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Sri Lankans Don’t Learn And Can’t Remember

by Gamini Weerakoon

(August 23, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian)Whoever called it the ‘Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission’ (LLRC) before which the nation’s ‘learned’ are queuing up to give evidence, has apparently not given a thought to Sri Lankan thinking. Two reasons could be adduced for this lapse.

One is that Sri Lankan leaders, particularly politicians and opinion makers, think that there are none to teach them; they are the cat’s whiskers. ‘We have been elected to power by the people: Who the hell are they to tell us what’s right and wrong? What’s the use of being elected if we are to listen to all these self proclaimed pundits and NGO karayas?’ Such are the standard reactions. The second reason has been provided by Velupillai Prabakaran’s quotation that we have quite often used in this column: ‘The memory of the Sinhalayas do not last for more than two weeks’. Thus, whatever we Sinhalayas have learnt is gone with the wind, soon.

Master ‘Sir’

Let us take President Mahinda Rajapakse who is now ‘top of the pops’. With a thumping majority scored over General (oops!) former General Sarath Fonseka, followed by a near two-third majority at the parliamentary elections, he is in no mood to take pedagogical lessons from any pundit— genuine or faked. What he is telling the world—although only few or none beyond our shores are listening to him— is that it is he who taught the world a lesson in defeating terrorism. He is the master and there is nothing to learn.

So why listen to the plaintive pleadings like: ‘treat the disease and not the symptoms, decentralise and devolve, grant human rights, accept the right to self-determination,’ and all that tosh, which has been dumped into ‘the dustbin of history’?

Bad student

Or take Ranil Wickremasinghe the UNP leader and the Leader of the Opposition. Has he learnt any lesson at all? We wonder what he learnt at his old school. Perhaps the Chairman of the LLRC, R.C. (Bullah) de Silva who was in the same school at the same time can help us. The consensus among Sri Lankans is that he has not learnt much of Sri Lankan politics, despite being prime minister twice. However, he is held in high esteem in the West but that amounts to zero in politics back in mother Lanka.

Wickremasinghe has been outplayed and played out by his two main opponents Rajapakse and Prabakaran. Wickremasinghe was played out in his deal with Prabakaran—the Cease Fire Agreement. The LTTE violated the agreement 3830 times as compared with the Sri Lanka security forces of 351. Yet, Wickremasinghe not having learnt any lesson, continued peace talks until the treacherous LTTE leader pulled out of the agreement after holding six rounds of talks leaving Wickremasinghe’s government high and dry.

And then in the 2005 Presidential Election, Prabakaran issued his infamous fatwa to Tamils, who were favourable to the UNP, forbidding them to cast their votes, thus ensuring Wickremasinghe’s defeat. Yet, until the end of Prabakaran came it appeared that the UNP leader was favourable towards a political settlement with the LTTE.

Teaching not learning

Rajapakse did not learn any traditional political lessons and instead developed his own curriculum. Even in his first presidential election campaign he bellowed: Mama Vidayaka Janadhipathi Kramaya ahosi karanawa (I will abolish the Executive Presidency). On being elected president, the president for the first term, he forgot his pledge because far from having a two-thirds majority to amend the constitution he did not even have a simple majority but used his wiles and executive presidential power to maintain and build up a parliamentary majority. He repeated his fire and thunder against during the recent election campaigns against the executive presidency, vowing to abolish it. Remember his plea: ‘I need a two-third majority to abolish the abomination’. But having won the two recent elections, what do we have?

Going round and round

President Rajapakse after his victory wanted to extend his term of office as president from the constitutional limit of two terms to three or more—not abolish it! This made some of his few intelligent supporters speechless with embarrassment, sent the opposition JVP into paroxysms and caused UNPers to be tongue tied and confounded. He then threw out the line: Executive premiership. And the gullible Wickremasinghe swallowed it hook, line and sinker.
Wickremasinghe is invited for talks on the constitution and he goes after the bait. While the talks are going on, Rajapakse repeats his powers of political abduction and gets two more UNP MPs to come over to his side—just like what he did earlier with 17 UNP MPs. But the UNP leader’s political density is so thick that he still does not get it and when Rajapakse summoned him for talks once again last week, he goes. ‘You can’t refuse a President’s invitation,’ has been his excuse!

Rajapakse does not need commissions for reconciliation. He can simply swallow the main opposition party.

Reconciliation objectives

What should be the main objective of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission? Bringing the two squabbling Sinhala parties together and making the estranged Sinhala and Tamil communities exist together as a nation? True enough, consensus among Sinhalese is essential for any move to be made to bring Tamils into the political mainstream, but is that the objective of the ruling party?

Fifteen months have lapsed since the end of the 30-year-old war but what are the positive developments from the Tamils point of view? Re-settlement of the majority 300,000 displaced Tamils was indeed a challenging task but quite often the world over when such numbers are involved, there are often bitter complaints. On the other hand the basic political issues which resulted in the commencement of the conflict remain ignored.

What is being done with the report of the All Party Conference chaired by Prof. Tissa Vitharane, a government minister himself? There is a deafening silence about it now quite in contrast the brouhaha at the commencement of the sittings.

The Rajapakse power was built on and rests solidly on the Sinhala- Buddhist base in the South. Is President Rajapakse willing to shift or alter this powerbase to accommodate Tamil aspirations? The UNP campaigns under Ranil Wickremasinghe were based on a nebulous liberal ideology and a free market economy. The liberal ideology based on humanism crumbled like a papadom in the hands of a hungry gourmandiser when it came into conflict with Sinhala nationalism. Now a section of the UNP wants to go back to Sinhala nationalism to match Rajapakse power. All this reminds us of the words of the cynical French critic and journalist Jean-Baptise Karr: The more things change, the more they remain the same.

Learning Chinese the Bandula way

Meanwhile life goes on in this isle of the Lotus Eaters. Last week’s gem was from Minister of Education Bandula Gunawardena. Perhaps, carried away by the blue waters of the Indian Ocean gushing into Hambantota harbour and the sight of his boss President Mahinda Rajapakse riding on the back of a pick-up flanked by mounted riders in headgear much like those of the Queens Own Guards, at the official ceremony, in appreciation of China’s contribution, declared that teaching Chinese would be immediately introduced into our school curriculum. With the acute shortage of English, Sinhalese and Tamil teachers, how he would gather together Chinese language teachers for the task boggles our imagination.

China too finds it difficult to cope up teaching Mandarin (the official Chinese dialect among hundreds of other Chinese dialects). Our inquiries in this direction led us to a recent Chinese quote: ‘I neither fear heaven nor earth. I only fear Cantonese speakers trying to speak Mandarin’.

Bandula Gunawardena, the former well known private tuition ‘Sir’, may have found a way.

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