AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena, via South China Morning Post
The 2015 Independence Day celebration was invested with the dignity of understatement – a complete departure from the showmanship and bravura performances which characterized the previous events under the patronage of Mahinda Rajapaksa.
In total contrast to the former President’s rhetoric, which generally included noble sentiments in Tamil, President Sirisena’s speech was low-key, refined , and precise in its delivery. The messages were unambiguous and focused on urgent issues before the government. He graciously acknowledged the role that his predecessor played in ushering in peace and , for the first time since 2010, included General Sarath Fonseka in a well deserved accolade. The event , in its entirety, was dignified, sober and very definitely would have cost the state, and the people, a mere fraction of the extravaganzas of previous years.
In his speech, the President referred to the “ Mlechche Yudhaya “ , translatable as a Brutal War or a Savage War. “Mlechche “ can also mean “ uncivilized”. Dr. J has taken exception to this reference.
War has been part of history , long before the beginning of written history. War can rightly be said to be the major, definitive factor in the formation of histories of all nations, civilizations and cultures. Wars are, and have been, fought for the extension of national borders, to defend such borders, on religious and ethnic grounds and in the furtherance of socio-economic issues. Not infrequently , all such factors have merged and become integral to one conflict.
Irrespective of the cause, war is barbaric in content, in that it inflicts death and destruction as a means to an end, however justifiable. The barbarity of war lies largely in the dislocation and destruction it causes to civilians , wittingly or unwittingly caught up in the conflict and sandwiched between warring factions. The war fought by the Sri Lankan forces was just in that it brought to an end a three decade reign of terror imposed on the country by the LTTE, but the impact on civilian life is yet to be assessed, notwithstanding the former President’s preposterous assertion of “zero civilian casualties “.
In that sense, all wars are “just wars” , to at least one faction. World War 2, initiated by Adolf Hitler with his invasion of Poland , was justifiably fought by a coalition of other nations – Allies – but was concluded with the two most barbaric acts in known history, namely the nuclear destruction of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, two targets which had ceased to be of any strategic or military significance by that time.
Our war was ethnic in origin and content. It was fought between a band of fanatical , Tamil speaking terrorists and, essentially, Sinhala-Buddhist armed forces of the state. The victory is to be celebrated , by both victors and vanquished, but bearing in mind that all those who perished , all those who were dispossessed and emotionally and physically fragmented , were citizens of the same country. The celebration of that victory cannot be complete until all those bereaved by war are permitted equal opportunity of mourning or commemorating their dead, unconditionally.
It would be in context to provide my position on our war;
“Conflict based on racial , ethnic , religious , or tribal fundamentals invariably tend to be far more vicious , more confrontational and personal than conventional warfare. It requires an overpoweringly visceral motivation and the total perversion of morality, to plan and kill unarmed women and children, monks and devotees at prayer, or to consign a living being to a funeral pyre. Life is taken, not so much to defend a national border , a political ideology or a cherished culture , but largely because the perceived enemy speaks a different tongue , worships a different deity or lives by different customs. So let us not forget it; whilst various other equations entered our war in its long duration, it always remained entrenched in an ethnic fault line ( Impunity and Civic Irresponsibility – Island- 11/25/11)”
Moving on to Mahinda Rajapksa’s leadership, he certainly would have achieved greatness , or aspired to it, had he, on conclusion of the war , used the opportunity of massive goodwill and confidence he won from the people, to emotionally unify a geographically unified land, instead of developing a nauseating personality cult, a deification process set in place by opportunistic sycophants which he did nothing to discourage. On the contrary, he wallowed in it.
A great leader is not one who appropriates sole credit for a great victory for himself, who erases the name of one of the chief architects of that victory from history books and public acknowledgement, and even incarcerates him on ridiculously flimsy grounds, as Rajapaksa did in the case of General Sarath Fonseka.
A great leader should not stand accused of massive financial impropriety, the “ Helping Hambantota “ episode being only the beginning. A great leader does not enable the enrichment of family, friends and acolytes at the expense of the country. A great leader facilitates ethical governance; he does not initiate unacceptable constitutional reforms, such as the 18th Amendment, neutralizing Parliament, disemboweling the administration , emasculating the judiciary and , thereby, appropriating unlimited power for himself. Great leaders do not permit, under their watch , the permanent silencing , through murder and intimidation, of dissenting voices.
A great leader would not engage in a last ditch attempt to stay in power, pillaging state resources to conduct what was, unarguably, the most extravagant and vulgar election campaign ever witnessed in this country. Such a man is not a great leader but more a great scoundrel. Rajapaksa’s fall was neither tragic nor a tragedy , except for himself perhaps and, certainly, for those who depended on his patronage. His fall was timely, deserved and , in retrospect, provides a belated opportunity for another regime to retrieve the country from the ethical and economic morass which governance had slid in to , during his watch. Mahinda Rajapaksa presided over a “ Just War” but he failed to usher in a “Just Peace”, thereafter.
I find it disturbing that Karuna and Pillayan , reconstructed terrorists both, should also be cast in a heroic mould. Karuna was, for a considerable length of time, terrorist leader Prabhakaran’s chief enforcer. He is alleged to have masterminded the attack on the Temple of the Tooth, the Kattandudy massacre of Muslims inside a mosque and the execution of around 600 unarmed Sri Lankan policeman . He has been accused of recruitment of child soldiers and of managing death squads against civilians in Jaffna. In this gruesome litany of genuinely “ Mlechche“ acts – just to name a few – where does one find heroism. ?
Karuna defected to the state, to save his own skin, when he was under investigation by the LTTE high command for financial and personal misconduct. In short, he crossed over to the other side to save himself from certain execution by his terrorist compatriots. Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan is an unrepentant terrorist now masquerading in a political avatar, conjured for him by the Rajapaksa regime. Whilst there is no argument on the useful role he played in providing the state with vital intelligence on his former chief , by no stretch of imagination can one see him as a hero.
If Karuna and Pillayan are seen as heroes, what should one say of General Sarath Fonseka, who actually masterminded and led the final phase of our “Just War” ? This man, grievously wounded after a terrorist attack on his vehicle , was driven to hospital with his bloody entrails cradled in his own hands. He returned whilst his convalescence was yet incomplete to lead the Army in the final assault. You do not have to love him or even like him but he needs to be given his due, so long denied by Mahinda Rajapaksa. To me , and I am certain to many others in this country, even in a limited military context, Fonseka is a heroic figure. Does one then mention him in the same breath , as terrorists Karuna and Pillayan?
I appreciate Dr. Jayatilleke’s concern , that given the positions previously adopted or advocated by Ranil Wickramasinghe and Chandrika Kumaratunge, that concessions approximating the demands originally reinforced by terrorism, may now become a political reality. I am saying this whilst being firmly of the view that demands reinforced by terrorist threats are unsustainable in peacetime. But – I am open to correction on this – did not Dr.J himself opine at an earlier stage that the full implementation of the 13th Amendment would not be a bad move ? In any event , as an ordinary citizen of this country, I would like to consider the presence of both messrs. Sampanthan and Sumanthiran at the Independece day celebrations – two Tamil political leaders participating in the event for the first time since 1975 (?)- as an encouraging pointer towards genuine co-existence and reconciliation .
In conclusion, I see nothing unnatural, nothing ethically wrong , no moral disequilibrium – to use Dr. J’s own words- in an electoral victory ushered in through the exercise of the citizens’ will. To me that is natural justice. If not , what is the natural justice that Dr.Jayatilleke yearns for ? Is it the return of Mahinda Rajapaksa?