By Mohamed Harees –
“We learn from history that we do not learn from history.”― Georg Hegel
Before the Presidential elections, a prominent monk asked Gotabaya Rajapaksa (GR) to reform this country even by becoming a Hitler. His thinking, to a great extent reflected the thinking of the majority community, fatigued by the impact of the Easter Sunday attack, which created a sense of unease and fear among them. Months later, GR came to power with a thumping majority, on a majoritarian mandate based on an illusion of building a Sinhala-Buddhist State, which obviously alienated the minorities. Barely one and half years in government, GR’s so-called ‘Sinhala-Buddhist government’ is in shambles, with the government machinery crumbling from all sides, Nation’s assets being openly auctioned, debt mountain rising to high heavens and social cohesion disintegrating as never before. With seven decades of broken promises and false hopes behind them, Sri Lankan people do not seem to be learning bitter lessons, the history has been teaching them. Even after a disastrous war , ‘the hopes of yesterday…have (thus) become fast evaporating fantasies once again, as S.J. Thambiah once wrote!
It is too late; but the sad state of affairs today is that the same people who voted in and later made this government all-powerful with tremendous potential to unduly subjugate citizens and eliminate liberties at will, are struggling to put the ‘disastrous’ Genie back into the bottle, they once opened with much enthusiasm! The very saffron robes (Siwura) which recrowned a ‘reborn Dutugemnu’ are today rising against him and his government built on false hopes and fraudulent promises. With no clear economic or political vision for the country, and with many allies in the ruling coalition in disarray, and with many questions being posed regarding shady deals, GR appears to be relying on quick fix measures for the time being- using anti-Muslim legislative measures (which may appeal to the gallery), as diversionary tactics, to stay in power. With minimal track records to boast of in his brief period in office, GR has also begun sending signs of assuming his former ‘Defence Secretary’ persona, by threatening Opposition MPs, and mediamen. Recent instance is foul mouthing one of his own MPs who spoke against the controversial Port City Bill- Wijeyadasa Rakapakshe!
The very bedrock of credibility of GR and his government is also beginning to shake. Apart from the false hopes and promise made out to create a Sinhala Buddhist State, many allegations are also being levelled at the ruling party to have created a conducive anti-Muslim hostile environment to come to power in the Post-Easter tragedy period. It was an exercise in foolishness for the clownish Minister National Security Minister Sarath Weerasekera to say that Noufer Moulavi (who has been in custody since the aftermath of the tragedy) was ‘selected’ as the mastermind. Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith once again debunked all such myths when he, this Sunday declared that the 2019 Easter attack was “politically” driven and had nothing to do with Islamic extremism. “Our brethren were attack not by (Islamic) religious extremism, but by a group that exploited it to use the attackers as pawns in order to strengthen their political power.”
Hitler also used racism to stay in power. In the context of Hitlerian discourses taking place in Sri Lanka, it is pertinent to quote Weimar Germany’s descent into Nazism which was one of history’s most evocative examples of democratic collapse. Historians point out that Hitler’s political position upon his appointment as chancellor in January 1933 was precarious. Yet, by July of 1983, Hitler and the Nazis had succeeded in dismantling democracy and laying the foundation for dictatorship in Germany. Few Germans believed this could happen. Over the years, led by Hitler, they entirely dismantled the democratic political establishment; instituted the worst genocide in human history, the Holocaust; and started the bloodiest war humankind has ever experienced, World War II. Time and again, they used legal means to give their actions a semblance of legality. Step by step, Hitler managed to erode democracy until it was just a hollow facade. The fall of Germany’s first democracy shows us the serious consequences when any country loses their democracy.
Thus, when State Minister Amunugama suggested that GR should become a ‘Hitler’ to resolve them, as per the ‘people’s wishes, it was left to the German Ambassador to point out that Hitler was not a good role model for Sri Lanka to follow! It is apt to consider some of the lessons from Hitler’s ascent to power in Nazi Germany. This should give us an inkling of how despots like the Rajapakse brothers wrested power.
* Politicians commonly demand arbitrary power to deal with a national emergency and restore order, even though underlying problems are commonly caused by bad government policies. Bad economic policies and foreign policies can cause crises that have dangerous political consequences.
* In hard times, many people are often willing to go along with and support terrible things that would be unthinkable in good times.
* Aspiring dictators sometimes give away their intentions by their evident desire to destroy opponents.
* There’s no reliable way to prevent bad or incompetent people from gaining power.
* Ultimately, liberty can be protected only if people care enough to fight for it, because everywhere governments push for more power, and they never give it up willingly.
