Of Traitors and Patriots

Anura Gunasekera

Courtesy of the Island, 8 February 2010

PREAMBLE from Michael Roberts: Anura Gunasekera’s essay is truly important and is inserted here because some threads mesh with contentions I have presented earlier. When in Sri Lanka in May 2009 I penned an article “Some pillars for Lanka’s future” in response to a request from an Indian periodical which addressed the import of President Rajapakse’s version of patriotism. I repeat it here as Preamble to Gunasekera’s intervention largely because it also represents a questioning of the position adopted by the head of state albeit in a less direct manner than Gunasekera. This questioning, and for that matter Gunasekera’s telling commentary, is in line with my opening essay SINHALA MIND SET which stands as frontispiece to my web-site.

“President Rajapakse’s symbolic deployment of a few senetences in Tamil was, indeed, as innovative as welcome. his dimissal of ethnic identity as irrelEvant was also applauded widely. This assertion was concomitant with an emphasis on the overwhelming importance of two categories of being in Sri Lanka: those patriotic (rata adhara karana aya) and those unpatriotic (rata adhara nokarana aya). Rata adhara nokarana aya was used in the sense of “un-Sri Lankan” – that is, in the manner of “un-American” in Yankee-speech. For this reason, it is feasible to interpret the argument in dark ways as a warning to critics of the government.

I prefer, here, to dwell on the benign reading of this viewpoint as a rejection of the pertinence of ethnic identity and thus of ethnic differentiation. But I do so in order to argue that such a contention is beset with pitfalls and lacks substance.

For one, the President’s stirring message was (and continues to be) contradicted by popular depictions of the triumphant war as a re-enactment of the Dutugemunu Elara episode in Sri Lanka’s history, a trope now for indelible Sinhala-Tamil conflict. The President himself catered to this understanding by garlanding a statue of Dutugemunu a few days later.

As problematically, at the celebration honouring the war heroes on May 22, the President spoke of the jatika kodiya, sinha kodiya (national flag, Sinha flag) in the same breath. In this critical conceptualisation, a part of Sri Lanka, the Sinhalese people, is equated with the whole of Lanka. This ideological act of merger is presented in taken-for-granted manner, thus, insidiously and powerfully.”



The Sunday Observer of 31/1/10 carried the headline, “A Bold Reply to those who Betrayed the Country”, extracted from a post-election statement attributed to President Rajapaksa, in a reference to those who opposed him at the recent election.

By implication, that statement branded me as well, as a betrayer of the country, for on the 26th of January, together with 4.17 Mn. other traitors, I voted for General Sarath Fonseka.

I have been a citizen and a resident of this country since my birth over 60 years ago. In common with most other people of this country, I have a deep love for it and an abiding concern for its wellbeing. I have never, even remotely, considered the option of taking up residence elsewhere. Since casting my vote for the first time in July 1977 when, along with about 70% of the voting population, I voted enthusiastically for the UNP, I have voted at every election. I have voted for different people and for different parties. At one election, for reasons I can no longer recall, I even voted for that paralyzingly ineffective Dinesh Gunawardena. My voting pattern has been dictated, not by a specific party or political affiliation, but by what I considered to be the best course of action under prevailing circumstances, for the good of the country.

Now I, along with 4.17 Mn. other citizens, am being compelled to accept – if I understand Mr Rajapaksa correctly – that a personal choice in the exercise of the franchise, is an act of treachery against my country. As a citizen I need to consider this statement seriously and with trepidation; to me it seems to carry with it an ominous echo of approaching fascism, a suppression of civil liberties and a denial of a citizen’s fundamental right, endorsed by the country’s first citizen.

Does President Rajapaksa’s statement imply that he and he alone represents the will of this nation? Is he the repository of all hopes of Sri Lanka’s citizenry?

In the context of the President’s assertions as reported in the Sunday Observer, the voting pattern in the latest Presidential Election presents an interesting, but fragmented, picture. His candidacy has been overwhelmingly endorsed by the Sinhala Buddhist majority but rejected wholeheartedly by the minorities. Despite a victory on the battle fields of the North and the East, which decimated a movement which was a curse on all communities in the country, particularly the Tamils and liberated them from an oppressive presence which preyed on them for three decades, the latter chose to go with Fonseka whose combat strategies were responsible for the death of both Tamil militants and Tamil civilians. On an overseas visit whilst Commander of the Army, Fonseka even made a crass statement that Sri Lanka belonged to the Sinhalese and that the Tamils should be more reasonable in their demands.

Logically, the minorities had absolutely no reason to repose any confidence in him. The fact that they still endorsed his candidacy is, clearly, a measure of their mistrust of and antipathy to the Rajapaksa government.

In all his recent major speeches, President Rajapaksa insisted on delivering a few lines in Tamil, clearly aimed to assure the Tamil citizens that his words are sincere even if his actions do not seem to be. Equally clearly, the voting pattern indicates that the Tamils chose not to believe him; effectively, they seem to have said that empty rhetoric, even when delivered in Tamil, is a poor substitute for concrete action.

