor district,
bowsers of water are brought from outside. "If people know the true
extent of the water being wasted here, there will be a riot," a university
professor, who refused to be named, told the AFPi.
That is what the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government should have done.
Told the protesting people of Bandagiriya what the Rajapaksas did with
their water.
The Bandagiriya protest provides incontrovertible proof of the failure of
Rajapaksa economics. In the Rajapaksa development plans, the people
didn’t count and their needs were de-prioritised. So living costs soared,
basic requirements went unmet and hopes for a better future eroded. The
gap between the Rajapaksa rhetoric and the everyday experiences of
ordinary people widened. The regime did not understand what the people
were going through and the people lost faith in the regime’s capacity to
improve their lives.
Mahinda Rajapaksa lost the presidency. History was made.
Taking Ordinary Lives Seriously
Marc Stears was Edward Miliband’s chief speech-writer. In a recent New
Statesman piece, Prof Stears argues that to win the next election, Jeremy
Corbyn’s Labour do what Ed Miliband’s Labour couldn’t: convince the
British public that it ‘respects them’ and ‘takes their lives seriously.’"ii
The Rajapaksa regime didn’t. As the CPA survey of 2014 revealed, 58.1%
of the Sinhalese wanted the regime to focus on reducing living costs. iii
The Rajapaksas did anything but. The resultant gap between Sinhalaneeds and Rajapaksa deeds played a main role in the defeat of the
Rajapaksa project in January and August, 2015.
Economics played a key role in the Uva debacle which signalled the
beginning of the end of Rajapaksa rule. As the 2014 CPA survey revealed,

43.4% of the Uva populace thought their economic condition got a little
worse and 31.9% thought their economic condition got a lot worse
between 2012 and 2014. 28.6% of Uva households had to go without
medicine or medical treatment in 2013; 43% had to make cutbacks in the
quality of food purchased.
This economic malaise and the resultant political discontent were national
phenomena. In 2011, 70% of Sinhalese thought the general economic
situation will improve in the next two years. In 2013 only 38.5% of
Sinhalese thought the general economic situation will improve in the
coming two yearsiv. Official figures confirmed the trend. According to the
Department of Census and Statistics, 53% of the urban population, 73% of
the rural population and 81% of the estate population did not receive the
minimum income necessary to pay for food and other basic needs.v
This was the context which enabled the historic electoral outcome of
January 8th.
The Rajapaksas believed that a combination of patriotic rhetoric, toxic
attacks on the minorities and shrill warnings about international
conspiracies could make a sufficient number of Sinhala-Buddhists forget
their very real economic problems. In the end, everyday experiences
trumped grand slogans.
The minorities turned against the Rajapaksas for obvious political reasons.
But this loss in and of itself would have been insufficient to defeat the
Rajapaksas electorally. If the Siblings managed to retain their 2010
support-level amongst Sinhala-Buddhists, Mahinda Rajapaksa would have
scraped through on January 8. That was what he was counting on.
It is not absolute poverty which gives birth to political dissent, but relative
poverty. The ruling family atop a bloated political caste enjoyed the good
life at public expense even as ordinary people struggled to make ends
meet. The regime’s refusal to even acknowledge the economic sufferings of
the people added insult to injury.
During the time between the presidential and parliamentary elections, the
Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government acted as if it has learnt the
necessary lessons from this Rajapaksa-failure. Since that victory, the new
administration seems to be inclining increasingly towards Mahinda

