Thursday, January 15, 2015

Reform must coincide with reason

When Mahinda Rajapaksa won in 2005, I cheered. At a time when "appeasement" had become a magic word, he was needed. When he appointed Sarath Fonseka as head of the army, I was overjoyed. When he appointed Gotabhaya Rajapaksa as his Defence Secretary, I could think of no better person who could hold that post, never mind that he was his brother. The excuse that the former president was to give in later years - that he needed trusted people by his side - gained credence as the years went by, and as the LTTE began its shameless campaign of terrorism and intimidation.

Time passed. 2006 came. A group of stalwarts from the Jathika Hela Urumaya marched to Mavil Aru. Mindsets began to change. The military operation, which had languished owing to a peace accord that did much for separatists and nothing for those who were at the receiving end of their tactics, was regained. In just three years, a war that had lasted more than three decades and 100,000 lives was over. And when that war was over, we all cheered. Some called it triumphalism, others called it unworthy of common decency. Didn't matter. We cheered.

Things moved quickly. General Sarath Fonseka became bitter. Overnight, relations between him and the president soured. Overnight, the hero he was turned into a much-vilified villain. He joined hands with a group of people who had ridiculed not just him, but nearly everyone under his command who had led an all-out assault on the LTTE. While we were ready to give him the benefit of the doubt, it became clear that we were more ready to listen to Mahinda Rajapaksa. Even if we listened a little too irrationally. This translated into victory, of course, and he won with a 17% lead over his rival. Again, we cheered.

There were things we remembered him for. He built highways. He initiated one of the most ambitious development projects this country ever saw. True, whether they were "sustainable" as far as economics and transparency were concerned was under serious question as time went by. Still, we were ready to listen to him. All the way.

That's when he began losing his halo. To be fair by him, that's when his family began losing his halo. When his brothers and his sons began losing the respect we had for him. And when what the late S. L. Gunasekara contemptuously described as the "Maharajaneni Club" began singing hosannas where they were not due.

We wanted reform. Badly.

And now, a decade after we elected Rajapaksa for the first time, we are seeing "change". We are looking at reform in good governance, accountability, and transparency. A Cabinet of more than a hundred ministers has been shelved to one that has a little below 40. A Chief Justice will be reinstated in her former position, provided the procedure so used to return her to Hulftsdorp is done with no intent of revenge against those who threw her out.

Reform is good. Nice and shiny. It's needed at a time when regime-fatigue has reached unprecedented levels and we need to move on. It's also needed at a time when we achieved "change" without the aid of international "assistance" and with the full backing of the people themselves. But we must be cautious.

We must practise equanimity and reason. We must not be swayed by emotion. Gloating over every little incident and talking about how "changed" we are from those "bad old days" is not going to work. Not all the time. To top all this, we must ensure that just as much as a maithree yugayak (compassionate era) is not coterminous with letting off crooks and forgiving them, that must not license rumour and blackguarding former officials for crimes they did not commit.

This is why we should exercise the full thrust of the law. Without letting hearsay replace it. True enough, there is truth beneath rumour. But to let that be a decisive factor in punishing or exonerating suspects would be useless. It would be against the spirit of that change we all demanded. A poor return on investment.

If we are all concerned about change, if we really do want to see a proper reformist era, we must connect rhetoric with reason. Nice, shiny labels work best when they are implemented. We have not gone down Libya's path. We have not gone into another "Arab Spring". We have achieved change by ourselves. To honour that, we must be mindful of some things before trying to achieve that collective change.

S. L. Gunasekara knew this. In one of the last speeches he made, at the International Research Symposium two years ago, he gave the following advice: "The solution is not to reform everything at once, but to prioritise things." Key word: prioritise.

If it's about change, it's about priorities. It's about good governance and accountability, free of frill and rhetoric. About achieving a governance structure that allays fears of succumbing completely or otherwise to any outside country or influence. One that is completely free of separatism and religious extremism.

For this, there are some imperatives to be looked into.

An era of forgiveness must be brought in. This does not mean that crooks must be let off: this merely means that at a time when people are ruffled by critique and rumour, we must let the law take its arduous journey without resorting to gossip or slander. This applies to news too. Credibility must be established with certain websites that only serve to spread rumour and sensationalism in the guise of fact and truth. It must be established with a judiciary that will punish without being overly vindictive.

There's a magic word that must accompany reform. It's called "reason". In an era where emotions hold sway and we refuse to look beyond Cartesian black-or-white logic, we must look into allegations, to decide whether to punish or to exonerate. We must allow for human frailty. We must keep in mind that while our "rulers" work to punish the fallen regime, that mustn't excuse thuggery from their end.

Reform must coincide with reason. It's as simple as that.

Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com