By Vishwamithra –
Recent history tells us a moving story of human drama that occurred in 1968: ‘On the night of 20–21 August 1968, the then the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia, officially known as Operation Danube, launched a joint invasion of Czechoslovakia by four Warsaw Pact countries (the Soviet Union, Poland, Bulgaria and Hungary). Approximately 500,000 Warsaw Pact troops attacked Czechoslovakia that night, with Romania and Albania refusing to participate. East German forces, except for a small number of specialists, did not participate in the invasion because they were ordered from Moscow not to cross the Czechoslovak border just hours before the invasion. One hundred and thirty seven (137) Czechoslovakian civilians were killed and five hundred (500) seriously wounded during the occupation.
The invasion successfully stopped Alexander Dubcek’s Prague Spring liberalization reforms and strengthened the authority of the authoritarian wing within the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (KSČ). The foreign policy of the Soviet Union during this era was known as the Brezhnev Doctrine.
What was most conspicuous on the street-walls of Prague during the invasion was one stark expression of the resilience of the people of Prague: ‘Do not touch a hair of their head, do not give them a drop of water’. Against a brutally suppressive military force as was the Warsaw pact-led invasion, such a slogan painted on the walls of Prague might have appeared, if not naïve, utterly ridiculous. Yet the very words and their collective connotation and their vicarious message were uniquely powerful’.
Prague Spring as a political movement was a failure; its abortion heartlessly executed by Brezhnev and Company placed at the time in Moscow in a most ironical turn gave birth to an impotent regime in Czechoslovakia and the rest, as they say, is history.
Unfortunately, we in Sri Lanka might well be repeating a very dishonorable chapter of a very dishonorable history in near future. The country is in a precarious status; its economy is in a shambles; its national life is in disarray; its cultural flow is at a standstill and its political leadership is incorrigibly corrupt and self-serving.
For seventy three years, ever since the departure of the British colonial powers, the nation’s fate has been manipulated and slaughtered by those who ruled in place of the British masters. What was once pursued for its pure glory and prestige, political power is being pursued more for access to the national coffers, in addition to the glory and prestige. Money and closeness to the machinery that produces and controls its flow inwards and outwards has become the determining factor in today’s art of governance.
I have penned many a column emphasizing the pros and cons of the regimes that have governed our country since 1948. Some have been harsh and others mild. Whilst not retracting one word of such harsh criticisms and reviews, I need to enunciate most vehemently and unreservedly that the current clique of rulers, the Rajapaksa and Company stands alone in the middle of this nauseatingly stinking heap of political debris as most horrendous perpetrators of political crime.
In that span of seventy three years, Ceylon first and Sri Lanka since 1972, managed to survive as a democracy despite the fact that it was attacked by two unsuccessful violent revolutions, one in 1972 and the other in 1987-1989 period and two unsuccessful coup d’états, the first in 1962 and the second in 1968. The spirit and faith in our democratic political and administrative structures seem to have taken deep root and the very faith in the spirit of democracy seems to be unshakeable.
Yet the aforementioned violent attacks and non-violent coup d’états occurred in a totally different sociopolitical context. Scarcities of basic amenities, skyrocketing cost of living and ill-managed recovery from a global pandemic have heightened the political sensitivities of our people. Availability of the social media coupled with a growing awareness of harsh and unbearable political realities have sharpened the thinking process of our younger generation and the need to respond to national crises, even without well-orchestrated political leadership, is palpably manifest on the streets today.
Nevertheless, one must realize that change does not come spontaneously; it does not manifest itself without proper and clear leadership. If allowed to grow at its current pace and character, one might have to live with anarchy instead of the change that he or she so willfully expected. This is precisely the dilemma the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) today faces. The people’s awareness of changing political realities and the emergence of impromptu social media pundits and spontaneous beginnings of ‘movements’ are the very fuel a clever and inspired leader would not ignore out of hand. Commitment to a cause, irrespective of consequences and punishments that might entail such commitment is not sufficient to enact and engineer a change that we all welcome.
Instead of beginning to aim for tomorrow, a clever and inspired leader would look to the day after tomorrow. The people who cry out for change would not be content with change alone; they will invariably ask what happens when you take over the country. The defeat of Mahinda Rajapaksa and election of Maithripala Sirisena is still vivid memories whose shelf life has lasted much more than one might like. Ranil Wickremesinghe’s defeat along with the total evisceration of the United national Party (UNP), more than two million UNP voters staying home without going to the polls to vote for Sajith Premadasa’s Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) on Parliamentary Election Day are clear and precise indications an astute political leader would not disregard.
The performance of our current Opposition leaders and their parties is as abysmal as the governing party’s concert of corruption. The country is literally burning. The health workers are disgruntled; the school teachers are clamouring for higher wages; the farmers are indignant and up in arms. Almost every sector is rising with its own indigenous leaders. Such uprisings have short-terms pluses but could carry dangerous long-term malignancies, the chief of which is anarchy. Anarchy so produced by a chaotic political environment only gives strength and purpose to a ruling machinery that is unspeakably oppressive and impulsively corrosive.
In such an unpredictable context what options are there with the leadership of the JVP? Anura Kumara Dissanayake (AKD) and his Politburo must reach a decision and they must do it yesterday. They must compromise. What is at stake is not the JVP’s exclusive manifesto; what beg attention are not the outdated, anachronistic socialist policies and principles. The majority of the people do not understand the nuanced aspects of political power and its machinations. Palace intrigues and their obscene manipulations do not attract the average Appuhamy, Siriyalatha, Natarajah and Hameed. They are not Rhodes Scholars to dissect and analyze sociopolitical dynamics. Their concern is the food on the table; their issues are with their children’s education and their wellbeing. So compromise, AKD and JVP must. Compromise is no weakness; on the contrary, only those who are strong and powerful can compromise. Installation of an incorrupt and incorruptible government must be on the top of the list, not as a footnote of your joint manifesto.
Great Russian playwright and short story writer Anton Chekhov said: “You have lost your reason and taken the wrong path. You have taken lies for truth, and hideousness for beauty. You would marvel if, owing to strange events of some sorts, frogs and lizards suddenly grew on apple and orange trees instead of fruit, or if roses began to smell like a sweating horse; so I marvel at you who exchange heaven for earth. I don’t want to understand you.” I have not yet come to that station of life to be so cynical and realistic like Chekov but cannot help but quote him in the context of the current crisis facing Sri Lanka.
The challenge is enormous; yet simple and direct. Of all the political leaders of today in Sri Lanka, only AKD has not lost his authenticity and credibility. None else can brag about such credentials. A show of austerity and simplicity could attract many a capitalist-minded entrepreneur. Use it if you have to. In other words, keep no stone unturned in order to send the current ruling clique and their henchmen and women out of power.
Seventy three years of time is pausing; that pause is short and intriguing. Seventy three years of time span is challenging the whole country. Are you people ready for real change? Are you ready to do whatever that is necessary to drive the current clique to their miserable homes? The journey that the current Opposition has to travel is not easy; it’s arduous and winding; it has more potholes than evenly carpeted path. Along that path you will have to garnish your strength; Along that path you will have to galvanize the youth, not by extending promises but by showing a way away from violence, away from shallow political slogans and platform-pontifications. The people might not be educated; but they are no more tolerant and no less sensitive than their so-called leaders.
They need to rise as one people; as a single-minded society yearning for change and hoping for a more realistic and more rational sociopolitical reality. But tell then when they rise against the ruling clique: ‘Do not touch a hair of their heads; do not give them a drop of water’.
*The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org