Are We Above History?
By Ravi Perera
On December 26, 1991, the Soviet Union died and something new was born, something utterly new – a unipolar world dominated by a single superpower unchecked by any rival and with decisive reach in every corner of the globe.
“This is a staggering development in history, not seen since the fall of Rome” – Charles Krauthammer 2004
On 18 May 2009, here in Sri Lanka too, although on a much smaller scale, in a vastly different context to the scenario the neo-conservative Krauthammer is describing, we saw the death of Vellupillai Prabahakaran and his dreaded terrorist outfit, the LTTE.
For three decades before that event the history of Sri Lanka was more or less defined by the level of threat posed by the LTTE and the government’s panic stricken reactions to that.
With its destruction not only is the spectre of death and destruction that haunted the people of this country from shore to shore, but sadly a kind of check that kept some of the politicians straight seems to be also removed.
Words like ‘staggering’ sits awkwardly when used on a small country with a somewhat mediocre scorecard. A country is not only defined by its achievements but often by its lack thereof.
The threat posed by the numerically much smaller terrorist group unnerved the power hierarchy of this country as never before.
After thirty years of blundering about when finally its much larger resource base and numbers were brought to bear directly on the LTTE, in a battle of attrition in fact, the terrorist group just died like the Soviet Union did in 1991.
On the global scale, the collapse of the Soviet System appears to have given rise to an irrational exuberance on the part of conservative thinkers such as the American Francis Fukuyama who argued that we had reached an end point in mankind’s ideological evolution and that the universalization of the Western liberal democracy model would be the final form of human government.
Karl Mark’s theory of history, that of the class struggle, was consigned to the trash bin of history by them.
Marx, on the other hand, prophesized that history will ‘end’ upon the seizure of power by the working class, and the subsequent ushering of socialism.
America and the Western countries were not victors in a mere ideological battle. Militarily, there was no challenge to the might of the United States.
In economic terms the developed countries had reached seemingly unassailable heights.
In terms of culture it seems that the desire of nearly every person on the planet was to be made in the Western image.
In terms of intellectual standards, research, innovations, the best universities, Nobel prizes and other accomplishments, etc. there again was no rival to the West.
When we look at matters such as human rights, international legal concepts and standard setting in international trade and transactions, again the ideas that govern these seem to flow mainly from that direction.
Even in sports the Western world, although relatively smaller in numbers, is extremely strong in performance.
But as history has shown repeatedly, there is no permanent state in human affairs.
In less than two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union the self confidence of the West is at an all time low.
The financial crisis that hit the banking sector in the Western countries has radically altered the confidence placed one time on its institutional integrity.
The credit rating agency the Moody’s down-graded the mighty United States top notch credit rating from the Triple A rating it had maintained from 1917 to a AA+ in 2011.
Several countries in Europe are now on the verge of bankruptcy. Today the 800 odd military bases the US maintains overseas has become a massive burden to its economy.
Meanwhile China is growing stronger by the day and it is predicted that by the year 2027 it would overtake the US economy. Several other countries like India, Brazil, South Africa, Mexico and Indonesia are projected to join the list of largest economies in the world by then.
But of course history has proved again and again that nothing is certain and predicting the future is a hazardous task. A few years before 2009, it was almost taken as a near certainty that Prabakaran would end up as a Chief Minister in a North/East Provincial government or some such thing.
Misreading the trends of history and miscalculating his military strength the man decided to raise the stakes and ended up dead with a core group of supporters in a marsh.
The victor clearly was the Mahinda Rajapaksa government.
Although thousands paid for it with their lives and everybody contributed with their taxes and other means, politically the dividends in such events generally go mainly to the man at the helm.
Is this victor free from the vices of historical hubris? The military victory was soon followed by the re-election of President Mahinda Rajapaksa for a second term.
Not satisfied with this re-election he had the Parliament scratch the two term restriction imposed by the Constitution on a President in office, paving the way to a prolonged stay at the top.
Like many things in this country the 2009 re-election of the President over former military commander Sarath Fonseka who was his chief rival, was a sullied affair.
After his election defeat the ex-army commander faced a number of legal charges which saw him imprisoned for a considerable period of time.
For all the weaknesses of the Western model, one cannot deny its underlying impetus towards a higher level of integrity in public affairs. Unfortunately this is hardly the case in Sri Lanka, especially today.
Those in power are determined to subvert every public institution to their political and personal ends.
Appointing close family members, most of whom with absolutely no credentials in successful management, is thought of as the way to get a stranglehold on power and public money.
In the long run, one of the most controversial appointments of family members to sensitive positions would prove to be that of Gotabaya Rajapaksa to the position of Defence Secretary.
In the democratic world it is unthinkable for a Head of State to appoint his own brother as the Secretary of Defence.
Of course one could have expected such appointments from tin-pot dictators like Saddam Hussein.
Needless to say any public office today is considered an opportunity to amass and enjoy wealth and other benefits in any which way with impunity. The Sri Lankan law enforcement agencies as well as regulatory bodies have no credibility whatsoever and act as private enforcers of those in power.
Any way the law enforcement apparatus is now under the control of the President’s brother.
The total discretion given to and the consequent lack of accountability on the part of those in power can be measured by the astounding amounts of public money being invested in the Hambantota area from where the President hails.
This is one of the least populated and smallest provinces in the country.
Obviously in our public culture, he need not explain to anyone the benefits to the rest of the country from creating a sea port and an international airport in that province.
Like the budget airline which was named after the President and never made money despite the huge investments of public funds and now has been given to the long established SriLankan Airlines to run, the mega projects in Hambantota appear to be moving towards becoming white elephants.
In a way this is not a bad fate considering the number of tourists going to the Yala Game Park which is famous for its real wild elephants and also situated in that remote part of the country! White elephants one day might hopefully become tourist attractions! Ultimately, most human ambitions and dreams fail because of economic realities.
Is this regime immune to a reality which even the mighty West is subject to?