For a long-awaited cure
Posted on February 22nd, 2015

By Rohana R. Wasala Courtesy Sunday Island

History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave,
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme.
From “The Cure at Troy: A Version of Sophocles’ Philoctetes” by Seamus Heaney

What follows is a response to “Will hope and history rhyme?” by Tisaranee Gunasekara (Sunday Island/15.02.2015). I found Ms Gunasekera’s well written article of particular interest because I myself have given expression to some personal opinions as an ordinary citizen, for what they are worth, about emerging prospects for a breakthrough in tackling the ethnic issue which has plagued our society for decades, in three of my own recent articles in The Island newspaper: “Limits of realpolitik and the cost of maithri misdirected” (14 January 2015), “Let (us) not to the marriage of true minds – Admit impediments…” (21 January 2015) and “Time for re-evolution” (04 February 2015). In all these three articles, as always, my purpose was to argue for peaceful coexistence between communities, and a just peaceful solution of the national problem. I write with malice to none, but with compassion for all. I always write about this subject with personal affection for all my compatriots. While agreeing with some of her opinions regarding the issue at hand, I wish to include here a contrary view of what she perceives as supremacist Sinhala Buddhist nationalism’s “blood-and-faith patriotism” allegedly championed by the former president.

The somewhat reluctant withholding of support for Mr Mahinda Rajapaksa over what appeared to be his personal hubris and culpable indifference towards corruption during his watch among a sizeable section of the southern electorate, to some extent, facilitated the narrow win of his challenger Mr Maithripala Sirisena, then one of his own closest partners. This observation, I think, is hardly disputable. Mr Rajapaksa’s failure to control certain corrupt elements close to him or to convincingly refute allegations of abuse of power, financial irregularities, etc against him at the proper time significantly undermined his credibility. Attack on him on an anti-corruption platform by the two Buddhist monks, especially by Rev Rathana, no doubt, carried more weight among the Buddhist public than that by others who excoriated him on the basis of the same charges. His alleged, though unlikely, links with the BBS (which he in reality wanted to contain for the country’s and his own good) also added to the momentum of his downfall. His abject dependence on astrology, which goes against the core teachings of the very Buddhism he professes, proved counterproductive in that it betrayed a lack of confidence on his part in the popularity of his clearly well performing government (despite customary opposition criticism of important but ephemeral matters such as nepotism, corruption, etc) at a critical moment, and actually provided badly needed grist to the propaganda mill of his detractors. That he shouldn’t have given up the remaining two years of his second term and gone for an election for a third term as he did is the opinion of many who liked his efficiency as a ruler; it would have been good if he had devoted those two years for programs to relieve the increasing economic pressure on the ordinary people instead. The economic hardships imposed on the people, particularly in the south, while funds were being diverted for infrastructure and industrial development of the whole country with special attention to the war-devastated north and east which claimed the greater part of it, added to a certain degree of general discontent. Quoting from the CPA August 2014 opinion survey (Democracy in Post-War Sri Lanka) Ms Gunasekera says that “a clear majority of Lankans (54.5%) believed that their own personal economic condition got worse in 2013. 39.5% of Lankans and 78.8% of Sinhalese said they had to reduce the quality/quantity of the food they purchased in that year”. But such well-meant enforced austerity measures came to be criticized as leading to “…… a slow but steady evaporation of the popular consensus necessary for democratic transformation – and a re-legitimization of anti-democratic and racist ideas” (to quote from Ms Gunasekaera’s essay).

Ms Gunasekara prefaces her essay with the lines “…half ready to believe – That a crippled trust might walk” from the Irish poet Seamus Heaney’s poetic drama “The Cure at Troy”, which is about healing. By this she probably wants to suggest that there is, this time, at least a slim chance that the ethnic wounds inflicted on our body politic over many decades will heal as a result of the regime change that has been recently effected in this country. Few people are likely to be naïve enough to share even her justifiably diffident hope that any universally acceptable solution is likely to emerge soon, given the undemocratic way the change was secured by a hodgepodge of not wholly unquestionable characters driven by a common desire to oust a person they disliked with or without reason from power, but divided by diverse incompatible personal agendas. Though I appreciate her positive attitude towards agreeable future developments that seem to her possible, I, as a non-partisan Sri Lankan, cannot at all agree with her implicit condemnation of the 5.77 million fellow citizens (belonging to all ethnic communities, though the majority of them were naturally from the majority Sinhala Buddhist community ) who voted for Mr Rajapaksa as Sinhala-Buddhist supremacists befuddled by superstition and mythomania (sic), for she asserts that “A Rajapaksa victory would have amounted to a win not just for dynastic politics and Sinhala-Buddhist supremacism but also for superstition and mythomania in their crassest form”. My own hopes are perhaps stronger than hers regarding an eventual resolution of the national issue, sooner or later (sooner rather than later), through a domestic mechanism to ensure an unobstructed reaffirmation of true democracy, probably during Mr Sirisena’s presidency itself.

