May 19th 2015, marked six years since the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war, which at that time had been the world’s second longest running civil conflict, after Lebanon. The end of the war was commemorated in two very different ways from two very different leaders, one present and forward looking, the other defeated and backward looking, who lead a very real battle for the soul and spirit of our nation.

A tale of two presidents 

President Maithripala Sirisena officiated at the official celebration in Matara, renamed “remembrance day” as opposed to “victory day” under the previous dispensation, on the basis that in a country torn by violence and war, it is more appropriate to remember with deep gratitude than it is to celebrate with fanfare. The remembrance was focused on those who paid the supreme sacrifice and was devoid of the adulation in song, verse and dance to the leader, which had been a hall mark of the Rajapakse years.

In his speech, President Sirisena was forthright that the scourge of terrorism would never again be allowed to raise its head and that national security would be strengthened through a new national defense policy, which takes into account the future security needs of the nation. He very correctly articulated the priority of development but also started introducing the very social democratic concept of focusing and investing in people as opposed to solely focusing on hard infrastructure. President Sirisena spoke constantly of reconciliation or “sanghindiyawa” as he termed it in Sinhala and was very forthright that development and reconciliation needs to go hand in hand. He spoke of the need to heal hearts and minds, besides rebuilding infrastructure and acknowledged the failures of past governments, which had resulted in the ethnic polarization we have in our society today. Such sentiments were entirely missing during the past six years after the war. The term reconciliation was almost anathema to President Rajapakse.

In contrast to the official remembrance of the Sri Lankan State under President Sirisena,  the night before at the Vihara Maha Devi Park’s open air theatre, an unofficial “victory day” vigil was held under the patronage of defeated President Mahinda Rajapakse. He loved in the past to be adulated as a king, songs were sung in his honor and it was all about him. There his political allies, their most vociferous spokesmen most notable for their barely disguised racism, spoke darkly of the need to protect the victory won, insinuated about the threats from various quarters, real or imagined and focused for purposes of personal political gain to perpetuate the polarization we have in our society. It was political fear and hate mongering at a slightly sophisticated level and one could easily draw the direct parallel between perceived paranoia of the Rajapakse allies and their “rent a mob” goon squads of extremist ethno religious organizations, reduced now to distorting the national flag, a violation of the penal code now that their godfather had been removed from the apex of the national security apparatus.  

The SLFP old guard suffering from a lack of political and moral imagination

It was Oxford political science scholar John Paul Lederach, who a decade ago expounded on the theme of the moral imagination, which he described as the ability to recognize turning points and possibilities in order to venture down unknown paths. It is such a moral imagination which some of the old guard of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) seem to lack today. Instinctively after the Presidential election, the vast bulk of the SLFP came and collapsed onto the lap of President Sirisena. This despite the best efforts of the defeated President Rajapakse, to hang onto the party leadership.

President Sirisena boldly charted a new course. As promised in his election manifesto he established a national government and proceeded with reforms, the boldest being the successful, if somewhat diluted 19th amendment. Further, to the willfully ignorant who claim that the UNP was appointed to Government without a mandate, it must have been because they were ignoring election pledges. Common candidate Maithripala Sirisena, pledged again and again, that he would appoint Ranil Wickramasinghe as Prime Minister, the day after he is elected. Accordingly the NDF (Swan) mandate included a mandate for the new government of Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe. This is exactly why, despite the propaganda of the “counter revolutionists” as President Sirisena terms them, the Government has legitimacy, public acceptance and the consent of the governed.

As the SLFP and indeed all political parties view an upcoming general election to Parliament, the SLFP old guard lacking a moral imagination wants an enemy to run against. The Rajapakse mentality of identity politics and polarization tactics, requires the “other” the enemy. It cannot contemplate the lack of a domestic adversary. On the other hand, a brand new possibility exists, the reality of a government in which candidates are elected on a party basis, with party affiliation and discipline of the parliamentary party whips, but cooperating together, more along the lines of the old Ceylon State Council days. This is a road untraveled but pregnant with real possibilities for genuine state reform and nation building. The absence of an adversarial system of governance for a term may be just the real new beginning, Sri Lanka needs to consolidate and sustain the sacrificially and hard won end of a violent civil war.     

