Bhagya Abeyratne, a young woman from Godakawela, became a household name overnight when she spoke with passion and sincere devastation about the destruction of the Sinharaja rainforest that she saw with her own eyes.
In a matter of minutes, she accomplished something the entire opposition has failed to do for months. She connected with the common citizen, and made people open their eyes and think about the tragedies going on around them. That is traditionally the role of the opposition, but today, in the absence of a strong opposition with a clear vision or message, it is a role being performed by people like young Bhagya.
The government responded to the patriotism of this public-spirited young woman by deploying the police like stormtroopers to raid her house, grill her family and neighbours and attack her in the media. Yet she stood tall, unbowed and unafraid. Her bravery and plight were ignored entirely by virtually all the mainstream media barring Sirasa TV, but her resolve resonated with ordinary people, making her a symbol of resistance against the pillaging of Sri Lanka’s national heritage by a government that swore to defend the country. One thing is clear from the lightning-like solidarity that Sri Lankans showed Bhagya. Our people are fed up and thirsty for a strong resistance movement, for an opposition.
What is the opposition doing?
Yes, the government has failed, visibly, and comprehensively, barely a year after coming to power. But the question is – what is the opposition doing about it?
Yes, the government is sinking the ship of state. But the SJB, which is supposed to be piloting the rescue boat, is asleep at the wheel. What has the main opposition done other than gloat and wait in the wings? What solutions do they offer to the problems that face us today?
Those who aspire to lead our country must tell a credible story of how they will turn things around. Yes, deforestation is rampant today. But if we were to elect a government led by the SJB, how will their regime stop deforestation and protect the environment? Will they reintroduce Gazette 5/2001 and other measures to protect whatever that remains of our precious remaining fauna and flora? What is their stance on deforestation or reforestation? What solutions do they bring to the table for the human-elephant conflict?
Yes, the economy is in the doldrums today. Our foreign reserves are dwindling and our sovereign credit rating is in tatters. But what does the next government plan to do differently to turn things around? To what do they attribute our economic distress? How much of it was caused by Covid-19, and how much of it was caused by policies of the Podujana Peramuna government? How would they reboot the economy? The UNP has twice in recent times rescued the country from economic catastrophe brought on by their political opponents, first in 2001, and again to a large extent in 2015. Does the SJB share its mother party’s economic vision? If not, what is their own vision? Unfortunately, no one seems to know.
Our credibility on the world stage has been badly tarnished by diplomatic blunders, from becoming the only country in the world to even implicitly recognize the military coup in Myanmar, to our amateurish performance in Geneva, to the glorification of the reviled fascist Adolf Hitler by government ministers. How will the next government repair our national image, and how will they do so credibly, in a manner that recognizes and protects the fundamental rights and legitimate expectations of all Sri Lankans? This government rejected many foreign policy decisions taken by the Yahapalanaya government, many of which boosted our image and drew us closer to our traditional democratic allies. But the SLPP said these policies violate our sovereignty. Does the SJB agree with the SLPP, or does it stand by the foreign policy of the Yahapalanaya government?
What is their stance on the US Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) grant compact that the Yahapalanaya government applied to build our road infrastructure and digitize our national land deeds infrastructure? Do they support it or agree with the Podujana Peramuna that taking interest free grants from democratic America is a threat to our sovereignty and that borrowing from autocratic China at usurious interest rates is the patriotic thing to do?
As the main opposition party, what is the SJB’s stance on exercising our country’s right to assistance from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to help resolve our fiscal challenges? How would they tackle our debt crisis? Would they follow the Yahapalanaya example of negotiating consensual resolutions with the UNHRC members to demonstrate our commitment to the human rights of our own people, or do they agree with this government that doing so is a violation of our sovereignty?
In all these and other key areas of governance and crises inflicted by this government, we do not know the position of the SJB leadership let alone the vision or principles that guide their stances. We don’t know which of the government’s policies they share or which they oppose. If they do oppose some, they seem to not realise that it is their job and no one else’ to communicate, articulate and sell a different vision, set of policies and point of view to the country.
When will the SJB take a stand?
The people expect the SJB, as their main opposition party, to take a stance on the issues most critical to the fabric of our democracy like corruption, nepotism and the independence of the judiciary and public service. How will the opposition address these issues should they return to power? At the most fundamental level, the SJB has yet to forcefully assert that were they to come to power, they would reintroduce key provisions of the 19th Amendment and abolish the executive presidency.
They have failed to communicate and commit to Sri Lankans that the only way to make our country prosper is to treat all citizens everywhere on the island, of all genders, ethnicities, religions, and political beliefs, with dignity and equal protection before the law. It is up to them and no one else to sell the people on the vision that the only way to rebuild Sri Lanka is to ensure that every woman or man, whether Sinhalese, Tamil, Moor, Burgher or Vedda, whether Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, Jewish or atheist, living in the north, south, east, west or hill country must enjoy the same rights as anyone else.
It is up to them to make clear that a future vote for them is a vote for that vision. This is the only way to ensure that every citizen feels at home and feels valued by their government and fellow citizens.
It is the job of the opposition to stand up for those innocent and principled people who are in jail and facing persecution and retaliation because they fought for what is right and refused to bend to the will of leaders of this government. Has the SJB done enough for these victims of principle, or are they leaving it to others to do the heavy lifting on their behalf?
If someone takes on the government today, stands on principle and gets attacked, transferred or jailed for their trouble, do they have any reason to expect that the opposition would rush to their side and stand in solidarity with them? If not, how can they expect such people to keep risking their lives to bring to power those who lack the basic empathy and courage to defend even the most patriotic citizens among us?
