By Dayan Jayatilleka –
“I have memories of the future, visions of the past…” – ‘A Cloud in a Glass of Water’ directed by Srinath Samarasinghe
Ernesto Che Guevara famously autographed a copy of his slim volume ‘Guerrilla Warfare’ to Salvador Allende with the line, “to Companero Allende who is trying to reach the same destination through a different path”. When the tiny band of survivors of Che’s guerrilla column in Bolivia made it across the border, it was Salvador Allende who was there to receive them. Juan Somavia was a comrade-in-arms of Salvador Allende. Having been an academic at the Catholic University of Chile, Somavia was the advisor to the Chilean Foreign Ministry and an ambassador under Allende who would be martyred in a military coup in September 1973.
I had been an admirer of Juan Somavia from my mid-teens, but it would be almost four decades later when we met and worked together. He was the head of the ILO when I finally met him. I had just become the chairperson of the ILO’s governing body. Mahinda Rajapaksa arrived in Geneva to address the ILO barely a fortnight after I had handed my credentials as Ambassador/PR.
After the bloody military coup, Somavia spent decades in exile, doing political and intellectual work, setting up the famous Latin American think tank for the study of the transnational corporations. It was a dangerous business. A fellow ex-ambassador, Orlando Letelier, Allende’s representative in the USA, was murdered in 1976 by a car bomb planted by Chilean secret service agents and a US contractor, in Washington DC itself. It took two decades to bring the killers to justice. It was Juan Somavia who introduced me to Orlando Letelier’s son Juan Pablo, a highly respected (and long-haired) Socialist Party Senator.
Mahinda Rajapaksa was far more at home in the ILO setting than in the UN Human Rights Council. One reason was that he had been Minister of Labour and was familiar with the ILO. The other was perhaps more pertinent. He kept saying that what Sri Lanka needed was the ILO’s model of tripartite (Govt, unions, employers) consultations on the most contentious issues between capital and labor, in which consensus was the house rule, rather than the UN HRC’s intrusive and adversarial ‘name and shame’ model. Chairing the often stormy general assembly of the ILO at which such consensus was negotiated, while I was also a Vice President of the Human Rights Council, I participated in both these models. A significant role in the opening up in Burma/Myanmar was played by the ILO under Juan Somavia in those years. The ILO which was allowed to set up shop in Myanmar engaged in delicate negotiations with the hierarchy of the military junta and the embattled labor organizations, which was one of the channels that led to the process of opening up.
At the head table at ILO dinners Juan Somavia and I would sing songs by Victor Jara, the charismatic Chilean singer and communist, killed by the military junta in the Santiago sports stadium. First, the soldiers stopped him from playing his guitar by breaking his wrists.
Somavia had played an important part in the struggle against the military junta and for its international isolation, as head of the International Commission of the Democratic Convergence. After democracy made a triumphant return to Chile and a Socialist president re-elected, Somavia was Chile Ambassador/PR to the UN in New York, sat on the Security Council, and most importantly, initiated and chaired the UN Social Summit in Copenhagen. When I chaired the General Conference, Somavia was elected for a third term as ILO boss against US objections (which, as we know from the fates of Boutros-Boutros Ghali and Christie Weeramantry, can be decisive).
In 2013 he resigned in the middle of his third term when Michelle Bachelet made a comeback in Chilean politics and was an advisor in her successful presidential re-election campaign, just as my Geneva colleague and friend from Uruguay, Alejandro Artucio (who had voted for West’s call for the Special session on Sri Lanka in 2009 but solidarised firmly with Sri Lanka and voted with us when the crunch came) resigned and returned to Montevideo when Tupamaro leader and Alejandro’s fellow political prisoner Jose Mujica decided to run for president.
In the copy of his book ‘People’s Security: Globalizing Social Progress’, Juan Somavia has inscribed: “to Dayan Jayatilleka, a ‘Companero’ with whom I share values and visions with a shared conviction that ultimately ‘El pueblo unido jamas sera vencido’! With a big abrazo”. The Spanish language phrase is a slogan born in mass demonstrations in Allende’s Chile which has later resonated in revolutions and democratic leftwing triumphs throughout Latin America. It means ‘The People United Will Never Be Defeated!” Given this shared progressive political conviction, the vast experience that Juan Somavia had with political leaders and heads of state on all continents in his diverse roles over the decades, I asked for his candid political reading of Mahinda Rajapaksa and Sri Lanka’s situation.
Stroking his trademark snowy Santa Claus beard, he mused “I have met and talked with Mahinda several times over the years” and went on to spell out his perspective with great deliberation and emphasis:
“Do not isolate him. And do not let him be isolated. He is instinctively pragmatic, a moderate nationalist, and has a progressive orientation. A prolonged counter terrorist, counter insurgency war such as yours is bound to end with certain structures and the most hardline sectors strengthened. If you isolate him, he will either be a captive of these factions or a victim of them. Or he will first be one and then the other. There will be less space for civil society, for labor, under those best positioned and most likely to replace him. They will be far worse; far more reactionary, Rightist and militarist. Always engage with him. He must be engaged with by the widest spectrum of forces, nationally and globally, and they must stay engaged whatever happens. Do not isolate this man.”
