Monday, November 30, 2015

Uncertain Future, in Politics and Life

First published in January this year, weeks after the Presidential Election 2015, to mark the birthday of Rukshan Abeywansha. Re-posting this here, on his first death anniversary.

I am reminded of a Buddhist story about Arhat Sariputta who was once asked about the outcome of a war that had broken out between two states. He, who had developed his mind to such an extent that he was named the most intelligent of all disciples of Buddha, gave a prediction on what he could see. The prediction turned out to be wrong.

Predicting the future is a risky endeavor. According to Buddhist scriptures, only the Buddha could see the past, present and future with accuracy. Even if we do not accept the story, no one will dispute the fact that future is uncertain to every mortal. Several famous astrologers found out this the hard way by the morning of January 9, 2015, as Sri Lanka learned of the defeat of Mahinda Rajapaksa at the Presidential Election. Fearing for their trade, these people later claimed that they actually saw the future but were afraid of the consequences and decided to lie.

While the future in politics is always uncertain, political decisions can change the course of politics and create the future. The outcome of the election was never a certainty until January 9. However, the decisions of both the government and the opposition leaders paved the way for such an outcome where a seemingly invincible government fell.

Rathana Thera

During the presidential campaign, I remembered a certain day in late May 2014, when there was no discussion whatsoever about a Presidential Election. The News Editor of ‘The Nation’ Deepal Warnakulasuriya, and I went to the Sadaham Sevana at Rajagiriya to interview Athuraliye Rathana Thera on a new endeavor he had started. It was the publication of a national policy statement “Rata Gatha Yuthu Maga” (The Path the country should take) by the “Pivithuru Hetak” organization led by Rathana Thera.

He envisaged a national policy on crucial matters, irrespective of the party that was in power. “When we take the national issues, we must have national policies which don’t change with the regime changes or any other pressures from local or international forces. Not only India, even some western countries do not change their policies on crucial matters when the regime changes,” Rathana Thera told us. He envisaged a national policy council which could take decisions in critical matters irrespective of a change of a regime.

Rathana Thera also spoke about the issues of corruption, environment, agriculture and energy crisis. He was not ready to take executive presidency head-on, adding that one must first tackle issues that all sides can reach a consensus. However, he added that if the government does not agree to the critical changes that need to be done, he would have to think of the next step.

This interview came haunting back to my mind when the presidential election campaign was at a full-swing. “Was this the next step he meant?”


“Pivithuru Hetak” released its policy statement on June 3, 2014. Our colleague, Rukshan Chandika Abeywansha went to the event at BMICH. He was thrilled before the event simply because he saw the potential of a unique event.

Okkoma pakshavala kattiya enava machan, niyama pinthura tikak thiyeyi” he told me. (People from all parties will be there. There will be some unique photos). He did justice to the event, as always. One of his pictures has the then Minister Rajitha Senaratne, then Minister and Jathika Hela Urumaya General Secretary Patali Champika Ranawaka, then United National Party Leadership Council Chairman Karu Jayasuriya and UNP Parliamentarian Harsha de Silva, all smiling. On June 8, ‘The Nation’ carried the picture, with a caption, on page 3. However, this was to be the last news picture of Rukshan we carried. On that same June 8, he met with an accident.

If anyone of us could foretell the future, we would have told him not to go on that journey on that route on that morning. But alas, we are not gifted. We can only remind ourselves of the past, and speculate of the future.

Rukshan may not have then understood the significance of the event he covered. Neither did we. But today, we realize the importance of that event, which may have been a key moment in the ultimate regime change that took place on January 8. But Rukshan is not here with us to see the significance of the event he saw as a wonderful photo opportunity.

Rukshan Chandika Abeywansha, Best Photo Journalist of the Year 2013, would have been 37 this January 30.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

A Response to BBC: Was Putin Deflecting Criticism in His Speech on the Downing of a Su-24?

The shooting down of a Russian Su-24 fighter jet by Turkey sent shock waves across the world. Vladimir Putin, the Russian President, was quick to respond in the harshest of words possible.

“This incident stands out against the usual fight against terrorism. Our troops are fighting heroically against terrorists, risking their lives. But the loss we suffered today came from a stab in the back delivered by accomplices of the terrorists” he said, blaming Turkey.

BBC’s Moscow correspondent Sarah Rainsford had an interesting explanation to Putin’s statement. “After all, Vladimir Putin launched airstrikes in Syria arguing that it would make Russia safer; instead, 224 people were blown out of the sky last month in a bomb attack. And now this. By rounding on Turkey he is in part deflecting any suggestion that his own policy has backfired”, Rainsford said.

So, was Putin deflecting criticism? Was he wrong in saying that Russia would be safer if the Islamic State of Ira and Syria (ISIS) is defeated is Syria?

Putin went into Syria to bolster his ally Assad there. One can never deny this reality. Nevertheless, his argument of defeating ISIS is Syria to make Russia safer is fundamentally not wrong.

One reason for the success of the ISIS is that it has a firm base in Iraq and Syria. Western indifference helped its rise in Syria. The ISIS entrenched itself firmly in parts of Syria at least a year before it became a world-wide phenomenon by sweeping across large swathes of Iraq. ISIS can now boast about its accomplishments in controlling a large area across two countries, giving it much needed credibility as a potent force. The ISIS has created a de facto state, which has started advertising itself as an Islamic Utopia state to recruit cadres across the world.

