Colombo Telegraph

Gota And The Minorities

By Kumar David

Prof. Kumar David

A Sri Lankan President, as reported by the BBC, New York Times and The Telegraph (UK) and not contradicted by him up to this time of writing, has for the first time dropped the bombshell that 20,000 Tamils were killed in the civil war. Before commenting on that let me discuss devolution. Allow me these premises. 

1. Gota is on record as having said devolution is not possible because the majority are opposed.

2. I (KD) agree that this is factually correct. The Sinhalese are strongly opposed, at this moment, to any devolution to the Tamils and Muslims in their respective areas of domicile. That’s a fact, let’s face it!

3. There is an implication in the way Gota phrased it that he, personally, would be more accommodating but his hands are tied by prevailing correlations of power.

4. There is historical precedent to this. Banda and Dudley had to tear up the B-C Pact and the Dudley-Chelva Accord, respectively, and duck for cover when Sinhala chauvinists and monks counterattacked.

If 1 to 4 are correct what is the right thing for Gotabaya Rajapaksa to do? You can’t and shouldn’t expect him to hit his head against a rock and destroy himself. At the same time, it would be wrong to do nothing. Then how should he set about overcoming this gangrene?  How did others who faced moral challenges of similar proportions respond? Three that come to mind are Lincoln, Gandhi and Mandela, admittedly men of extraordinary stature, but that’s just what makes them important. All three were determined to fight and to raise the consciousness of their people. Leaders must stand ahead of the people if they intend to lead; the quality of leadership is not the passivity of a tail. Gota has a job to do, but does he have the moral strength?

Lincoln fought a long and hard battle to preserve the union and to abolish slavery. The first was his primary goal but he never abandoned the latter. Gandhi, after early missteps alienating the Muslims and disadvantaged castes, by the late 1930s rose to full stature and stood for Muslims as no other Hindu leader and eventually he identified with downtrodden castes as much as Ambedkar did. He single-handedly stopped the riots in Calcutta which the British-Indian army could not. Mountbatten called him “my one-man army”. Lincoln and Gandhi payed the ultimate price. Gota if he wants to be a leader of stature must campaign hard to educate his six-plus million voters to bring reconciliation and social harmony but in addition to moral commitment he also needs tactical wisdom.  Gandhi was the unluckiest of my triumvirate; he could not prevent the partition of India. Mandela the luckiest; he did not suffer an assassin’s bullet when guiding his people through a grim compromise. The real problem is that there is little evidence that Gota is doing much to educate the Sinha- Buddhist people that devolution is right. He could become another fallen by the wayside discard like Aung San Suu Kye. Pity.

Now to the bombshell. I find an estimate of about twenty thousand Tamil deaths in the civil war credible. He should have pulled together the best official estimates before risking this remarkably controversial declaration. Every previous government has lied brazenly so why did he so unexpectedly come clean, if he did? Perhaps he wants to put the past behind, admit the truth, grant amnesty to military personnel guilty of grievous misconduct and issue death certificates to relatives of victims. Or is he looking even beyond; seeking final closure with the Tamils and clearing the decks for a new settlement? If this is the case, he will have to be prepared to make sacrifices for the public good. Is he ready for a showdown with lunatic racial extremists and hate-crazed monks and does he realise that this admission weakens his vote bank in the coming elections? 

Gota has no declared ideology and subscribes to no political philosophy. One has to make out where he is going by assuming that pragmatism is his yardstick. I am now of the view that this approach provides a better assessment how his presidency will evolve than attributing to him immovable ideological, dictatorial or racist obligations. Paradoxically then, it is important to deny the SLPP-SLFP a two-thirds majority at the next election and forestall a “strong executive”. Authoritarianism is as dangerous a tool in the hands of pragmatist with no proven democratic credentials as it would be in the hands of potentially more sinister successors. 19A is miserable but its better than any now feasible alternative. 

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