Heaney wished a cure for the sick state of Northern Ireland riven by sectarian conflict. Probably we too have lessons to draw from this story of healing. However, any direct comparison between the Sri Lankan and Northern Ireland problems would be a nightmarish proposition given the incongruities involved despite apparent similarities. A common element is foreign involvement in different forms though. (It was Britain’s problem, just as ours is actually India’s.) With the Belfast Agreement of April 1998, a crisis that had simmered and frequently erupted in bloody violence (immortalized in Irish English literature) for well over one and a half centuries became a thing of the past, relatively speaking. The Lankan crisis is far less complicated, except for the country’s vulnerability to regional and global geopolitical pressures on its independence. President Sirisena’s declaration last week, during his first overseas visit after his inauguration, to Indian leaders about his country’s determination to stick to her non-aligned stand vis-à-vis China and India, and her wish to maintain friendly relations with both is a hopeful sign that under him conditions in the domestic political arena may so develop as to allow a nationally autonomous solution to evolve. This is a reaffirmation of the nuanced foreign policy stand that his predecessor had expressed in his statement that “China is our friend whereas India is our relation”. There are many geographic, demographic, political, historical, and economic reasons why division of the state of Sri Lanka on ethnic lines is not feasible. Even if these are ignored by a global power in its own national interest, it is doubtful whether India will allow a separate state to take form in the north and the east of Sri Lanka as it will be a threat to its own survival as a powerful union; and the concerns of our other friends in the region such as China and Pakistan will have to be factored in, too. So, separation is probably not a conceivable solution. A settlement within a single entity is not impossible if democracy – the best form of government found realizable by humans so far – is allowed to function.

It is time that demagogues on both sides listened to what the demos really demand. All of them, being human, will say, “We want to live as equal citizens speaking different languages, following different religions, enjoying different cuisine, wearing different types of clothing, in a safe peaceful country where we can find a decent house to live in, a decent job to earn a living, enough income to meet daily needs and raise a family, and educate our children so they can fend for themselves when they grow up. If we can get these things in this country, then we are satisfied. To hell with your homelands, histories, and other rigmarole!” Politicians, please think of a mechanism to consult all the people across country and ask them what they really think about what they must do to meet their demands. The Sinhalese are 75% of the population; the Tamils are 15% and the Muslims and others the rest. More than half of the Tamils and most of the Muslims already live peacefully among the Sinhalese majority in the southern parts of the countries. Tamil politicians and their allies, please reach out and explain convincingly to the majority Sinhalese what you lack that they enjoy, and they, I am sure, will be accommodating. What is the use of just calling them names, even the meaning of which they don’t know. And leaders of the Sinhalese, please reach out to the ordinary Tamil speaking fellow islanders, and tell them about Sinhalese concerns, and convince them that there must one common solution that satisfies us all.

Critics of alleged Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism let on that it is a self evident truth and that they need not give reasons for their assertions. One reason for the persistence of such false criticism is that money can be made by marketing it. But the truth about Sinhala Buddhist nationalism is otherwise. The overwhelming majority of Sinhalese Buddhists are not racists. The vast majority of ordinary people belonging to other races are not communalists either. But we have communalist demagogues of all ethnic and religious colours. As we all know, mere living is a struggle; people cannot and do not waste their time thinking of others as Tamils, Muslims, Burghers and hating them no end for no reason. Of course, people sometimes quarrel or even fight over various problems, one reason being the very reason that unites us: community of interests. This can easily become a clash of interests, where resources are limited and there is competition among people to get them. That is human/animal nature. But we humans have the protection of the rule of law if we live in a country where democracy or good governance functions.

No political leader, supporting only what is good for his/her own race while ignoring the welfare of other races, has ever been elected to high office by Sinhalese Buddhists. This will never change. Mr Mahinda Rajapaksa, like all other Sri Lankan heads of state to date, is not a Sinhalese communalist. If he was, he wouldn’t have been elected even as an MP by his home electorate. No other living political leader in this country has yet shown himself or herself to be capable of working so hard, so courageously, and so creatively in discharging his duties as Mr Rajapaksa. He did a lot to promote ethnic reconciliation and had the intention of doing more. He made a positive impression even among the people of the north. With all that he is also another fallible human being. Anyone can make allegations. Especially politicians are vulnerable to such allegations, which are usually part of deliberate vilification campaigns. None of the allegations against Mr Rajapaksa have been inquired into or supported by evidence. If he has done wrong, he must face the consequences. But his name has already been indelibly etched in the grateful national memory as a hero. The massive Nugegoda rally (18th Wednesday) has demonstrated that people have not written him off yet; in an election, his success in the southern areas will be reflected in the northern parts too, if free and fair elections are allowed to take place under the new regime, as they were under his presidency.

A lesson we can probably learn from “The Cure at Troy” is that moral values count even in conflict resolution. Now politics is to do with seeking and exercising power, which is intrinsically amoral. However, the wily, resourceful Odysseus’ realpolitik didn’t work in getting Philoctetes back with his victorious bow; but the honourable Neoptolemus’ gentle persuasion made him join the battle willingly and help the Greeks win the war. In this imperfect world, successful politicians nearly always turn out to be proud descendants of Odysseus. But among them, there can be greater heroes who don’t abandon the moral high ground

One Response to “For a long-awaited cure”

  1. Christie Says:

    Namaste; India sealed its victory with Governor Chandrika and Coolie Sirisena. Kankani is doing his job and got all his Royalists in like in Mauritius. There is a Royal College in Mauritius. Jai Hind.

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