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Forget the past and look to the future

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Right from the beginning of his presidential campaign and throughout his present administration, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s constant theme and answer to his critics has been: “Forget the past and look to the future.” The implication of this thematic answer is very clear. 

Objectively speaking, no leader in his or her right mind would wish the past to be forgotten had that past been one of glorious achievements, peace and prosperity. Similarly, no leader would like to remember and cherish a past in which his or her own record of achievement was one mixed with untold misery, death and destruction. One may argue that the final judgement on the past depends on how one views and interprets it.  After all, history is what a historian chooses to write. It is unclear how much of the past President Rajapaksa wants erased from memory. Is it only the war-related military past or the financial corruption and nepotism that was rampant during his brother’s rule? If the latter is included, then why shouldn’t we also forget the Yahapalana Government’s bond scam and move on with the future?   

Yet, in President Rajapaksa’s case, the fact that he was the Defence Secretary, and therefore the chief architect and conductor of a no-holds-barred civil war in which he no doubt achieved a pyrrhic victory, makes him directly responsible and cannot run away by asking the victims of that war to forget about it. He is personally not a corrupt and venal man, but a devout Buddhist. Wasn’t it Buddhism which forced that merciless conqueror Asoka to repent and become a sublime ruler? President Rajapaksa may justify his action in the name of his patriotic duty to his country. But as a devout Buddhist, shouldn’t he admit and express regret over his errors in judgement and ask for forgiveness rather than appealing to the public to forget? 

Past sins

The manner in which the war was conducted brought untold misery, death and destruction to hundreds of thousands of not just Tamils but also Sinhalese and Muslims who were unfortunate collateral. An apology to the nation may be appropriate as a whole before asking the people to look to the future. Forget they will not, but forgive they may. 

If Angela Merkel and other Western leaders could apologise to the Jewish people for the Holocaust, if former President Obama could apologise to the Japanese for bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki and if Prime Minister Kevin Rudd could say sorry to the original owners of Australia for crimes committed by his white ancestors, why not in Sri Lanka? Such an apology would be the first step in reconciliation. President Rajapaksa should rise to the standing of a statesman and take that first step. Reconciliation will become a lot easier after that.                 

Even then, reconciliation is not a one-way street. Tamil and Muslim leadership are also equally culpable for not doing enough to prevent the civil war in the first place. There is no just war anywhere in history, and all wars are a march of folly. This is not the place to dig into the course of the civil war but two episodes are worth mentioning. 

Firstly, had the Tamil leaders of that time condemned unreservedly from within Parliament and in the public, the assassination of Alfred Duraiappah by then-budding terrorist Velupillai Prabhakaran  in 1975, and had those leaders steadfastly refused to tolerate the acts of violence committed by podiyankal (the boys), the country would have avoided a civil war and its consequences. 

Secondly, Muslim leadership which was caught in the middle, missed a golden opportunity and failed to play the role of an honest broker with all the support they had internationally among Muslim countries. Instead, that leadership was only concerned with maximising its own gains in a troubled environment. Thus, both branches of leadership also owe an apology to the nation.  

Path ahead

Let us now turn to the future. Behind all the thought bubbles bursting forth from President Rajapaksa, there is one common denominator - an ambitious dream with Machiavellian traits. His military background, his determination to redirect the country’s future development along a technocratic and technological trajectory, and his dependence for support on a powerful cabal of Buddhist supremacists are leading him to design a model of governance mixed with chauvinistic and Machiavellian tendencies. 

His idea of political exclusion with economic inclusion clearly brings out this mixture. The reason given for this stance was that the majority, which actually means the minority supremacists, were unwilling to agree to power-sharing with minorities. This stance was repeated by his caretaker Prime Minister when he said that Tamil leaders were demanding something which the Sinhalese (once again it is the supremacists) were unwilling to concede. The question is not what Tamils were demanding but whether there were some elements of justice and fairness in at least some of those demands. If there were, then it is the responsibility of the rulers to convince their supporters of the reasonableness of those demands rather than politicising them to remain in power. It is the failure to do this that has bedevilled this nation all along. The President needs to rise to the level of a statesman to do this, at least in the interest of the future that he is dreaming about and asking for people’s support.              

‘Prosperity with splendour’, ‘pupil-centred education’, ‘market-oriented university courses’, ‘meritocratic appointments for the public service’ and ‘tax stimulus for economic development’ are some of his other thought bubbles, which may look attractive if viewed individually, but collectively they lack a coordinated structural plan. It appears that President Rajapaksa is trying to rule by edicts rather through a methodically structured and coherent plan. 

There are three fundamentals which will act as constraints to President Rajapaksa realising his dream. Firstly, the absence of a solution to the national question of reconciliation. Secondly, the international and regional geopolitical quagmire into which Sri Lanka is pushed, and thirdly, the open economy. These three are interconnected and each impinges on the operation of the other two. They have become, in a sense, an impossible trinity to deal with. 

The two hurried visits to India, one by President Rajapaksa and the other by his caretaker Prime Minister, and the demands set out by the Indian Government with financial assistance, the delayed visit to China by President Rajapaksa in consequence, the ongoing dialogue over the US-initiated Millennium Challenge Corporation, the US’ pressure on SOFA and finally the IMF’s future conditionality are macro-constraints that will have their effect on realising President Rajapaksa’s micro-thought bubbles. 

The future of this country cannot be built singlehandedly by the majority Sinhalese alone. It requires the cooperation of all communities. The sooner the supremacists who are backing President Rajapaksa realise this fact, the easier the task of achieving prosperity with splendour will be. Given the nepotistic and corrupt political culture of this country, people may be willing to give the benefit of the doubt to President Rajapaksa, and tolerate his iron-fisted approach to prevail but already nepotism and corruption seem to be entering through the backdoor. Chinks are starting to appear on the walls President Rajapaksa has erected. If forgetting the past is impossible, the future seems increasingly blurry. 


(The writer is attached to the School of Business and Governance, Murdoch University, Western Australia)

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