08 January 2016

Reflections on a flag-mad nation

One year ago, Sri Lankan elected Maithripala Sirisena as the sixth executive president of the country.  Today, backers of the President have asked the people to raise the national flag to mark this day.  The President’s detractors, meanwhile, have asked the people to raise black flags by way of lamenting that decision on January 8, 2015. 

Now it is natural for politicians to think of themselves as saviours of the people.  Even the most obnoxious and incompetent politician thinks that he or she is the man or woman best suited to lead the country.  That’s something that can be called an occupational ailment.  Nevertheless there is some justification in considering the defeat of a regime or politician considered to be invincible as a turning point, a historical landmark and, naturally again, a cause for national celebration. 

It seems however that a change in the political order (in terms of regimes and personalities) is too often taken as an imminent transformation of a system. And so the word ‘revolution’ is used.  A more sober reflection of what was and what now is would lead to the inevitable conclusion, ‘unwarranted’. 

The fact of the matter is that there’s a long distance to travel from pledge to delivery and, as is often said, ‘it’s easier said than done’.  Systems more than people are resilient and will though necessary is seldom a sufficient condition for overhauling strong structures, undemocratic and inefficient though they may be.  

Looking back it seems that no one really took the deadlines that the regime-changers set themselves seriously -- not the doers, not the backers and not even the detractors.  The first 100 days of the Maithripala Sirisena saw only one significant dent being made into a patently undemocratic and anti-people system, the passage of the 19th Amendment.  For all the big talk about abolishing the executive presidency, nothing of the kind happened. There was some pruning, true, but the President remains in the driving seat less because of popularity than due to powers vested in that office. 

The to-do list is longer than the done-list.  Electoral reform and the Right to Information Act, the Government says, are ‘up next’ in the reform agenda.  That’s better than dumping them in the overflowing waste paper basket of promises meant to be broken of course.  Still, they remain in the to-do or rather not-done column.  One can put down the reversals on the economic front (bring down prices, sorted out the cost of living etc) to ‘external factors’.  Hardships however don’t prompt wide-eyed and mindless celebration, now approval of such calls.  More serious, however, is the gross violation of the basic principles of democracy.

Nepotism was to go out with the Rajapaksa.  It is thriving and indeed one might say it has got a new lease of life.  Cut-outs, tamashas and general waste of money for shameless self-promotion was to be a thing of the past.  It’s a thing of the present, still.  Out would go the racketeers, thugs and others who have disqualified themselves from representing the people.  Well, they were nominated and then, after being rejected by the people, surreptitiously brought into Parliament.  More same-old, same-old, that. 

The cabinet would be downsized.  In fact it was legislated to be kept to a maximum of 30.  Ah! But a neat clause was inserted to get around that difficulty: “National Government”.  The definition was kept vague, deliberately.  Not all parties/groups represented in Parliament are part of this ‘National Government’.  So essentially it is a coalition misnamed as ‘national’.  No objections from the Bar Association, Transparency International, the Friday Forum, and other NGOs that were screaming hoarse for good governance, decency and civilization.  Yes, that’s also same-old, same-old.   There’s selective prosecution and a mindless witch-hunting going on.  Nothing to celebrate there either.  

All things considered, therefore, asking people to wave the NATIONAL flag to celebrate what’s essentially a set of promises yet to be delivered is a bit thick. 

If the National Flag has some value and if whatever value that it has is to be preserved then its official use has to be restricted things that are of ‘national’ nature.  Independence Day, for example.  If we go back, there are probably just 2 other occasions when raising the National Flag was warranted: the day we became a Republic, i.e. May 22, 1972 and the country was liberated from terrorism, i.e. May 18, 2009.  We might add the day Arjuna Ranatunga and his team brought the World Cup to Sri Lanka and when M.H.M. Lafir won the World Billiards title, but then again neither cricket nor billiards have national-credentials. 

Anyway, compared to the above two ‘moments’, January 8, 2015, for what it was and what it produced is not for flag-waving.  There are reasons to celebrate of course, especially for those who sided with the victors or else hated the losers, but to grand dignity and etch historical importance to what is essentially a putu-maaruwa is to disgrace the National Flag.  This Government has not done anything to warrant wild cheering.   Sure, there are positives, for example a climate of less fear (we cannot say ‘fearlessness’) to express opinion.  That’s good.  However, in a year there’s been a lot of negatives too and as of now, they not only cancel out the ‘good’ but make for a lot of worrying about what’s in store.    
That said, there’s nothing that has happened in the last 12 months for anyone to mark the 8th day of January with black flags.  We’ve had black days, certainly.  A nation that has suffered a three decade long war has many reasons to weep.  The tsunami of 2004 was a black day.  The day that J.R. Jayewardene got the 2nd Republican Constitution passed was a black day, it can be argued. The day he extended the life of the Parliament through a fraud-ridden referendum was a black day.  The bheeshanaya was made of red.  And black, therefore.  There were many black days during Chandrika Kumaratunga’s reign.  The day the 18th Amendment was passed was the blackest day of Mahinda Rajapaksa tenure.  Nothing even remotely close to any of that has transpired in the last 12 months. 

Black flags, therefore, are silly.  As silly as the call to raise the national flag to mark the election of President Sirisena.  That was no revolution.  If anyone disagrees, then a quick peek in the nearest dictionary  would sort out the matter. 

These are no longer ‘early days’ of the Maithripala Sirisena regime.  The signs are not encouraging.  There is the big redeeming factor, the 19th Amendment, but that’s not enough (not yet) to go overboard with the National Flag.  Bake a cake, put a single candle, make a wish and blow out the candle, by all means.  Leave it at that.  Best.

Note:  This article was published in the 'Daily Mirror', January 8, 2016.  
Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance journalist and can be reached at malindasenevi@gmail.com