Penitence: PM shows the way

Penitence: PM shows the way (Island Editorial) 

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe recently apologised for the destruction of the Jaffna Library when the UNP was in power in 1981. This was during the debate on the third reading of Budget 2017 when expenditure pertaining to the Ministry of Prisons, Rehabilitation and Resettlement was under discussion.

He claimed that by the time President Maithripala Sirisena celebrates his second anniversary of assuming office, a massive amount of development work in the North would be completed, conceding by way of part rejoinder to heckling from the Opposition benches that the Jaffna Library was burnt at a time when the UNP was in power, and apologising for the fact.

“We regret it. We apologise for it,” he said and thereafter asked the Opposition, “do you also apologise for the wrongs you committed?”

Cartoon from Ceylon Today added by TW

It has been widely held that prominent and high-ranking UNPers were directly responsible, although others have claimed that it was the Police while still others have made a case for the direct involvement of the LTTE. The Prime Minister, perhaps aware of these various theories, was careful to focus on who was in power at the time and took the position that the Government of the day has to be held responsible if not for planning and implementation, then for instigation or in the very least for being incapable of preventing it. What he did not say, but is known to all those familiar with the distribution of power among institutions and persons as per the 1978 Constitution, is that the lion share of praise and blame are rightfully owned by the President. Then, as it is now, one may add. His contention is therefore valid.

What cannot be disputed is that this pernicious act of arson was as much a direct blow to the Tamil community as it was an affront to the entire nation, an act of treason in fact. The Jaffna Library was a national asset and it is but poor consolation that apart from a handful of documents the rest were replaceable (according to the country’s foremost bibliographer, the late H.A.I Goonetilaka). It was not only books that perished in the raging fire. The possibility of dialogue to address grievances and aspirations that threatened to get out of hand was effectively destroyed. Things did get out of hand.

Our columnist Sanjana Hattotuwa has claimed that Ranil Wickremesinghe’s apology lacked the intent, delivery and sense of occasion that marked President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s national apology for the events of July 1983. The Prime Minister, he claims, was at best being flippant, considering that the remark came at the end of a speech amid continuous heckling and was almost an off-the-cuff remark which allowed him to throw a counter-punch at his detractors by way of the question quoted above.

What’s important however is that it is now on record. It was a statement made by the Prime Minister of this country who was also a cabinet minister of the then Government. This apology is therefore of a different order from that of President Kumaratunga, whose party was not in power during July 1983 and in effect placed the blame for all that unfairly, according to some, on the entire Sinhala community. The weight of intent, delivery and occasion, made that unfair insinuation even worse, one might argue.

The Prime Minister, flippant or not, has sent a message. He has been bold enough to acknowledge that the Government in power should be held responsible. He has essentially stated that in the case of gross abuse of power and unleashing of violence of an order that seriously violates all norms of democratic practice not to mention the law of the land and of course the attendant impunity an apology is non-negotiable. Whether it was political theatre or not, whether it was off-the-cuff or not, the point was made and recorded. It stands. A question was asked, a challenge issued. They are recorded. They stand. That’s what is important here.

As Hattotuwa has pointed out the burning of the Jaffna Library was not the only major blemish on the part of that particular government. He mentioned the thousands killed at the end of the same bloody decade. ‘July 1983’ and the burning of the Jaffna Library were not the only ‘moments of violence’ that the Tamil community had to suffer. The security forces doing the bidding of that government were indisciplined and ruthless. The same indiscipline and ruthlessness bled into the nineties and to the first few years of the new millennia. The inability or rather the unwillingness to differentiate militant from civilian is a crime that all Governments should be held responsible for, in varying degrees of course. And of course, the Prime Minister’s move has now made it incumbent on the relevant parties to come forth, confess and render apology.

Here’s a partial list: the way the July 1980 strike was handled, the fraud-ridden elections of 1982, the riots of July 1983, the bheeshanaya of 88-89 and in fact the general erosion of democracy to the point where anarchy ensued, the corruption that marked all regimes (you can go back beyond 1980 in this regard), the violence attending the Wayamba Provincial Council election, the murders of Rohana Kumara and Kumar Ponnambalam, and all the excesses of the Rajapaksa years that are frequently mentioned. Those whose parties ruled and indeed those during whose watch these things happened can stand up as the Prime Minister stood up. They can acknowledge, confess and apologise.

And let it not be limited to Governments. There were those who in initiative and response shed blood and themselves committed ‘crimes against humanity’. It was not only the Government that should be held responsible for all the violence of the 1980s. The JVP, to be fair, has acknowledged the role it played in unleashing terror on the citizenry, although in an off-the-cuff manner.

The LTTE, one might argue, is no longer around to stand and deliver in this regard. However, let us not forget that there were parties which in manifesto and other articles of faith approved the LTTE and even acted as that terrorist organization’s mouthpiece in the democratic domain. They too can stand up.

It takes courage. Wickremesinghe was brave. He has issued a challenge to one and all and would if pressed acknowledge that he himself belongs to that ‘one and all’. His work is not done yet in this regard. However, he’s taken a step. Others have not.

People often mistake boldness for courage, but the truth is that only those brave acts that are in some small way powered by humility deserves praise and yield lasting political wholesomeness. The world rewards humility much more than politicians believe. Ranil Wickremesinghe’s small but important act is a step in the right direction. If others follow suit, it would be an immense boost to the reconciliation effort and will also go a long way in forging the unity so necessary to bring the good governance project to fruition.