This craze for ‘war heroes’ and ex-servicemen to be favourite nominees in presidential elections runs deep into the primitive mindset of the urban middle-class more than into rural polity. Imagine groups of civil society personalities led by one of the oldest non-governmental organisations in the country collected as New People’s Movement (NPM) deciding on recently retired Army General as their presidential candidate. Not just politically but ideologically bankrupt too, they represent a ‘civil society’ movement that has no trusted ‘civilian’ leader to be their candidate. Two others from mainstream political parties, whose candidature has already been announced, run with the same mindset, promising ‘national security’ with perfection in a Sinhala Buddhist country. They vow to take care of ‘war heroes’ in striking a chord with hardline Sinhala Buddhist sentiments; a compromise on Sinhala Buddhist ideology that drags in the military as a patriotic force.
Thus, whatever political parties and candidates say about discipline, freedom, development and equality, they all remain within Sinhala Buddhist politics that for 40 years nurtured this awfully-corrupt neo-liberal market model, entirely leaving out over 77 per cent of the ‘rural population’ from effective economic life. Political clout to continue with such arrogant and corrupt societal disparity is being competed on Sinhala Buddhist ‘patriotism’ for which the military uniform was thought of as an advantage after the conclusion of the war in May 2009. This formula of a winning ‘common candidate’ in military uniform as the best competitor against Rajapaksa at the January 2010 presidential election was hatched out by the UNP and the JVP leaderships in nominating retired Army Commander, then General Sarath Fonseka as their candidate. Their campaign to elect Fonseka as President instilled in the public mind an acceptance that ex-security forces personnel are better suited to govern the country and run the establishment from any position. In short, the UNP and the JVP helped militarise the social mindset within Sinhala Buddhist ‘patriotism.’
It is that mindset which is dominant in this presidential election and is being held by all candidates. It is for the Sinhala Buddhist presidency that all are competing for. It is precisely for that competition the NPM too fields Retired General Senanayake. That leaves no alternative candidate to choose from and prompts different urban groups to define whom they wish to have as the next President; a strong Sinhala Buddhist leader, a clean and honest person, one who loves the country and would develop it. All completely dependent on a ‘benevolent’ personality with no clue as to how that ‘President’ elect could be ‘benevolent’ if not to those who are stranded for life in rural Sinhala society, then to the non-Sinhala Buddhist people, that in a heavily-polarised society.
"Devolution of power does not necessarily mean it is for the Tamil people in N-E. It clearly means strengthening ‘democracy’ beyond Colombo"
We don’t seem to want to learn from the past. We don’t ask why young women, about a hundred thousand each year, still leave their families and migrate as housemaids to the Middle East, despite all adverse publicity about stoning, nailing, severe sexual and physical harassment. Why do youth from villages and the plantation sector migrate to Colombo and other major cities in search of jobs? Has anyone seen these youth who run three-wheelers sleep in their three-wheelers in the night? Why do they slog that way in the cities for a paltry daily income?
“Why?” has only one plain and single answer. Rural society has not been given opportunities for viable and sustainable economic life for well over 40 years. In Sri Lanka, over 77 per cent of the population live in rural areas. While there is no set definition for what ‘rural’ is, in Sri Lanka, all areas where capital investments don’t go to, are certainly ‘rural.’ Areas where investments cannot generate profits. Areas that economically survive with traditional agriculture, semi-feudal land tenure and a basic market with little cash flow. This remains the life pattern in rural areas since independence. It was in control mode during the first 30 years with a State-centred economy and a ‘Welfare State’ in place at heavy cost. The next 42 years to date, in a free market economy with the State withdrawn from major responsibilities, it has almost dismantled the Welfare State allowing the private sector to takeover most responsibilities for profit. The private sector doesn’t invest in service and production and in rural areas that don’t provide profits.
Within this rural economy, the State and private investment have no interest, there were no employment generation for youth. Thus, young women had to either migrate to the Middle East or leave their villages in search of employment in ‘Free Trade Zones’ and the export manufacture sector including apparels. Youth were mobilised to join as frontline soldiers until the war was concluded in May 2009. Now they too leave villages in search of an income. The gap among urban and rural society and the plantation sector keeps widening.
One lesson is, this ‘Unitary’ State that has all powers centred in Colombo, has not been of any advantage to the poor, especially the majority in rural society. The second is, Sinhala Buddhist politics has not delivered anything to these Sinhala Buddhist rural majority for being Sinhala Buddhist. The third is, Sinhala Buddhist politics has ideologically-blinded the majority to allow this free market economy to continue its ruthless exploitation without questioning.
"The gap among urban and rural society and the plantation sector keeps widening"
All of them together bring presidential candidates who would not challenge this status quo. They talk of ‘development’ without questioning the free market economy in any form. They talk about a ‘future’ that for 40 years had only been for the urban middle-class carrying credit cards and live on long-term leasing. They talk about ‘equality’ in a free market that exists on heavy competition and exploitation. They also promise ‘peace and stability’ in a free market economy that funds and nurtures Sinhala Buddhist extremism.
This raises the question, can presidential candidates who stand within this neo-liberal free market economy promising Sinhala Buddhist political dominance with a unitary State provide answers for the development of rural economy? Post-independent history proves that has not been possible. Despite Sinhala Buddhist hegemonic politics, the majority Sinhala Buddhist rural polity had not been served, especially within this free market economy. Their schools, hospitals and public transport have all been left out of development within the free market economy. We therefore need a presidential candidate who is different and stands for an alternate programme for socio-economic development.
A presidential candidate who would publicly accept that this neo-liberal market serves investors seeking big profits and does not serve our national interests. That it is only about economic growth in the city. One who would discuss a development model that would include the rural economy in providing opportunities for improved social life in villages. One who would leave Sinhala Buddhist promises aside and reach the rural voter with a development plan that had been denied to them in post-independent Sri Lanka.
A different candidate with an alternate programme should also leave promises on ‘devolution’ that carry no seriousness without a proposal. Devolution of power does not necessarily mean it is for the Tamil people in the North and the East. It clearly means strengthening ‘democracy’ beyond Colombo. In the provinces for people to have better social space in decision-making. Therefore, one should propose devolution of power on the basis of the APRC Final Report that carries with it a broad consensus. It was initiated by Mahinda Rajapaksa as President in 2006 and concluded in July 2010 with a final report that political parties like the MEP, the JHU andthe SLFP have also agreed to. It was left aside by President Rajapaksa as Gotabaya disagreed on his assumption, conclusion of the war has made devolution of power irrelevant. Post-war developments prove it is still valid and will be valid till power is devolved beyond 13A.
"A different candidate with an alternate programme should leave promises on ‘devolution’ that carry no seriousness without a proposal"
Thus, for a presidential candidate who is honest and serious about improving the quality of life in this country, it is an inclusive development programme that has rural life with priority and devolution based on the APRC Final Report that would allow a dialogue with both the Sinhala rural majority and also Tamil and Muslim minorities. Sadly, there are no such candidates who would leave Sinhala Buddhist sentiments for development and democracy for all. A crisis we would have to carry over after elections, whoever sits there as President from over 30 candidates counted until now.