The inferences are as obvious as they are disturbing. Despite a war victory which relieved the entire country of both an economic and an emotional burden, as well as relief from apprehensions which inhibited travel, investment and ethnic accord, the country is still as divided along ethnic lines, as it was at the height of the Eelam war. This inference is applicable not only to the North and the East, but to all areas of this country including the plantation districts, where minorities, particularly Tamils, are predominant. Whilst the land battle has been won, the battle to win the hearts and minds of those who were liberated by the victory, is yet to be fought; the election results suggest that this particular battle may have been lost before the fight began.

The numbers attached to the election victory margin tend to overshadow the quality and the nature of the victory and need to be reconsidered, in the context of the voting pattern and the nature of the challenger. The electoral districts of Jaffna, Wanni, Amparai, Battcaloa and Trincomalee along with Nuwara-Eliya and a few wards in the Colombo district, voted heavily in favour of the General. Had a greater voter turnout been permitted in the North and the East, the General’s total votes would certainly have been more, although still insufficient to make a difference to the final result. Whilst I am not certain about the exact proportions, some of these areas carry 80% to 70% Tamil/Muslim votes. In 16 districts with a Sinhala majority, particularly in the rural areas, Rajapaksa was an overwhelming winner. Obviously, there is no question in the minds of the majority Sinhala Buddhist population as to their choice for President.

The results in the North and the East in particular, carry a special significance. It is a context in which the President must reconsider the roles of the ex-LTTE combatants, Karuna and Pillayan. The East rejected his candidacy despite reported intimidation and armed coercion. The electors response in this region is also a clear rejection of the influence of state-sponsored warlords and an expression of the desire for a different kind of minority leadership. Karuna and Pillayan, despite their menacing presence, failed to deliver the East to the President. Perhaps, at last, there is an opportunity to facilitate the emergence of decent, honorable leaders, who will be able to articulate the aspirations of minority groups more clearly and with greater majority acceptance, than ex-terrorists, whose hands are stained with the blood of unarmed policemen, Buddhist priests, pilgrims and other innocent civilians.

The election result was achieved against a challenger, less than an year from the battle field and out of a uniform that he had worn for 40 years, with absolutely no national presence or political background – no political skills either – and relatively unknown till the last year of the war, when his single-minded pursuit of a military victory and seeming insensitivity to both civilian and military casualties, earned him the wrath of independent journalists, foreign observers and opposition parliamentarians. Proposed as a common presidential candidate by a coalition of unlikely partners, his candidacy was, in itself, a grim reflection of the lack of leadership alternatives in this country.

During his campaign , Fonseka came across as a dour, unsmiling and combative individual, politically naïve, clearly inclined to be vindictive and with a penchant for kicking the ball in to his own goal, with self-damaging statements; a presidential candidate, as unappealing to the majority of voters as Ranil Wickramasinghe was but for different reasons. A total contrast to the incumbent, with his easy camaraderie, natural friendliness and cleverly cultivated rustic appeal, backed by the enormous weight of goodwill acquired through the victory over the LTTE.

Having said all this, why did 4.17 Mn. people vote for the General? Why is it that so many people decided to risk the future of the country and their future as well, on a relative unknown who exuded nothing but danger signals, including the much touted likelihood of a military regime had he been successful in his bid? This is a conundrum that Mahinda Rajapaksa needs to wrestle with and find answers for, if he is truly serious about his new “Idiri Dekma”. He needs to focus his attention, not on those who voted him in to power but on those who rejected him, particularly the minorities. He needs to shed the euphoria created by the endorsement of the Sinhala Buddhist majority and, instead, engage the rejection by the Hindu/Christian/Tamil/Muslim minority. He needs to understand and accept that to be President of this country, it is not enough to be President of the majority community. He needs to understand that he must now move from politician to statesman.

In his first major speech after the defeat of the LTTE, he declared imperiously that in future there would be no minorities in this country but only one people; that there would be only those who love this country and those who do not. The latest election result is a grim reminder of the emptiness of that bit of rhetoric. The question is, will he now be man enough, statesman enough, to disregard the will of the majority and, instead, address the aspirations of the minority? Is he prepared to address the allegations of massive corruption, to meet the charges of blatant nepotism and cronyism, to neutralize the cult of impunity practiced and enjoyed by a favoured few? Is he statesman enough to make the hard decisions, to remedy these ills for the common good even if it means disenchantment within the ranks of his acolytes? In short, is he prepared to act the true patriot and not just preach about it?

An assessment of the political leaders of this country since independence provides a variegated picture and does not necessarily inspire the citizen with any confidence, in the ability of those who rule, to deliver on their promises. Nor does the picture suggest that any of our political leaders would have developed in to statesmen in the real sense of the word. Frankly speaking, it is a motley collection.

