By Vishwamithra –
“You shall find out how salt is the taste of another man’s bread, and how hard is the way up and down another man’s stairs.” ~ Dante Alighieri
During the first two decades of this century, Sri Lanka faced two marked instances, junctures which challenged the thinking and its consequential movements that could have easily changed our societal development had our leaders chosen to adopt a different strategy both politically and economically. On both occasions, international powers, both in the West and in the East, were more than riveted to our engagement in the issues following these two unprecedented events; that attention was total and it was indeed compassionate, not to labor the point. But the greatest misfortune is that on each occasion we lost the opportunity, not because each event was followed by another disaster. A chance for an amazing new beginning was lost on each occasion. Instead of stepping into a new beginning, our government leaders opted to trek a different course. They chose to exploit the character and substance of both occurrences in order to enrich themselves. The enormous financial assistance that flowed in from the international players ended up in the pockets of those who occupied the seats of power. A nation’s tragedy was turned into a personal opportunity for the avaricious, corrupt and dishonest leaders.
On both occasions it was the Rajapaksa family that was responsible and accountable for the neglect at first, and later the cascade of corrupt practices that ensued. When the tsunami engulfed the most of the coastal areas of Sri Lanka, the money so received for revival and restoration of normal life for those who were affected was robbed by the Rajapaksas. The ‘Helping Hambantota Fund’ saga and the alleged misappropriation of the monies by the Rajapaksa siblings are being talked about in open fora. Neither Mahinda Rajapaksa nor any other of his siblings has denied the story, fueling the talk into an accepted fact. For these dishonorable men, a nation’s trauma is secondary and making money is of prime concern.
But the greater tragedy was the apathy of the masses who, in this particular case, merely opted to look the other way. They deserve the rulers that they get. The other opportunity so lost was the aftermath of the cessation of the 27 year old conflict with Tamil militants led by Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE). Once again the international players of all sectors welcomed the end of an ethnic conflict that dominated the country’s national life.
Into this wartime arena only Ranil Wickremesinghe walked in 2001. When the country’s mood was essentially focused on the ethno-conflict and the people were being polarized along Sinhalese-Tamil-Muslim lines, Ranil as Prime Minister in 2001 chose to tread a different, vastly unpopular yet a very smart policy of reconciliation between Tamils and Sinhalese communities on the one hand and peace and calm for the soldiers of each side on the other. Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister brought the two political leaderships of the respective peoples together firstly for peacemaking purposes, secondly for peacekeeping by the soldiers and later for peace-building by the two respective ethnic groups, Sinhalese and Tamils.
He engaged Norway, a leading Liberal Democracy in North Western Europe, as a mediating party and in fact, established brittle yet hopeful structures in order to keep the peace so achieved, even on an interim basis. Why Ranil’s efforts could not bear fruit was because of his lack of understanding of the third tier, the base for the peacemaking and peacekeeping tiers. The base, the third tier of peace-builders, comprises of the broad masses and that is one arena Ranil had no clue about. Pluses and minuses of this process could be argued for decades to come but no sane person would pass negative judgment on the initiator of the route he took.
What happened to the man who was sworn in as the country’s Executive President in 2022? In 2001 he challenged the most feared terrorist army and its most formidable leader, Prabhakaran to come to the negotiating table. Why did he not show the same mercy and understanding towards the Aragalaya and its vociferous but non-violent leadership and participants? That incomprehensible policy-pursuit must not only be bewildering but worrying to many an international observer today. Is Ranil Wickremesinghe more frightened of the protesters in 2022 than he feared the Tamil militants in 2001?
His first act as newly sworn-in President was to deploy the Army, Police and the STF on the Galle Face Green at 2 in the morning to hammer, intimidate and violently attack innocent unarmed groups of protesters who were asking, not only for cooking gas, fuel, medicines but also for a total overhaul of the corrupt system that the current set of rulers was hell-bent on embracing. A habitual sinner committed his most heinous sin on his fellow men and women. The people of Sri Lanka may someday forgive Ranil Wickremesinghe for his usual stance of safeguarding the Rajapaksas, the most corrupt clan of rulers the country has known, but they would never pardon him for what he did in the wee hours of Friday morning, July 22.
The threat is not in the horizon, it’s here, right now. In the form of armed forces clad in their fighter-fatigue, armed to the teeth and armored to protect against any assault by the would be-protesters that never materialized, the threat manifested itself in the most horrendous fashion. At the receiving end were some unarmed protesters who were anyway planning to leave their usual protest ground, Aragalapitiya the following afternoon at 2pm.
Is all lost and or in vain? That question can be answered only by a few members of the current political leadership in the country and many protesters scattered all over the land. And to that was added a most emotional and worthy appeal by Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka in Parliament the other day. Fonseka’s appeal was not only to our youth; he did not mince his words about what would come if the security forces took action to quell the legitimate protests.
Sarath Fonseka did not stop there. He announced the date of the third wave- August 9. Whether his appeal for a third wave would materialize in grand terms, one would not know. In the absence of any relief at the fuel pump, cooking stove and medicine and food prices, one could fairly predict that sizeable crowds would gather once again.
But Ranil Wickremesinghe cannot be held responsible for the economic catastrophe the country is currently facing. Nor can he be accountable for the imprudent fertilizer policy of Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Yet he remains one, if not the most, unpopular political figure in the country. His sins are many but the total sum is incalculable. From day one, Ranil Wickremesinghe, barring a very few remarkable moves such as the attempt to bring about reconciliation between the LTTE and the then government, has been engaging in deal-making politics. He has treated this noble undertaking, politics, as an arena where one makes transactional deals in order to achieve desired ends.
On the other hand, one cannot expect Ranil Wickremesinghe to be an empathetic. But he certainly had more than many opportunities to be professional in his approach to politics. His dogged demeanor and callous disregard for others’ suffering has bogged him down in a sociopolitical rut, he had to achieve his lifelong ambition of being President through the backdoor of Parliament and that deed itself is extremely rare if not totally absent in other democracies.
Nevertheless, Sri Lankans now have to live with him at least for a short while until his days also come to an unexpected end like those of his predecessor, Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The world that watched Ranil’s manipulations and administrative maneuverings during the peacekeeping stage during 2021 era with keen eyes, will be watching him again with keener eyes. The difference is that while during the 2021 period there was a head above him, that of Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga as President, now he is the President but those who are below him are ironically not looking up to him but looking down upon him as to whether he would look after those who are responsible for installing him in the seat of supreme power. Who is more ruthless, those who elect or those who select, would be utterly significant to watch.
Ranil Wickremesinghe is not occupying an enviable position. His seat is much hotter than one could imagine; his fear and pain will come and only then will he realize that he did not do enough when he was asked by hundreds of thousands of our youth today. When he feels that fear and pain, it might be too late, because he did not dare. I am reminded of that great Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky who said: ‘Power is given only to those who dare to lower themselves and pick it up. Only one thing matters, one thing; to be able to dare!’ Good things come to those who dare, whether at the beginning they fall and fall again; they’ll find a way to rise again, because they dare.
*The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org