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Sunday, 11 January 2015

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A triumph for democracy

Democracy triumphed against all odds at Thursday's Presidential Election which saw Maithripala Sirisena as the sixth Executive President of Sri Lanka. It was a momentous event that reaffirmed

Sri Lankan collective faith in pluralism and democracy. Despite the many rumours that circulated to the contrary, there was a smooth transfer of power from outgoing President Mahinda Rajapaksa to new President Maithripala Sirisena, a veteran in the political arena with over four decades' experience.

The new President as well as his Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe hit the right note at the very beginning, starting with a simple swearing-in ceremony at Independence Square, the very place which symbolises the country's freedom from tyrannical colonial rule. Simplicity and humility are the hallmarks of President Sirisena, a true son of the soil from the rice bowl of Rajarata.

During his brief, nationally televised speech at Independence Square, the new President identified several challenges before his administration. He said that he will crusade for an economic, social and political transformation in the country as pledged in his election manifesto, adding that he is committed to build a society where freedom, democracy, people's sovereignty and law and order reign. In short, he promised to build a new country in 100 days.

This is indeed the need of the hour as all these cherished values had taken a beating under the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime which brazenly disregarded all norms of civilised conduct and democracy. This was most evident in the way the previous incumbent conducted his re-election bid. According to one conservative estimate, he had spent at least Rs. 250 billion on the campaign, from giant cut-outs to utterly revolting TV advertisements that ridiculed the Common Candidate.

The State media, including this newspaper, were used in the most shameless manner to promote the previous President who was seeking an unprecedented third term, with not one inch of room given to the Common Candidate or to any of the other 17 candidates. As President Sirisena highlighted in his speech, it was his political maturity and mettle that enabled him to fearlessly withstand this barrage of mudslinging.

It is indeed vital to restore democracy, freedom, people's sovereignty and law and order in the shortest possible period of time. Having ended the three-decade old conflict, the previous President had a golden opportunity to become a revered leader like Nelson Mandela by bringing all communities and religious groups together and strengthening democratic institutions. However, he eschewed this path and chose to tread in the opposite direction by steadily undermining and weakening all democratic structures and sowing ethnic and religious discord for short-term gain.

As John Acton said years ago, "Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely". Mahinda Rajapaksa embodied this perfectly through the passing of the draconian 18th Amendment which removed Presidential term limits and repealed all the independent commissions appointed through the 17th Amendment. He spent government funds lavishly on fruitless projects, most of which were named after himself. Even the opening ceremonies of these projects cost millions of rupees. The intimidation of independent media and human rights groups and the tacit approval given to extremist organisations such as the Bodu Bala Sena were other factors that led to his downfall. His close and extended family was given a free rein to ride roughshod over the populace and engage in acts of massive corruption.

As the Presidential Elections showed so decisively and clearly, the people had flatly rejected these anti-democratic measures. The voters rejected communalism, nepotism, corruption, injustice and authoritarianism. The people have rightly demanded a country free from these despicable acts.

In line with its promise of good governance through the Maithri Palanaya (Compassionate Rule), the Maithripala Sirisena administration should, among other things, take steps to Amend the Executive Presidency to prevent the concentration of unlimited power on one individual; Repeal the 18th Amendment and bring back the 17th Amendment and its independent institutions; Reinstate Chief Justice Shiranee Bandaranayake; Restore the rank, medal and pension of war hero General Sarath Fonseka; restore law and order; establish a suitable mechanism to probe the mega deals of the previous administration and bring back any monies stashed abroad by corrupt individuals; check waste and corruption; appoint competent persons to head all Government institutions; restore complete media freedom; eliminate drug abuse; reduce the Cost of Living and fuel prices and depoliticise the judiciary, police, administrative service and the foreign service.

The latter is especially important because Sri Lanka has been isolated internationally. The only countries which were friendly with Sri Lanka had equally despotic regimes. Sri Lanka's relationship with the West, which accounts for over 75 percent of exports, has been strained to the breaking point. No measures were taken to improve our age-old ties with neighbouring India. A professional foreign service is sorely needed to address these concerns in a backdrop where Sri Lanka faces increased international scrutiny over its human rights record, especially in relation to the conflict. Engagement, not confrontation, is the way to deal with the international community.

This brings us to the very crux of the matter - the ethnic conflict. The Rajapaksa regime thrived on fanning the flames of ethnic discord and even five years after winning the war, beat the war drum to win votes while mollycoddling the remaining top Tiger leaders.

Ethnic and religious disharmony is simply not permissible in a civilised, multi-ethnic society. The past, they say is a different country and whilst not forgetting the enormous sacrifices by the Security Forces and the civilian population to end the war, we as a nation must move forward as one, forgetting all divisions. Many have asked as to how the TNA and the JHU, with their seemingly divergent

views, could co-exist in a coalition. This is precisely the type of understanding we need at this hour. Hopefully, this should lead to a dialogue between parties on both sides of the divide and heal the wounds of war.

President Maithripala Sirisena has also reiterated that he would never permit the division of the country. Contrary to the propaganda of the Rajapaksa camp, it is indeed unthinkable that President Sirisena, himself a target of the LTTE on at least six occasions, General Fonseka (who almost lost his life in a LTTE suicide attack), former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga (who lost an eye in an LTTE attack), JHU leaders who were in the forefront in the Mavil Aru incident and other progressive leaders in the NDF, would never permit the country's division. The TNA itself has pledged before the courts that it does not stand for separatism.

The new administration has also promised to implement all viable recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) which should address most concerns relating to the National Question. The new administration should also initiate a dialogue with sections of the Tamil diaspora which are inimical to the LTTE cause and get their services for the Motherland.

The way forward is through political and social unity. The people have unequivocally reposed their utmost confidence in President Maithripala Sirisena, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and the other leaders of the NDF alliance to usher in a new political culture and a new era of peace, reconciliation, prosperity and equality in a newly resurgent Sri Lanka.

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