Whatever his faults, Jathika Nidahas Peramuna (JNP) leader WimalWeerawansa can be counted to make news and hog the headlines. The indefatigable young man is known for his racy rhetoric which even his harshest critics will concede, is entertaining and enthralling.
He is also known for his blind loyalty to former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, having firmly hitched his wagon to Rajapaksa, after having defected from the JanathaVimukthi Peramuna (JVP) where, had he remained, he would arguably be the leader today.
However, Weerawansa ran into serious trouble recently when he paid a call on the Mahanayake of the Malwatte chapter in Kandy, the Venerable Thibbotuwave Sri Sumangala Thera and was left quite embarrassed when the chief prelate ticked him off.
Perhaps for the benefit of the cameras that were covering the event, Weerawansa launched into a tirade against the proposed new Constitution, prophesying that Buddhism may not get pride of place and that only minority interests will be safeguarded.
The Venerable Thibbotuwave Sri Sumangala Thera promptly cautioned Weerawansa not to entertain undue suspicions about the new Constitution. He went even further, saying he was confident that President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe would not do anything that would jeopardise the country’s interests.
In a matter of minutes, Weerawansa had his entire political agenda elucidated for what it really is: The propagation of communal and racist fears and misconceptions for petty political advantage. Indeed this has also been the political strategy of others of Weerawansa’s ilk, such as Pivithuru Hela Urumaya (PHU) leader Udaya Gammanpila and latterly, the Rajapaksa camp in general.
It was a tactic that former President Rajapaksa banked on at the last presidential and general elections. It misfired badly because at the presidential election, his rival, Maithripala Sirisena, returned large majorities in minority areas to overturn the majorities that Rajapaksa secured elsewhere in the country. In hindsight, even though Sirisena won the election, there were signs that the electorate did follow a communal thinking pattern.
That is a trend that Sri Lanka can ill afford. The nation has just recovered from a crippling thirty- year war that cost thousands of lives and dragged the country back many decades in economic development. Rajapaksa does deserve all the credit he is due for ending that war but unfortunately he did not follow that up with magnanimity or statesmanlike behaviour, opting instead to play to the gallery of Sinhala chauvinism, so he could stay in power ad infinitum.
Now out of power, the Rajapaksas, Weerawansas, Gammanpilas and their kind find that although there are many other issues on which they can take the government on as a critical opposition, the communal card is the easiest to resort to.
That is because the government is busy rectifying the mistakes of the previous regime which saw the country being isolated internationally in the post-war era. In doing so, it has to make many concessions to ethnic minorities which can then be interpreted by the opposition as being partial towards them and hurting the majority community. This is precisely what Weerawansa has been doing until the Venerable Thibbotuwave Sri Sumangala Thero called his bluff.
History has seen enough mistakes by our political leaders. In 1956, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike dreamed up the slogan ‘Sinhala Only’ as a shortcut to power because he knew that would ensure the vote of the Sinhalese electorate. Arguably, there lies the roots of Tamil terrorism that erupted a quarter of a century later.
When terrorism did erupt, J. R. Jayewardene was in charge and he should have known better, having seen what happened in the post-1956 period. However, he too chose to pander to the majority, allowing the July 1983 riots to drag on for some days before taking decisive action. By then, it was too late: The conflict had attained an entirely different dimension.
It may be too much to demand that Wimal Weerawansa learns the lessons of history. But, it may not be too late for Mahinda Rajapaksa to learn those lessons because, if he doesn’t, history will no doubt repeat itself.