I have heard much the same view about the Mahinda Rajapaksa presidency from representatives of governments I respect; products of historical processes I have been drawn to. For instance I have heard this view from Prof Miguel Alfonso Martinez, the co-chair of Havana’s Higher Institute of International Studies (and premier school of diplomatic training), who worked with Che at the UN and with Fidel at the Tricontinental and OLAS conferences, and was interviewed by Benecio del Toro before he played the role of Che in Soderbergh’s two movie epic. The late Miguel Alfonso was one of the architects and managers of Cuba’s hugely successful UN resolutions against the US embargo.
As far I can tell, Juan Somavia’s sagacious perspective and prescription has been arrived at independently in Sri Lanka only by Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith (if one were to speak of notable public figures). What is sad is that the international democratic community, the domestic democratic Opposition and the liberal and progressive intelligentsia here and overseas have sought to isolate him– and therefore strengthened the domestic hardliners as well as their grip on the President. What is tragic is that not only has President Rajapaksa been isolated by the outside world, he has isolated himself among the neo-isolationists such as his brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa, whose strategy and tactics have, wittingly or unwittingly led to Sri Lanka’s and the President’s further isolation internationally as from the national minorities.
Given the actualities of the balance of forces, it is only President Rajapaksa who stands between us and far darker forces of two sorts—of anarchism and authoritarianism; of ethno-religious militias and a civilian-military junta. At the moment Mahinda Rajapaksa is the best bet for elected civilian governance, the continuation of a multiparty system and democratic space for even the limited expression of dissent. I have travelled to many dictatorships –Nasser’s Egypt, Greece under the Colonels, Saddam’s Iraq, military-run South Korea, the USSR and Eastern Europe during the Cold War. I have been to countries which were just about to lose democracy (Indonesia 1965) and revisited them after they retrieved it decades later (Indonesia 2001). I have had long discussions with chastened revolutionaries who survived the long night of dictatorships of one sort or another (from Chile to Iran), usually in exile. Therefore I value the space we have here in Sri Lanka. It is precious and fragile. If we underestimate it we shall lose it and realize its value only when it—and we—are in lockdown.
There are those who see Mahinda Rajapaksa and the BBS as a single threat, or as two sides of the same coin. Classifying in the same category and taking on at the same time, the country’s most popular democratic political personality, whose interests reside in stability (for continuity), and the violent Sinhala Buddhist lunatic fringe which is engaged in generating instability, is in any rational reading of politics, quite incredibly moronic. Why would Mahinda Rajapaksa encourage Islamophobic terrorism which causes him to lose his external Islamic/Arab support base at a time he is under Western siege and faces Indian disenchantment? The conventional wisdom is that it is to retain the Sinhala Buddhist vote. But retain the Sinhala Buddhist vote in the face of a challenge from precisely whom? Ranil Wickremesinghe? That’s plain corny. The Sinhala Buddhist vote won’t turn from Mahinda Rajapaksa to Ranil Wickremesinghe, so the line that Mahinda Rajapaksa is behind either the BBS or worse still, the Aluthgama attack on the Muslims and the dangerous dynamic of subterranean de-stabilization that is underway, is just plain whacko as an analytical explanation.
Mahinda Rajapaksa is the leader who defeated Prabhakaran and rid us of terrorism. He is also the man who held provincial council elections in the East and the North. The LLRC report and its recommendations exist even as a rod to measure progress or a stick to beat the Govt with, only because he appointed it. Going by my conversations, one younger, progressive Western politician who thinks that Mahinda Rajapaksa retains potential, can still be part of the solution in the search for a stable peace and should not be shut off from constructive engagement is Martin McGuinness of the Sinn Fein.
Certainly President Rajapaksa hasn’t followed through on either the LLRC or the elections to the Northern Provincial Council. He should be encouraged and incentivized to do so by creating the environment – the balance of forces—for him to evolve politically. If anyone should be isolated it is not Sri Lanka, its elected and popular leader or its professional military. It is the hawks, the most hardline elements who are preventing reform, freezing devolution, rolling back reconciliation and providing cover for the BBS, Sihala Ravaya et al, who should be isolated, contained and neutralized, by Sri Lankan democratic opinion and the international system.
Though there should be unremitting (constructive) criticism of him, Mahinda Rajapaksa is not The Enemy or the Other. Thus I defend Mahinda Rajapaksa against unfair criticism from the pro-secessionist Tamil Diaspora, Tamil Nadu, the UN International Inquiry and the dominant elite of the UNP which appeased the LTTE, while I endorse fair criticism of him and his regime that comes from Anura Kumara Dissanayake and the JVP.
There is a case for pushing the regime to reform, but not for pushing Mahinda Rajapaksa over a precipice—not least because civilian democracy may go with him. Mahinda Rajapaksa’s life is also on the line at the hands of the extremists.
In ‘A Cloud in A Glass of Water’ the brilliantly conceived and executed movie by Srinath Samarasinghe, a young French–Sri Lankan director and scriptwriter, screened recently at the National Film Corporation for the French Spring Festival, the lead character (speaking posthumously) says “I have memories of the future”. What memories of Sri Lanka’s future would we have–those of a lost civilian democracy; lost space which we should have valued, protected and preserved?