When he addressed the awards ceremony and dinner yesterday on the occasion of the 175th anniversary of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce hosted by the outgoing chairperson of the Chamber, the highly perceptive and articulate Suresh Shah, Mahinda Rajapaksa was a man with a message. Cast your mind back or go back to your records of encounters with Sri Lankan leaders and top officials in the ten years before 2005, he said. Your highest priorities were the cessation of terrorism and the provision of infrastructure, and while you were optimistic about what your enterprises could do if these conditions were fulfilled, you were pessimistic about the prospects of their fulfillment. Remember that we, this administration, delivered what was thought to be impossible; so impossible that some were even willing to give Prabhakaran free run of the North for ten years or more – said Mahinda in a barb aimed at the Leader of the Opposition sitting in the audience. Now we are criticized for not moving forward on political reconciliation, but “just as we succeeded in eradicating terrorism which was thought impossible, we shall succeed in the task of political reconciliation too, Mr. High Commissioner”, he added, in a gentle jibe at the genial John Rankin.
Mahinda Rajapaksa didn’t lose any votes that night and may have even gained some, because the chatter around the tables indicated that he spoke with the credibility of a true achiever. This audience of the most successful in the marketplace recognized a success story and its architect when they saw one, and accepted the affable abrasiveness of a rough diamond. The vibe one picked up off President Rajapaksa was one of well-founded self-confidence and determination. This was a man who felt he had done much for his country and could do more. The glittering audience was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.
My own sense of it was that though his self-confidence was warranted and his determination laudable, he seemed not to know that much the same speech had been made by President Jayewardene, and Ministers Ronnie De Mel, Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake, with almost as good reason, during the years of 8% growth and the Mahaweli project. What this optimism fails to grasp is the sad secret about Sri Lanka that Lee Kuan Yew announced to the world and his ideological opponent Fidel Castro said in different words to Gamini Dissanayake. Whatever Ceylon/Sri Lanka’s stellar achievements and shining prospects, they all prove unsustainable and come undone because of the crack in the underlying foundation; a crack which continues to widen: that between the constituent communities of the country, originating in the failure to fashion a fair, inclusive, equitable and meritocratic consciousness of a Sri Lankan nationhood. As Srima and Navin Dissanayake will doubtless confirm, Fidel said much the same thing to Gamini Dissanayake who paid a call on him after the Indo-Lanka Accord. Urging the determined implementation of a solution based on autonomy (the Communist Party’s paper Granma had supported the Accord), Fidel said: “I know of no country that ever prospers– and your beautiful country will never prosper– with the eternal, debilitating wound of an unresolved ethnic problem”.
President Rajapaksa had more reasons than one to be confident and the discerning element in his audience had more reason for concern other than ethnic/ethno-religious alienation and polarizations old and new. That was the prolonged dysfunction of Sri Lanka’s usual corrective mechanism: the two party system. Though President Rajapaksa did not stay for dinner, no more than ten, possible between five to ten, of the 450 guests from the corporate elite were seen in conversation with the Leader of the Opposition, and quite a few, including those at an adjacent table, were unaware that he was present until he stood up to talk to a charitable Rohitha Bogollagama who went over to him. That visibility didn’t cause a conversational ripple in the hall. I reminisced with my fellow diners that by sharp contrast, a year before the general elections of 1977, when JR Jayewardene used to grace any social occasion especially in Colombo’s five star hotels, he was virtually mobbed by expectant and enthusiastic members of the UNP’s home base.
The Diplomatic Wonder of Asia
True to its self-designation as the Wonder of Asia, Sri Lanka must have its fellow Asians wondering at the recent practice of its Ministry of Defense issuing long statements of rebuttal of the US Embassy in Colombo (‘MoD Responds to US Embassy Allegations Concerning Accountability Issues’, The Island, page 1, Wednesday, July 30, 2014). It may well be the case that the US Embassy or the State Department needs to be refuted, but that refutation must come from the Sri Lankan Ministry of External Affairs or, if that Ministry in its wisdom deems that it should not do so, there should be no official statement issued by another ministry—a reasoned editorial comment in the state run newspaper should suffice.
Even Pakistan under military rule for prolonged periods did not issue statements of refutation in what agencies of other countries say. That task was left to the highly competent Foreign Ministry.
Statements pertaining to international affairs are issued by military spokespersons only in those instances where a critical statement has been made directly about the military concerned. An example is the press conference by Soviet General Nikolai Orgakov following allegations after he shoot down of South Korean airliner KL007.
The only states in which the Defense Ministry or officers in uniform issue statements refuting those of Embassies, are military dictatorships (military juntas), and Sri Lanka, on the cusp of important elections, manifestly isn’t one. So why is a single state institution of this Wonder of Asia wandering all over the place, including into what should be the exclusive preserve of the Ministry of External Affairs?