In December 1982 the workers of banana plantations in Columbia went on strike. They demanded written contracts, 8-hour working days, 6-day work weeks and the elimination of food coupons. It turned into the largest labor movement the country had witnessed until then.
An army regiment from Bogotá was dispatched, probably at the behest of the United Fruit Company. Machine guns were set up on rooftops. Access streets were closed. After a 5-minute warning they opened fire into a thick crowd made of workers, their wives and children who had gathered after Sunday Mass anticipating an address by the Governor. Hundreds were killed. Some estimate the number to be over 2000. What happened next is what is interesting. A survivor was said to have claimed it never happened. And doubt was raised whether or not the massacre ever took place.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez reenacts the Banana Massacre in ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’. Workers are killed in their hundreds but the final conclusion was ‘Nothing has happened in Macondo’.
History is like that. Things are taken off the chronicles. Things that never happened are scripted in. Not just in Colombia but in Sri Lanka as well. There’s a story that has been forgotten. Indeed, no one (including you) will believe it ever happened. But it must be told, just like Marquez did.
It happened in late April 2010, just before the Parliamentary Elections. Mahinda Rajapaksa was then the all-powerful Executive President of Sri Lanka. His most trusted political ally at the time was the Leader of the United National Party (UNP) and then Leader of the Opposition Ranil Wickremesinghe. Mahinda connived with Ranil to secure a decisive victory for the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA). It was a simple but effective plan.
First he claimed that as newly re-elected President of the whole country he would be playing a neutral role during the Parliamentary Elections. He said that but used every opportunity to support the UPFA. He even said that should the UNP win, he will make sure that Ranil Wickremesinghe is not made the Prime Minister but that he will pick a senior member of the UNP instead. The argument was that Ranil had already had two stints as Prime Minister.
We do not know what he promised Ranil or why Ranil played along, but Mahinda nevertheless got Ranil’s support to essentially straitjacket the UNP. Two weeks before the election, Mahinda got Harsha De Silva to get a court order preventing the UNP’s Working Committee from meeting. Court was moved. It was moved thereafter to extend the injunction past election date.
Three days before the election, Tissa Attanayake was unceremoniously removed from the post of General Secretary. He was replaced by Sujeeva Senasinghe. Immediately Sujeeva secured an interim order from the courts to prevent anyone from trying to oust him. Then he got Ranil to sack half the members of the Working Committee.
There was public outcry of course. People were horrified. There were howls of protest from the likes of Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu of the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), Jehan Perera of the National Peace Council (NPC) and J.C. Weliamuna of Transparency International (TISL). Citizens of high standing such as the Bishop of Colombo Malcolm Ranjith. Jayantha Dhanapala, Chandra Jayaratne, Deepika Udugama and Rohan Edirisinghe, as well as newspapers invested in justice, fairplay, democracy, good governance etc., such as ‘Ravaya’ joined the chorus of protest. Other paragons of virtue in the newspaper business blasted Mahinda for his tyrannical ways.
The US Ambassador in an official communique to Mahinda registered his displeasure, followed by the British High Commissioner. The US Secretary of State as well as Britain’s Foreign Minister echoed their sentiments in similar missives. The Commonwealth Secretariat issued a harshly worded statement condemning Mahinda for highhandedness, operating against the spirit of democracy and violating cherished Commonwealth values. Navineethan Pillai, then heading the UN Human Rights Commission was livid. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon didn’t mince his words when he called Mahinda to express his displeasure.
Does anyone remember any of this? I am willing to wager that no one does. This is because it never happened. But are you sure? Let’s leave the doubt there and consider what could have happened had Mahinda really done all this. Isn’t it more than likely that the description of what ensued would have come to pass? After all, similar responses were seen when Mahinda was guilty of less outrageous transgressions.
Now, five years later, we have Mahinda successor, Maithripala Sirisena has done a Mahinda Rajapaksa, so to speak. He pledged neutrality but aligning himself with Ranil Wickremesinghe and the UNP (paradoxically, given the above ‘history’), attacked the UPFA at every turn. A few weeks ago he moved the courts to stop the Central Committee of the biggest party in the Opposition Coalition (UPFA) i.e. the SLFP, from meeting using a person called Solangaarachchi.
