Rarely does the return of a famous son plunge a land into such a slow motion crisis. On the face of it the crisis appears to centre on emotional arguments about historical trivia. Yet it’s divisiveness has frightening implications about the future post war stability of the island. To understand its significance, it is essential to grasp the colonel’s complex symbolism in the island’s tumultuous history.
Depending on who you ask he is a war hero, war criminal, patriot, traitor, liberator, ruthless separatist, a dictator in waiting, an agent of foreign powers, a nation builder, military genius, a very lucky loose cannon or combinations of the above. The only consensus is that he personifies post war Sri Lanka’s unhealed political, historical, ideological, and psychological wounds. Everything else inevitably slides into bitter seemingly irreconcilable arguments. His brief visit has unleashed these tensions in a perfect storm on to the island’s already complicated politics.
Ominously there are signs that such disagreements are derailing hopes of post war stability. The most worrying sign is the state level involvement in the cacophony of opinions which have escalated political tensions on the island. Ironically, the one person who has always refused to comment is the man himself, colonel Nadesan Van Parakramabahu.
Colonel “Rabutan” Nadesan burst upon Sri Lanka’s political landscape during the chaotic first weeks of the last war. He rallied the beleaguered Republic of Ceylon (RoCey) army units trapped in Colombo into a formidable garrison. Along with a rag tag civil militia, he changed the outcome of the conflict (extensively documented in a still banned book). As a result he saved the RoCey from annihilation by a Kandian – Kingdom of Sri Lanka (KoSL) – invasion, revolutionised urban warfare, and founded a thriving city state – the People’s Republic of Deheiwalla (PRD).
The colonel is the most powerful symbol of this history. Its narrative has unavoidable and distinct political consequences for each of the island’s three states. How each government manages the interpretation of the colonel’s symbolism will dictate their political futures. In the case of the PRD and the RoCey, possibly their very survival.
Part of the heightened emotion is timing, which is proving to be toxically divisive particularly in the PRD. The colonel’s return falls on a string of key anniversaries marking the siege of Colombo. The most significant of these are the 2nd battle of Wellawatte bridge, the Battaramulla counter offensive, and the taking of the Horten Place pocket (possibly Sri Lanka’s bloodiest military engagement). The other ingredient is the reverence PRD citizens have towards the colonel. He has become (despite his very public efforts) a deity in the city state’s creation story.
This reverence has triggered a backlash. A vocal minority blame him for preventing the KoSL from destroying the corrupt RoCey. There are also surprising calls for holding the colonel responsible for the large number of civilian casualties suffered during the siege. Survivors of the Borella feeding centre tragedy in particular have demanded the colonel to be “called to account” for the incident. At a deeper level, there is growing unease that adoration of the “founding father” is at odds with the deeply libertarian ethos of the PRD.
This conflict over a shared experience has led to unexpectedly emotional confrontations in the public space. There is already much handwringing about “threats to the national consensus”. Yet calls for a frank discussion of their nation’s birth, and televised “truth and reconciliation forums” etc have only heightened mounting tensions. Government statements on the issues have started to sound like carefully worded legal statements aimed at preventing any form of conflict between the two sides. All of which are at odds with the calm, pragmatically direct, consensus democracy and efficient decision making that is the usual hallmark of PRD politics.
Across the border, the Republic of Ceylon is desperately trying to deny the colonel’s existence with official silence and public frivolity. State media has flooded the airwaves with talent shows. Food rations have been increased to accompany the upcoming republic day festivities. The government, bunkered within Kurunegala’s Ethagala fortress complex, has quietly withdrawn treason charges and arrest warrant against the colonel.
He is a reminder of the current leadership’s humiliating war time incompetence. Had he obeyed his government’s incoherent orders, the country would have been overrun. Furthermore the RoCey which was reduced to a rump state in the last war, is keen to avoid angering its nuclear armed economic lifeline, the PRD. The sensitive nature of this snowballing crisis has led to the unusual step of respected journalists such as D.S Jeyaraj and analysts such as Goliath White to stop commenting on the issue.
The PRD’s and the RoCey’s struggles over the colonel’s symbolism focuses on the past. Lost amidst the distraction is the fact that he symbolises a dramatic, long term tectonic shift in the island’s political landscape. In its quiet way, the Kingdom of Sri Lanka has already taken control of that future symbolism. In doing so it has begun shifting the direction of Sri Lankan history towards an ancient strategic ambition. This increasingly apparent shift is likely to plunge an island with nuclear armed combatants into another war.
To be continued…
Filed by Dehiwala correspondent,
Dissociated News Network