‘The One-eyed Turtle and the Floating Sandalwood Log’
Posted on July 2nd, 2009

Ranga Welaratne

“A one eyed turtle, whose life span is immeasurable, lives at the bottom of the sea.  Once every 100 years, it rises to the surface.  There is only one sandalwood log floating in the sea with a hollow in it suitable to the turtle’s eye size.  Since the turtle is one eyed and the log is tossed about by the wind and waves, the likelihood of the turtle finding the log is extremely remote” this is how the Lord Buddha illustrates how difficult it is to be born a human being in the cycle of reincarnation.


If you had asked anyone five years ago, “Can Sri Lanka eliminate the tigers?” they would have given you a probability very close to the one above. 


Prabhakaran himself, not long ago, on the 27th of November 2008 said “Sri Lanka is living in a dreamland of military victory. It is a dream from which it will awake. That is certain”.  Now the Rajapaksa government has realized this dream, in the process of which the aforementioned Prabhakaran was killed. 


What Lord Buddha said about the turtle and the sandalwood is certainly going to be true for Mr. Prabhakaran’s chances of being born human again.


But the now the emerging question is how did the Rajapaksa government realize this dream?  I think it comes down to one thing.  Leadership.


Before we look at the how and why it all worked out for this administration it’s best to see how and why the previous administrations failed miserably.


I am not an expert in political science but it is evident that we have had politicians over the last 30 years, but never a leader who believed in finishing the war.  The difference is quite distinct.  Politicians are all about themselves, they stake their whole career on survival in the political process.  Leaders on the other hand have a vision, believe in something extraordinary, and they are all about the people they serve.


The Past.


It is common knowledge that third world politics are filthy, corrupt and insincere. When it comes to Sri Lankan politics this holds true more than most. Hence, even before new governments are sworn in, all the presidents and prime ministers had to repay their debt to their allies and benefactors.  Nepotism runs in the spinal cord of Sri Lanka’s civil and the military system. All the plum roles are handed to favorites and family instead being allocated according to merit and ability. This is one reason that Sri Lanka has one of the world’s largest cabinets.


Theodore Roosevelt once said “The best leader is the one who has best sense enough to pick good men to do what he wants done, and self-restraint to keep from meddling with them while they do it”.  When it comes to the previous Sri Lankan administrators this is exactly what they didn’t do.  Previous rulers of Sri Lanka kept appointing “ƒ”¹…”Yes’ men as defense secretaries (with the lone exception of Ranjan Wijeratne) and incompetent generals in the three branches of the armed forces to make sure that there would not be any conflict of interest between them and the government.


Politicians’ meddling with war is nothing new in the modern world.  Sri Lanka is no exception.  The politicians sent Lankan troops to war to achieve their political agendas.  They often tried to “ƒ”¹…”liberate’ a village or a highway before a major election. They did not have a well defined military strategy, the military were highly politicized, and thus Sri Lankan soldiers were sacrificed in thousands.  There is a clear example of this; in 1992 the presidential commission revealed irrefutable evidence of political treachery.  In order to get the Indian army to leave Sri Lankan shores President Premadasa authorized a clandestine operation to supply arms to the LTTE (as revealed in the commission’s report).  During the same time LTTE assassinated Lt Gen Denzil Kobbekaduwa and massacred 227 policemen who had surrendered to the LTTE in Batticaloa.


All the politicians who got to the top want to be there as long as possible. So war or no war was not the question. Whatever they could do to prolong their stay at the top, while getting rich, was the only thing they cared about (most of them anyway).  To some, war was a welcome distraction to avoid the real questions like unemployment, inflation, education and health care.  As long as the war was being propagated they did not have to find answers to these questions. Both parties could fight out the elections back and forth by arousing unjust nationalism and with false promises.


What made the difference this time?


“A Leader is a Dealer in Hope” – Napoleon.  This is exactly how President Mahinda Rajapaksa rolled.  He put all his chips on the table, took a huge gamble on the country, his reputation, the party and the international community in deciding to go to all out war when the cards were stacked against him. Now there is no wonder Mr. Rajapaksa is grinning like somebody who has won the jackpot. This is because he truly has.


Undoubtedly one of the President’s best achievements was to hire the right team to lead the war against the LTTE.  His shrewdest decision was in the selection of his defence secretary.  His predecessors did not have the fortune of having a decorated war hero as a brother, who had fought fiercely against the LTTE himself on the battlefield.  Mr Gotabaya Rajapaksa had served in the army for over twenty years and knew how the enemy operated and what needed be done to achieve military success.  None of the previous Sri Lankan defence secretaries were of the same pedigree.  Like no other government previously these two brothers looked after each other and went to war.


