By Faraz Shauketaly
Do You Love Your Country? Asked Bjorn Byron from Belgium who was visiting Sri Lanka. I was quite taken aback at the suddenness of the question and I was stuck for words.
“Yes” I said — I consciously said that — it was manifestly not an automatic reaction out of any mistaken sense of patriotism; however, sadly, I continued, there is a “but”.
And that was this — that I am both — significantly patriotic and pragmatic, especially when my family who are resident abroad say that Sri Lanka is simply not safe. They do not live in a time warp and are fully aware that the war has been won and my son does display admiration. After looking at the footage from the North and reading my copy from there, their fears were compounded. Sri Lanka is under forces occupation they say, journalists have been attacked, killed and have simply disappeared. The government has displayed a certain lethargy when it comes to implementing parts of the constitution of this country which further fuels the uncertainty of various sections of the public.
Prioritising the needs of the country is of course what politics is mostly about. No one doubts that. There is a certain truth when ministers of this government openly state that the mass of rurality would rather have the government concentrate its energies and synergies on matters that are far more serious in their opinion. The full implementation of the constitution remains at the bottom rung of the same list.
The family really do have an impressive armoury: they cite the growing call for Sri Lanka to be more nationalistic. How nationalistic can a Tamil be in Sri Lanka so soon after the war? Or the displaced Muslims who, having been evicted in 24 hours by Prabhakaran from Mannar, remain in temporary camps for the past 20 plus years? Government apathy towards this particular minority group is unforgivable — and it is not less so for this President and his men, simply because previous administrations too showed an appalling lack of sympathy. This — the land that my folks back home shudder to think of but for whom I aspire for a gilded future.
Then there is something that was, up until very recently, the vogue, the label that no right thinking Sri Lankan would wish upon anyone. ‘Traitor’ — which has been liberally used against all too frequently so, on journalists. Journalists have been hounded, threatened, attacked, frightened away and yes, even murdered, with an impunity that has a parallel only in Zimbabwe. Imagine a doctor being attacked or a bus conductor or heaven forbid the president! Now that would be an event and a half — even making the farce of the century, the insulin-aided, fast unto death blockade of the UN in Colombo, pale into insignificance.
Lawyers who have dared with coercion and come to the aid of those labelled traitors have been branded as traitors themselves. The sanctity of the Supreme Court complex was violated in an all too common display of disregard of the laws of this country, when testosterone levels were at an all time high as the retired General dared aspire to the highest elected office of the land.
And yet in this enigma, this paradox of a country, there is moderation. The Middle Path. A cornerstone of the majority religion in this country but urged upon all by perhaps every religion on earth. There is moderation when Sri Lanka’s super rich dance the night away with their sisters, quietly enjoying their wealth — and yes, this country still remains very much a land of opportunity and untapped potential, providing many investors, entrepreneurs and others innumerable avenues of wealth creation. The people of this country exercised admirable moderation when the LTTE launched fiercely into attacks on civilians and government targets as well as bloodied the armed forces with their internecine attacks. The only breakdown coming in the form of a loss of judgement and control in 1983, when frustration manifested itself in a shocking display of communal violence which led incontrovertibly towards the strengthening of the LTTE membership.
Despite the popularity that the President has all over the island, it is frustrating, bordering on being vexatious, that Mahinda Rajapaksa is taking his time to negotiate a settlement for the minorities to ascertain exactly what fears they have and to take steps to allay those fears and concerns. President Rajapaksa is perhaps the only leader of Sri Lanka to enjoy the level of adulation he continues to sustain. How much easier is it for him to forge ahead a policy that would enjoy significant acceptance by the minorities? It is not that the President is aloof but that the urgency he publicly espouses is incompatible with the actions of his administration.
As Sri Lanka continues its existence on a razors’ edge, the country’s opposition parties show a complete lack of unity. These pages itself is witness to the ding-dong battle going on at the leading opposition party. The impunity with which he acts in his quest to hang on to the lucrative post that manifests itself as leader of the UNP, is far less democratic than President Rajapaksa’s fine tuning of the constitution. For a lawyer and a politician, Ranil Wickremesinghe’s actions are both dangerous and ambidextrous — almost as though he is sticking his fingers up at the UNP membership. His physique may not let you believe it but his actions are tantamount to him singing “floating like a butterfly…catch me if you can” the song made famous by Muhammad Ali no less.
In the past week reforms of that party’s constitution is set to be voted upon next month signalling that the voice of the public is now being heard at the leadership level of the UNP. RW certainly has lost the batteries to his GPS device and now appears to be muddle-headed, rather like a headless chicken and has resorted to defending himself as a guest columnist of a family-connected newspaper or appears reliant on the actions of political mechanics who have vested interests rather than the party at heart.
And so this is the “BUT” in my response. As much as I would vote for the notion ‘for president and country’ any day, when it comes to declaring my love — I am unable to give my country the untrammeled love that my heart wishes my mind to give. Until the ground reality in Sri Lanka demonstrates otherwise, there will forever be a haunting sadness in me that I am forced to say, “Yes, I love my country — but…”