Chinthanaya, not just in matters such as leader veneration and family
bandysm but also in the all important area of economics.
Had the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration remained sensitive to the
ordinary needs of ordinary people, it would have embraced and not
ignored the Bandagiriya protest. This protest over something as basic as
clean water in the Rajapaksa-heartland revealed the hollowness of
Rajapaksa development. With the money spent on any one of the
mammoth infrastructure projects, the entire populace of Hambantota could
have been provided with clean drinking water. The Rajapaksas didn’t do it.
That shows their real nature.
The new government’s incapacity to understand the explosive political
potential of this incident is indicative of a malaise which, if left unattended
to, can have devastating consequences.
Ever since the parliamentary election, the new government has succumbed
to a Rajapaksa-like indifference about the adverse effects of its policies on
ordinary people. The price hikes of the last two months, caused by the
depreciation of the rupee and increased taxes, have caused living costs to
jump again. The sudden axing of subsidies has resulted in plummeting
rubber prices, pushing small-and-medium rubber growers into a serious
crisis. Tea sector is facing its own crisis while the government’s promise to
make vehicles accessible to the new middle class is turning into a
grotesque joke.
There is growing public impression that having secured power, the new
rulers are acting with the same arrogance and callous disregard as the old
rulers. With every mistake the administration makes, with every act of
insensitivity, with every broken promise, the gap between it and the
Rajapaksas erode.
A more dangerous situation for Sri Lanka’s restored democracy cannot be
imagined.
Enabling Extremism?
Internationally democratisation projects suffered violent failures in the
recent past due, in part, to the erroneous equation of democracy with neoliberalism, a mistake to which both opponents and proponents of

democracy are prone. Newly emerged democracies need time to
consolidate their gains, and this time can be brought not by imposing
austerity on an already traumatised populace, but by providing muchneeded economic relief to ordinary citizens.
Sri Lanka is a deeply divided nation, ethno-religiously. The Rajapaksas
exacerbated these divisions as part of their political strategy. They failed
because they did not get the economics right. Post-defeat, they are staying
the Sinhala-Buddhist course, hoping to regain power the only way they
know. And they might succeed, if the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe
administration continues to get its economics wrong.
Take the Geneva consensus. It is not perfect, but still it is a step in the
right direction. Not just accountability and justice but even common-orgarden acknowledgement that civilian lives were lost was rendered
impossible thanks to the Rajapaksa insistence on the myth of
‘Humanitarian Operation with zero-civilian casualties’. Since only ‘Tigers’
were killed by the military, even mourning for the war-dead became
outlawed.
Israeli human rights activist and co-founder of B’Tselem, Daphna GolanAgnon, points out that there are multiple layers of denial operating in
Israel on the war crimes issue: literal denial (it never happened); denial of
significance (these weren’t really war crimes); justification (we had no
alternative). A similar system of collective denial was deliberately
encouraged by the Rajapaksas. Even if there is no justice, this denial, the
lie that the war was won without harming any civilian Tamils must end.
The nature of the LTTE made the war necessary; but that does not mean it
was humane or desirable. That distinction needs to be made.
The recent acquittal of a Tamil mother after spending 15 years in jail for a
crime she did not commit highlights the degree of injustice which
flourished – and still persists – in Sri Lankavi. The conviction of four
soldiers by the Jaffna High Court for gang-raping two Tamil women in 2010
is a welcome development, but much more needs to be done, if Tamils are
to gain some faith in the judiciary.
Accountability, reconciliation, hopefully even a political solution to the
ethnic problem - for any of these to happen, there must be a minimum
level of consent from the Sinhala South. Support would be ideal, but

benign indifference would do. And that would depend primarily on how
successful the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government is in alleviating the
economic burdens of ordinary people.
Democracy, accountability and reconciliation require a minimum degree of
economic contentment in the South. If people feel their economic burden
has lessened, they will have hope for the future. Such a people would be
more capable of resisting the lure of majoritarian extremism and minorityphobia. That was what happened on August 17th.
If the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration governed from January to
August, as it is doing now, Mahinda Rajapaksa would have won the
parliamentary election.
Eric Hobsbawm argued that the purpose of government is not to look after
the gifted minority but to care for the ‘ordinary run of people’: "Any society
worth living in is one designed for them, not for the rich, the clever, the
exceptional, although any society worth living in must provide room and
scope for such minorities."vii In other words, a meritocracy which does not
ignore popular concerns; a meritocracy committed to the alleviation of the
problems of the less-merited majority. Such a meritocracy is good for any
country but absolutely necessary for deeply divided land trying to heal
itself, like post-Rajapaksa Sri Lanka.
In the run up to the crucial presidential election of January 8th, JVP leader
Anura Kumara Dissanayake said, "If the people fail to defeat the insane
dictatorship of Mahinda Rajapaksa at this point, there will be no turning
back for Sri Lanka."viii
The people did, twice.
Now it is the turn of the government, not to fail the people or the country,
not to open the door to ethno-religious extremism and to the Rajapaksas.
Posted by Thavam