By now, with so many government failures on so many fronts, many expected the SJB to have taken the lead in calling for a United Opposition Conference (UOC), rallying the other opposition parties and civil society groups into a combined front to speak in one voice for their common principles and policies and to protect our rights and liberties from further erosion.
Even if the SJB leadership is hesitant to lead the resistance against government excess, it is high time for them to stand with those who do come forward. They must stand up for the public service, the police and the judiciary, and be there for them if they do their jobs ethically, diligently, and independently. What a difference it would make to these civil servants if they were reassured that if they refuse to follow an illegal order, they would not be standing alone.
In an ideal world, they would go even further, and credibly pledge that were they to come to power, they would not allow anyone to interfere with the work of a civil servant or punish police officers for doing their duty and refusing to bend to political pressure.
Solidarity too much to ask?
Sadly, it seems like solidarity may be too much to ask. The SJB’s newest MP, Ajith Mannamperuma is a qualified civil engineer, Mannamperuma, rose through the ranks of local and provincial politics before entering Parliament. A former state minister of environment, his voice may well contribute to the debate on this critical subject on the house floor. Although it is quite a low bar, unlike many of today’s ministers, Mannamperuma is neither a convicted, indicted murderer nor a drug kingpin, nor has he thrown chilli powder at the Speaker or assaulted police officers on the floor of the house.
However, the more courageous thing for the SJB to have done instead of swearing him in would have been to leave Ranjan Ramanayake’s seat vacant in protest against the foul double standard by which a convicted murderer is being allowed to sit in Parliament, but Ramanayake, who is in jail for what he believes and what he said, has been banished from the chamber.
Had the SJB been sincerely committed to standing by Ramanayake and keeping the issue alive instead of capitulating within just 24 hours of sound and fury, it would have sent a resonant message across the country that the government is not infallible, and that the symbolic sparks of resistance could give rise to a rising fire.
Instead, by replacing Ramanayake with Mannamperuma, they have closed the book on this issue and set the precedent that if others in their ranks are convicted of lesser crimes, the SJB leadership will allow them too to be expelled from Parliament without putting up a real fight, even as a convicted murderer is still allowed to sit and vote across the aisle from them. The party should have made a decision that they would not replace Ramanayake and would keep his chair vacant in fealty to his constitutional rights and those of the 103,992 constituents who voted for him.
No one can, or should seek to, justify the abhorrent betrayal of trust and lapse in judgment demonstrated by Ramanayake surreptitiously recording telephone conversations without the consent of other participants, and allowing those recordings to be seized, manipulated and turned against the handful of brave public servants who refused to bow to fear. But this is not why Ramanayake was removed from Parliament, and the indifference of his party to his plight is thus unacceptable.
When the main opposition party exudes this kind of indifference, people can be forgiven for wondering what strategies the party would employ to keep themselves accountable if they form a government. How would they prevent similar mistakes to those that led to the UNP’s grave failings from 2015 to 2019? It is not enough to say that because Ranil Wickremesinghe is gone, everything will be fine. We have heard enough about who has failed. Unless we elect leaders who articulate how they are going to succeed and stand on a track record of success and integrity, we will just keep asking for trouble.
As things stand now, this government has outstayed its welcome and is on track for defeat in 2024. However, unless we carefully vet those who seek to replace this president or government or both, we will be doomed to repeat the cycle of failure that has plagued our politics for so many years.
Right now, the key difference between the two main parties is that one seeks to rule by fear, and the other lives in hope that power will fall into their laps.
But it is up to us the people to ensure that these are not false hopes or vain ones. At some point, Sri Lankans must draw a line and stop taking the promises and rhetoric of politicians at face value. Journalists must hold opposition politicians accountable to articulate and justify their positions and actions just as they must with those in government and put the facts on the table to inform the public debate.
Since the media all too often seem afraid to do their duty of holding the government’s feet to the fire, perhaps they might find their courage in bowling to the fielding side and demanding more from the opposition. At least from the opposition, journalists must ask the hard questions. The role of the media is not to republish press releases verbatim but to extract answers to the questions that matter. Sucking up to political parties will not get the best information out to the people.
SJB must inspire and win confidence of voters
The SJB has done well as a new party to wipe the UNP off the political map. Much like the SLPP did to the SLFP, they have won the confidence of a vast majority of the UNP’s MPs into their ranks. But the parallels end there. The SLPP captured all but a small fraction of the SLFP’s voter base. But last August, two million people who voted for Sajith Premadasa in 2019 were so disillusioned with choosing between the SJB and UNP that they decided to stay at home. If they are to succeed, it is these two million voters that the party must win over and bring out to the polls.
Nothing that has happened since August has given these voters a reason to vote for the SJB or any other party in the future.
To inspire these voters, and win the confidence of the electorate at large, the SJB must make clear that if they are elected, they will not just usher in a new regime, but an entirely new system of governance for those fed up with the status quo. As thing stand, a regime change seems all but inevitable in 2024.
The SJB can only win if they convince the majority of voters that they stand for something, and that they believe in something worth fighting for other than winning power for power’s own sake. But turning the page and saving Sri Lanka will take more than just gallery talk and politicians boasting about their own names and families.
For the country to win, the next leaders and next regime must have the courage, capacity and determination to deliver the much-needed system changes to the way our politics works.
By Krishantha Prasad Cooray
*The article was first published on the Daily FT