By Sarath De Alwis –
They hail me as one living,
But don’t they know
That I have died of late years,
I am but a shape that stands here,
A pulseless mould,
A pale past picture, screening
Ashes gone cold.
….. Yet is it that, though whiling
The time somehow
In walking, talking, smiling,
I live not now.
~ Thomas Hardy’s Dead Man Walking
Maithripala Sirisena, the sixth executive president is the ‘title’ and the subject of this essay. Dead man walking is a euphemism for a person trapped in an untenable position and is about to lose his exalted roost.
Fifteen days after the carnage on Easter Sunday, President Maithripala Sirisena appeared before parliament on Tuesday 7th May.
With ill-disguised condescension he told parliament “I am the sixth person to hold this office”. Oh! Didn’t you know that? Was the implied refrain?
Then with unbelievable audacity and brutal contempt he posed his damning rhetoric – Am I the first president under whose watch bombs exploded?
His spine-chilling gambit has a logic and a purpose. He has convinced himself that he bears no responsibility for the blood bath.
The Indian intelligence warning reached our powers that be on 4th April. On 16th April Sirisena left the island on his pilgrimage to the Tirumala temple to perform the ‘Suprabhatha’ ritual and offer prayers to the presiding deity of Lord Venkateswara in the early hours of Wednesday 16th April. He returned in the early hours of 22nd April via Singapore.
That makes him the first president who was out in Singapore, shopping with his immediate and extended family, when terrorists struck multiple points in a coordinated attack with the highest toll on human lives in a single day in this benighted land.
He is the first President and Minster of Defense who left the island when the state he presides over had already received a serious warning from our Giant neighbor India whose spying technology is as good as its ability to explore outer space. To India, Islamic fundamentalist terror is more than a ‘thinkable threat’. It is an unthinkable threat. To Indian Intelligence agencies, Islamic fundamentalism is an imminent, immediate and real threat.
Intelligence throws light on what exists but obscure. A rather complex proposition to a ‘Grama Sevaka’ mind conditioned to catch the culprit with the bunch of bananas. (I deeply regret voting for the swan on 8th January 2015).
Sirisena is the first President who alleged that an Intelligence arm of the Indian state was hatching a conspiracy to eliminate a serving president of Sri Lanka.
He is the first president who swore in the Leader of the Opposition as the Prime minster with no notice to the incumbent Prime minister in a cloak and dagger operation.
He is the first President whose executive act of dissolving parliament was held as unconstitutional by the Supreme court.
He is the first President to claim that an action held to be unconstitutional was undertaken with a mind of untainted purity – ‘Sathbhavayen’ with advice from Erudite lawyers who were also President’s Counsel.
He is the first President of Sri Lanka who got our permanent representative to the United Nations to vacate his seat for his son to watch ‘papa’ addressing ‘universal mankind’.
As for ‘firsts’, President Maithripala Sirisena has carved his niche in the history of our dysfunctional democracy.
It was scary listening to him in parliament on Tuesday. Politically speaking he is dead as a dodo. Mahinda Rajapaksa will not agree to make him the anti UNP common candidate.
It was scary to watch a man elected to high office with the hopes of six million two hundred thousand men and women explaining the inexplicable.
It was agonizing in the wake of the carnage of Easter Sunday to listen to a man totally dead inside no longer feeling any sadness but driven only by an agenda to cling on to power. I am expressing my opinion. Criticism is not mudslinging.
To be alive and unfeeling? It’s impossible for me to contemplate that it is a natural condition of a politician in the pursuit of power. It is frightening. Hence my resort to the poetic description of Thomas Hardy’s ‘walking dead man’.
The dead man is “untombed” and merely a “shape that stands here,” a “pulseless mould.”
Rewind dear reader to the house proceedings last Tuesday. The house listened in detached discomfort. The members were singularly conscious of the unfeeling of the speaker.
This writer believes in Hobbes’s dictum that the purpose of the state and the role of the president of a state is to prevent ‘war of every man against every man’. In that sense this President is politically finished. But finished men don’t feel pain.
As Thomas Hardy voices in profound poetry, he is nothing more than “a shape that stands there.”
That the shape stands there is the work of the self-obsessed super strategist Ranil Wickremesinghe – another subject of another essay for another day.
The nation now awaits the key findings of the special three-member committee appointed to probe the Easter Sunday terror attacks.
The President has promised that it will be made available to all parties. If it is not doublespeak, all parties should include ‘we the people.’
There is a question that demands an unambiguous answer. We were warned of the possible attacks. Why didn’t we stop them?
There are questions that need to be answered by either the committee of inquiry or by the defense establishment headed by the President.
What was the routine and standard operating procedures adopted after receiving the first warning and subsequent updates from the Indian agencies?
What was the form of the existing organization and most importantly the role of the key decision makers in the organization?
The nation awaits with bated breath to learn how decisions were made by policy actors and operational actors.
What is most vital to know, is the truth that explores “the influence of unrecognized or undeclared assumptions upon the thinking” that led to the first official knee jerk response that the magnitude of the disaster exceeded their threat assessment.
Such blunders are not triggered by a unitary actor such as the Defense Secretary or an IGP partial to parade his proclivity to act the bozo. His present stance indicates that beneath the bozo lies a brave spirit. We must await unfolding events.
There should have been some discussions on the reports received and some bargaining of ideas within the organization structure that reaches up to the commander in chief.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa put in place an efficient intelligence outfit. Robert Blake is right. It served the state in fighting the war against terrorism.
After the war GR abused it for political purposes which again is a different subject to be explored another day.
Efficient or otherwise our intelligence mechanism was politicized and key individual decision makers with varying degrees of influence shaped the organizational actors.
The President has already briefed us about his cultural disconnect with Prime minster Wickremesinghe.
Hemasiri Fernando is the president’s personal pick.
Just as he holds Ranil to be responsible for his selection of Arjuna Mahendran, the President is responsible for replacing Secretary Waidyaratne with Secretary Fernando.
It is possible that Sirisena’s cultural connectivity with the suave cosmopolitan Hemasiri Fernando was not based on a bonhomie as strong as his cultural intimacy with some other good people in the defence outfit whose unalloyed native instincts managed to stir deeper heart strings in the simple peasant mind.
We already know that Hemasiri was capable of discerning the distinction between the ‘Ranaviruwa’ and the Mineemaruwas. A distinction on which Sirisena had his own convoluted views.
In the business of Sate Security and Intelligence gathering I tend to agree with Graham Allision the Harvard Don whose seminal study ‘Essence of Decision’ based on the Cuban Missile crisis is now a standard text book on national intelligence and crisis management.
Decision makers in the inner sanctums of intelligence have different perceptions, priorities, commitments and organizational positions. Where you stand depends on where you sit.
We can only hope that the committee of inquiry has determined who sat where and who stood up to what and when ?