‘Do you hear the people sing?’ | Sunday Observer

‘Do you hear the people sing?’

With their leaders battered, bruised, jailed and exiled, and against all odds, the people of the Maldives have restored faith in democracy. As other parts of the world debate the merits and demerits of democracy, its inherent weakness and fallibility, the tiny Indian Ocean archipelago, a young Republic in which democracy is still a relatively new concept – has shown the way.

Thousands voted in the country’s historic presidential election last Sunday, proving that ‘democracy is a historical inevitability’ – words echoed by former Maldivian President Mohammed Nasheed, the first democratically elected leader of the island nation, ousted in a coup six years ago. Last week, as the region and the world watched, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, the ‘opposition common candidate’ backed by Nasheed won against strong-man incumbent Abdullah Yameen. Solih holds together a disparate coalition of unlikely allies including former President and Yameen’s own half-brother, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. Also part of the unlikely alliance is the pro-Islamic Jumhooree and Adhaalath Parties. For the Maldives that has suffered a turbulent transition to democracy after Gayoom’s 30 year rule in 2008, last week’s election was a moment for celebration. For the rest of us, it was a reminder that – with all its flaws – liberal democracy remains the best model of governance over all other alternatives that exist in the modern world.

The opposition victory in the Maldives was good news for the entire South Asian region which seems to have an unhealthy and naive fascination with the concept of ‘benevolent dictatorship’. The only dampener in last week’s victory was those who treated the news with cynicism due to events that have unfolded in Sri Lanka since our own ‘rainbow revolution’ in January 2015.

The parallels between last week’s presidential elections in the Maldives and Sri Lanka in January 2015 are too many to count. In both countries, the common opposition candidate was singularly a unifying force – a democrat – pitted against an autocratic leader. The idea that captivated Sri Lankans nearly four years ago, and inspired the political imagination of voters in last Sunday’s polls in the Maldives, was new democratic leadership to arrest an increasingly authoritarian trend and hold people accountable for corruption and grave human rights abuses.

This transition remains the primary mandate of the new Maldivian administration which will take office in November – and Sri Lanka’s own revolutionary coalition that won power in January 2015. The Maldives is still savouring its democratic moment. Sri Lanka is a little older, a little more jaded and a little less hopeful. Understandably, these past four years have brought disappointment and genuine frustration, especially, for those who risked life and limb to battle the Rajapaksa administration in the 2015 election. Progress on reforms has been slow, politicians have reverted to the old ways and the economic burden is borne largely by the common man.

And yet, that democratic moment the country experienced nearly four years ago, has not been without its monumental impacts for freedom and equality in the country. The 19th Amendment to the Constitution remains the Unity Government’s single greatest achievement to date. Crafted to prevent an autocrat wielding all-power over the citizenry again, 19A as it is commonly known, imposed checks and balances on the executive, slashed presidential powers, restored term limits, and appointed independent commissions to oversee key state institutions and functions. Today, demonstrations against the Government conclude without blood spilled on the streets, scribes are not hunted and killed, rights activists no longer fear the white-van. Judicial independence has been restored, and the greatest beneficiaries of that newfound freedom have been members of the former regime, who have gone before the higher courts to stall investigations and almost always winning reprieve. Landmark Right to Information laws have made information about the state sector more accessible than ever, and the legislation has been hailed as one of the most progressive in the world, and certainly the best in South Asia.

But, there are miles to go. And, hundreds of promises already broken along the way. Some of these failures have brought the wolves to the door again, and all the democratic values and freedoms that were fought for and won on January 8, 2015 are in graver peril than ever before.

The new constitution that was to resolve the ethnic problem and usher in a permanent peace is unlikely to see the light of day. Corruption persists. The current relations between the constituent parties of the Unity Government are a far cry from the Licchavi principles touted in 2015.

This is why honest reflection on last week’s election in the tiny island nation next door, that took its inspiration from Sri Lanka’s own ballot box revolution in 2015, is essential.

It is a moment for the political leadership of the ruling coalition to take a long, hard, introspective look at the promise of January 2015; a moment to reflect on where Sri Lanka is headed; and if necessary, to change course to set the country back on the path it was intended to go after that euphoric democratic victory three and a half years ago. That moment was not about business as usual and marginal gains. It was about monumental change.

The Maldives took its inspiration from Sri Lanka’s democracy movement. The little island nation has a lot of rebuilding to do and as President-elect Solih sets about this task, the Maldives will continue to look to Sri Lanka for guidance and inspiration; it may also look upon Sri Lanka to understand the pitfalls and challenges that confront political leadership in transitional democracies.

It is up to the current Sri Lankan Government to demonstrate that such moments need not be fleeting. To achieve this, the Government must put its house in order and restore the promise of January 8.

Not every idea captures the imagination of the citizenry. Not every political idea drives voters to the polls. There is power in the idea of democracy and freedom, the Maldives showed last week. But to see the transition from authoritarianism to entrenched democratic processes through leaders of the movement must remain steadfastly loyal to the original idea, keepers of the flame long after the election magic has faded.

There was magic in the power of the January 2015 idea. This message from Male is an opportunity to recall the euphoria of the moment – and to do everything possible to salvage the promise.

For so many who suffered the tyranny of Sri Lanka’s decade of darkness, to go back to the days of dictatorship and oppression is unthinkable. With a great deal to lose and in genuine fear for their lives, the beating hearts of the January 8 revolution have remained faithful to the idea. It is politicians who must play catch up. Will they hear the cries of the people behind the movement that brought them to power, perhaps, best encapsulated in the beautiful musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s words in his immortal tale Les Miserables,‘Do you hear the people sing? Singing the songs of angry men; it is the music of a people who will not be slaves again’?