In previous administrations being a general in Sri Lanka’s three branches of armed forces was a thankless job.  Apart from a few fringe benefits you are constantly worried about your vehicle been blown apart. Your orders were coming from a President who had no idea about the military strategy but wanted to score some political points by using the military to their personal advantage.  So you were sure to sacrifice your own reputation and hundreds of lives of young soldiers. And you were never quite sure you had been chosen because you were the best man for the job or because you always said “ƒ”¹…”Yes’ to the President.  Your name and reputation was constantly scrutinized in the every shop corner of Sri Lanka.


But this time the President put his best men forward to head the armed forces.  No one in Sri Lanka (apart from some obtuse politicians) would argue otherwise. These leaders had gone though the ranks, they were tough and, having served for many years in their respective forces, the war had a somewhat personal connotation to them.  These men were leaders, people looked up to them, their soldiers would never second guess them and in return these men protected their soldiers.  They would not sacrifice their soldiers for political points; they would say “ƒ”¹…”NO’ when the request was absurd.  They would lead by example, they empowered and promoted others like them, they built and implemented strategies and stuck to them, they did not give time lines but they all said one thing;  they would finish the job, which they did, very well. 


In addition, as Roosevelt said, the President did not meddle with the military’s decisions. His orders were clear and concise “ƒ”¹…”Finish the war and get rid of terrorism’.  He left the “ƒ”¹…”HOW’ part to the people who knew best.


What lies ahead for the President


LTTE’s brute and the rest of its charismatic leadership are gone but its brains and financial backing around the world is still at large.  The LTTE Diaspora may not have the implementers on the ground today but will it still be the case in five years or more importantly in thirty years time?  How can Sri Lankans stop Eelam ever surfacing again in this beautiful country? Well I think the answer lies somewhere between politics and economic growth.


It is time that Sri Lanka starts looking at where it wants to be in thirty years into the future.  How do Sri Lankans want their country to look in 2040? Once there is that vision policies need to be put in place to ensure it gets there. The Sri Lankan military has completed with aplomb the task that they had been entrusted with and now it is time for Sri Lankan politicians, too, to walk the talk and plan long term.


To begin Sri Lanka need to acknowledge that a political solution is a must.  It can be home grown or imported but it should recognize all people in the country as one. All communities whether Tamil, Muslim or Sinhalese must be given equal opportunity and be able to live with the dignity that all people deserve.  The new solution must empower all ethnicities and get rid of chauvinism whether it is uprooted from Colombo, Jaffna or Baticolloa.  It should look beyond the borders of the provinces and recognize the liberty of the each individual.  Putting in place policy to do this is no simple task.


The second pillar to stop such groups from ever arising is economical growth. Imagine a country with a higher GDP growth every year, low unemployment, low inflation, higher education for everyone, quality health care, how often would you see people taking up arms to breakup such a country? Yes, I am talking about a developed country.  What do we need to do to get there? We need great visionaries who can think of that country in thirty years time, we need leaders who do not think about filling their pockets but about the welfare of their people. We need law makers and policy makers to pave the way to creating that dream country.


Sri Lankan armed forces have laid the foundation to create that dream country. The soldiers have made great sacrifices to the nation and all Lankans are indebted to them. Sri Lankans should fly the flags high and should salute and show respect to the forces. All this should and will be done but the best way to pay tribute to their legacy is to actually create that dream country. Let not the blood, sweat and tears of the soldiers and their loved ones go to waste, or ever be forgotten.


Can the current president and the administration do this? After the triumphant victory they certainly have the mandate to do it.  I think the President can take a leaf out of his own book.  How did he achieve this great military victory?  He put the right people to do the right job.  He put in place the experts at every level to achieve this military victory. Can he say the same thing about his cabinet? Can president Rajapaksa look at everyone one of his ministers in the eye and tell them they are in the position because they are the best person in the country to do that job.  I do not know the answer but for his sake and the sake of the country, I certainly hope so.


Great leadership


As we have read in the history books Winston Churchill was probably the most popular Prime Minister that Britain has ever had (1940- 1945). Being the Prime Minister of Great Britain (and a war hero) during the World War II, many attribute him with being one of the main reasons, if not the reason, for the allied forces winning the Second World War. At the end of the war his approval rating was over 80% (1945 May 8) but he lost the General Election in the same year in July.  Historians believe that Churchill achieved something superhuman and when it came to the election he was spent, it was almost an anticlimax.  President Rajapaksa should make sure this is not the case for him. His superhuman task is still ahead of him, he needs to ensure that the country is rebuilt.


Many French believes the Father of the New France is Charles De Gaulle who was the French General during the Second World War and subsequently became the President of France. As the President of France he created new republican and political stability. He strengthened the European community, expanded international relationships, created high industrial growth, lowered unemployment and controlled inflation. To this day, the French believe he was the most influential modern French Leader. 


Can President Rajapaksa achieve what Charles De Gaulle achieved for post-war France?  He has achieved something superhuman, but will he now seize this opportunity to create political stability, racial equality, and develop the country and the Sri Lanka that we all dream of?  To become that leader in Sri Lanka, it would certainly be like the one eyed turtle looking at the sky through the floating sandalwood log.


Wouldn’t it?













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