Three days before the election Maithripala replaced the General Secretaries of the SLFP and the UPFA with people who pledged loyalty to Ranil Wickremesinghe and the UNP (even though one of them contests on the UPFA ticket —the other is a staunch Chandrika loyalist and we know she openly asked people to vote for ‘the beast’, i.e. the Elephant). He got the replacements to seek a court order stopping anyone from hindering their ‘work’. He moved the court to grant them the relief they sought. Then he sacked half the members of the Central Committee.
Now someone might ask ‘But it was a court order, how can you say Maithripala influenced the courts?’ Well, didn’t the courts rule in favor of Mahinda’s preferences not too long ago and wasn’t it claimed that Mahinda influenced the courts? There was no proof back then, but that didn’t stop people from howling in protest did it? Someone might counter, ‘that’s ridiculous, Mahinda appointed friends to the Supreme Court, this is well known!’ Well, guess who removed and appointed Chief Justices not too long ago, and using executive powers no less! No proof of interference but that’s not stopping people from being silent, is it?
‘But this is a popular President who was mandated to set things right!’ someone might say. End justifying the means, ladies and gentlemen, is not something that Mahinda’s detractors would ever defend publicly, because that would have meant that Mahinda would have to be conceded the license to do whatever as long as stated end is considered good; ends like ‘peace’ and ‘reconciliation’ and ‘development’ need not be fleshed out if that were the case.
Mahinda was no saint. Mahinda could have but did not transition from popular politician to respected statesman. His look-aside policy to the wrongs of his minions, the perpetuity-seek of the 18th Amendment, political machinations to wreck the UNP and the rest of the Opposition, and development that enriched further the wealthy without delivering anything of substance that was sustainable to the poor have been well recorded.
It’s all conjecture of course, but many thought that a third term given his arrogance and the despicable people he had surrounded himself with would have spelt disaster and even a bloodbath. He needed to be defeated and he was.
It’s a simple exercise really. Just replace the name Maithripala Sirisena with the name Mahinda Rajapaksa and ask what the grand gentlemen and ladies of good governance would have said and done had Mahinda done what Maithripalas has done (as enumerated above). Just ask yourself what Ranil would have said and done. Then ask yourself why on earth Ranil is silent. Then buttonhole the likes of Saravanamuttu.
The beautiful thing about the politics of memory is that it undresses all. The UNP and Ranil Wickremesinghe, the intended beneficiaries of Maithripala’s machinations, are silent. That’s ok because these are all politicians. But what of those who act as though they are above politics?
Saravanamuttu, Weliamuna, Jehan Perera, Dhanapala, Jayaratne, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, Deepika Udugama, Chandra Jayaratne and Rohan Edirisinghe are silent. The US Embassy and the US State Department are silent. The British High Commissioner, the British Foreign Minister and the Secretary, Commonwealth Secretariat are silent. Not a word from Pillai’s successor at the UNHRC Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein. None from Ban Ki-moon. The Ravaya, which a few weeks ago accused Maithripala of betraying the people’s mandate by letting Mahinda Rajapaksa contest, seem to have forgotten everything that Maithripala and the UNP have said about rule of law, due process, democracy in word, practice and spirt, good governance, civilization and a decent political culture. And where is Ven Maduluwawe Sobitha Thero these days? The vociferous anti-Mahinda commentators who framed their invective in those same terms seem to have forgotten all those sweet sounding ‘musts’ that they told everyone Maithripala and Ranil stood for and would deliver. They’ve all undressed themselves.
Yes, there’s a politics of memory which of course includes remembrance and forgetting. Remember that what you recall and forget are often choices and these choices mark you politically, ideologically and morally.
Ban Ki-moon did send a missive after the election was over. In it he “commends the President for having shepherded an inclusive process” (emphasis mine). Interesting, isn’t it?