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Towards a new political culture

– learning from a shop assistant’s conscience



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By M.L. Wickramasinghe


I am persuaded to write this short opinion piece due to a short dialogue a shop assistant had with me last week at a suburban town. I kept a small parcel including two newspapers in a transparent cellophane bag on the shop counter and went in looking for a few items. On returning, I saw a person reading the newspaper through the cellophane bag. He smiled apologetically. I smiled back in a relaxed and empathetic way indicating non-verbally (hopefully), that he could finish reading if he wished to do so. Saying ‘a menna sir’ (‘here it is sir’),he handed the parcel back to me. As he handed back the parcel he said " Basil mahattaya penala gihilla kiyala kiyanne? Apahu enna kiyala niyoga karanavalu neda"? (‘it is said that Mr. Basil has run away? He’s been ordered to come back isn’t it?’) I was taken unawares, but said, "Basil mahattaya apahu eyi; parajayata wagakeema bara gannawa kiyala Basil mahattaya kiyala thibuna ne" ( ‘Mr. Basil would come back. Mr. Basil had said that he is taking responsibility for the defeat’)


Then he got into a short dialogue with me and said that the way ‘some of them’ treat the Rajapaksa Pavula and Mahinda mahattaya is not quite good; how they talk about them is not in good taste. I said that I tend to agree, and that type of talk would gradually stop. "Sir, Mahinda mahattaya hinda ne den apita mehema nidahase pare behala yanna puluwan" ( ‘Sir, it is because of Mahinda mahattaya that we can now walk on the roads freely like this’). I walked away reflectively.


I too have been having nagging doubts and an uncomfortable feeling about what and specially how some of the politicians (not all) in the winning camp, as well as some who have walked into the winning camp, as well as some who are in the process of jumping over are saying about former President Rajapaksa and the family. But it is the pained remarks of a less educated but a more cultured human being that really spurred me on to write this short piece. It is said that good persons being silent on issues is the worst thing that can happen.


The shop assistant did what he could do maximally, getting into an interpersonal communication act with a person whom he believed was approachable. It perhaps was his way of doing his duty as a citizen. He as a citizen has put the ball into my court. Do I have the ability to bring this message to a larger audience? Do I as - a so called intellectual - possess greater courage than he? He has shown me the path that I should take, and I decided to write this small but significant piece, hoping that it would be published and that it would also be taken in the same spirit (by the readers and the powers that be) that it is written in.


These now are my thoughts on the subject. I am happy that I am writing about two people whom I assess to be among the few of the most courageous Sri Lankan political and politico-military leaders in the post independence era. Messrs. Mahinda Rajapaksa and Gotabaya Rajapaksa combined politically, policy-wise, and strategically to provide political and overall military coordination leadership to the anti terrorist war, after exerting optimally to forge a peaceful solution to the terrorist onslaught hoisted upon Sri Lanka by LTTE.


I would not dwell at length on this aspect as much has been written more analytically and eloquently, nationally as well as internationally, on the twin roles of the Rakjapaksa brothers as well as that of tri- service commanders, field commanders, soldiers, sailors, airmen, war heroes, and of their families. However, to understand the national and political significance of the role performed by President Rajapaksa in liberating the country and its citizens from the stranglehold of terrorism, it is important to remember that three Executive Presidents of Sri Lanka failed to resolve the terrorist problem either through negotiations or military means for 22 of the 26 years.


Having understood the precarious security situation that Mr. Rajapaksa inherited in 2005, (please take your mind back to a map of Sri Lanka that depicted the areas under LTTE control at the time of the closure of the Mavil Aru anicut by LTTE) it is really important to dwell briefly on the benefits that accrued to the people of Sri Lanka by defeating terrorism in Sri Lanka. Sri Lankans are known to have short memories of good deeds done by others unto them. The first and foremost benefit is the ‘feeling of freedom felt by all Sri Lankans’ and the knowledge that death would not stalk them day or night on the public roads of Sri Lanka in the guise of suicide bombers or remote controlled explosive devices. This was referred to by the shop assistant who inspired this piece.


About 80,000-100,000( ref:-Wikipedia) Lankans including state soldiers, LTTE cadres, Tamil villagers trained for fighting as auxiliaries and civilians from all parts of Sri Lanka were killed during the 26 year long terrorist oppression in Sri Lanka. If LTTE terrorists were not defeated on May 19, 2009, and based on the lower estimate of deaths (by Wikipedia), on an average 3,077 Sri Lankans t would have been dying every year (an average of 256 deaths per month) due to terrorist causes. The children, women and men living in the threatened villages dotted along the borders of Trincomalee, Ampara, Moneragala, Wellawaya, Vauniya, Anuradhapura, and Polonnaruwa woud still be repairing to the nearby jungles, as darkness descends, to sleep out the night in fear of marauding LTTE cadres.


The economy that once plunged into minus territory would still be in doldrums with a parallel economy gaining strength in the north and east ; millions of dollars worth of infrastructure would continue to be destroyed also in the south as terrorists keep destroying assets to demoralize people and cripple the economy; the vast majority of tourists would still be skipping Sri Lanka as a destination ; the moral values, and law and order would continue to be put under tremendous stress due to parallel and illegal law enforcement and legal structures, and a culture of violence imposed by the LTTE; younger and still younger children would continue to be forcibly recruited to be turned into child soldiers; citizens in the north and east would still be coerced to move along with LTTE armed columns as the battle lines shifted due to vagaries of fighting for use as forced labour, and /or human shields for protection of LTTE leaders; the majority of the children in the north would still be deprived of formal schooling; the public officials in the north and some parts of the east would still be paid by the government of Sri Lanka, but would be working under the shadow and sometimes the direction of LTTE cadres ( with the exception of higher administrative officers); justice would still be dispensed by LTTE cadres with most punishments reported to be dehumanizing and so forth, and so forth.


The purpose of this article is really not to present a thesis on benefits of stopping terrorism. The purpose of discussing about benefits is also not to score debating points for the Rajapaksa brothers, but to illustrate the fact that what they helped to achieve for Sri Lanka was truly unique and liberating.


But it seems that the Rajapaksa brothers who provided highly effective political, policy, and social mobilization, as well as defense coordination leadership to liberate the country from terrorism are lumped together with all and sundry in the now opposition and other hangers –on, and attacked mercilessly by all and sundry. This is unfair. I would refer to just one media event, as an example only .A representative who was interviewed last week over a state TV channel in a morning program, referred to buildings of Rajapaksa family and other rogues .This was what was said in Sinhalese "Rajapaksa Pavule saha anith horunge godanegilivalata kadavadinna onae"-literally translated-‘ should break into buildings of Rajapaksa family and other rogues’.


We believe that a more balanced, non sensational and non inquisitorial, and truth –based approach is needed to communicate about alleged commissions and omissions of President Rajapaksa and brothers, at public meetings, press conferences, over mass and social media, and at other ceremonies and events, as he performed a nationally critical and unprecedented role in protecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka . This is the most important role a Head of State is expected to perform. Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa liberated the country from terrorism and prevented the country from being divided into two states.


Let us also not overlook that Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa was defeated while receiving over 57 lakhs of votes of the citizens of this country in an election stated to be free and fair by national and international election monitors. When we rail against him emotionally, irrationally and disparagingly, and visibly unfairly, we may also indirectly be disparaging the ideas of close to half of the citizens who voted at the last election. It would be of immense help to the new government, if its stakeholder actions and words at political events and over mass and social media are more balanced, rational and accurate and so as not to negatively influence the future (reflective) thinking of these voters, and their perceptions on the new political culture that is being aspired to be born. What is required is to do and say things in such a way as to make at least the majority of the people who voted against the Rajapaksas, too feel that they are included and can derive benefits of the new political culture. The feeling of psychological inclusiveness among the voters holding contrary views are therefore critical and should be nurtured. For this to actualize they and their leader need to be treated decently and fairly.


This is not to argue that the Rajapaksa family should be exempt from legal action if such action is justified as per the laws of the country. But to use the Rajapaksa family as a public punching bag through innuendo, smear speech and abuse is not what a civilized nation should be doing to one of its sons who did yeoman service to the country by resolving a problem that brought death and destruction to all corners of Sri Lanka for almost 30 years of its 61 year independent existence. Sir Winston Churchill was defeated at the election held after winning the war for England. But he was not humiliated in public. In fact even now many years after his death, he is being praised for his unprecedented services to the country. This is how Wikipedia writes of Sir Winston Churchill’s contribution. "His steadfast refusal to consider defeat, surrender, or a compromised peace helped inspire British resistance, especially during the difficult early days of the war, when the British Commonwealth and Empire stood alone in its active opposition to Adolf Hitler……. He led Britain as Prime Minister until victory over Nazi Germany had been secured. …".


Isn’t this exactly what Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa as President of Sri Lanka did too, about 66 years later in a part of the then British Empire, when Sri Lanka stood alone (barring the support of an absolutely very few all- weather friends) against the most ruthless terrorist organization in the world as described by the FBI? We have a right to defeat Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa at a poll; but we have no right to ridicule him as he has never wittingly or unwittingly gone against the country.


In this regard Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe should be commended for giving a positive example in the small hours of January 9, when he said the Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa has earned his place in the history of this country by winning the war against terrorism. Mr. Maithripala Sirisena , President elect, too provided the same positive example by offering special thanks to Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa on the occasion of the declaration of the election results at the Election Secretariat. The US President, Mr. Obama and Mr. Kerry the Secretary of State also commended Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa for taking action to make a smooth transfer of power. It was a fairytale beginning to the new political culture that is to be born.


There is a saying in our villages, though, that it takes only a spot of dung to spoil the pot of milk. Well, some of the victorious political followers of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, it appears, are striking out on a contrary path of virulence and vitriolic speech, probably aiming to win over a populist constituency. Perhaps, as already shown during the 2015 presidential election the so called populist constituency turned out to be a more discerning constituency, and would continue to further enhance the power of discernment in the future too. Such vitriolic speech may not go well with the majority of rural people who still look up to decent speech (sovacassata), gratitude, (katannuta) and respect (garavo) as key aspects of Sri Lankan cultural milieu, as extolled by Lord Buddha in the ‘Maha Mangala’ discourse. Hinduism, Islam and Christianity too extol these virtues. The aspirational political culture that is attempted to be installed in Sri Lanka should also be compulsorily anchored on above values, too, still held in esteem by the vast majority of the Sri Lankan rural people.


I trust that I have been able to adequately verbalize the sentiments and the feelings of the ‘ "lesser educated" but gentleman shop assistant who represent a category of people whose ideas are generally kept out of the realm of mass and new social media (due to the industry’s inherent as well as contemporary power and the resultant self-opt out decision of these people), but yet are a critical and valuable component of Sri Lanka’s social fabric. This is also a positive and constructive suggestion and a contribution towards influencing, hopefully, the nurturing of a new political culture, as aspired to by the new government.


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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