President Ranil Wickremesinghe is the most literate, widely read and informed president we have ever had, after Chandrika Kumaratunga (CBK), or alongside her. Ranasinghe Premadasa tried hard, and his love of the arts was genuine. But he didn’t have Ranil’s wide reading and erudition. JR Jayewardene had a massive library (now used by scholars) but just how much he read remains a mystery, and his contempt for literature and our own writers negate any attempts now to portray him as a man of learning who respected the arts.
President Wickremesinghe is very different in that respect. While he has not done as much to help the arts and artists as Premadasa did, he is the kind of man who can drop in at an art exhibition, quote from what he has read, and I remember him writing in a Sinhala newspaper about a film he admired in the 80s or 90s. He also promoted Western classical music when he was premier during Yahapalanaya. Whoever destroyed his house, library and art collection should be ashamed of themselves.
Unfortunately, he shares another characteristic with the former presidents mentioned, excepting CBK. He’s trying hard to promote a ‘strongman’ image just like his predecessors. CBK is an exception because, though her tenure wasn’t entirely free of rights violations, these were exceptions rather than the rule. As for Premadasa and JR, they didn’t have to try hard. It came naturally to them to use the iron fist. CBK could be as tough as anyone when needed, but she had enough aplomb and self-confidence not to consciously try for that ‘iron lady’ image, so loved by the media and the public.
I have not mentioned Gotabaya Rajapaksa not just because he is easily the most uninformed of all our former presidents. Propelled into power as the ultimate strongman, his self-destruction was so swift that his tenure as president is now barely worth a mention.
This is President Wickremesinghe’s dilemma. He is ill-suited for the strongman mould. While professing to be a lover of the cinema, his crackdown on the Aragalaya has netted in one of our best actresses, arrested on a ridiculous charge. What we expect from anyone so well-read is compassion for and understanding of the human condition. He has been doing exactly the opposite from the day he was sworn in as president.
The President’s recent sabre-rattling in parliament, saying he will use military force to crush the Aragalaya, if it starts again, is a case in point. He forgets that it’s Mahinda Rajapaksa’s state terrorism which brought out latent violence in what had till May 2022 been a peaceful protest. If he wants to classify those activists (or other external, extremist elements) responsible for arson and violence including one murder, as terrorists, justifying the use of PTA, he should include too, Mahinda Rajapaksa and his goons who triggered the mayhem in May.
This comes at a time when economic sense demands we should demilitarize slowly. This was stated clearly in a British parliamentary backbench committee meeting earlier in the month. Instead, the president and his parliament are counting on the military to cling to power at any cost. It’s a recipe for disaster. You feel he’s cut himself off from the people, talking to please his bloated, self-serving parliament who see him as their saviour. There are a few good people in there, but they are always there in any corrupt system, including mafias, and that doesn’t make any difference.
While the president is engaged in futile exercises to placate his own bruised ego, he is trying to remind people that he reads – not just the classics, but newspapers, too. Recently, he quoted in parliament a passage from an analysis by writer, activist and translator Gamini Viyangoda in the Anidda newspaper.
The following week, Viyangoda pointed out how he has been misquoted. The two passages the president has quoted seem to show he approves of the president’s actions, whereas it becomes clear as one reads the entire analysis that the writer has meant the opposite.
I feel these actions show a desperation to show us that he’s right when he must know, as a rational thinking man, that he is doing wrong.
I certainly hope so, for my hopes for the future of Sri Lanka are based on a slim hope that President Ranil Wickremesinghe is too erudite a man to entirely lose his powers of reasoning and, just as important, his capacity to be compassionate towards a traumatized people.
How traumatized they are after the Easter bombings and two terrible years of Covid-19 followed by the havoc done by the Rajapaksas can be seen by stepping out during a weekend, just three weeks away from Christmas.
On Saturday, I cycled along largely empty streets in sectors Colombo 8, 10, 7 and 2. The rush hour traffic snarl on weekdays happens because vehicle owners would rather use their own vehicles, buying fuel at inflated prices, than fall back on our terrible buses, even more dilapidated after three years of sporadic running and losses.
Shopping malls selling clothes and electronic goods were lit and blared loud music, but they were largely empty. So were the streets. Obviously, consumers have nothing to spare after buying food, fuel and paying outrageous electricity and water bills.
Only the Vihara Maha Devi Park is entrance free and was crowded. It’s cycling path, used mostly by strollers, is the only happy reminder of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s legacy. Unfortunately, the largely empty streets facing them are a bigger reminder of the mayhem he left behind.