There was, initially, D S Senanayake with his homespun philosophy and wisdom, a man with a simple vision but honest in purpose; the well meaning but ineffective Dudley; the forthright but tactless Sir John with his unashamedly sybaritic lifestyle; the clever but cynical and insincere SWRD, whose policies ignited the ethnic prejudices lying so close under the skin of the Sinhalese; the colourful and eccentric Dahanayake, who left no impact; Sirimavo B, an untutored and unlettered housewife, who may never have become Premier had her husband died a natural death; the devious JRJ who, despite pretensions to statesmanship, finally emerged as just another political schemer, more cunning but less trustworthy than the average; the indefatigable Premadasa, who limited himself by the self-imposed burden of his simple origin; Wijethunga, a simple man pitch forked in to a position he never aspired to; Chandrika KB, deceitful, uncaring and unpunctual, who occasionally played at being President; Ranil, distant ,colourless, personally unappealing to the public and, reportedly, accessible only to a coterie bound by common social, economic and school tie; and, now, Mahinda Rajapaksa, a son of the soil and a man ,potentially, for all seasons.

With the mandate that he has received, the goodwill that he has garnered internally and with the certainty of undisputed leadership for the next six years, it is entirely in his hands and within his powers to do what is best for this country. Not what he thinks is best, as he has proclaimed from every pulpit, but what is best in the context of the real and urgent needs of this country. The gulf between his perception and the reality he is, at present, quite wide.

I decided to take a risk with the unknown and unlovable Fonseka, in the hope that a change would bring about an acceptable equilibrium, between the imposition of the rule of the law for the ordinary many and the exercise of the law of the rulers, for the extraordinary few; that a change would bring about order in to what is fast becoming a lawless society; that marauding parliamentarians would at last be as equally subject to legal restriction, as any Citizen Perera; that public and private corruption would be minimized or curtailed to an extent that it is no longer a suppurating sore on the body public; that journalists who voice a dissenting point of view could ply their trade without incurring the risk of armed attack, abduction and even loss of life; that unaligned news broadcasters could function without fear of being shut down for disseminating unpalatable truths; that the unconscionable expenditure of public funds on the aggrandizement of the politically powerful could be halted; that the minorities of this country who have suffered loss of life, livelihood, shelter, education and the opportunity of participation in mainstream national activity, would at last be given equal opportunities along with the majority. I sincerely believe that some, if not all of these issues, would have been in the minds of many of those who voted for Fonseka on the 26th of January.

The grim reality is that the events of the short week following the presidential election, do not offer any reassurance. There was, first, the armed encirclement of the challenger’s location even before the final results of the elections were confirmed. Since then there have been arrests and detention of individuals for allegedly conspiring against the government and for plotting the assassination of the President, the sudden “compulsory retirement” of high ranking army personnel and the all too familiar disappearance of a journalist who serviced an independent website. A recent Sunday paper carried the news that a special team from the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (TRC) has commenced monitoring the “Face Book” and “Twitter” social networking sites in order to identify anti-government propaganda. The TRC is apparently being assisted by a special team from China who are experts in tracking down “disgruntled elements”. Considering the manner in which the Chinese government has dealt with political opponents, particularly if one recalls the Tianamen massacre, our government has gone to the very best in the business of suppressing dissent.

Since the conclusion of the Eelam conflict, there has been the steady development of a personality cult, the “deification” of President Rajapaksa hand-in-hand with the demonization of all his opponents. The office of the President has been consumed by the man and the man has now become the office. Rajapaksa and aligned forces represent patriotism and all forms of dissent become equivalent to betrayal of the country. It is a milieu in which democratic norms cannot survive for long and, invariably, precede a descent in to totalitarianism. Recent history is full of grim examples; Germany under Hitler, Russia under Stalin, China under Mao and the central European dictatorships, dismantled only after the dissolution of the Soviet regime. There are others which are still very much alive, such as North Korea and Iran.

In an article written soon after the demise of the LTTE, I commented on the very same issues and suggested that Mr Mahinda Rajapaksa was too sensible a man to succumb to the eulogies of the politically servile. But politicians are sometimes more fallible than ordinary people. They become seduced both by their own rhetoric and the gratuitous praise of political servants. Therein lies the danger to democratic systems, when the ruler becomes convinced that the ruler and the country are one and indivisible.

I am not a political commentator but just another citizen with a stake in this country which goes back to many generations. I come from a family which is just one generation removed from the village and tilling the soil for a livelihood. In that context I am , as much as Mr. Mahinda Rajapakse,a son of the soil . I must also be one amongst several million such people. The only manner in which we can protest or try to make a difference is by casting our vote in the hope for change. We are no less patriotic than those who have voted in favour of the continuance of the existing system because this country belongs to all citizens, to both assenting and dissenting voices. This is the very essence of true democracy.


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2 responses to “Of Traitors and Patriots

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