By Dayan Jayatilleka –
Deconstructing Independence Day Discourse 2015
Independence Day 2015 had several key texts and speeches, all of which constitute a single discourse. There was President Sirisena’s written message and that of the PM. The President’s message was fine but the PM’s failed to mention the armed services even once. More important was the multilingual Peace Message, which was a good gesture. There too however, certain terms were conspicuous by their absence, the most crucial of which was separatism or secessionism. Terrorism was denounced, but the war used terrorism in the service of secessionism. Is the message then that terrorism is bad but secessionism is OK or not bad enough to warrant critical mention on Independence Day? Is this not exactly the perspective of the TNA, namely that it criticizes the methods of the LTTE but not its politics and goal?
Missing in the Peace Message—and not only in—was any mention of the term ‘unitary’. That term was not present at any point of the Independence Day discourse including in the well-delivered speech of President Sirisena. The signal—and the deal—are very clear, at least to me. The new administration will, most certainly after the parliamentary election, make a qualitative shift from the unitary state to one that is federal in all but name. Given that we have already experienced the travesty of the unconstitutional installation of an unelected Prime Minister and Government, the shift to de-facto federalism will probably be without recourse to a referendum.
To some this may seem a risk worth taking, but there are sound historical and geo-political reasons why many countries with an internal, or more correctly, an internal-external ethnic or ethno-religious problem refuse to shift to a federal system (Philippines and Indonesia being examples). It is also not purely coincidental that most islands situated next to a larger (or large) mass of historically hostile co-ethnic or co-religionists of one of its component communities, tend to cleave to unitary systems.
While President Sirisena made many good points in his speech about the need for reconciliation, and struck a note that President Rajapaksa should have but failed to strike in the postwar period, he saddened and alarmed me when he used a certain term twice, not just the once, in his speech: “mlechcha yuddhaya”, which means “ barbaric war”. Now it is true that war is at one level barbaric (with the only modern exceptions being those fought by Cuba) but it is wrong to characterize a war as barbaric when it crushed a barbaric enemy and reunified the country. What President Sirisena should have referred to as barbaric was the LTTE, its leader, its terrorism and its terroristic war: “mlechcha koti sanvidhanaya”, “mlechcha thrasthavaadaya”, “thrashavaadeenge mlechcha yuddhaya”, “mlechcha thrasthavaadee yuddhaya”. He did not use any of these terms. Instead he twice referred to the war as barbaric.
So, logically, it would seem that our armed forces fought a war that was barbaric! In President Sirisena’s Independence Day discourse, this war was not a great patriotic one; not a Just War of resistance that was imposed upon us that we should be proud to have won, and that our armed forces won. According to the new discourse, this is not a Just War whose victory and victors must be celebrated!
Of course we have heard this before. The term “mlechcha yuddhaya” (‘barbaric war’) comes from the author of “bahubootha vyavasthava” (‘nonsensical Constitution’), namely President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and it dates back quite precisely to the Sudu Nelum Movement of Chandrika and Mangala Samaraweera.
It is hardly surprising that with such an ambivalent attitude Chandrika failed to win the war. It is also hardly surprising that without such ambivalence, Mahinda Rajapaksa did.
What is surprising is that it was ex-President Chandrika who was seated next to unelected Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, the co-signatory of the appalling document of appeasement, the Ceasefire Agreement. What makes it shocking was that Chandrika and Ranil who failed their nation in its darkest hour in the face of its most dangerous foe—dangerous by any global standard—were present in the front row, while ex-President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who did not fail that most crucial test, was absent.
Let us be honest enough to look the phenomenon in the face. The brave new values, ideology and doctrine, are the old ones of Chandrika and the Sudu Nelum Movement, the union of regions package, the Norwegian mediation and the PTOMS, now allied with Ranil and the attitude of the CFA. This of course should be no surprise as these enterprises were all on a continuum.
The truth at least for the moment is that Chandrika and Ranil won. Che Guevara once said of Rosa Luxemburg that “she was a great revolutionary who made mistakes and died as a consequence of them”. We may say that Mahinda Rajapaksa was a great President, a great leader who made mistakes and fell as a consequence of them. In that precise and strictly limited sense his loss was deserved. That is very much in the tradition of the tragic hero who falls because of his tragic flaw; Hubris meeting Nemesis. This evokes ‘fear and pity’ in the Aristotelian sense. However, there is no real sense of catharsis, or there is an aborted or at best, incomplete one. That is not because the tragic hero fell, which they almost always do, but because the utterly un-heroic characters in the drama won. Chandrika and Ranil have undeservedly won, but won they have. They have won with the help and in the company of those who were fellow travellers of the fascist Prabhakaran, the TNA. Those who heroically resisted the siren song of terrorist separatism, Douglas Devananda and the EPDP, and those who rebelled against it no less heroically, Karuna and Pillayan, have lost.
It is the Chandrika-Ranil project of the dark disgraceful decade 1994-2004, the decade of national retreat and humiliation that is now enthroned, together with the political project of those Tamil nationalists who paved the way for and politically accompanied the Tigers.
Society will be divided for a long time between those for whom it was a “mlechcha yuddhaya”, a barbaric war, and for those of us for whom it was a “saadharana yuddhaya”, a “shreshta yuddhaya”, a Just War; a great patriotic war of liberation and reunification.
It is no accident that Independence Day this year lacked the stirring, slightly spectacular quality of those on Galle Face in previous years. The whole affair was downgraded, devalued, and the crowd was quite small and unenthusiastic. I particularly recall by contrast February 4th 2006, when the Tigers had unilaterally recommenced their war of aggression and annexation, launching what their propaganda called The Final War. Followed by a strong military display, President Rajapaksa warned them not to mistake his forbearance born of Buddhism, for weakness. That marked the beginning of the end of Prabhakaran’s own “Independence Day” celebrations, the Mahaveera Day, which used to be televised nationally by the mainstream media and even uploaded via state media (Rupavahini). Such was the degree of divided sovereignty, the diminution of the Sri Lankan State and the erosion of our collective self-respect as a nation.
These were precisely the years of Chandrika and Ranil. And they have won. Those who won the war have lost to those who sold out. This is not the way things should be. There is something unnatural, ethically wrong, about this state of affairs. This is a state of moral disequilibrium. Natural justice must be restored.