By Shyamon Jayasinghe –
Viru Pissuwa or Hero Obsession
When you come to think of it, leaders and opinion makers of our resplendent island have a canny proclivity to create heroes. The media loves to pick on these, magnify them and metamorphosis them from fiction to real formations in the public imagination. There are many conspirators in this hilarious adventure. Every society needs heroes for inspiration and guidance; for national pride and collective psychological boost. As seen in movies or novels, heroes fill our hearts and they inspire people with values. Look at the heroes JK Rowling has created in her fiction! On the other hand, only full-blooded real heroes can embody such a spirit and disseminate that image. Unfortunately, such a cry for the hero is not eloquent in a decadent society ours.
In the Philippines, Fidel Ramos (1998) issued Executive Order No. 75 entitled “Creating the National Heroes Committee Under the Office of the President”. The principal duty of the Committee is to study, evaluate and recommend Filipino national personages/heroes in due recognition of their sterling character and remarkable achievements for the country.
On the other hand, Sri Lanka doesn’t see the need for a proper evaluation by an independent body. Remember we have been, except for a small interval under Yahapalanaya, under the spell of the belief that one man should be permitted to make the decisions that matter. Collective decision-making processes as exhibited in parliamentary systems are disregarded. So we have the 20th Amendment to replace the 19th of Yahapalanaya. Tell Sir and he will decide the enlistment of heroes in the Wall of Fame. Probably Gnanakka can be consulted
Definition of Hero
We need not go into hairsplitting over the definition of a hero. The point is that when one defines some concept one gets entangled in contradictions and difficulties.
Let’s try to agree on some key elements of a hero. One, is his achievement of an unusual feat. Two, is that the achievement must be regarded as noble and as transcending standard human limitations. Third, is that this effort must be performed with no self interest in mind but sheer altruism or concern for another. Fourth, is that the effort can expose the performer to danger or life-threatening situations.
Against such delineating factors readers can themselves adjudge the heroism of Lanka’s vaunted hero categories
Actually, the exercise of naming heroes began with the war against the LTTE that lasted nearly 30 years. The public watched in sadness numerous soldiers die in battle, numerous structures destroyed and so much resources devastated by this war. Every soldier – from the simple soldier to the army commander did fight with awareness of the danger they faced, and with readiness to sacrifice their lives for a cause perceived as noble or transcending.
There is an equality among the army different ranks here because war is never an individual effort but a wholly collective one. The thousands of ordinary soldiers simply put their lives and their families into a vast collective sacrificial bowl.
Therefore, one can argue that all who fought in the war were equal heroes. Rank should not be overrated in terms of contributory effort. Admittedly, there is the consideration that the higher the rank the greater the strategic input into the collective effort. On the other hand, in terms of physical effort lower ranks are more vulnerable in the undertaking.
One must make a distinction, however, between the fighters on command line and those outside. The President is not technically on command line as far as battling is concerned. The Defense Secretary is even further away in dim light. It so happened, however, that in Sri Lanka the war triumph had been totally owned by the president and his brother the Defense Secretary and all the windfall in terms of political power had been gotten by these two.
This deviation in a sense undermined the Ranaviruwas because the flag had been carried away from them. It was a case of honesty compromised and national leadership failing. When under Indira Gandhi the East Pakistanis won the war with Indian support, Indira Gandhi gave all credit unreservedly to the army and its commander In Sri Lanka, we saw the army commander jailed!
The soldiers in Lanka had to be satisfied with the title of Ranaviruwas. Government’s keenness to publicise that label reflected a compensating guilt.
I found it difficult to trust the Rajapaksas after Fonseka. All political events since that demonstrate Rajapaksas using the war victory for their advancement. The goodwill sponsored by media for Mahinda Rajapaksa could have been profitably utilised to build Sri Lanka in Lee Kuan Yew style, employing into service capable professionals and running a sound administration who would have planned a major breakthrough. But that was not to be. Mahinda Rajapaksa’s lost a momentous Kalinga Moment of uniting and rebuilding the country.
Now it is Ratawiruwas
This is also a Rajapakse government tag to describe not the soldiers of war but ordinary citizens who left their homes and families to find employment in the Middle East and elsewhere. These poor folk did unmistakably make a terrible sacrifice and they need our sympathy. But that label is contrived, as these people do not exhibit the definitional characteristics of the hero, outlined above. To be fair, our overseas maids and workers never thought of themselves as heroes but as simple men and women seeking to flourish their economic status – even though at great personal inconvenience and some exposure to danger. Many of them were, in effect, slave labor for the rich Arabs and their prodigal sons.
Why was the label given? Government was desperate for their dollars. That’s the simple answer. While Lanka’s traditional commodity exports aren’t doing well, the remittances of overseas workers have been catching up for the drop of those exports.
Hence, for heaven’s sake let’s call them heroes.
However, our overseas workers wouldn’t care about honorific titles. They would have appreciated better if the Sri Lanka Government provided better services for them and the families they leave behind.
In these ways, the absence of anything more that tokenistic recognition for both war heroes and Rataviruwas, government labelling is of no use.
The nominal exaltation in status as far as Ranaviruwas are concerned have only helped some of the higher ranked soldiers to exploit the situation in their favour. The few bad ones think they can kidnap children for ransom, like the Nigerian Boko Haram, and escape the law. Some others have scandalous sexual invasions and save themselves. Some use the power of the Ranaviru to break the law that they themselves make.
The best of the cream like Denzil Kobbekaduwa got murdered by state actors and have left the scene unsung – perhaps leaving only a road named after him!
If Government Runs Well and Justly, What Need for Titles?
The lesson, then, is that if government runs well and justly and and brings income and services for the people that is the best it can do for people including Ranaviruwas and Rataviruwas. What Sri Lanka has, on the contrary, is a bypassing of government’s role and responsibility in favour of influential circles.
Giving away empty titles is a cover up for government’s inability and incompetence in the art of governance. Tokenism is no substitute for real service. However, our government is getting more and more prone to substitute tokenism for service. Maybe, in the near future government might call health frontline workers “Suvaviruwan,” while not doing enough to give special protection to these invaluable persons working at great risk with Covid patients. A few days ago, a 31-year-old lady doctor died at Karapaitiya Hospital succumbing to Covid. What about Nurses and Attendants? The GMOA has hitched itself to the politics of government and so we will not bother about the doctors.
Looking at the overall dysfunctional status of affairs in Sri Lanka, I think all ordinary citizens who have to suffer the humbug, lies and deceitful politics of our politicians – top to bottom – and have to survive in a regime that is engaged in battle with petty traders, are the real heroes. Suggestion: Shall we call them ‘sesuviruwans’ in place of “purawesiyan?”
*The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org