By Frances Bulathsinghala
Colombo, April 24: A commonsense-based introspection would tell us that blaming politicians alone is insufficient. After seven decades of fostering a political structure that has accrued the country loss, the people have started asserting themselves. The power of this assertion would increase if we look at the complete picture, instead of clutching at fragmented flints that simply scratch the surface.
Let us, therefore, examine a few points and try to connect the dots while asking ourselves whether we are protesting far too late and if the protest is lost in the debris of well-meaning but unfocused enthusiasm. The writer is politically unbiased and considers the entire Sri Lankan political system and psyche as a resource-guzzling dinosaur that should have got extinct long ago.
Have we protested against the use of public resources during elections; the habitual corrupt malaise of Sri Lanka that has continued right throughout whatever the color of the Government in power?
Have we protested against the maintenance of poverty that is happily carried out in this nation enabling election time, (irrespective of the political party) to be a carnival, celebrating ignorance and poverty. Has anyone of us, protesting on the roads today, approached Sri Lankan regimes with alternative recommendations to make purported poverty alleviation systems to truly become an adherent to what they claim to envisage.
Have we understood that as long as we keep as it is the current schemes that say they alleviate poverty but in actuality nurture a vast number of persons in perpetual pauper firmament, reducing human beings to the status of political slaves, that the words ‘development’ or ‘democracy’ will ring hollow in our ears.
Have we treated politicians like the servants of the people they are? Have we even come close to realizing until now that we have a duty to make these servants work for us, the masters, and thereby force ourselves, if need be, to assert intellectually, contributing different expertise as relevant to the diverse ministries that are there to serve us. Have we considered proposing to the servants we entrusted our nation to, that our small country does not need such a large staff to serve us (225) and that the cost of maintaining them is too much for us?
Why have we not protested long ago that we do not need Deputy Ministers and two categories of Ministers (Cabinet and State) which makes no sense for the economic wellbeing of the country? Have we calculated the cost of all the administration of these ministries throughout the seventy four years after independence?
Since we seem to have finally woken up from our Rip Van Winkle sleep to find that our economy is ripped, let us accommodate all of the above points into our awareness. It should have dawned on us long ago that the need to prevent politicians basking in luxury should apply to all political parties, including those of socialist hues and those who claim they represent the Sri Lankan minority rights.
It may be well advised to turn Galle Face Green into a temporary library to enable all the young people keen on ‘change’ to read about some of the richest countries which have the smallest numbers in Parliament and no perks or special privileges for politicians. One stark example is Sweden which has all Ministers including Head of State using public transport. Private vehicles for politicians at duty free is unthinkable. It would be akin to blasphemy to any Swede. The whole of Parliament has only three vehicles to be used only for official travel.
Is Sweden having this system because they are poor – no – it is because they have such a system that does not squander public money the reason why they are rich! When was the last time we saw a Sri Lankan Government Minister or Member of Parliament in a bus or a train, including the Minister of Transport (except for a media photo shoot)? Is it a mystery why the countries where Heads of State using public transport have the most developed transport systems?
Let us, therefore, ensure that we call for a new way of being where intellectual wealth is what is considered luxury and for all those who aspire to serve the people to live without becoming addicted to luxury that splinter the connection with the common man.
Have we realized that before we stone the houses of Government Ministers (the current ones or the previous) that we have to first atone ourselves, because it is us who elected these persons first of all (the current and the previous ones). Over the years I have asked many Sri Lankan citizens who could contribute to the country in diverse fields of knowledge why they do not want to enter politics.
Every time I was told that politics is a ‘garbage dump.’ So, is it not funny that our intellectuals have expected a garbage dump to have the aroma of a flower park! They have admitted we have a garbage dump and have refused to transform it till now but irrationally so far expected a garbage dump to have the qualities of a botanical garden!
We are calling for all 225 politicians being maintained by the people to leave. A very good idea. But have we thought of who will replace them? The names of honest and capable public servants such as the former Auditor General, Gamini Wijesinghe have come up several times amongst citizen groups as one of the possible new civil leaders to entrust governance to, if such a civil leadership is created.
If we the people are serious about an honest, genuinely Sri Lanka- driven credible change, we will spend our time fruitfully by coming up with an entire new structure and a list of persons that we think are capable of guiding the nation out of this morass (of the ilk of Gamini Wijesinghe and Dr. P. Nandalal Weerasinghe who is now the Central Bank Governor) who are doing these tasks completely apolitically and without considering monetary rewards. If we do as above and present this to the current regime, this will be more useful than simply sending time on roads (although that too is a democratic right).
Certainly, the frustration of being cooked under the noon sun while languishing for cooking gas or fuel or fainting in the many other snaking queues is enough to tip the balance of the last ounce of patience.
We are calling the current regime by different names. Why don’t we use the legal system (public interest litigation) and other legal avenues in full measure and create public awareness in this regard to prevent indulging ourselves in mere allegations that ‘all 225 are rogues.’
