By Sasanka Perera
Reading Ms Vijayakala Maheswaran’s statement at a public meeting in Jaffna on 2nd July 2018 reminded me of two popular aphorisms on history and the past. They deal with humanity’s propensity to not learn from the past. In the first of these, Margaret MacMillan observes, “we can learn from history, but we can also deceive ourselves when we selectively take evidence from the past to justify what we have already made up our minds to do.” The second, often attributed to George Santayana notes, “those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
In the relevant section of her speech, Ms Maheswaran noted, “now we remember how we lived before May 18, 2009. In the present conditions our main intention is to bring back the LTTE. If we want to live, if we want to walk freely, if we need our children to attend schools and return back.” As to be expected, there were shrill debates from the noisy and belligerent chambers of parliament to the cluttered spaces of the print and electronic media. In trying to understand what Ms Maheswaran is actually promoting, one also has to understand her position in the present government as well as at least something of her personal biography. Until she put her foot in her mouth in Jaffna, she was the State Minister of Child Affairs, and was speaking at an event known in Sinhala as ‘Janapathi Nila Mehewara,’ which translates into ‘Official Mission of the President.’ It seems to have been a thamasha designed to sing odes to the great things the president has done for the north after the end of war. Instead, Ms Maheshwaran in a Trumpian flip, went off the script and started to sing praises of the LTTE, among other things.
Like the statement by a senior monk in the recent past suggesting Mr Gotabhaya Rajapaksa should emulate Hitler, this statement too needs to be understood in the broader historical and political contexts in which her exemplar (which in this case is the LTTE) is located. The LTTE was not some innocent NGO involved in setting up self-help schemes in northern Sri Lanka. Its leader, Mr Prabhakaran was not a saint with a halo around his head. The LTTE was one of the most ruthless and efficient terrorist organizations the world had ever seen, which had left behind a horrendous track record of human misery in its failed path to an imagined separate state. This is not ancient history, but pre-2009 history of the recent past. Of course, the way in which the LTTE is perceived by large sections of Tamil people in the northeast despite its horrendous track record and how the same entity is seen by most Sinhalas in the rest of the country are distinctly different. Both come from very different emotional investments in valuing or devaluing the LTTE. This is a larger debate that needs to be taken up at another time. Nevertheless, the general glorification of the LTTE within sections of Tamil society and its diaspora comes largely from the relative absence of a self-reflective critique of the organization’s track record coming from within that society. But Ms Maheswaran was not speaking as an emotional and deprived citizen off the street at a local ceremony in memory of the LTTE. She was instead speaking as a privileged citizen as her personal biography will amply demonstrate, and also as a representative of the government as an elected member of the UNP and as the state Minister with the charge of Child Affairs.
Even if she lacks commonsense and political acumen, which is patently obvious, in her ministerial capacity and as an MP, she ought to have known better about the LTTE’s track record at least with regard to children at the organization’s peak in power. When she publically pines for the return of the LTTE, and says this needs to be done “if we want to live, if we want to walk freely, if we need our children to attend schools and return back,” she is making a selective use of history for the somewhat limited and extremely divisive political purposes of the present. At the height of the LTTE’s military and political power, many children literally did not come home from school as the LTTE forcibly recruited them into the ranks of its child soldiers. Considerable information has been generated on this fact alone, globally. It boggles the mind to understand what freedom to walk free she envisages by invoking the poltergeist of the LTTE when so many people in Tamil society itself had been gunned down by the LTTE in the name or ‘order’, a very specific and limited version of nationalism and political hegemony which ensured the complete exclusion of all other shades of political opinion.
What Ms Maheswaran is doing is what MacMillan had warned: “we can also deceive ourselves when we selectively take evidence from the past to justify what we have already made up our minds to do.” Evidence from the past here is the selective resurrection of the LTTE as a convenient icon of an exclusivist form of Tamil nationalism, which becomes useful for future elections if one wants to compete with politicians such as Chief Minster Vigneswaran and others or have aspirations in forging electoral alliances wit such worthies. Such politics of course have nothing to do with the truth or ethics as many of Ms Maheswaran’s Sinhala counterparts have already established quite convincingly.
None of this means that living in post-war northeast is easy in emotional terms despite the clear absence of the violence and instability that the war once epitomized. One reason for this is that the word reconciliation, which the present government as well as the previous one flippantly used, has not gone much beyond the rhetoric of word. A community that has been scarred by war and divisive politics cannot be ‘reconciled’ by the mere mantra-like uttering of the word or by building a few good roads, a rail track and ushering in a booming tourist industry. These developments address simply one aspect of the overall situation. What about the less visible emotional and cultural terrains? For instance, why could not the name for the presidential tamasha at which Ms Maheswaran spoke be identified by its Tamil equivalent rather than the Sinhala that was used? After all, Tamil is the language of the area.
The point I am trying to make is that many ordinary people clearly experience numerous frustrations on a routine basis by virtue of living in the former warzone, some of which Ms Maheswaran referred to in her speech. These realities cannot be wished away. Rather than making irresponsible and untenable political statements which in the end becomes counter productive, the ideal duty of politicians like Ms Maheswaran is to provide advice to the government on how to overcome these issues, and to agitate sensibly to achieve the social transformations that are necessary. It is unfortunate however that she has shown her singular incapability in doing so while also establishing beyond doubt the absence of wisdom in her approach to politics.
Ms Maheswaran’s politics and the reaction to it bring out two specific aspects of contemporary Sri Lankan politics, which has made this kind of politics possible in the long term. That is, many so-called leaders of our country, elected or otherwise, have been free to utter whatever they want publically, which vary from outright racist hyperbole to patent untruths without any consequences. In that sense, Ms Maheswaran was merely performing what many of her parliamentary colleagues have done before and is an established tradition in local politics.
The second aspect of this kind of politics has to do with the nature of reactions to these unenlightened public utterances, which is clearly differential. The collected sound bites of Mr Wimal Weerasansa and the public utterances Rev Galaboda Aththe Ganasara would offer an adequate comparison. Collectively, many of their public statements on issues such as ethnicity and the nature of the nation are atrocious to say the least. Particularly the latter’s racially tempered words of intolerance and deeds have created serious ethnic anxieties within which one of the worst incidents is violence against Muslims in Aluthgama in 2014. Many examples of such public utterances are still available on You-tube. Rev Ganasara’s words or actions with clear consequences have received no serious censure from the religious authorities of the ecclesiastical order of Buddhism or from the state’s judiciary. Mr Weerawansa’s routine and shrill conspiracy theories also receive nothing more than a few days of noise on social media and the press. Ms Maheswaran however, got no such reprieve, and she has now resigned her ministerial portfolio on her own. But she still remains an MP. It appears that even to make absurd and outlandish political statements and to get away with them, one’s ethnicity truly matters.
In the end however what is tragic is that our entire political spectrum in the mainstream is led and voiced by platoons of unenlightened men and women who as Santayana noted, cannot learn from history and are therefore “doomed to repeat it.” When that doom finally engulfs us, the authors of that doom quite possibly would fly away to zones of safety while lesser mortals like the rest of us who saw it coming, would reap its worst consequences.