By Basil Fernando –
Anura Kumara Dissanayake, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) Leader did something noteworthy when he stated in a public speech made in the Parliament that his Party admits that they have made serious mistakes in the past and that they have been consciously trying to admit to these mistakes and also not repeat them in the future. For the development of an enlightened political culture, it is always better for those who engage in political life to admit wrongdoings and mistakes they have made in public and to be frank about it. Perhaps the most well-known example of this is the speech of the First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev made in 1956 at their Party congress, condemning the horrendous wrongs done by the Ruler of the Soviet Union Joseph Stalin, just three years after his death in 1953. That admission gave one of the most significant moments not only in the history of the Soviet Union but also in the leftist movement throughout the world.
Of course the purpose of mentioning Khrushchev’s speech is not to compare Dissanayake’s few remarks with that historic speech made by the Soviet Leader. The point purely is to highlight the fact that in any area of life, the admission of wrongdoings does more towards the development of better discourses, whether it be in political or the social sphere or even in the religious sphere.
If we for a moment try to imagine a movement in which all the political leaders align and attempt to make a genuine admission of the wrongs or mistakes they have done while they were in power, what would be the impact of such a situation? Of course what we try to imagine is that these admissions are done in good faith and with a genuine desire to admit before the public things that were done wrong in the past with the hope that such admissions would give rise to a positive discussion among the people who are looking for ways to make things better for the future.
Suppose in that imaginary situation, the United National Party Leaders who are now split into two camps all make genuine admissions about the wrongdoings of their Party in the recent decades. Suppose they were to admit that the introduction of the 1978 Constitution was perhaps the most damaging action that they have done when they had an overwhelming majority in the Parliament. This of course is just one instance and there are many more things that could be discussed openly. Just in that example of the Constitution, if there is such an admission of the grave damage done to the country, by introducing this Constitution, the whole debate in the country for the making of a new constitution will take a completely different direction. The various Amendments that were made to the Constitution by way of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution and the 20th Amendment to the Constitution have all been done without a common admission that the entirety of the 1978 Constitution has been one of the greatest attacks on every aspect of Sri Lankan life. Because there was no overall admission of what was proposed to be changed, all these years of debates on constitutional reform ultimately produced nothing of substance except to enable the continuity of the influence of this damaging Constitution.
What this demonstrates is that admissions are not mere declaration from the perspective of public apologies or even purely matters of admitting crimes. Admissions of political wrongdoings determine a political discourse which goes far beyond the particular mistakes that are admitted. It makes the society reconsider the things that they once thought may be right and has the potential of making an improvement for the nation to be reviewed in a way to show as to why such wrong positions were taken and decisions were made. That will take a society to seriously critical examine its own past.
The absence of the critical examination of the past is unfortunately one of the features that figures in almost all of the discourses in Sri Lanka. Whether these discourses relate to serious political issues, very serious legal issues, equally serious societal issues or even matters of religion, all these factors add up to the problems that prevail at present. Thus, when a nation discusses its past critically, it is doing a service to itself which could have most far-reaching effects in making the situation better not only for the present but also for the future. Although we mention about the JVP and the UNP of both the factions, the same applies to other political parties like for example the Sri Lanka Freedom Party which has also broken into separate factions. If without being triumphalist about their great victories, if the things that happen during their Governments are looked at from a self-critical point of view, the same type of review of the past can take place.
The absence of this critical review of past wrongdoings and mistakes remains one of the major stumbling blocks for the development of a genuine consensus among the people as well as among various political parties on things which are of common interest to everybody. It is that sense of common interest that creates a nation. When that sense of common interest could be the uniting force, then the various divisive factors could be relegated into a secondary position and ways could be found to deal with those problems within an overall context of solid agreements which creates the kind of mentalities that brings people together to face these challenges.
What this means is that the admissions of wrongdoings and mistakes cannot be avoided if there is a determination to develop a State that represents the interests of everyone. Unity is better built by admissions of mistakes rather than by pretending that no mistakes or wrongdoings have happened. Such evasiveness and hypocrisy could never be the basis of developing a national consciousness.
It is good for the JVP Leader to have had the courage to speak out about how they look at some of the things that the Party has done in the past. And if they encouraged that criticism from within their Party itself and also within the society without fearing that this may backfire, it is most likely that they would contribute to a political discourse in the right direction which is much needed. An admission of that nature need not be an act of defense. In fact, it could be an act of taking offense so that others are forced to come out frankly to discuss their own mistakes and wrongdoings.
It may not be a surprise that during the time of Independence, generally, the discourse was to talk about the great achievements of the people in the past. A humiliated nation trying to rise from a period of colonialism often has to build its confidence in narratives which may not necessarily be telling them the whole truth. However, that period has not passed. To carry on with the same mold is to waste time and also to delay the development of a national consensus to face the very grave challenges Sri Lanka is faced with now on every front.
The younger generation that is coming into adulthood now will be better served if the older generation dares to admit the mistakes and wrongdoings they have done in the past. This new generation is looking for critical guidance into the future and there is no better way to direct that generation towards a better understanding of themselves and their past than by daring to have an open discourse of the political mistakes made by everyone in the past not with the view of taking petty advantages out of it but with the perspective of developing a thought base for the future.