By Dharisha Bastians –
“Our cricket embodied everything in our lives, our laughter and tears, our hospitality our generosity, our music, our food and drink. It was normality and hope and inspiration in a war-ravaged island. In it was our culture and heritage, enriched by our myriad ethnicities and religions. In it we were untouched, at least for a while, by petty politics and division. It is indeed a pity that life is not cricket.” – Kumar Sangakkara, MCC Spirit of Cricket Lecture, 2011
President Mahinda Rajapaksa is a true Sri Lankan hero in many respects.
As the head of Sri Lanka’s first post-war Government, the Mahinda Rajapaksa story evokes much political romanticism. The quintessential ape miniha, he is the Sinhalese hero that started life in a remote Southern village and rose to the highest echelons of power in Colombo. Over the course of his eight year presidential stint, President Rajapaksa has often donned the cape of the crusading hero. He is the conqueror of terrorists, defender of the nation against neo-imperialist forces, emperor of the Commonwealth, cuddler of babies and magic builder of superhighways. To reinforce these perceptions, the President’s name or derivations of it, are stamped on every new piece of infrastructure conferred upon the public. Unquestioning acceptance of Government development schemes and the ostrich-like tendency of the citizenry to marvel at new roads and city beautification without worrying about process, transparency and debt burden, has allowed the regime to declare them all benevolent bequests by the political leadership.
Ownership of national success stories has been a Rajapaksa mantra, one that has made the incumbent executive wildly popular.
There is however one notable exception that was reinforced strongly this past weekend when Sri Lanka’s other national heroes took centre stage. Sri Lankan cricketing legends Mahela Jayawardane and Kumar Sangakkara unofficially led the team to victory in the ICC World T20 final on Sunday night, the former taking a lead as de facto captain in Dinesh Chandimal’s absence while the latter scored an unbeaten 52 to guide the side to the 130 runs it needed to beat India.
When it comes to cricket, President Rajapaksa is an anti-hero, unforgivingly and perhaps even unfairly associated with the curious jinx that has plagued the Sri Lankan team at world cup finals since 2007.
The LTTE famously disrupted the live telecast of that Sri Lanka-Australia final in the Caribbean in April 2007 with an aerial attack on the Kerawalapitiya fuel storage facility in Colombo. During the attack, one of the most daring undertaken by the ‘Air Tigers’, President Rajapaksa and his entourage were at the Kensington Oval in Barbados watching the game. Sri Lanka would lose every World Cup final in the intervening years, in both the T20 and 50 over formats, in 2009 (to Pakistan), 2011 (to India) and in 2012 (to the West Indies). President Rajapaksa just happened to be among the spectators almost every time. By the 2012, an audible groan of collective disappointment ran around the R. Premadasa Stadium and living rooms across the country when the cameras spanned the VIP enclosure and zoomed in on a smiling President watching the game. Sri Lanka lost to Chris Gayle’s West Indian side later that night, and fans unofficially confirmed the Jonah effect of the high profile spectator. Before long the issue would become a hot topic in pre-match discussions and the subject of multiple emails circulated just before big games.
With their win last Sunday, the Sri Lankan cricket team broke the jinx. The country was in a jubilant mood and President Rajapaksa was considered to have done his part by keeping his feet planted firmly on home soil, allowing the ‘boys’ to get on with business in Dhaka..
Being cricket-fans of the happy-go-lucky sort, Sri Lankans rarely take the team’s losses too seriously. But the ‘finals jinx’ was tedious and scapegoats had become necessary. The fans may have been only half serious about the ‘executive’ bad luck charm, but President Rajapaksa is a deeply superstitious man. Moreover, he is uncomfortable with being associated with defeat, because it has come rarely to him during an eight year reign at the top of the political firmament. To have a notion circulating that defeat was being brought about by his presence – however credulous – would be unthinkable.
