Outstanding English writer Aldous Huxley’s observations on the ‘lessons of history’ will interest many Sri Lankans obsessed with their history—2,500 years or more. Huxley held: ’ That men do not learn much from history is the most important lesson that history has to teach’.
We will attempt to consider this observation not by harking back to the distant past of those ‘glorious days’ but to contemporary times.
Just four years ago Mahinda Rajapaksa who ruled the country for a near decade and was considered ‘invincible’ was unceremoniously dumped out at a presidential election — then at a parliamentary election months later — by the free votes of the people. Many reasons have been attributed for the defeat but the main public outcry was against the nepotism of the Rajapaksa family. It was estimated that five or more members of the immediate family and others of the widespread canopy of a family tree, controlled more than 2/3rds of the economy of Sri Lanka.
Innumerable charges have been levelled against the regime, but the main charge of nepotism will illustrate our point. The chieftain of the Rajapaksas, Mahinda, does not even consider that the charge is applicable. He seems to consider that there was nothing wrong in bringing almost the entire brood of family members into the administration and letting them lord over the sub-fiefdoms allocated to them. Some of the members of the family are now before Sri Lankan and foreign courts, and even Interpol has been alerted on charges against them. The charges that range from misappropriation of millions if not billions or rupees tell a different story to the nonchalance of the former president.
The Yahapalana (Good Governance) government, too, is an example of Aldous Huxley about politicians not learning the lessons of history. Paradoxically, the Good-governance government is considered to be one of the worst forms of government we have had. No person admits responsibility for the three-year quagmire they led the country into. A part of Yayapalanaya is still standing but no attempt is being made to investigate what went wrong with the coalition of the country’s two strongest parties.
President Maithripala Sirisena was elected by the people with the active support of the UNP. He appointed Ranil Wickremesinghe as the prime minister. Sirisena was the official president of the country, head of state and commander-in-chief. In cricketing terms, he was the captain of the team. The prime minister and vice-captain was Ranil Wickremesinghe. After three years in power, the captain says he was playing under the orders of the vice-captain because of his loyalty to him for the support extended during the election campaign. This is, indeed, a peculiar development in cricket or governance of a state, with the vice-captain and captain pointing their fingers at each other.
This attitude of not learning from history— from mistakes made in the past—can have devastating consequences for this paradise isle. Mahinda Rajapaksa, who says he is cock-sure of being returned to power at the next elections, has the same set of family members as front runners of his newly formed Pohottuwa party. He has not spoken of any political or economic reforms that he intends implementing. So, does it mean that the same characters who were thrown out in 2015 will be back in the same seats of power, doing the same things as before? This will amount to mistakes in history being repeated with a vengeance.
One achievement of the Yahapalana regime was the restoration of law and order, ending a period of terror. Those opposing the high and mighty were killed on the highways or simply disappeared. Some suspects have now been brought before the courts, but the consensus among the public is that only the minions are in the courts and their bosses are free to roam the country telling citizens of their human rights.
When marking their ballots the next time, will the polarised electorate have amnesia about the era of the White Vans?
The UNP has much to answer for its antics during its four year fiasco, particularly on allegations of corruption. President Sirisena, after his row with Wickremesinghe, has adopted the ‘Not me’ posture and is blaming it all on Wickremesinghe and his cronies. How well these charges are rebutted and responsibility is fixed will determine its political future.
There is another quote applicable to political history which may be relevant to the times: ‘It’s insanity to repeat the same mistakes over and over again and expect successful results’. We have not been able to trace the author of the gem of wisdom, but our politicians appear to think that repeating the same mistakes can lead to success! This can happen with a dumb electorate, where emotions take precedence over the reasoning of voters. Or it could well be that Lanka’s political leaders and their voters have gone insane!
We end these comments with reference to the Mahavamsa, the Great Chronicle of Sri Lanka. Each chapter of this ancient chronicle ends with the lines: ‘Here ends the Chapter …. in the Mahavamsa compiled for the serene joy and emotion of the pious’.
Did the revered historian of yore, Mahanama, like western academics, consider history as something from which lessons could be learnt by future rulers or not? He ends all chapters with the words ‘complied for the serene joy and emotions of the pious’. This is a question to be decided on by historians and the like and not by journalists.
But we venture to say that our politicians consider that history written about them is for their serene joy and emotion and, more particularly, for their emotionally charged gullible supporters.