By Ameer Ali –
Right from the beginning of the presidential campaign and throughout his administration so far, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s (PGR) constant theme and answer to his critics has been, “forget the past and look to the future”. The implication of this thematic answer is very clear. Objectively speaking, no leader in his/her right mind would wish a past to be forgotten had that past been one of glorious achievements, peace and prosperity. Similarly, no leader would like to remember and cherish a past in which his/her own record of achievements was one mixed with untold misery, death and destruction. PGR’s position falls into the second. One may argue that the final judgement on the past depends on how one views and interprets it. After all, history is what a historian chooses to write.
It is not clear how much of the past that PGR wants to be erased from memory. Is it only the war related military past or even the financial corruption and nepotism that was rampant during his brother’s regime? If the latter is included then why shouldn’t we also forget Yahapalana’s bond scam and move on with the future?
Yet, in PGR’s case, the fact that he was the Defence Secretary and therefore the chief architect and conductor of a no-holds-bar civil war, in which he no doubt achieved a pyrrhic victory, makes him directly responsible and he cannot run away by asking the victims of that war to forget about it. The deadliest manner in which innocents were treated after surrendering to the forces under PGR’s command, should obviously be pricking his conscience. He is personally not a corrupt and venal man, but a devout Buddhist. Wasn’t Buddhism that transformed that merciless conqueror Asoka to repent and become a sublime ruler? PGR may justify his action in the name of patriotic duty towards his country. But as a devout Buddhist shouldn’t he admit and regret for his errors of judgement, and therefore ask for forgiveness rather than appealing to forget? The way he conducted that war brought untold misery, death and destruction to hundreds of thousands of not only Tamils, but also Sinhalese and Muslims, who were the unfortunate collateral. He therefore owes an apology to the nation as a whole before asking the people to look to the future. Forget they will not, but forgive they may. If Angela Merkel and other Western leaders could apologise to the Jewish people for the Holocaust, if former President Obama could apologise to the Japanese for bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and if Prime Minister Kevin Rudd could say sorry to the original owners of Australia for crimes committed by his White ancestors, why couldn’t PGR as a committed Buddhist say sorry to Sri Lankans? Such an apology would be the first step towards reconciliation. PGR should rise to the level of a statesman and take that first step. Reconciliation will become a lot easier after that.
Even then, reconciliation is not a one way traffic. The Tamil and Muslim leadership are also equally culpable for not doing enough to prevent the civil war in the first place. There is no just war anywhere in history, and all wars a march of folly. This is not the place to dig into the course of the civil war, but two episodes are worth mentioning. Firstly, had the Tamil leaders of that time condemned unreservedly from inside the parliament and in public, the assassination of Alfred Durayappah by the then budding leader Prabakaran in 1975, and had those leaders steadfastly refused to tolerate the acts of violence committed by podiyankal (the boys), the country would have avoided a civil war and its consequences. Secondly, Muslim leadership that was caught in the middle, missed a golden opportunity and failed to play the role of an honest broker with all the support they had internationally among Muslim countries. Instead, that leadership was only concerned about maximising its own gains from a troubled environment. Thus, both leadership also owe an apology to the nation.
Let us turn to the future now. Behind all the thought bubbles bursting out of PGR, there is one common denominator, an ambitious dream with Machiavellian traits. His military background, his determination to redirect the country’s future development along technocratic and technological trajectory, and his dependence for support on a powerful cabal of Buddhist supremacists, are leading him to design a model of governance mixed with chauvinistic and Machiavellian tendencies. His idea of political exclusion with economic inclusion brings out this mixture clearly. The reason given for this stance was that the majority (which actually means the minority supremacists) was not willing for power sharing with minorities. This stance was repeated by his caretaker Prime Minister when he said that Tamil leaders were demanding something which the Singhalese (once again it is the supremacists) were not willing to concede. The question is not what Tamils were demanding but whether there were some elements of justice and fairness in at least some of those demands. If there were, then, it is the responsibility of the rulers to convince their supporters of the reasonableness of those demands rather than politicising them to remain in power. It is the failure to do this that had bedevilled this nation all along. The President needs to rise to the level of a statesman to do this, at least in the interest of the future that he is dreaming about and asking for peoples support.
‘Prosperity with splendour’, ‘pupil- centred education’, ‘market oriented university courses’, ‘meritocratic appointments for public service’, and ‘tax stimulus for economic development’, are some of his other thought bubbles, which may look attractive if viewed individually, but collectively they lack a coordinated structural plan. It appears that PGR is trying to rule by edicts rather than with a methodically structured and coherent plan.
There are three fundamentals which will act as constraints to realise PGR’s dream. Firstly, the absence of a solution to the national question of reconciliation. Secondly, the international and regional geopolitical quagmire into which Sri Lanka is pushed, and thirdly, the open economy. These three are interconnected and each impinges on the operation of the other two. They have become, in a sense, an impossible trinity to deal with. The two hurried visits to India, one by PGR and the other by his caretaker Prime Minister, and the demands set out by the Indian government with financial assistance, the delayed visit to China by PGR in consequence, the ongoing dialogue over US initiated Millennium Challenge Corporation and US’ pressure on SOFA, and finally IMF’s future conditionality, are macro constraints that will have their effect on realising PGR’s micro thought bubbles.
The future of this country cannot be built singlehandedly by the majority Sinhalese alone. It needs the cooperation of all communities. Sooner the supremacists who are backing PGR realise this fact easier will be the task of achieving prosperity with splendour. Given the nepotistic and corrupt political culture of this country, people may be willing to give the benefit of doubt to PGR, and tolerate his iron fist approach to prevail, but already nepotism and corruption seem to be entering through the backdoor. Chinks are starting to appear on the walls PGR erected. If forgetting the past is not possible, future is becoming blurry to look forward.