His absence at many of the Sri Lankan cricket team’s bigger games has been conspicuous in recent times. President Rajapaksa did not attend the Asia Cup final at the same stadium in Dhaka in March this year – and the Sri Lankan team beat Pakistan to the title.
But it may have been a source of some disappointment for the President that his Government had to be represented by Justice Minister Rauff Hakeem when the cricket team secured its most historic win in 18 years. Hakeem would be pictured holding the coveted ICC World T20 cup with Skipper Lasith Malinga following the awards presentation. Had the President been among the spectators at Sher-e-Bangla Stadium on Sunday night, it was he who would have shared that moment.
It was clear that the match was very much on the presidential radar, when Chairman of Selectors and UPFA MP Sanath Jayasuriya received a congratulatory telephone call on the field, moments after the team started celebrating their win. Political ownership of that victory, hot on the heels of a lacklustre election result in the Western and Southern Provinces and the crisis in Geneva would have been a welcome respite for the ruling administration.
But even the ensuing national celebration took on a life of its own. And while various politicians attempted to insert themselves into the party, the carnival atmosphere that heralded the return of Sri Lanka’s cricketing heroes was almost entirely spontaneous and of the people. No amount of political mobilization could muster the kind of blinding crowds that thronged the open-top bus in which the Sri Lankan team rode to the capital.
Not since the end of the war in May 2009 – President Rajapaksa’s last most triumphal moment – have the crowds burst forth with such spontaneity and patriotic fervour. In those brief moments, the religious, ethnic and socio-economic polarization that plagues the national discourse on virtually every other issue melted away in the joy of truly national victory. Sri Lanka stood proud, strong and united – her best self – basking in the afterglow of international sporting fame. Politics had no place there.
That was of course, to prove a short-lived phenomenon.
Sangakkara and Jayawardane fired a first salvo upon their return to the island on Tuesday, slamming Sri Lanka Cricket officials for criticizing them in the local media while they were on world cup tour. The two former skippers may have realized that it was the perfect moment to take the issue on, when the Sri Lanka cricket team could do no wrong in the eyes of an adoring public. Cricket fans have little sympathy for cricket administrators and selectors on a good day and revelations they had offended departing T20 heroes Sangakkara and Jayawardane during a crucial tournament would not be well received. Sri Lanka Cricket (SLC) refuted the claims yesterday berating Jayawardane for raking up the issue publicly without verifying the facts and attributing the remarks to Chairman of Selectors Jayasuriya who the cricket governing body said had been ‘personally expressing’ his point of view. This is far from the first time senior players like Jayawardane and Sangakkara have been at odds with cricket administrators, and it is often believed these petty squabbles will eventually hasten their retirement from all forms of the game. Gentlemen sportsmen, the duo often appear deeply uneasy with the way the game is run in the country.
With its official response, Sri Lanka Cricket has deemed the matter ‘closed’, but the incident was profoundly indicative of how inextricable politics and cricket have become in the country. Cricket elections are controversial and highly politicized affairs. Financial scandals and a lack of transparency have rocked SLC. The Rajapaksa administration has added its fair share to all these woes, offering patronage to certain top officials and selectors and running up bills the SLC cannot pay by deciding to construct the Mahinda Rajapaksa International Stadium at Sooriyawewa before the 2011 World Cup. In this way, the administration of the country’s favourite game does not differ much from the way other affairs are run in Sri Lanka.
But the miracle of Sri Lankan cricket is the fact that it succeeds in spite of the politics, patronage and corruption that mires it. There is a certain spark about the way Sri Lanka plays this game that politics and politicians can neither extinguish nor possess, despite their best efforts. Just as it will be Arjuna Ranatunga, Aravinda De Silva and their teammates who will be remembered for the 1996 world cup victory, (and not President Chandrika Kumaratunga), the 2014 win in Bangladesh will forever be associated with Jayawardane, Sangakkara and their fitting farewell to T20 cricket. In cricketing annuls, the Sri Lankan political leadership of the time will be irrelevant information.
The same cannot be said of other events unfolding in the country.
