The lessons of history
by Rajiva Wijesinha
Of a modern Major General
(W. S. Gilbert)
It is not yet two years since the abortive attempt, stymied by a hasty warning sent to Oslo by Anura Bandaranaike, to replace Ranil as leader of the UNP. He rushed back and acted quite quickly. With Chari replacing Karu as Party chairman, and Kapukotuwa becoming General Secretary instead of Gamini Athukorale, his control was firmly established. Negotiations with dissident government MPs could proceed after that on the firm understanding that he would succeed to power.
Knowing the pelican-like characteristics of both, I am sure Ranil and Anura would have congratulated themselves at the time on the brilliance of their tactical manoeuvring. Yet as the obituaries at the time of the tragic death of Athukorale made clear, one of the main reasons for Ranils walkover was that neither Karu nor Athukorale were particularly keen to get rid of him. Their aim was rather to galvanize him into action, in a context in which they felt he was not serious enough about wanting to topple the government. Of course Ranils groupies naturally claimed, in defending his preposterous cabinet just after the election, that he could not trust the duo. But the behaviour of both of them, before and after what Anura thought was an attempted coup against his beloved leader of the moment, suggests solid party men driven to the brink by their leaders diffidence. Once he began to act, they rallied round him devotedly.
Though they accepted the position, it is worth noting that some of those who had initiated the movement against Ranil were not so happy. One of the journalists, who had been instrumental indeed in the impeachment motion against Premadasa, thought it was only a matter of time before Ranil went. His only worry was that there might not be a suitable successor. Karu was the obvious choice, but his view was that Karu was not broadminded enough on the ethnic question. Ranil, he seemed to think, had already opened up discussions, and had a plan of action that would ensure a peaceful solution.
Now of course the worry is that Ranils method of discussion is to yield whatever the Tigers want, without any commensurate concessions. Listening to journalists complaining about his hysteria when they report what he does not want to hear about the rapid abnegation of Sri Lankan sovereignty, one is reminded of the way in which JR negotiated with India in 1987. It may not be remembered then that, when details of the accord first became known, and the matter was discussed at a meeting of important cabinet members, no decision was taken. Given that there was much disagreement, Ranil proposed that nothing should be decided until Premadasa, who was away at the time, returned to the island.
I was not sure at the time whether he did this in continuation of his role as JRs agent, to allow the idea to sink in, or whether it suggested the first stirrings of an independent mind. Premadasa responded from Japan with a statement that the Indian attitude left grounds for suspicion. What followed however is history. JR ignored the cabinet consensus and announced on July 23rd to the government parliamentary group that accord had been reached and Rajiv Gandhi would be flying to Colombo to sign an agreement. If they did not agree, he made it clear, he would dissolve parliament straight away.
Premadasa was still away, but in fact he knuckled under pretty quickly once he returned. So did Athulathmudali. It was only Gamini Jayasuriya who objected forcefully and in fact resigned both from the cabinet and parliament, though some time later, so JR was blithely able to proceed as he wished.
Now, believing as I still do that the whole problem had been exacerbated by JRs ridiculous attitude to India earlier, I found nothing wrong with an agreement that recognized the predominance of Indian interests in the region. The manner in which the Accord was signed however was a disgrace, and it was also pretty silly in that it did not resolve the original problem. That was, and continued to be, neglect and ill-treatment of minorities and the periphery in general in favour of a centralized majoritarian state. Appreciating such niceties however could not be expected of a complacent cabinet or a terrified parliamentary group.
Unfortunately every day that passes shows that Ranil is becoming more like JR, both in his bullying and in his incapacity to understand the contradictions he is engaging in. And while he, and indeed Sinhala journalists, may forget his own chequered history as far as the minorities are concerned, the Tigers certainly will remember.
After all he was the bright young Minister, as the Daily News at the time described him, who seemed to justify the July 1983 race riots on the grounds that they arose from the frustration of Sinhala entrepreneurs bankrupted by statist regulations and nationalisations. This was in an interview in August 1983 when, in attempt it seemed to blame the Bandaranaikes and their nationalizations for the excesses of the July rioters, he bewailed the deprivation suffered by ship chandlers and arrack renters and plumbago miners. Of course these were the days when he was under the sway of Cyril Mathew. But people can we hope grow up, and develop minds and attitudes of their own. But, just as with JR paying obeisance to India, Ranils new-found pluralism seems to spring more from political convenience rather than any deep commitment to social and political justice.
This is not a problem for the Tigers, so long as they get what they want. But, despite their pronouncements internationally about confidence in Ranil, given his history it is understandable that they make it clear elsewhere that they have to continue prepared for armed struggle. Bringing in anti-aircraft guns is understandable when you are dealing with someone who was so upset about ship chandlers that he seemed to think Tamils could be attacked to show how much they had suffered. And with Ranil at the helm, excusing all the blunders and blind eyes of the Monitoring Mission, you can generally bring in several guns for any that have so sadly to be sunk.
And once the guns are all in place, and the child soldiers all trained, while Ranil, like JR, assumes America will come to his rescue, the Tigers know that that is not the way America behaves. The Indians knew what they were doing, in Bangladesh in 1971 and in Sri Lanka 16 years later. Though loyal Pakistan and even more loyal JR expected the marines to land, nothing of the sort happened.
Now I am not saying we are necessarily heading for disaster. But not only statesmen, if we have any, but also responsible journalists, should be aware of what happened in the past, because that is the best way to predict the future. Particular personalities behave in certain ways, particular movements and countries behave in certain ways, that it is possible to predict. Both the massive cabinet and the government parliamentary group should educate themselves as to what happened in 1987 after they allowed themselves to be bulldozed into an agreement that basically, at any rate through its protocols, gave up Sri Lankan sovereignty.
Of course memories are masked by the fact that Premadasa won the next election and the UNP remained in power. But firstly they should remember the cost, including the deal Premadasa did with the Tigers. Secondly, they should recognize that Premadasa was unique. There is no one left in the country with similar ability or vision. If, or rather when, disaster strikes, putting things in order will not I think be possible.
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