Instead, we can educate ourselves to take concrete action through the fundamental rights bestowed on citizens to move the IGP, the Inland Revenue and the Auditor General within the legal, Constitutional and democratic framework which will prevent us needlessly slinging mud at anyone who may be an honest politician. If all the citizens who are protesting did this, instead of sacrificing their time in one location, this would be far more beneficial. The posts of President and Prime Minister are those that represent people and the people are their vigilantes.
A justice system that merits that term should represent the hands of the people who can steer the country to be one where politicians cannot metamorphose into swindlers and where public servants in State institutions, especially finance-related ones, cannot be forced to be yes men or women. The relevance of law to the average citizen pertaining to their rishts and the safeguarding of the nation and its resources should be re-examined and due awareness created.
Constitution making should be transformed into being one that is a people-focused task where the masses have a direct consultative role. It is possible that the ghost of J.R. Jayewardene may linger around to try and prevent this from happening. The supremacy of the people has to be enshrined and reflected in the Parliamentary system which ideally can be limited to at most 60 persons (although even 40 truly hardworking persons may be considered sufficient).
We no longer need a system that protects the supremacy of politicians (whatever the color). We have to consider this not as a vendetta against a particular regime but as a gift of epiphany, although wrapped in traumatizing packages of shortages and national penury. We have to emphatically choose an island-wide administrative structure, that gives equality to all, that is grass-root driven but without needlessly burdening a small island of ours with the cost of maintaining legions of lethargic officials.We have to consider that much of provincial work could be handled by a very few and by the District Secretaries, provided we choose hard working persons and create a truly efficient and people prioritized (and not official prioritized) rural governance framework.
Having said all of the above, one of the good things that is to be reiterated is that people actually realized that they are the true bosses of the land and walked out of their comfortable cocoons.
This could also have been done on many earlier occasions over the past seven decades including when the Central Bank was robbed in 2015. Instead, we are now watching a particular political personage, isolated through the last election and directly responsible for the Central Bank fiasco, cited as a possible savior of the nation. As the former Auditor General, Gamini Wijesinghe clearly stated in many media interviews, one of the foundations created for the financial abyss the country is in, was undoubtedly in 2015.
Loans for a country are taken on behalf of people. Whatever projects done with that money should reflect this assumed goal. It is not a matter of who sits at the political helm. It is a matter of whether we the people allow a political structure that encourages secrecy on how our money is spent.
Therefore, henceforth there should be a people-centered framework that approves, evaluates and supervises projects. This will prevent political cult building projects that do nothing for national wellbeing.
Thus, any protests or calls for change should be able to decipher clearly, and without spontaneous romanticism, to ensure that anyone who takes control of the very helm of power should never be given king making loopholes. Ancient Sri Lankan monarchs did not create glorified palaces, they created a glorified country.
There are many today, especially some Western-trained economists who may scoff at the link between national economy and traditional knowledge that this ancient civilization holds.
Yet Sri Lanka recently spent a couple of billions (of dollars we don’t have) for obtaining what was described as ‘organic’ fertilizer from another country. Traditional knowledge is certainly not limited to farming or soil conservation but definitely it encompasses the basics of soil nutritionalization that Sri Lanka had inherited as part of its ancient heritage.
Thus because we have not restored after independence, the pre colonial educational system that draws on our ancient knowledge which ranges from engineering to architecture to medical science and hydraulic systems and economy, we continue to hero worship everything that is not ours.
Today’s abject situation where we cannot afford fuel or electricity should teach us the fallacy of having built ‘cities’ that guzzle power copying other nations. We have existed by rote, aping other nations and how they prioritized their development, health, education and industry policies based on their own resources. To date we are clueless about creating a holistic development system that uses our known traditional knowledge.
Much of this knowledge is lost to us, drained out in the years of colonization and neo colonization; the time we spent believing that what we had was inferior.
While we need Western science and certainly need English (as a link language) and need in our intellectual base Western trained experts, we especially have to give significance to Sri Lankans rooted in the knowledge of this land, and who have leadership capabilities to carve out national policies authentic to Sri Lanka and its sustainability.
This does not insinuate that we should do away with modern knowledge or modern science. It only speaks of the need to maintain a balance.
While being paralyzed by an overdose of paranoia and conspiracy theories does not do any nation good, it is nevertheless prudent to be alert that something called geopolitics exists.
Hence any call for a system change should be engineered by Sri Lankans with wisdom keeping in mind that countries like Iraq and Libya are today ignored by everyone and in far worse situations than they ever were.
On the question of who ate the dollars and how, while we can encourage a thorough investigation through the democratic framework, we have to consider the fact that if we sink this country further, economically, to take revenge from any political personage however much we think it justified, that it will be akin to cutting the nose to spite the face.
Those who suffer ultimately will not be politicians but ordinary people. Instead, let us all push for justice to reign in ensuring that the shameless face of political corruption never shows up again, while keeping our faith in our ability to innovate exports as well as concepts such as tourism (however difficult or hopeless it may seem) to rise together from this pit we have been put into.