Learning lessons from history or teaching history a lesson?

That man does not learn from the lessons of history is the most important of all lessons that history has to teach – Aldous Huxley (famed English writer and philosopher of the 20th Century)

Presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a former Lt Colonel of Sri Lanka Army now assiduously attempting to project himself as an intellectual statesman with liberal views, made a Freudian slip in his address at a mass rally in Anuradhapura on October17. Perhaps he was emotionally moved by the historic aura of the ancient citadel of Sinhala kings and when he came to the subject of ‘war heroes’ who were in jail some, adrenalin may have shot through into his blood stream and he said: A large number of war heroes are still languishing in prisons on false charges and cases. I will declare that at this moment that they all will be released by the morning of November 17.

Rajapaksa when making this statement presumes that he will win the presidential election and that within hours on being declared the winner he has the power to free prisoners who are being held behind bars, on judicial orders or decisions. While those learned in the law have — even before the Gotabaya declaration and after that too — have said that an Executive President cannot set prisoners free at his whim and fancy and there is a due legal process to be followed involving many legal officials, when extending the presidential clemency, this aspiring presidential candidate thinks he can open prison doors with his magic words, ‘open sesame’, like in Ali Baba and Forty Thieves.

What is ominous about this to the man on the street is that if an Executive President has the power to set free prisoners at his will and pleasure, he could also throw anyone whom he desires into prison in the same way. A republic, any president elected by the will of the people should know very well, comprises a body of laws and regulations that have to be followed and that a ruler cannot reign by decree as in absolute monarchies that went extinct centuries ago.

This columnist can only presume one reason for Rajapaksa resorting to this instant cure for ‘war heroes’ in jail. He is still sub-consciously a military man subject to military reflexes despite all the sagacious political thoughts his pundits in his think tanks are expounding to him.

A military man, naturally, has military solutions to problems. Thus, how do you set free a ‘war hero’ from jail? Simply issue an order and instruct a sergeant major to see that it is carried out. It is said that ‘a leopard will never change its spots.’ Likewise if you scratch a military man even long years after retirement from service, there still will be some camouflage left beneath his skin.

The 21st Century has seen the emergence of some ‘strongmen’ in powerful countries around the globe such as Donald Trump, Narendra Modi and Rodrigo Duterte, but military dictators are out of fashion and even ex-military men as dictators are hard to find. True, military dictators and strong men have at times— not always — politically stabilised countries in chaos, strengthened weak economies but as a rule crushed democratic freedoms, suppressed legitimate opposition and violated human rights.

A Libyan Field Marshal

We in our search for a present day military dictator found an aspiring solitary military leader now going great guns — literally — in Libya wreaking death and destruction in the once rich oil rich desert land. In an attempt to capture power while claiming he is fighting terrorist gangs and Islamic extremists to restore national security, he is trying to topple the ruling National Accord Government recognised by the United Nations.

The 74-year – old General Khalifa Haftar, a dual Libyan-American citizen, is also appealing to the people to rise up against the legitimate UN-backed Government having gained control of large swathes of Libya extending from Benghazi to Tripoli where the GNP is holding out.

The mercurial 74-year-old Hafta was one of the group of officers led by Col Muammar Gaddafi to oust King Idris in a military coup from his throne in 1969.  Gaddafi, having promoted Haftar to the rank of Field Marshal, sent him to capture neighbouring Chad in the 1980s. However the Chadian forces that were backed by the French defeated the Libyan forces and Haftar was captured by Chadians in 1987. Gaddafi, having previously denied the presence of Libyan forces in Chad, disowned Haftar. Following this development, Haftar, it has been reported, devoted the next two decades to topple Gaddafi.

Press reports say that Haftar found his way out from Chad and went into exile in the United States and was living comfortably in a five-bedroomed house close to a golf club in the state of Virginia in close proximity to the CIA headquarters in Langley. This has resulted in speculation of his close relations with US intelligence sources.

After the successful uprising against Gaddafi in 2011, the former military man returned to Libya and became the commander of a rebel force in East Libya around Benghazi which has grown in strength. Since 2011, Haftar has been waging war in this country against the Government forces but so far has failed to dislodge them from their headquarters in Tripoli. UN appeals to both sides to halt hostilities have not been successful.  International commentators have pointed out that while some regional powers such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE are backing the GNP and are opposed to General Haftar, Western powers are backing Haftar though not consistent in their commitment. There is little doubt that if Haftar’s forces triumph, Libya will be once again a one man dictatorship with many countries at its call to be beneficiaries of its oil resources.

The adventures of Libyan-American dual citizen is relevant to us because many civilians viewing the mess that democratic politicians, usually corrupt and inept, think that a strongman, preferably one with military experience will be a sure cure — a kokatah thailaya. Khalifa Haftar’s performance shows that the cure will be worse than the disease.

The sixties, seventies and even later decades of the last century provides enough and more examples  of military dictators robbing, looting and destroying countries, particularly developing countries, where thousands, if not millions of innocents have lost their lives and democratic rights suppressed. Indonesia is a classic example where the killing of six generals led to an army coup that resulted in the first president of the country Sukarno being removed and General Suharto taking over presidency and continuing for 30 years!

An anti-communist purge – the pro- China Communist Party (PKK) being accused of killing the five generals — resulted in an estimated number beyond one hundred thousand to a million Indonesians disappearing or being killed in this vastly spread archipelago.  The country no doubt stabilised politically and the economy recorded growth of 6 to7 percent annual growth and also with the unaccountable affluence of the six Suharto brood and Suharto cronies. The end came with the Asian Financial Crisis that resulted in Indonesians breaking loose after 30 years, rioting on the streets and resignation of the dictator.

The failure of military dictators or strongmen as saviours of countries is numerous. Close to home we have had Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Maldives which have had such saviours without much success. Some of those who can be termed disasters are: Marcos of the Philippines, Pol Pot of Cambodia. Assad—father and son of Syria, Saddam Hussein of Iraq, Pinochet of Chile, and Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, Despite his achievements, Nasser left behind a hierarchy of dictators — Anwar Sadat, Hosni Mubarak and now Abdel Fattah al- Sisi.

Sri Lanka has been fortunate not to have a military dictator although the brutality of military rule was experienced in the two insurrections in the South and the Northern and Eastern Provinces during the 30 years when emergency law prevailed for a greater part of the time. That experience should be considered as a bitter lesson of history. But as Aldous Huxley’s quote at the beginning of this column states, the most important lesson that history has to teach is that we do not learn from it.

Perhaps some of the political pundits that are in the think tanks that have come into being are trying to teach history a lesson.