At a time when the Rajapaksas are said to be toying with the idea of fielding former Defence Secretary Gotabaya for the presidential polls in December, they could not have asked for a better and more forceful campaigner on their behalf. Addressing a youth congregation in Weerawila recently, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe reportedly declared that “Sri Lanka needs discipline which is instilled in people through military training in addition to economic development and social justice.” It is precisely what the Rajapaksas attempted while in power, or claimed to be attempting post-war, with Gotabaya as then Defence Secretary saying it and doing it more forcefully and directly than a Ranil Wickremesinghe could dream of, now or ever.
A country needs disciplined people, economic development and social justice if it is to be properly developed. A Nation will not be successful if something goes wrong in one of these three components. A county such as Singapore had developed today as a result of military training. Sri Lanka has got the last chance to develop today. We will lose if we don’t maintain discipline, fail to achieve economic development, and if society does not benefit from development,” the Media has quoted PM Wickremesinghe as telling his audience.
There is of course a jarring note in the Wickremesinghe prescription, at least for the ‘youth’ of his generation. His reference to ‘Singapore’ is sure to bring back to them his political mentor J.R. Jayewardene’s kind of prescription, purportedly based on Lee Kuan Yew’s successful experiment and experience with the latter’s native City-State of the sixties and seventies. As Sri Lankans of that generation are not tired of recalling Lee as telling JRJ how Sri Lanka was way ahead of Singapore when it all began in terms of development and development indices, and how the latter overtook the former by leaps and bounds over a short, two or three-decade period, while the other went deep into an economic, political and social abyss of disproportionate depths.
While the positive references to Singapore and Sri Lanka, be it by JRJ in his time or PM Ranil just now, it may appeal to the youth of their respective generations. But on a scorecard for Wickremesinghe to tick off his UNP predecessor’s achievements of a Singaporean proportion, it’s all in the negative. At the end of the day, JRJ’s term is known for messing up the economy, polity and ethnicity, than ensuring what could at best be described as ‘democratic political stability of an autocrat’s kind’ which Lee had used, at least to achieve the other three for his Nation. Not in the case of Sri Lanka, neither under JRJ nor under Mahinda Rajapaksa, the two post-Independence leaders of immense reach, the former through electoral democracy and the latter after eliminating the draconian LTTE, militarily.
In more ways than one, the ‘JRJ formula’ was also the one that the Rajapaksas attempted in their time. They ensured political stability, and had more of it, both inside and outside Parliament, eliminated the LTTE, which was in a way fed and watered by JRJ in his time, and also had a clear-cut road map for economic development, the China way. If anything, as Defence Secretary, later adding up Urban Development to his portfolio, Gota also attempted a welcome new look to the capital, Colombo, à la any European capital of the London variety.
More importantly, taking a leaf out of Lee’s successful Singapore model, Gota also sought to introduce ‘military training’ for university students across the Sri Lankan campuses. The UNP Opposition of the day would not and could not protest loudly, for two reasons. For one, ‘military training’ for all citizens was inherent to JRJ’s ‘Lee model.’ Two, post-war, the UNP was not so sure which of the Rajapaksas’ initiatives, especially those of Gota the Nation’s Sinhala majority was ready to contest.
Yet, civil society groups would have none of it. After all, after the end of the LTTE war and before the eruption of the Darusman Report, they feared unemployment and possible absence of engagement. Most if not all of them pounced on Gota’s plans for military training for campuses, on the specious claim that it was the Rajapaksas’ way of bringing in military and military intelligence personnel into the universities, to keep an eye on the Nation’s youth.
If the rights groups thought that the Rajapaksa leadership apprehended a revival of another form of militant JVP or LTTE or more, they did not subscribe to the view, at least in public. In a way, they sought to link military training to the ‘white vans’ associated with Gota’s military dispensation in the mind’s eye of their support groups in general and the emerging ranks of post-war youth in particular. Under pressure already from the international community on allegations of ‘rights violations,’ both with reference to the war and otherwise, the Rajapaksas yielded, and plans for military training for the Nation’s youth was given a silent burial, only to be revived by none other than Premier Wickremesinghe, that too to a generation of youth who may not have even heard of the Gota scheme otherwise.
Incomparable and worse
Between them, JRJ, Gota, and Ranil have traversed two generations of the Nation’s leadership, or even three, if one included the short stint of Ranasinghe Premadasa and also the long haul of CBK with Dingiri Banda Wijetunga in between, as if he were a stop-gap in political though not constitutional terms. Definitely, between the seventies when the JRJ reign commenced and to the present day, full 40 years hence, the Nation has seen newer generations of youth, each more advanced in thinking and better exposed to the world around than the previous one.
They need to know that Sri Lanka cannot and should not try to become what it is not constitutionally meant to be, another Singapore, that is. Singapore became what it has become since, not because of what it was, but because of what all it was not. Against this, Sri Lanka’s is a civilisation-centric society, with all its inherent and inherited pluses and minuses. JRJ’s warped ideology of giving it a unified imagery à la Singapore, which attempted it all at commencement, contributed to the mess that the Nation came to become, even in his own time.
Military training, for instance, nor economic development, or constitutional changes, together or separately, can give a unified face to the diversified people that Sri Lankans still are. Ethnicity and religion, class and caste are at the bottom of it all. Even when wars of the kind that Europeans had fought over the previous hundred years came to Sri Lanka’s shores in their limited editions in more recent times, to the influential, opinion-making Colombo Seven elite, it was as if it was somebody else’s war that someone else was fighting in someone else’s land. Now that war at least is behind the Nation, Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans should be looking for a politico-economic agenda suited to their own environment and circumstances.
Aping Singapore would just be that and nothing more. If nothing else, if Singapore is in the news in Sri Lanka just now, it is not for Premier Wickremesinghe’s positive reference to the City-State. Instead, it is for President Maithripala Sirisena’s not too distant declaration that the Singapore Government was not cooperating with Colombo for the extradition of financial delinquent Arjuna Mahendran, wanted in connection with the Central Bank Bonds Scam.
President Sirisena’s charge and the Singapore Government’s rebuttal are both on record, and also is indicative of what it means for Sri Lanka to become a Singapore, even if it is through the China-funded Colombo Port City way. And in President Sirisena and his Premier Wickremesinghe, with the Rajapaksas thrown in between for effect, contemporary Sri Lanka has a problem of a typical Sri Lankan kind, for which Singapore has no solution, military training or not!
About the writer:
The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi.