Moral repugnance is the voters opium

by Darshanie Ratnawalli

Moral repugnance politics work and any country where politicians are incapable of inspiring moral repugnance would be a dull place to vote in. The Sri Lankan parliamentary election, 2015 is fought on an exciting moral repugnance platform where casting of a vote carries the emotional fulfilment of defeating a villain.

Both leaders of the two main contesting teams, Mahinda and Ranil, are capable of inspiring healthy doses of moral repugnance in the electorate. Both leaders also inspire strong positive feelings in sections of the electorate that are so disparate that the cause of positive feelings in one section gives rise to violent aversion in the other.

One way Ranil Wickremesinghe inspires moral repugnance in certain Sri Lankans is through his inability to rise above the zeitgeist of the Western capitals when defining national interest. In this election the UPFA uses this more effectively than ever before through Dayan Jayatilleke, one of its most articulate and best informed speakers. He uses a little known revelation in ‘Total Destruction of the Tamil Tigers: The Rare Victory of Sri Lanka’s Long War’, by Paul Moorcraft to make Wickremesinghe’s CV morally and ethically repugnant to the Sri Lankan voter. In a robust, unequivocal way, Jayatilleke informs his audience that there was a time in 2001 when we could have ended the war with minimum casualties. That kind of mess-free ending of the war was prevented by Wickremesinghe who countermanded as prime minister a Special Forces operation a la zero dark thirty, sanctioned by President Kumaratunga to assassinate Prabhakaran in the jungles of Wanni.

Although Jayatilleke is unequivocal in condemning Wickremesinghe over this episode, it must have been a difficult decision. On one side there was Wickremesinghe who had won Parliamentary power on a platform of peace and negotiated settlement and who was in the middle of sensitive peace bargaining overlooked by Norway. On the other side there was a special-forces team in the jungles of Wanni aware for once of an elusive Prabhakaran’s whereabouts and ready to strike on Christmas Eve of 2001. On one side there was Wickremesinghe aware that the zeitgeist of the Western world and maybe even Delhi would disapprove of the edge the LTTE leader’s death would give the Sri Lankan government in the negotiating table and moreover that it would mortally offend the Norwegians who had begun to identify with the Tigers to an un-mediator like extent. On the other side there was Military Intelligence who was arguing from a perspective partisan to Sri Lankan interests that Prabhakaran’s death would end the war. Wickremesinghe who wouldn’t have wished to be seen as biased towards any side, least of all towards Sri Lanka, called off the mission.

Dayan Jayatilleke goes on to say that if Prabhakaran had been decapitated that time in 2001 in the manner of Osama Bin Laden, we wouldn’t have had to go through the war that we went through in 2009. In 2009 the LTTE was fighting like a conventional army in theatres of battle whose boundaries were shrinking by the day, surrounded by a civilian population which had accompanied it willingly but which it was forcibly holding to use as fighting corollaries, recruitment pool and human shield. In contrast, in 2001 the civilians were in their towns and villages and even though they had set up a parallel government, the LTTE was still fighting as a guerrilla force and its top leadership including Prabhakaran could still be cornered in the jungles of Wanni away from the civilians and taken out with minimum civilian casualties. In hind sight it’s easy to lament and accuse that such an opportunity was not utilised. But at the time it must have seemed unthinkable, too bold, too much against the geopolitical zeitgeist. The war was after all unwinnable. It was only the rabble rousers and the uncouth who thought it could or should be won.

Wickremesinghe’s actions would have been the result of a too superficial and static reading of the geopolitical realities and the zeitgeist. The last named are always in a dynamic state of flux, constantly being reshaped by parties acting to protect their own interests. Opinions emerging post 2009 show that far from offending the geopolitical sensitivities, Ranil Wickremesinghe could have endeared himself to them and become the toast of a newly made geopolitical zeitgeist if he had sanctioned the termination of Prabhakaran and brought a restructured LTTE to the negotiating table. In "Sri Lanka’s Ethnic Conflict: How Eelam War IV was Won", 2010 Major General Ashok K Mehta opines about Sri Lanka’s 2009 method of achieving peace; "There are lessons to be learnt from Sri Lanka’s military success. But whether countries are able and willing to apply military force in the face of external criticism and threats of sanctions will depend on the political and diplomatic preparations before such a campaign. India could almost never emulate this model as it believes in bringing insurgents to the negotiating table to join the political process. It follows a policy of minimum force applied in good faith, with the use of heavy weapons and air power almost always avoided."

A 2013 review of Paul Moorcraft’s book published in The Spectator states with thinly veiled sourness, "In this book Paul Moorcraft, whose career has variously encompassed teaching at Sandhurst and roving war zones as a correspondent, suggests a recent historical juncture as an example of just the kind of sledge-hammer counterinsurgency approach vetoed in Northern Ireland and Vietnam."

The 2001 method of achieving peace, if it hadn’t been vetoed by Wickremesinghe would technically have won the approval of both these critics who are two disparate spokespersons for the global zeitgeist, one a fighting man, the other an arm chair warrior.

This episode while it shows up negatively Ranil’s ability as a leader, does illustrate what a good follower he is. What he follows is the zeitgeist of the Western capitals, which he sees as immovable, unrelenting and inescapable. A long spell in the corridors of power beginning from 1978 may have taught this Prime Ministerial candidate for 2015 that for a leader of a small, third world country, total capitulation is the only way forward. In 1987 as a 38-year old politician already operating within the inner circles of state power, he would have seen how his relative, the Executive President was forced down from perch after perch by India in the run up to the signing of the Indo Lanka Accord, until the all-powerful J.R was reduced to getting his wife ask J.N Dixit if Rajiv Gandhi would ensure his personal protection and continuation in power.

There’s no doubt that Ranil Wickremesinghe has an impressive array of moral repugnance magnets in his kitty. He is accused of sending hired thugs in 1978 to the University of Kelaniya to tame the anti UNP student union. Then there is Gonawela Sunil. But none of these allegations reverberates in the National echo chamber as much as the Millennium City case and Wickremesinghe’s famous Thoppigala speech. Millennium City, a military Intelligence safe house was raided under Ranil’s prime ministerial watch by a mid-level police officer of the Kandy Police who was able mysteriously to override the heads of military Intelligence and make a media show of the arrested undercover operatives. The Intelligence chiefs were accused of using the safe house as a base to assassinate PM Wickremesinghe. This blowing of cover soon led to a chain termination by LTTE of the operative network. Sinharaja Tammita Delgoda reviewing Ashok Mehta’s above quoted paper reminds the Indian General of the peculiar conditions under which the Sri Lankan Army fought; "One of the most extraordinary characteristics of the war in the eastern province was the chorus of derision and condemnation against which the whole operation was conducted. This chorus was led by the opposition United National Party, whose leaders went out of their way to belittle the army’s efforts. The army’s seizure of the LTTE’s great jungle stronghold of Thoppigala was ridiculed by no less a figure than the leader of the Opposition, Mr. Ranil Wickremasinghe. Speaking on television at a public gathering at Galle on 17 July 2007 Wickremasinghe dismissed Thoppigala as an empty patch of jungle.15 Amidst roars of laughter from his own supporters, he asked, "So what is so special about Thoppigala? Its just a useless patch of empty jungle which is larger than whole district of Colombo."


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