Can’t stay with Govt. if Gota comes in: CBK -Daily Mirror, June 16, 2016
Today (June 22) being the death anniversary of my father Mervyn de Silva, the founder-President of the Editor’s Guild of Sri Lanka, CBK’s threat to leave the government inevitably triggered a recollection of a typically sardonic one-liner of Mervyn’s from the 1970s. We were at the Supper Club when bandleader Claude Fernando came over to our table and complained: “I’ve warned the management I’ll take my talent elsewhere”. Mervyn cocked an eyebrow and deadpanned: “you sure travel light, don’t you?”
A literary critic before he became a political journalist specialising in world affairs, Mervyn returned occasionally to literature, writing at age 32, a superb long General Introduction to Leonard Woolf’s ‘Diaries in Ceylon’.
In it he dwells on Woolf’s ‘Village in the Jungle’, and makes an unambiguous moral judgment between, on the one hand, the characters of Fernando and the Ratemahattaya, the slick, savvy, exploitative intermediaries between the imperial power and the rural Sinhala Southerner, compradors who are finally shot-gunned in a brief episode of luminous lucidity by the doomed anti-hero Silindu, and on the other hand, the simple, firmly rooted Southerners, passionately attached to their arid patch of land, encircled by an ever encroaching predatory environment.
Mervyn concludes his essay saluting the “nobility” of the latter type of authentic characters; a “nobility which is truly tragic in quality”.
“…their fierce attachment to these things, the strength of their loves and hates, and their ultimate indomitability of spirit make them persons of different moral worth than the ‘Fernandos’, the headmen and ratemahattayas of this world.”
- Mervyn de Silva, General Introduction to Leonard Woolf’s ‘Diaries in Ceylon’ (Tisara Prakasakayo, 1962, pp. xlviii-lxi)
If Chandrika takes her talent as evidenced by her track record, and ‘exits’ the Government, she’ll sure be travelling light.
My lasting memories of the two-term Chandrika Presidency are the devastated street adjacent to Galle Face, beyond the Hotel Intercontinental (Now the Kingsbury); the catastrophic Jayasikuru operation; the several calamitous battles, in which the LTTE inflicted defeat and the deaths of over a thousand soldiers each time on the Sri Lankan military; the assassination of an alienated Lakshman Kadirgamar.
She wasted time and political capital with a federalisation package (1995/97) which she is still trying to implement with Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and the TNA’s support, using the moderate centrist nationalist President Sirisena as a human shield.
When she had the LTTE on the back-foot many times, she vacillated, temporised, prevaricated and appeased. She brought in the Norwegians, Finland’s Marrti Ahtissari and finally attempted the PTOMS giveaway. She only succeeded in giving the fascist LTTE a respite and generating a Sinhala backlash.
She chose, in her last year in office, not to go along with the perspective of the smartest Sri Lankan in politics for quite some time, her own Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar.
Mark Salter’s extensively researched volume quotes Norwegian State Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Vidar Helgessen:
“…Kadirgamar was very mindful of national sovereignty, and not at all helpful over allowing international figures to visit the North and East. On P-TOMS as well he was not a progressive force…Dhanapala, then heading the Peace Secretariat, agreed with us that it was a disastrous lost opportunity…” (Mark Salter, To End A War, p. 213)
To the extent that CBK let the LTTE off the hook many times, she actively contributed to prolonging the suffering of the people and failed the test that history had set her. In that sense she was part of the problem.
Though, I have had policy differences with him, I must unambiguously state that if performance is the criterion, Gotabhaya was clearly more successful in his several roles than Chandrika has been in hers. He served with distinction in wartime as a combat Colonel.
His consequential return to the war after a decade of self-exile fits in with the universal heroic narrative. In a world in which even history’s greatest superpower has been unable to win the counter-insurgency/counter-terrorist wars it is engaged in, and in this country where four Presidents and a PM were unable to win a war for over a quarter century, it was almost a miracle that was accomplished by the Rajapaksa administration in securing a decisive military victory over a formidable terrorist formation in under three and a half years.
During the war, Gota held the three services together, preventing inter-service and intra-service rivalry from wrecking military performance as it had so often and so tragically in the past. His dedicated, masterful management of the war effort, organically linked to the unprecedented political will and leadership shown by his brother Mahinda, the incumbent President, contributed greatly to its swift, successful conclusion.
After the war, Gotabhaya became one of the finest development administrators this country has known; one of the few men who would have met the exacting standards of President Premadasa. In the developmental domain he is the closest-- perhaps only real-- successor I can think of, to the Ranasinghe Premadasa-Sirisena Cooray duo.
To the extent that Gotabhaya helped win the war, reunify the Sri Lankan State and achieve peace, he helped greatly reduce the agony of the Sri Lankan people. Moreover he was a driver and architect of the postwar developmental miracle.
Thus he was part of the solution. Insofar as he impeded necessary ethno-political reform, postwar social liberalization and external outreach, he was part of the problem.
In the postwar period, i.e. the second term of MR, he was on the right flank of a populist centre-left administration, and I was naturally critical of him. Today we have an administration, which is dominated by an anti-national, anti-people, neoliberal Right, led by the Unholy Trinity of Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, ex-President Kumaratunga and External Affairs Minister Mangala Samaraweera.
This dramatic shift to the pro-Western Right, finds Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, consistently and laudably a strong sovereignist and Statist, relocated in a rather more ‘centrist’ space.
The RW-CBK-Mangala Trio does not care for this country except to traffic it to the West. Gotabaya has far more estimable core values. For all his flaws, Gotabaya is sincere and authentic, manifesting “fierce attachments…strong loves and hates”, and an “ultimate indomitability of spirit”. Comparatively speaking, this makes him a person “of different moral worth” (to borrow Mervyn’s criteria and phrasing).
In the currently evolving historical context, Gotabaya Rajapaksa may well be the man who can unify the dividing SLFP, and the anti–Ranil/CBK forces, while appealing to the Buddhist clergy, the business community, the patriotic UNP voters, and armed forces personnel and their families.
GR is a patriotic moderniser; admittedly a conservative moderniser. He may have the potential to synthesise aspects of the legacies of Presidents Premadasa and Rajapaksa. The conjuncture that is shaping up is similar to those of 1988 and 2005. The position of ‘moderate’, ‘cosmopolitan’ Tamil nationalism (currently the official Opposition), as represented by M.A. Sumanthiran briefing the US Congressional Caucus on June 14, 2016, legitimises the Tamil separatist terrorist war and the militia that waged it, while dismissing the 13th Amendment and seeking to push well beyond it:
“…which led to an armed revolt by Tamil youth seeking to …re-establish – their lost sovereignty as a separate state in that island…The 13th Amendment to the Constitution [which] we rejected as being meaningless provisions of devolution…”
The State and the economic system will need a strong leader with a proven record, who can revive the dignity and the energies of the nation and give them coherent direction. The Malaysian/Indonesian variant of the ASEAN model is far more realistic an aspiration for Sri Lanka than the UNP’s EU, Puerto Rico or Singapore models.
The steely ‘GR’ is the closest we might get to a Susilo Bangbang Yudhono or Mahathir Mohammed.