A woman cries during a rally by the Democratic National Alliance against the arrest of Sarath Fonseka. (Dinidu de Alwis/Perambara)
If you lie long enough does it become the truth? Or do people just fall asleep? The new charge (like the old charge) is that opposition is treason. Well, it’s not. Loyal opposition is a vital service to the country. The lie is conflating opposition to Mahinda with opposition to Sri Lanka. The two are not the same. The slanders being thrown against the opposition are based on a lie, but there is so much that it acquires a weight of its own.
Democracy Is Opposition
Democracy is actually based on some unlikely notions. Older governance is based on preserving and glorifying itself. Democracy is based on criticizing and periodically tearing itself down. The old assumption was that the king was always right. In democracy the assumption is that the government is often wrong. One’s loyalty is to laws and a system, not men and their families.
This looks like an unruly system, but it somehow more stable than the one which insists that everything is fine. Because governments often are wrong. By denying it authoritarian governments allowed tensions to build up and explode. Democracies look chaotic, but those tensions are less likely to boil over and make a mess. The governance or entire government can change without too many people being killed.
Opposition Is Not Treason
Opposition within this system is not treason, it’s part of the system. The only treason is going against the system – the constitution and laws. The other parts are all interchangeable. Indeed, you’re supposed to change them. The government allows itself to be criticized and campaigned against on the condition that you don’t overturn the whole applecart with violence and force.
Hence you get a system where opposition is built in and the whole thing is less likely to periodically explode. This means that you get an adaptive, stable government which is the foundation for long-term growth and prosperity. It does however, depend on a certain amount of trust. The government is trusted to have a bit of decency and shame, and the people are trusted to care. No one tested the system against decades of terror, and it doesn’t seem to hold up that well.
Opposition Is Not Separatism
In Sri Lanka, people did try to overturn the applecart with violence. This gave the government a hair-trigger for any opposition, which really did used to threaten its very existence. We moved from a system built for long-term growth to one based on short-term survival. But one thought that underneath, that democracy still lived. That though we gave power to ‘strong’ leaders, those leaders would be just custodians and give the power back to us. But they haven’t. Mahinda Rajapakse has not.
Mahinda is taking the language and powers he used against violent resistance to crush legitimate opposition. So you get a police unit devoted to monitoring criticism of him and his family. You get opponents regularly branded as traitors and political activity being ground to throw people in jail. Worst of all, you see the trauma of a battle-scarred population being exploited to enthrone one man and build one dynasty.
Lies For What Cause?
For the longest time our governments have asked us to accept little injustices to fight a greater cause. To accept the deaths of thousands of Sinhala youth to prevent an insurrection. To accept the deaths of thousands of Tamil civilians to end a war. Now we are being asked to make the same sacrifice to preserve one man and one family. It is a bridge too far.
Mahinda’s supporters have conflated opposition and treason for so long that perhaps they even believe it to be true. It’s gone to being a tool of war to an actual belief. And this devolution has already begun to eat its children, starting with Sarath Fonseka. People have told so many small lies that they’ve forgotten where they started, and which way was up. Perhaps it was all worth it to defeat the LTTE. But now? Why are will killing and throwing each other into jail now? All this fear we’ve drummed up, who does it serve?
We have this paradise, yet we spend all of our time trying to kick other people out, to say that they’re treasonous when they’re really just different. That is the truth. That we’re not always right, they’re not always right, and we need to agree on a system that allows us to live together and focus on the stuff that really matters. Democracy is a system that works, but that requires the equanimity to accept opposition. We should not let it be hijacked by the insecurities of one man.