A past haunts a hero | Sunday Observer

A past haunts a hero

20 October, 2019

“You are talking about the past. Let’s talk about the future. I am trying to be the president of a future Sri Lanka.“

- Gotabaya Rajapaksa

“I govern not as a general, but because the nation believes I possess the qualities needed for governing.”

- Napoleon Bonaparte

He entered the contest as a man with a plan. Smartass detractors were nasty. “He is a man with a plan and a van,” they chuckled. Now, in the current crowded contest, Gotabaya Rajapaksa has eminently succeeded in rising above his competition. At his maiden press conference, he infused a clarity of vision typical of the man. Forget the painful past. Look to the exciting future. A leopard never changes its spots. It is impossible for opinionated people to change their character, even if they try very hard. Their innate nature comes to the surface.

A journalist known for her incisive probing asked the former Secretary of Defence several follow up questions relating to the final phase of the civil war.

The Presidential aspirant could not hold his mercurial temper. He admonished the journalist with ill-concealed contempt characteristic of the man: “You are talking about the past. Let’s talk about the future. I am trying to be the president of a future Sri Lanka.”

Philosopher and social theorist Max Weber identified three types of leaders and those aspiring to leadership roles in contemporary society: Traditional, Legal-rational and Charismatic. Charismatic leadership derives power from a kind of trust and faith people are ready to bestow on the leader. A kind of messianic leader. The traditional leader is someone who relies on established tradition and order. The third kind is the legal-rational leader.

Such a leader is unreservedly grounded on clearly defined laws. The kind of leader we need today. In a modern democracy, the people demand a leader who respects the law. Such a leader does not forget either the past or infringements that occurred in the past. Our current search is for a president who is capable of reaching a common ground in which consensus can be achieved on economic progress, national reconciliation and ethical governance. Max Weber’s analysis of modern society also recognizes the stark truth that a capitalist market driven state must also contend with an unseen invisible bureaucratic authority.

The German thinker dealt with that aspect in his essay on ‘Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism’. It is essential that we read the character traits of our presidential candidates in terms of the character traits we expect in the ideal choice, if such was possible. Otherwise we revert to the option of the lesser evil. Democracy is not about what Gotabaya wishes to either forget or sweep under the heavy carpet of unbridled authoritarian censorship. At this presidential election, we cannot forsake the ideal democratic discourse situation at the grassroots level that we have established since January 2015. What the country needs is a unifying leader who must exhibit both political will and charisma. We must make the right choice. We do not need either a villain or a hero. We need a President who can, together with parliament, bring about social and political cohesion in the pursuit of public interest. There is no politics without promises. That makes politics the vocation of every humbug in town and the presidency a prize within their reach. Commitment to truth should or ought to be the indispensable quality of a man who wants to be president of the republic.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa wants us to judge him on proven performance. That compels us to visit his past. Then he turns around to demand that we do not visit the nooks and corners of his past. His plea to forget the past is not about charting the future. It is about his commitment to a continued pursuit of the policy of falsifying history. Decent practitioners of democracy learn from the past. Refusal to revisit the past indicates obstinacy and arrogance- the protective shield of the coward and the tyrant.

Falsification of recent events is not new in politics. It is a feature of politicians that rely on discarding rivals as traitors in the court of public opinion. Authority is not truth. On the contrary, truth is the ultimate authority.

His conduct of the war or his management of the war is not what concerns us. It is what he did after the war that concerns us most. When the war ended, the narrative identity of our civic nation was managed by a militarized bureaucracy with the aid of perception makers of exceptional talent who are now engaged 24/7 in making him the next president. Post-civil war public discourse was orchestrated by a regime that was ably assisted by an opposition that was patently servile and unrepentantly collusive.

There is a reason for Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s firm grip on a sizeable section of the Sinhala Buddhist opinion. The Mahinda Rajapaksa presidency was a sharp contrast to the cosmopolitan and near bohemian presidency of Chandrika Kumaratunge.

Political exploitation and manipulation of history by the ruling faction reached a level of unmatched perfection. Mahinda’s good fortune in defeating Prabhakaran was the result of the cease fire agreement. It compelled the terrorist to fight pitched battles defending real estate. As Mahinda himself once told the newspaper The Hindu, if they had not opted for conventional war defending territory, the LTTE terrorists would have fought much longer. Such doctrinaire logic and niceties of realpolitik was for the foreign press. Not for the domestic constituency.

Political exploitation and manipulation of history became an artform in the past war years. The ruling faction used manipulation of recent past events against the opposition. The opposition was responsible for the appeasement of an enemy that they finally eliminated from the face of the earth. One must give the devil his due. It was Gotabaya and his team of mind manipulators who were responsible for the conception and the success of the project. An all-encompassing historical myth was imposed upon the whole society whose predominant Buddhist psyche was bought over by the idea of the great humanitarian endeavor of the ancient Sinhala tribe.It was the official truth and any negation or criticism was treason.

The triumphant regime endowed with a monopoly of political power seized the opportunity that comes rarely in politics. It extended its monopoly over the interpretation of history itself. A fabricated history was imposed on the collective memory of the people. It was a substitute for the lived experiences of the victors, the vanquished and the victims.

That was the beginning of the authoritative autocracy. An authoritarian regime cannot endure for long without producing the total lie. Conversely, the total lie cannot survive without the authoritarian regime. Gotabaya wants history written from his point of view which is the point of view of the victors. The vanquished and the victims of war insist on their point of view. Neither party has a monopoly on truth.

When Gotabaya tells us that we must forget the past we brush it off as simple rhetoric of a clever or a not so clever politician ducking an inconvenient question.

It is much more than that. The past holds so much information, so much wisdom and so much experience that, when combined, makes the soul of a nation. It is the past of a whole country, a whole nation and human civilization in general. It is very hard to get at this truth when you hear it first. Just take a second to think about it. As decent humans, it is our compelling obligation to correct our mistakes and redress our follies. If we don’t, we are compelled to live the lie. We will never discover what is honest and true.

There seems to be a growing belief among the chattering class that hopes for a Gotabaya presidency, that there is no such thing called the truth. A Gotabaya partisan recently advised me “Lasantha has been dead for 10 years. It is time for you ‘vermin’ to move on and get a life!”

In his 2016 book ‘Edge of Reason’, the philosopher Jullian Baggini writes “If you think all criminals are crooks, you vote for the most effective crook.”

People have no problem distinguishing truth from lies. We must know how to make the distinction between memory and history. Memory is the identification with the past. No matter what, you live with your memory. We must of course maintain a respectable distance from the past to avoid turning into fossilized morons who confuse history with myth and legend. Memory helps us to remember what went wrong and what is worth repeating. Politicians are part of this process and should assess their own role.

When dealing with the past we must not become integral to political dispute. Gotabaya obliterated all LTTE cemeteries in the north. By doing that, did he settle the issue of commemoration? Did he succeed in erasing memory?

The Polish historian Andrzej Friszke points to the dual use of the past. “By its very nature, history, and especially recent history, is a very particular branch of learning. It exists in an uneasy relationship with the memories of those involved in the events concerned. It can play an important role in either legitimizing or challenging a contemporary state, its regime and ruling class.”