The new targets
The spirit of national unity, so widely hailed in the aftermath of the World Cup victory would be struck a devastating blow on Wednesday only hours after the carnival at Galle Face had ended. The Bodu Bala Sena, relatively quiet over the past two months, felt safe to rear its head on the national stage yesterday, with the March sessions of the UN Human Rights Council out of the way. Led by the group’s General Secretary Galagodaththe Gnanasara Thero, a mob of about 30 people, many of them wearing saffron robes, stormed a press briefing summoned by the moderate monk from Mahiyanganaya, Watareka Vijitha Thero who has been speaking out publicly against hardline Buddhist movements. The Bodu Bala Sena monks allegedly threatened the moderate monk with physical harm, stole his documents, demanded he call off the press conference and insisted on a public apology. A complaint about the assault has been lodged at the Slave Island Police Station, but law enforcement has never proved effective against marauding saffron armies this past year.
The antics of the hardline organization and its ideological partners dominated the discourse on Sri Lanka in Geneva last month, where delegation after delegation raised the threats to religious freedom in the island. The failure to rein in these elements that are so deeply damaging to fragile racial and religious relations in the country is laid squarely at the door of the ruling administration, which has all of the political capital and enforcement capacity to do so, but tragically, lacks the will.
The Government will also be compelled to take ownership of the impending international disaster if it continues to mishandle the human rights crisis and spurn investigators mandated to probe the last seven years of the war in Sri Lanka by the UNHRC resolution adopted last month. Persistent rejection of the investigation process and knee jerk reactions to the international censure, like security crackdowns in the Northern Province and the blanket ban on 16 Tamil diaspora groups, will only worsen the regime’s external woes, and set it on a precipitous collision course with the world’s most powerful states. The Rajapaksa regime will not assume ownership of the reconciliation process in real terms; it will not seek to carve out a workable political solution for the island’s Tamil minority community. It persists in creating a vacuum for other political and international players to champion these causes, just as it has lost ground badly to former President Chandrika Kumaratunga on the issue of religious freedom. In fuelling crises and burying its head in the sand with regard to political devolution and accountability, the Rajapaksa administration is quickly becoming its own worst enemy, an unbreakable jinx in a scenario that was once filled with promise.
Framing the debate
This week, still smarting from the twin defeats of Geneva and the PC poll results which fell below expectations despite the Geneva histrionics, the Government is all bravado and bluster. It could have used a high moment and to bask in the reflected glory of the Sri Lankan cricket team would have been most desirable from a regime perspective. But denied the opportunity to pose for photo opportunities with the winning shield, a greater statesman may have used the uniting power of that victory in Dhaka to frame the bigger reconciliation debate.
In 1995, when President Nelson Mandela convinced 60 million South Africans to support the country’s almost all white Rugby team at the World Cup, he turned the tide in his recently liberated country. By wearing the yellow and green Springboks jersey to the final game, Mandela transformed a lingering symbol of white oppression into a national symbol of hope and integration. The Springboks world cup victory that year was only the smallest part of the narrative. Civil war between the black and white populations had been averted; the victory had represented everything South Africa could be, if it could pull together instead of apart.
Twenty years later, Sri Lanka’s own reconciliation story looks very different, even from a cricketing perspective. Hours after the victory, state organs were busy re-defining patriotism and deciding on who was worthy and unworthy to savour the cricket team’s win. Sri Lanka has long since abandoned the philosophy that it is possible to love one’s country without loving the Government. Now the state avers that when citizens fail to see eye-to-eye with the administration on other issues of the day, pride in the national cricket team is largely misplaced or disingenuous.
This is a broken and hopeless place to be, five years after Sri Lanka left war behind. It polarizes and marginalizes large sections of the citizenry and seeks to tear apart in peace-time what little hope for reconciliation remained intact even amidst brutal war. Even President Rajapaksa may agree if he is a true fan of the game – that’s just not cricket.
Courtesy Daily FT