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).