By Vishwamithra –
It is rather rare that a current leader of the country is compared to an ancient ruler, for that matter an Emperor as powerful as the ruler of the Roman Empire. Whether the comparison is one of negativity or positivity, it is indeed seldom that such parallels are drawn and the respective historical contexts are explored. The necessity for such comparative studies arises from the sheer similarity of the responses and reactions of the rulers as well as those who are ruled. History contains many repetitions; those rulers whose names are mentioned in specific contexts can be compared one with the other, not only against the respective backdrops of their ruling tenures, but also with whom they participated in their enterprise of power politics.
Most Roman sources (including the Ancient Roman historians Suetonius and Cassius Dio) offer overwhelmingly negative assessments of Roman Emperor Nero’s personality and reign. The contemporary historian Tacitus claims the Roman people thought Nero compulsive and corrupt. Suetonius tells that many Romans believed that the Great Fire of Rome was instigated by Nero as a way to clear land for his planned palatial complex, the Domus Aurea. Also, according to Tacitus, he was said to have seized Christians as scapegoats for the fire, and had them burned alive, seemingly motivated not by public justice but by personal cruelty. Some modern historians question the reliability of the ancient sources on Nero’s tyrannical acts due to the overwhelming evidence of his popularity among the Roman commoners (especially in the eastern provinces of the Empire, where a popular legend arose that Nero had not died and would return). After his death, at least three leaders of short-lived, failed rebellions presented themselves as “Nero reborn” in order to gain popular support.
The exact acts, public responses and specific domain might be different, yet the contextual similarities and the fundamental character traits of the two rulers, Emperor Nero and our own Nandasena Gotabaya Rajapaksa are too much akin each other to discount and look the other way. However, the irony remains that our own ‘Emperor’ Nandasena might like himself to be compared with a Roman emperor, for however much the emperor is flawed in character and derisive in conduct, Nero was still an Emperor and had gone down in history as a significant character (utterly negative and deranged). Such is the fundamental feature of all narcissists. Their obsessive love with themselves and the elevated self-righteousness has begun the slow but terminal consumption of the subliminal humanity that might still be present within them.
The most salient feature of corruption that has been devouring the Rajapaksa family is that it seems to have taken ahold of their henchmen and henchwomen who happen to be scattered all over the globe. The blue-eyed boys, for whom Nandasena found lucrative jobs, both in Sri Lanka and abroad, as ambassadors and high commissioners, too have been infected with this deadly disease of corruption and power syndrome. The stories that roam around the rumor mill are not too tasteful and those who have been blessed or stricken with power to do good for the country and countrymen are going bonkers. They are indulging in so nauseous extravaganza, it’s unthinkable that such human folly is possible amongst some half-past-two-thirty vagabonds whose only qualification to hold such lucrative posts are they either made some financial contributions to Nandasena’s campaign or they did some campaigning during the last Presidential elections.
It is widely believed that Nero, the Roman Emperor, fiddled while Rome was burning. When the country was being gripped by a vicious pandemic and even a more vicious economic strangulation, our ‘Nero’ was partying with his diaspora friends in the western parts of the United States. A President of any country is a busy person; he or she does not have the luxury of resting time, especially when confronted with a crisis. Sri Lanka is not on that pedestal of comfort and absence-of-problems zone. She is in enormous trouble, politically, economically and socially. The country’s coffers are being emptied; its governance structure is falling apart and its social fabric is being torn apart by its ruling clan and the very identity of the country is receding into blurry shades.
When the country’s administrative structures are being threatened by total inefficiency and apathy, wise political leaders do resort to positive measures to circumvent such crises through time-tested strategies and tactics. Such an intelligent approach is totally non-existent today. Even a very finite problem could have infinite solutions, if only one chooses to look for them. Being bogged down in a bottomless pit of corruption and ignorance, today’s government led by this Nandasena Gotabaya Rajapaksa has chosen to grope for solutions where there no such solutions. Otherwise why on earth did this fellow appoint a convicted murderer to head the National Housing Authority and hand the helm of Task Force of ‘One Country, One Law’ to another convicted hooligan like Galagoda Atthe Gnanasara? We never even imagined that Nandasena is such an imbecile to distribute national treasures among criminals. Needless to say that ‘birds of the feather flock together’!
