28 July 2018

Remember when the Yahapalanists came up with the name ‘Maithri Yugaya’?

MAITHRI ERA BEGINS. That was the bold and single headline of a special issue of ‘The Nation’ on Friday the 9th of January, 2015. I had forgotten all about this special edition until that particular page, torn, was about to be used for some household purpose by my wife. Out of curiosity I read it. 

On the front page there was a big picture the smiling newly-elected President, his hands clasped in the manner of the traditional greeting. Under the picture was the headline.  On the opposite side there was an Editorial with a short note to Maithripala Sirisen’a predecessor, the defeated Mahinda Rajapaksa.  The Editorial took the form of a letter and was titled simply, ‘Dear Mr President’. Here are some excerpts: 

As a seasoned politician and as a one-time staunch supporter of your predecessor, you are eminently qualified to understand the challenges ahead as you think about delivering the promises made to the people of this country.  

The road to the Presidency was rocky. There were pitfalls and booby traps. You walked not alone, but you would know as well as anyone that we live in times where friend turns foe and vice versa without warning. You took on a strong leader, a proven competitor and a man who is probably the most loved national leader this country has known since D.S. Senanayake. You went against a candidate in a political culture and an institutional arrangement which gave him a massive edge. You prevailed.

These very people (who supported you), as you know well, backed your opponent on two historic occasions. He lost their confidence and their support. Nothing, Mr President, is guaranteed to last forever. If you look around you, you will see many who were once best friends with your predecessor You know of salon-doors. You know that politicians just as they are made of promises, are also made of self-interest. Trust, Mr President, is a good thing. In moderation.

There will be praises sung today. And tomorrow. There will be criticism too. Well-intentioned and anger-made. You can put aside the love and hatred and obtain the critique. You need it. Make it your best friend.

You came with a promise. You came with a tag, you promised that compassion will be the signature of your tenure. You set yourself high standards and this is good. Sometimes we need to trap ourselves in frames which force us to be better than we usually are. You will err, you will falter and even fall. We will forgive. As long as we are confident you are walking in the right direction and taking us with you.

May you always be blessed by the Noble Triple Gem, in which you’ve taken refuge. 

If the results of the February 2018 local government elections are anything to go by, Maithripala Sirisena’s popularity has declined dramatically.  Such a decline in such a short time is unprecedented. Even an A/L student could write a fairly decent essay on the reasons for this decline. We need not go into details. Suffice to say that Sirisena got a lot of things wrong.  

Bad friends. Bad advice. Huge gap between rhetoric and practice to the extent that one has to wonder if he ever believed (or knew!) the stuff he mouthed during that election campaign. Absence of initiative, rank incompetence, injudicious statements, an admitted cluelessness about important issues including who authored his own manifesto (!), a penchant for contradicting himself and a fascination with vengeance. That’s Maithripala Sirisena. He portrayed himself as a humble, mature, accommodating man of the people who harbors no grudge. All those frills fell and quickly too. 

And it is not just Sirisena. Indeed it is unfair to blame everything on the President. Even back then, i.e. in late 2014, it was clearly apparent that his chief backers, especially Ranil Wickremesinghe, envisaged a more or less ceremonial role for Sirisena. After one of the key pledges was to abolish the executive presidency, which, if done within the first 100 days after Sirisena assumed office would have in effect put Wickremesinghe (at that time with only a few dozen parliamentary seats under his command) in the executive seat.  

That didn’t happen. Neither did Sirisena come into his own. The yahapalana-arrangement went ahead with understandable difficulty given histories of antagonism between the two parties that Sirisena and Wickremesinghe led.  There was innuendo and veiled threat. Minions were deployed to badmouth one another.  However, the two entities remained political Siamese Twins, joined at the hip.  Together and separately they’ve turned that would-be empowering term, yahapalanaya (good governance) into a joke. Together and separately they’ve presided over rank incompetence, abuse of privileges, nepotism, thuggery and corruption.  

There are brownie points for bringing the Right to Information Act and for doing away with the anti-democratic 18th Amendment. No cookies for the much-celebrated ‘freedom to criticize’ because that is par for the course whenever there is a regime change. There are, however, black marks for everything else.  

It was to be expected; after all Sirisena campaigned in the shadow of two people who had poor political track records and it was with the ‘old(er)’ rogues that he had to run, even if he himself turned a new leaf (which he obviously has not). 

Looking back it is abundantly clear that there’s no maithri (compassion) or a Maithri (Sirisena) that is wholesome in this ‘yahapalana’ era. And we are not talking about his chest-beating, feet-stomping fire and brimstone speeches about capital punishment, which by the way absolutely contradicts the recitation from the Dhammapada by his upaka avatar on January 9, 2015 [නහී වේරේන වේරානී - සම්මන්තිධ කුදාචනං අවේරේනව සම්මන්තී – එස ධම්මෝ සනන්තනෝ or ‘Hatred never ceases through hatred in this world; through love alone it ceases — this is an eternal law’]. 

Coincidentally, not long after I re-read that scrap of paper, I got a call from Saman Samarakkody, former Editor-in-Chief of ‘Randiva’.  Interestingly, when Sirisena (the candidate) invited newspaper editors for a ‘suhada hamuwa’ or ‘informal meeting’ about a month before the election, only he and I turned up. One editor did come, but when he realized there was just two other editors, he left. 

There were some reporters assigned to cover this ‘event’ and of course radio and television crews. Saman and I asked the questions. At one point, the candidate reminded us that it was a ‘suhada hamuwa’ and not a media conference, thus bringing the event to a close. 

I walked up to Sirisena and said ‘Today you looked presidential but your first press conference was a disaster; and anyway you are the main opposition candidate, you need not be under the shadow of Chandrika (Kumaratunga) or Ranil (Wickremesinghe).’

He smiled, I smiled. He patted me on my back.

As I was walking away, Saman laughingly said ‘lokkata kiyanava’ (I will tell the boss). The boss, of course, was Mahinda Rajapaksa. 

‘He probably knows, already!’ I laughed. 

Then Saman got serious and said ‘mark my words, if he wins, all those who didn’t come today will be running after him and you and I won’t be able to get anywhere close.’

Interestingly, less than a year later, Saman and I lose our jobs, the owners of our respective publications perhaps in order to please the new ‘boss’ deciding that regardless of yahapalana pledges regime-critique was not on.

The Maithri Era is over. It did not end yesterday or a few weeks ago. It ended within a few months of Sirisena assuming office. Wait, it is not only the ‘Maithri Era’ that ended. ‘Yahapalanaya’ was is also dead. That death took place around the same time. 

Saman Samarakkody knew.  Even before January 8, 2015.