Accountability is one of the bedrocks of representative government. Democracy remains a procedure on paper if those in power cannot be held accountable in public for their acts and omissions, for their decisions, their policies and their expenditures. Despite democracy’s popularity around the globe, it is therefore important to remember that democracies can easily fail without proper up-keep. This reality was clearly evident in Sri Lanka specially in the Post war era. Rajapaksas were left to govern as they deemed fit. It’s sadly a refrain common to many countries, but in Sri Lanka, a small number of powerful people really have long dominated the political scene. The three central characters in the recent drama – Wickremesinghe, Sirisena and Rajapaksa – have all served as president or prime minister at various points in the past 20 years of disastrous governance in various forms. To the extent that they’ve been able to distinguish themselves and develop personal brands, it’s because they’ve leaned heavily on their backgrounds as well as their records during the war years.
Internally, Rajapakse brothers have gained a reputation as strongmen while leading the country’s final years of the civil war. Outside Sri Lanka, however Rajapaksas are still widely associated with atrocities committed during the war’s closing stages. One of the most remarkable aspects of the Mahinda Rajapaksa presidency was the way it pushed personal and family connections to the centre of Sri Lankan politics. Today, his brothers – are in various positions of power. Further, the Rajapaksa governments have shown outright disdain for accountability too. This is not to say the Yahapalana style of governance was satisfactory. But, this government came to power giving much promise and hope. Those aspirations just fizzled out like a bottle of soda.
It thus appears that not for nothing was Sri Lanka created in the shape of a teardrop. Ever since Independence, Sri Lanka has been sliding down the precipice, despite standing on the brink of many unprecedented historic opportunities. It is unfortunate that the land whose startling beauty gave the world the word “serendipity”, sadly today is in doldrums, deep in economic and political hotchpotch, still in search of an able leader in the calibre of Lee Kwan Yew or Mahathir Mohamad to rediscover its magic of a bygone golden historic era.
Lee Kwan Yew(LKY) first changed the mindset of his people. One of the main secrets of Singapore’s success is promoting multi-culturism. They made significant progress in becoming one people – regardless of race, language or religion. Where nobody would be favoured or disadvantaged because of the colour of his or her skin. Where everybody would have equal opportunities, feel kinship and brotherhood with people of different races and religions, and share the same Singapore nationality. It is the result of very hard work, a lot of toil and sweat, and the gradual education and bringing together of people. It was also because of the gradual inculcation of shared values and attitudes that we came to have the confidence, trust and mutual respect to make us one people. They brought people together and consciously created common spaces and opportunities. They used English as our common working language, while ensuring a place for their mother tongues.
LKY took steps to mix all races together in HDB estates, so that there are no enclaves or ghettos in Singapore. In schools, they recited the Pledge every day. They created GRCs so that in Parliament they will always minorities represented. They also came down hard on extremists – regardless of whether they were Chinese chauvinists or Malay, Indian or Hindu extremists – because they have to understand that this is what Singapore is, and this is how Singapore will act when racial chauvinists try to stir up sentiments against others. There were no exemptions for monks or politicians as in Sri Lanka. Law applies to all alike and hate speech was tolerated. They also amended the Constitution to ensure that minorities regularly have a chance to be the President. For this to happen, there should be a paradigm shift and a change of mindset starting from the top.
If the present political culture does not change, Sri Lanka will remain mired in a chronic state of social backwardness, always “developing” but never developed, with more tall buildings but dysfunctional institutions and morally stunted leaders. In Sri Lanka, in the present context, democratic options are unfortunately running out for the people, which obviously does not augur well for the country, deserving good times specially after a disastrous bloody three decades of war and violence. “The politicians are all the same,Malli. Despite appearances, they all know and support each other and get along fine, really”, once said (now) jailed Ranjan Ramanayake to a journalist. How true!
However, all is not over. The people of Sri Lanka can re-write political destiny through renewed public activism, by being awake and hold their government to account without being slaves to the party they voted for. Their duty does not stop at the polling booth. There is still light at the end of the tunnel; provided there is vitality within them to be politically active. One of my professional colleagues Bradley Emerson, in a recent convocation ended his speech on a positive note for Sri Lanka. He advised the young graduates not to consider the looming darkness around the country as ‘the darkness of the tomb’ where it all ends; but as the ‘darkness of the womb’ where there is an opportunity to be born into a new world.
The general point to take from all this is that activism is a deeply serious business, and activists must think in ways that are both strategic and principled. They don’t all have to do everything; a division is labour is sensible. This is a challenging endeavour, but recent events suggest that many more people now see it as their responsibility to engage in it. Let’s get to work.