Next week we shall as a nation down tools, bring the country to a standstill and celebrate Sinhala and Tamil New Year. We shall not spin, neither shall we toil. Nor, for that matter, shall we win bread. We shall, instead, enjoy a period of studied inactivity - the nonagathe - following which arrack will be imbibed as if it is going out of fashion and the din of detonating firecrackers will for the nonce relegate to runner-up status the hysterical broadcasts from mosques, temples and churches. Ah, how the hoi polloi will engage in all manner of festivity, echoing timeless tradition! Good, solid country values.
Few of us will stop to think, amidst the frenzied festivity, that Sinhala and Tamil New Year is just about the only thing that the Sinhalese and Tamils share any more. For decades now, we have each gone our own way, placing every conceivable obstruction in the way of any semblance of amity. For their part, the Tamils are largely hemmed into their 'homelands' in the north and east, or piled high in the ghettoes of Wellawatte. Just about the only thing the two communities can agree on is when to celebrate new year, which is all there is to remind us that they are children of the same god.
Whether or not the Tamils indeed have valid grievances - or for that matter, aspirations - we need to acknowledge that an ever-widening gulf divides us. As the albeit transient popularity of the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) at last year's election aptly demonstrated, antipathy towards minorities is essentially a big-city phenomenon. In the countryside, people seem not to bother: no doubt they have other things to bother about, like from where the next meal will come. The 2004 general election served, for the first time in our history, to actually gauge popular thinking on the ethnic issue. And, as the results showed, the vast majority of Sinhalese Buddhists in the cities, and virtually all those in the villages, rejected the very idea of making ethnicity an issue in their political agenda.
A reminder that should be, not just to the rabid chauvinists of the JHU and JVP but also to all the other racially flavoured political parties. Almost to a man, they are a disgrace to the people of Sri Lanka . Whether it is the Muslim Congress or the euphemistically-named Worker's Congress, they represent the dregs of humanity, seeking only to set brother against brother. Indeed, they are doing just that right now with their Anti-conversion Bill, a piece of legislation more in line with the thinking of Nazi Germany than two and a half millennia of Buddhist enlightenment.
In the case of the CWC, it is worse. As a party, the CWC is committed to keeping its estate-worker constituency in eternal bondage: obedient union members, paying up on time and performing for the political advantage of the Thondaman dynasty. Have you once heard Arumugam (or for that matter Grandpa Saumyamoorthy) Thondaman decry the fact that there are hardly any estate-Tamil professionals: doctors, lawyers, architects, accountants, engineers? Have you heard him bewailing the fact that only an infinitesimal percentage ever enters university? Does he rant and rage that there is only the tiniest smattering of estate-Tamils in the police and the armed forces? Indeed, all the Thondaman dynasty have given these poor serfs is a national identity card and thereby the right to vote for the CWC. National identity is, however, the one thing these people so notably lack, thanks to their self-serving leadership.
And the situation is not very different as you traverse the spectrum of divisive political parties, from the JHU and JVP at one end, to the TNA at the other. To the credit of the Sri Lankan people, it is the middle ground that has for the most part won their favour: the SLFP and UNP, though neither of these is ever likely to win the hearts of at least half the people. And tragically, both these behemoths have fallen on hard times.
It is hardly worthwhile cataloguing what is wrong with the SLFP. It is clear that the party is unlikely ever to become anything other than the baggage of the Bandaranaike family. With her children now in their 20s, Chandrika Kumaratunga knows that she does not have long to wait until one of them takes up the family business. And as if on cue, her son Vimukthi has made it known to confidants that it is in politics that he will seek his fortune. Of course, the time is not ripe for that yet, so Kumaratunga has no choice but to continue as head of government and the party so as to secure jobs for the brats. And to that end, she will leave no stone, including Sri Lanka , unturned.
To keep her job, however, Kumaratunga needs the support of the JVP, with which she has a tangled relationship indeed. One after another, JVP MPs have taken publicly to calling her a liar. Her propensity to lie, after all, is legendary. For example, just a week before she dissolved parliament last year, she swore to Japanese peace envoy Yasushi Akashi that she would not do so. And we will not even mention the web of lies she has woven about her non-existent academic qualifications. Just last week we reported how one of her own MPs, Piyasiri Wijenayake called her a hopeless liar: so accustomed has Kumaratunga become to their denigration that she no longer even responds; not even through the state media.
From the country's point of view, Kumaratunga's lies are now laughed off: who'd want to take issue with a tin pot? All very well except when her lies threaten the fragile peace in which we are now engaged. And it is here that her hypocrisy is at its worst. Readers will recall how, after the media exposed the LTTE's camp at Manirasakulam, well within the government-controlled area of the Wanni, Kumaratunga swore in the course of the general election campaign that she would remove this threat to national security. Today she does not even mention it, and the camp flourishes.
Then again, only last week we demonstrated quoting chapter, verse and an elaborate litany of facts that it was after Kumaratunga took over the Defence Ministry in 2003 that the LTTE imported its aircraft. She is thus directly responsible for this grave threat to national security. Yet, there has not been so much as a whimper from her and the JVP (or, for that matter, her loyal Opposition) on this subject. It would seem that she considers the masses to be asses, something the masses have evidently made clear to her in the exercise of their franchise.
But even as the country finds itself ever deeper in the mulligatawny, Ranil Wickremesinghe's UNP continues to snore gently in its slumber except for the occasional statement or press conference. It seems they have forgotten that they are paid from the public purse to oppose the government, and there are few Sri Lankans - even card-carrying members of the UNP - who think they are getting value for the tax rupees invested in the Opposition. Ironically, it is the people who are the most influential within that party, and in line for the plums of office, who are the most "moderate" (read "lethargic"). It is they who spend their idle hours flirting with Kumaratunga, afraid so much as to offer the slightest rebuke.
When did we last hear those so-called true green heavyweights of the UNP - Milinda Moragoda, Mahinda Samarasinghe, Karu Jayasuriya, Gamini Lokuge, M. H. Mohomed and Dharmadasa Banda - speak on any matter of public interest or concern? To a man they have fallen silent, biding their time until, through the labours of others, their party might one day come to office. Ironically, the only voices we hear from the UNP are those of defectors from other parties lately arrived - G. L. Peiris, Rajitha Senaratne, Hemakumara Nanayakkara, Ravi Karunanayake, Mahinda Wijesekera and Bandula Gunewardena. These fighters however, are out in the cold, their party seldom if ever echoing their call or even supporting their views.
Among the coterie that surrounds the Opposition Leader, only Malik Samarawickrema seems to have even felt the need to mobilise the party. The rest seem to be lying in wait, ready to spring into the UPFA's arms when ministries - and money - are offered. To Samarawickrema's credit, he has ruled out any deal with the President, a position that has not won him friends among those in the party who have skeletons in their cupboards. The rest, like slaughtered lambs, are silent.
It is time that Wickremesinghe began playing the role of a genuine leader of the opposition. He must show the people they have someone to turn to in their hour of need. What alternative to Kumaratunga does he offer? Is the UNP capable of seeing Sri Lanka from a different perspective, or are they just as cynical in the pursuit of power as the President? (To be fair, none of them seems actually to be pursuing power: they are waiting for it to fall into their laps.)
At the end of the day, tragically, it would seem that all our mainstream politicians are, like Macbeth, infirm of purpose. It is only Velupillai Pirapaharan who seems to have some consistency in his world view. Now, there's a fellow who knows what he wants, and knows how to get it. The UNP would do well in its leisure hours to take his correspondence course, murder excepted.