Power and privilege

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One of the most frequently seen slogans in the people’s ‘aragalaya’ is ‘we don’t want the 225’. Even a cursory glance at social media, will reveal the contempt and even hatred that is present among the population against the 225. On 9 May 2022, after Mahinda Rajapaksa and several of his parliamentary colleagues, unleashed violent thugs on peaceful protesters outside Temple Trees and at Galle Face Green, the homes of around 70 Members of Parliament were attacked – some torched. One MP was killed. As one of the 225, it is hard to ignore the disapproval and outright anger directed at members of Parliament during these times.

Arguably, this slogan is not simply about individual members of Parliament, but a rejection of the established political culture in Sri Lanka that upholds a system of power and privilege that has created a huge chasm between voters and the elected. Nowhere else is the chasm as visible as in the parliamentary debates. Last week, when Parliament met for the first time since the incidents of 9 May 2022, three days were dedicated to a debate on the incidents of 9 May 2022 after yet another election for Deputy Speaker, which in itself provoked public anger.

There is no doubt that losing one’s home, being the target of mob violence are traumatic experiences. I do not intend in any way to dismiss that trauma or the anguish that my colleagues in Parliament experienced. Yet, we are not the first people in this country to have experienced such violence. Till quite recently, such violence was experienced after every election; anti-Muslim violence in Digana and Aluthgama left hundreds of homes destroyed, the 1983 riots destroyed the lives and homes of thousands in the Tamil community, the ethnic conflict displaced thousands of people – often multiple times, Muslims were forcibly evicted from their homes in the North. There are many, many such incidents of loss, terror and violence in our country – none of which can be justified – including the violence that was unleashed in this country on the 9 May. For many, the incidents of 9 May recall memories of the past that we have collectively buried, but with which we have never come to terms.

What is most horrifying about these events, is that they were deliberately provoked by those in power. Often, there was complicity from law enforcement and the military. We know today that there were powerful Ministers and members of the ruling government behind the 1983 riots; that anti-Muslim violence in recent times can be traced back to powerful politicians. The attack on anti-government protestors on 9 May was also deliberately planned – with the blessings of no one less than the former Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa – and statements from senior Police officers as well as members of the ruling party, point to the fact that law enforcement were ordered not to prevent clashes. In 1983, several left-wing political parties, including the JVP were wrongly blamed for the riots and banned. This time too, the JVP and to a lesser extent the FSP are being blamed for the violence. In both instances, the scapegoating was political – in the 1980s, it was part of J.R. Jayewardene’s campaign against those challenging his political and economic project and this time around, certainly the JVP’s political opponents are seizing the moment to damage the growing popularity of the JVP and the NPP.

Be that as it may, what I want to discuss in this column is the extent to which politicians appear to be oblivious to the deep public resentment towards them and particularly the privileges which they take for granted. During the debate in Parliament last week, with few exceptions – most were unable to locate their own experiences of loss and violence with that of other Sri Lankans. They were unable to acknowledge their own privilege in being provided a platform to speak about their experiences, to be heard and to be most probably compensated – things that have been denied to many others who have been through this same experience. What could have become a moment for us to reflect seriously on the violence that our politics have engendered over the years was lost.

The fact that this debate was taking place at a time when scores of Sri Lankans were experiencing severe stress due to the ongoing economic crisis was also largely ignored. That the anger and violence that was directed at MPs – however indefensible – stemmed from this stress, pain and tension – was not acknowledged. To the public, watching the debate, what came through was how Parliamentarians spent three days arguing about their own problems, completely oblivious to the pain of their fellow citizens. When news about special facilities for MPs to obtain fuel broke later in the week and what was initially reported as at a cheaper rate than what the public paid, the fury was even greater. While reports on a cheaper rate proved to be incorrect, certainly special arrangements for MPs to obtain fuel from a different facility were correct. Even this – at a time when the public at large were spending hours in queues and often being turned away without fuel – simply exacerbated anger against elected representatives.

It is essential that the political establishment takes this public sentiment seriously. We must recognise that it is linked to the fact that people feel disconnected from those in power and moreover the strong feeling that those elected to serve the public are simply not delivering. Also, the ostentatious displays of privilege – whether it be the expensive vehicles, security, pomp and pageantry, during times of crisis stinks of insensitivity to the hardships of the public. But this has become so much a part of our political culture. Remember the special arrangements made for MPs to obtain Covid vaccinations?

There is no doubt that MPs and other public representatives must be compensated for their work and also provided with resources to carry out their work. But those resources and emoluments cannot be privileges that place public representatives apart and above other citizens. What has happened today is that those privileges shield elected officials from the public and place them in a separate, special category. Often, this confines them within a hideously unrealistic bubble, distorting their relationships with the public. However, none of this would be questioned if the public felt that they were being properly served by their elected representatives. The resentment today is that resources are being spent (lavishly) on elected representatives who are of no use to the public.

This is a central problem in our political culture and it is right that this is being questioned so strenuously at this time. Rather than taking the public resentment and anger personally (and I admit it’s hard not to sometimes) it is important that we make this an opportunity to make changes that ensure public representatives deliver to the public and to also make them more grounded. For this, what is required is a change in the relationship between the voter and those elected and a change not simply among elected representatives but also voters. Just as much as we question our elected representatives, as voters too we need to reflect seriously on how we elect those who uphold this system of privilege and power.

By Harini Amarasuriya