“I’m sorry Mr. Boucher, what can I do if our terrorists aren’t Islamic?”
President Mahinda Rajapaksa to US Asst. Secretary of State Richard Boucher, May 2007
The terrorist barbarities wrought on Friday the 13th November 2015 in Paris remind us of the Tiger terrorist slaughter of civilians in Naiaru, Kokilai, Anuradhapura, Maradana, Pettah, Dehiwela, the Central Bank, Kebitigollawa, Arantalawa, Kattankudy and innumerable border villages—massacres which were at least as large as those in Paris when we regard the respective sizes of our countries’ populations. For decades, the daily sound was of the sirens of ambulances and the wails of the bereaved, the scene was of hospitals under siege with the flood of the wounded and dying.
When he was elected President in 2005, Mahinda Rajapaksa took over a divided country, battered by suicide bombings, assassinations of leaders and overrunning of military camps; a state in retreat, a nation humiliated, a military unprepared and demoralized, a country in the coils of a seemingly endless war waged by a highly motivated and confident enemy with heavy artillery, a navy and a fledging air arm and a global support network.
"As President and Commander-in-Chief it was Mahinda who had to decide whether or not the war would be waged with the goal of militarily defeating Prabhakaran and smashing the Tigers i.e. fought to a finish with the aim of victory. "
When he left office a decade later ours was a country without war, liberated from terrorism, a reunified territory, a Sri Lankan state with its borders restored to their natural boundary the Indian Ocean, a fast-modernizing economy, and a landscape which showed no trace of a thirty year conflict.
A man or woman is judged by the scale and scope of the challenges he/she faces, the manner in which he/she faces them, the way in which those who came before him/her faced that challenge, and the relative performance of others in his/her own time and at other times, living in other places, facing the same
type of challenge.
The challenge Mahinda faced was not only that of the division of the country but also a uniquely ferocious enemy which had extensively deployed suicide bombers and assassinated democratic leaders of two countries, Sri Lanka and India. In his annexure to the Paranagama report, Sir John Holmes OBE, the former commander of the British SAS, and ex-Director of UK Special Operations, asserts that the Tigers were the masters of suicide bombing in the post WW II era, and endorses the view that they were the most formidable armed force engaging in asymmetric warfare because they had mastered and practised three different types of warfare simultaneously: terrorism, guerrilla war and quasi-conventional war.
"What made Mahinda Rajapaksa take decisions that none of his predecessors did, though all of them could have? Love of country and faith that it could win? Strength of personality to go head to head with Prabhakaran and the sense of destiny that he could prevail where other leaders, Sri Lankan and Indian, had not? "
Sir John Holmes notes the watershed in the decades-long, inconclusive war. Having drawn attention to the probability that the Sri Lankan military would have defeated Prabhakaran in 1987 if India had not intervened, the former commander of the SAS identifies the key decision that enabled the Sri Lankan state to finally prevail over the Tigers.
That was the increase in the size of the Sri Lankan armed forces to 300, 000, which gave the military for the very first time, the capacity to conduct and sustain major operations on several fronts simultaneously. This was a decision taken by the President and Commander-in-Chief Mahinda Rajapaksa, and he took it very early in his presidency, after the Tigers unilaterally recommenced the war against the Sri Lankan state in 2006. This was a step that any of his predecessors, better endowed or placed, could have taken, thereby shortening the conflict and the prolonged torment of the citizenry—but none did.
In the history of nations nothing registers greater importance, perhaps apart from the moment of founding, than the defence of the collective from an armed aggressive enemy, a violent marauder. A close second is the defence of the country’s unity and the task of unification or reunification. A third is the protection of the country’s sovereignty and self-determination from external encroachment and hegemony. This is what history focuses on. ‘Governance’ arrived way after and ranks well below war, peace and the state, or in earlier times, the kingdom, the city, the citadel, the tribe, i.e. the political community with its boundaries.
It is estimated that in the history of world literature, the three themes most often dealt with are God, love and war. In two of the three, sometimes even in all three, a common thread is conflict. Mahinda Rajapaksa confronted a great conflict which all those who preceded him had failed to bring to a close peacefully or violently, by force of argument or force of arms. He inherited a “state of exception”, a situation at the “extreme limit”, and passed the test that all his predecessors had failed. He became this country’s leader when it most needed a hero, and he liberated the country and restored its pride by prevailing over the fanatical foe.
As President and Commander-in-Chief it was Mahinda who had to decide whether or not the war would be waged with the goal of militarily defeating Prabhakaran and smashing the Tigers i.e. fought to a finish with the aim of victory. It was Mahinda who faced the external pressure to halt the final thrust and the threat of possible “consequences” if he chose not to. It was Mahinda who didn’t blink. These were decisions that none of his predecessors nationally and few of his peers globally (Putin apart) had the guts to take and the ability to see through to a successful conclusion.
What made Mahinda Rajapaksa take decisions that none of his predecessors did, though all of them could have? Love of country and faith that it could win? Strength of personality to go head to head with Prabhakaran and the sense of destiny that he could prevail where other leaders, Sri Lankan and Indian, had not? Courage to forge ahead in the face of the omnipresent danger of death by suicide assassin? Defiance and dignity not to stop until the task was over despite pressure and the threat of “consequences”?
His decisions and the virtues that drove them make him the most heroic leader—arguably the only truly heroic leader-- this country had since Independence. It also secures him a permanent place of renown in the country’s history. Given that the Sinhalese have one of the longest uninterrupted written historical chronicles in the world, this is a signal achievement.
This island’s great ancient civilization rested upon two leadership archetypes: “rebel-resister-liberator-unifier” and “great builder”. With his construction of infrastructure and economic-developmental modernization Mahinda Rajapaksa takes his place as one who fuses both grand traditions. Mahinda Rajapaksa’s third claim to fame is the personal appeal he holds for the public, even out of office. He is, quite simply put, respected, liked and loved by the people.
For all these reasons, when someday, hopefully much later rather than sooner, he leaves us, he will have left an indelible legend in the long, chronicled narrative of his nation, as well as a large gouge in its collective heart, even in its very soul. He will be missed and mourned far more deeply, widely and far longer, than any leader, political or civic, in living memory than any Lankan personality born in the twentieth century. His political predecessors, rivals, critics and competitors know this full well, and this is the wellspring of their rancorous resentment.
Machiavelli thought there were essentially two opposing types of traits: those of the Lion and the Fox. Centuries later his countryman Vilfredo Pareto theorized that there was a rotation of ruling elites corresponding to these opposing personality types. The Lions symbolized strength, force, and principle; the Foxes, cunning, flexibility and fraud. Mahinda Rajapaksa is a Lion, and his decade represented the values, both virtues and flaws, of the Lions.
The verdict of History will be that Mahinda the Lion heart was the indispensable and unsurpassable Sri Lankan leader—the indispensable and unsurpassable Sri Lankan—of his and our times.