Russia is one of its target areas for recruitment and potential attack. The ISIS fighters are not targeting Russia because it started pounding them in Syria. Although most people do not realize, Russia has a large Muslim population. One seventh of its people profess Islam, and this could be turned in to a potential recruiting ground.

It was in December 2014 that Al Jazeera described this situation in an article written by Olga Khrustaleva titled “Russia’s Burgeoning ISIL Problem”. Months after sweeping across parts of Iraq, ISIS turned its focus on Russia’s Caucasus, starting to release videos targeted at Russia. “We will … liberate Chechnya and the Caucasus, Allah willing. The Islamic State is here to stay,” said an ISIL [ISIS] fighter in the first such video, released on August 31, Al Jazeera pointed out.

Tanya Lokshina, Human Rights Watch's Russia programme director, told Al Jazeera in late 2014 that there is "definitely [ISIL] recruitment happening" in Russia (ISIL is an alternative name to ISIS). Furthermore, “[ISIL] is becoming, I would say, increasingly popular in the northern Caucasus, in a situation where people are disillusioned with the secular government,” she further said.

Recruitment attempts were also being made through Russia’s popular social media site There were, and still are, various groups within VK carrying out ISIS propaganda. Recruitment attempts were also taking place. A favorite tactic was using a good looking male recruit to lure females in to the ISIS trap.

Suggesting that 224 people died after Russia attacked the ISIS is an indirect request to keep out if one needs to be in peace. However, as Putin understood the problem, such devastating attacks could have taken place sooner or later. If Russia was to be silent now, it would face an even stronger ISIS outfit later. The stronger the ISIS seems to be, the higher the likelihood of recruiting more people from foreign lands.

Therefore, Putin was correct in saying that Russia would be safer if the ISIS is defeated in Syria. Whether the ISIS can be defeated in Syria is another matter.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Rajapaksa vs Lee Kuan Yew

Certain individuals have made significant roles in shaping the histories of the nations they led. Former Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was one of the best examples for such a leader. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has the potential to become one. Former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa became another such leader in 2009, only to mar his reputation in later years.

There are similarities in the way Lee Kuan Yew and Mahinda Rajapaksa went about dealing with their main challenges. For Lee, his main challenge was to make a nation out of a place which, in his own words, lacked the main characteristics of one. Rajapaksa, on the other hand, had to push off development as a second goal. During his first term as president, his main goal was finding a solution to the civil war raging in the country.

Both Lee and Rajapaksa took the bulls by their horns. Ably supported by some competent men and women, Lee made a fascinating transformation in his small land. Rajapaksa, who was also supported by a number of immensely capable men and women, led the war effort to a successful conclusion.

There was no doubt on Lee's commitment to his job. He once famously said, "this is about our lives. I spent my whole life building it. And until I am around, no one is going to knock it down."

Both Lee and Rajapaksa were patriots, and believed in nationalism. One major difference is Lee's apparent multi-culturalism and Rajapaksa's apparent Sinhala Nationalist appeal. This was one major difference which differentiated the two leaders. While Rajapaksa never won a respectable minority vote, Lee's People's Action Party attracted voters of all communities, and still does. Despite its extensive efforts at flooding the north and east with development projects, the Rajapaksa government could never instill a sense of 'belongingness' in the Tamil community in those regions.

However, perhaps the most significant difference between the two leaders was their stance on corruption. The fight against corruption was an integral part of Lee's government. Mahinda Rajapaksa also vowed to fight corruption at the start of his second term. However, while Lee strictly practiced what he preached, there is serious doubt on Rajapaksa's intent in doing so. While Lee is universally accepted as clean by even his opponents, Rajapaksa's second term was marred by the constant allegations of corruption and "mega deals".

The allegations on nepotism are simultaneously leveled against Rajapaksa and to a certain extent against Lee. However, nepotism in Sri Lanka, under many governments, can never be compared with what took place in Singapore. For an outside observer, it might look strange to see the first Prime Minister's son becoming the third Prime Minister of a country, and to see it maintain its record of success. However, once one understands the system in place in Singapore, it becomes quite clear.

Perhaps it is Lee Kuan Yew who provided the best answer to this question. Once when he was asked about his son succeeding as Prime Minister he said that Lee Hsien Loong will not be succeeding not as his son but as a Deputy Prime Minister who served the country for several years. People will decide if he was successful or not, he said, and added that the people will have the right to replace him if he proves unsuccessful.

The meritocracy in Singapore is such that an individual cannot become a Cabinet Minister for the simple fact that he is a 'crony' or loyalist of the top echelons. One has to go through a particular institutionalized system. Any person has to first become a Junior Minister for a certain period of time before becoming a Senior Minister. One has to prove himself, and if he does, he can move to the top echelons of the city state's government.

One striking difference in Rajapaksa and Lee was the appearance of their names in public places. Rajapaksa had various public constructions named for him, unlike Lee, who rarely had his name appear on such places. Furthermore, monumental images of Rajapaksa appeared around the island, becoming a far too common sight.

To the latter part of the Rajapaksa government, high rises were built in Colombo, at several places where there used to be slums. These new buildings reminded this writer of the Housing and Development Board flats in Singapore. Perhaps it was the model the Rajapaksa government was attempting to adapt in Colombo. However, there was one conspicuous difference in the buildings in Sri Lanka. They had larger than life sized portraits of Rajapaksa.

While the negative image of Rajapaksa was constructed partly by the pro-LTTE diaspora, his extravagance failed to counter this propaganda and added credence to it.

Sadly, Rajapaksa missed a unique opportunity to rival Lee Kuan Yew in guiding his country towards development.