It is a great misfortune of all of us whose allegiance to our motherland is not only being cheapened, but insulted as well by our own leaders. In ‘The Gulag Archipelago’, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote: ‘In keeping silent about evil, in burying it so deep within us that no sign of it appears on the surface, we are implanting it, and it will rise up a thousand fold in the future. When we neither punish nor reproach evildoers, we are not simply protecting their trivial old age, we are thereby ripping the foundations of justice from beneath new generations.’
And in the context of Solzhenitsyn’s quote, it is time that we as Sri Lankans chose not to ignore, to use a cliché, the writings on the wall. Solzhenitsyn chose to act; he chose to write against one of the most powerful and vicious regimes in history, the Soviet Union. As another great Russian writer, Dostoevsky said “we all came out of Gogol’s ‘Overcoat,’” saying of Russian literature. We Sri Lankans have to come out of this free-fall and assume responsibility and resort to positive action. Being passive and apathetic is no option anymore.
They say that things are going to get much worse before they start to get better. We cannot wait for things to get any worse than this. When that ‘worse’ comes, it might be too late. Exchange of ideas in a very dynamic sense could be a beginning. Ideas change the world. Instead of following a person or persons, we must learn to follow ideas and ideals. If the idea is worthy enough and its intrinsic message is powerful, a leader or leaders will emerge. Remember, one can kill a leader but one cannot kill an idea.
Some so-called pundits of today query, is there a leader who can beat the Rajapaksas? Such superficial inquiries are of no use; such shallow questions don’t matter. Only lotus eaters raise such meaningless issues. We have got so comfortable within our bubble; we simply dare not think or go outside the box. Mahatma Gandhi himself was more an idea than a person. That is why even today people quote him and ask others to follow him. Non-violence, self-dependence and rejection of injustice were all ideas Gandhi preached about. Gandhi is dead but his ideas are still echoing in the human mind and driving even small men and women to extraordinary feats. Gandhi’s ideas are not dead concepts; they are living organisms that have their own lives when put into action by by well-meaning men and women.
However, finding men and women of the stature of Gandhi, Nehru and even Shashtri (all Indians), is a task in itself. India’s freedom struggle in the first half of the twentieth century threw up the Gandhis and the Nehrus. Ceylon did not have to go through such a freedom struggle nor did she suffer the terrible tragedies in the scale of the massacre of 379 unarmed civilians in Jallianwala Bagh, on April 13, 1919. A total lack of suffering at the hands of the British Raj might have led Ceylon to this apathetic approach to self-governance. Instead of service of man, service of ‘self’ had taken root in the would-be politicians and the worst crop of such a socio-political evolution is running our country today.
One single Family has taken the country hostage and the Family is extracting every bit of essence of national life and its values. Instead of attaching a value to the development drive of the nation, the Rajapaksas have named and stuck a price to such national programs. That price, in addition to the real cost of the projects, includes a massive commission (unmitigated bribe) to the members of the Family. Service of man is thrown out the door; race tracks in Hambantota and a port where no ship docks and an airport where no airplane lands, only a few glaring examples of this unquenchable avarice of this Rajapaksa Family. The nation is wailing and the local Nero is fiddling (or racing).
The Peoples Bank, one of the two major state financial institutions, is being bled white; the cost of living is reaching a level that is even the richer classes cannot afford, scarcity of milk powder and other essentials is growing at a breakneck speed. Yet the Family is enjoying the luxuries beyond description.
When the wailing stops and smiles appear, one does not know.
*The writer can be contacted at email@example.com