(The writer is the Chairman of the Resettlement Authority. However, the views expressed are personal).

  • Park

    its time to kick not only Mahinda Rajapakse out of politics, but also all the other SLFP and UPFA MPs’ who support Rajapakse. Long live Maithripala Sirisena. Down with the THIEVES.

  • Alvar

    The writer is an intellectual who understands the sensitivities and ground views. We want more and more journalist of this nature to educate the citizens of Sri Lanka for logical, rational, ethical & morale thoughts in selecting the leader for a united country. Under Sirisena’s leadership the country and people will enjoy freedom, breath democracy and achieve prosperity. International community will recognize Sri Lanka(ns) as a civilized people with democratic norms and human rights values. More tourists and more investment will flow into the country that will result in more employment and more prosperity to the people. Sirisena’s foreign policy is already attracting foreign investors. We are fortunate now to have a forward thinking leader who will untie the country for a prosperous Sri Lanka. We will treat each other as friends and neighbors within Sri Lanka and invent an enemy elsewhere for petty politics. We need one leader to win the war and another leader to win the peace. War was won in 2009 but the peace is yet to be won!

  • Jayalath

    We have been seeing what can be done by these two presidents . To my personal perspective that President Rajapaksa is 1000 times better than Sirisena .because we can see today the mess that Sirisena created so far in Sri Lanka which has caused to standstill our country for years to come and the harm of it is much more detrimental than having arbitrary behaviour of Rajapaksa’s time .
    However ,Some people can punch in air to celebrate the victory of Sirisena but people who planed the conspiracy would know what a load of rubbish that they dropped from their mouths to robust the conspiracy . I wouldn’t say all the blames and charges are baseless but most of them are as much petty allegations .,which are clearly seeing today . So, I hope the people would give a good reply to those who conspired in upcoming election

  • Ruki

    President Sirisen’s end of war commemoration was focused on “Ranaviru” (War Heroes) and totally military oriented, nothing to do with remembrance of civilians killed. What was on show was military might. Nothing different in substance from President Rajapakse’s commemorations. Although there was clearly less fanfare and focus on the President himself this time around. Even the President’s website, the Defense Ministry website (the President is the Minister) and official government news portal uses this terminology of “war Heroes”. The Defense Ministry refers to ‘Ranaviru Commemorative Parade”. I find it extremely misleading to call it “Remembrance”. By contrast, events in North and East by Tamils to commemorate end of war was to remember civilians killed. It is possible some Tamils were also remembering their kith and kin who were in LTTE, but there was no explicit LTTE commemorations to the best of my knowledge. The new government also tried to restrict, intimidate these peaceful remembrances by Tamil civilians, mostly led by Christian clergy and elected Tamil politicians. But these were less aggressive than previous years. See http://groundviews.org/2015/05/20/tamils-in-north-east-sri-lanka-remember-those-killed-despite-intimidation-and-surveillance/. So to me, the two tales are, one, a present and a former Sinhalese President focused on military and “War Heroes” commemoration (with variances in tone and approach) and two, in North Remembrances of Tamil civilians killed

    • Dev

      Thank you, Ruki. This point was beautifully highlighted by Colombo Telegraph as well.

      The “remembrance day” proclamation was done earlier to grab the international media attention (of change) then it seemed to have been business as usual.

      The author seems to be in a mighty rush to paint a rosy picture of the new government at every turn (not surprising I suppose).

  • srivanamoth

    The two paradoxes define “the devil” and “the deep blue sea” worlds of post independent SL. Not much to talk about anyway. What will be, will be que Sri Lanka?

  • Kailas Pillai

    The immediate former President Mahinda Rajapaksa was confident that the ethnic divide (aka terrorism threat) will enable him to sail smoothly. He thought that Lankans will overlook the rampant corruption, nepotism and the culture of impunity. This was not to be.
    Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena is the first Lankan Leader who did not exploit the ethnic divide. Earnest hope is that this divisive issue will remain in the background.