In the aftermath of the cyclone which devastated the island’s Eastern province in 1978, I wrote a piece in the Lanka Guardian which opened with the line “the dialectics of nature lay bare the structures of society” (LG,Jan 1st, 1979). In the face of the havoc wreaked on the lives of the citizenry by the recent floods, I see no reason to disown that point made as I turned 22, except to modify it: “the dialectics of nature lay bare the structures of the state”. I have never in my lifetime seen a Sri Lankan administration respond to a natural disaster with a more disgraceful display of insouciance, incoherence and incompetence.
During the tsunami of end 2004 I had the privilege of working with Foreign Minister Kadirgamar. It was he who introduced me to General Daya Ratnayake (at the time Brig.) who was spokesperson, coordinating with the foreign media that poured in. We had several sessions at the Foreign Ministry. Mr. Kadirgamar was able to swiftly leverage a global coalition of assistance that ranged from the US military to Cuban medical teams. While the tsunami was a far greater cataclysm than the recent flood, it was noticeable that it took days for Foreign Minister Samaraweera to convene the Colombo based diplomats and seek assistance. We are lucky that Prime Minister Wickremesinghe had been removed when the tsunami hit.
Last week China proved itself once again to be Sri Lanka’s single most sincere, spontaneous and valuable friend, with its ambassador being first off the mark (days before Samaraweera’s conference) taking the initiative, meeting President Sirisena and offering his country’s assistance.
Though the Sri Lankan armed forces worked wonderfully in assisting the stricken people and enhanced the gratitude and affection they have always been held in, it was deplorable that the military was deployed so belatedly. It was as if there was no one in charge. In earlier years, when Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe was Minister of Disaster Relief and more pertinently, the iconic Special Forces hero Gen. Gamini Hettiarachchi was Director-General of Disaster Relief, heading up a dedicated centre, we had an efficient Early Warning System. This time, we heard the affected testifying on TV that the system of sirens that functioned in the past, was not in operation this time and that there was no warning.
The government’s disastrous response to the disaster, a response in which the Government failed to swiftly mobilize the full resources of the State machine, reveals that the System just isn’t working, possibly because there is no unitary will. There is no identifiable centre of gravity. There are multiple centres, which make for multiple dysfunctions. The government is already “federal” in character and it is a de-facto federalism that makes the State machine fail to function fully because it is unable to do so.
Meanwhile as the Americans say, friends don’t let friends drive drunk and our friends were driving under the influence. Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a great guy except that he lacks the solidarity with and sensitivity to the post-colonial world that his iconic father did, issued a statement on the 7th anniversary of the end of Sri Lanka’s war. (It was preceded by a statement by his warmly affable High Commissioner in Colombo). So too did the Leader of the British Labour Party and Her
Now it is not the usual practice to issue statements on the anniversaries of wars that have ended in other parts of the world, and one of the reasons is that wars don’t seem to end these days; they seem to start, or recommence, or just go on and on—take Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Nigeria, Sudan and Mozambique. Ours is one of the few wars that stopped, thanks to Mahinda Rajapaksa, Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the Sri Lankan military. It stopped after thirty years, and not by waving White Lotuses (“Sudu Nelum”) at the terrorist enemy or signing a Cease Fire Agreement endorsed by Co-Chairs from the global North -the Tigers murdered Colonel Muthalif and Foreign Minister Kadirgamar during that time, making the latter, the only Foreign Minister in the world assassinated
by terrorists. The war ended by defeating the ruthless terrorist army with guns, bullets, bombs, rockets, human courage, political will and social fortitude.
The Western statements not only failed to congratulate us on the end of terrorism, they failed to mention the term terrorism at all! While not doing so, the Canadian PM instead called for foreign judges to help with accountability. That was rich because his legendary father rightly invoked the War Measures Act (pretty much declared Martial Law) when faced with a separatist terrorist organization which didn’t deploy suicide bombers and was one-thousandth the size of the LTTE! For his part, the UK Labor Leader called for the full implementation of the Geneva resolution and declared his party’s support for Tamil Self-Determination.
When any act of terrorism is committed in a Western society or a society regarded as an ally of the West (unlike, say Russia), the citizens undergo trauma counselling, the media quiver with indignation, while Governments howl about terrorism, have global summits and send in the cruise missiles. But when we suffer from three decades of the worst type of terrorism and finally liberate ourselves from it, we have fingers wagged at us while not a finger is pointed, let alone wagged, at the terrorism, terrorists, and those who supported and commemorate them. While the Sri Lankan government is commended for its limp-wristed non-commemoration of the victory over terrorism and celebrating our military heroes, the same Western governments will not prevent the Mahaveera day commemoration in their countries, at which lamps will be lit and garland placed on portraits of ‘heroes’ wearing Tiger uniform.
Authentic attempts at reconciliation are taking place at the social level as a result of independent citizens’ initiatives. As the rains came down, ‘Annasi & Kadalagotu’, Capt. Elmo Jayewardene’s two day festival of poetry, discussion and music got underway (and almost under water). Fresh, vibrant, low-budget and well attended, it ended with a poetry contest for youngsters from all parts of the island, on the themes of ‘Peace’, ‘Kindness’ and ‘Being a Sri Lankan’. I was privileged to encounter Senuri Wanniarachchi, a slightly built, reticentteenager from Panadura, daughter of public servants, a student of Lyceum who is yet to sit her A-levels but displays the dazzling facility of a Ninja with the English language, an arrestingly imaginative experimentalismin its poetic use and a darkly surrealist sensibility that I cannot recall in any Lankan writer for decades.
Let’s return from the poetic to the political.Throughout this ongoing crisis of disaster and displacement I heard many voices articulating the thought: “What if Gotabhaya had been in charge? Things would have been different; things would have been much better. Things were much better managed when he was around”. Though I had been an early advocate of a Mahinda Rajapaksa candidacy at least since November 2003, I have not similarly been a fan of a Gotabhaya candidacy.Last weekhowever, in the conjunction of intersecting phenomena, it made sense.
Given the Government’s failure to honor the valor of our soldiers and refusal to celebrate the historic importance of the victory over terrorism, the utterly patronizing views expressed by our foreign friends on this subject,the insensitivity and incompetence in the response to the natural disaster, all revelatory of the loss of national self-respect and state capacity, Gotabhaya as President in 2020/1 is being increasingly considered by many as our best chance at Asian modernity;perhaps the best chance to retrieve our backbone as a nation and get us back on track as a self-respecting state. Can GR 2020 do an MR 2005?