Wijith DeChickera rues opportunities in the past to root out ethno-nationalist chauvinism and urges the powers that be to seize the day in May

History they say isn’t what happened; it’s what you can remember as having happened. And memory is a mercurial master. There are scars in the national psyche that are perhaps best cosmetically concealed under constitutional stitches, salve, skin grafts and soothing Lethe-like forgetfulness.

Unless other wounds that still scream for attention are revisited however – and treated with due care through surgical procedures such as transitional justice – they will never be healed properly. And they might develop chronic symptoms like what we see taking place with a resurgence of ethno-nationalism.

Such that (if allowed to fester and canker) the untreated symptoms could develop so chronically that Sri Lanka, which is poised on the brink of hospitality (the hospitality sector is looking forward to a boom if the trend continues), might teeter on the edge of the abyss of hostility (rendering the island-nation a hospital case… once again).

Therefore, there is an urgent imperative to calibrate the national psyche along the trajectory of remembering right.

If individual memories are capricious, the collective consciousness of some 21 million souls – or a subconscious desire to subvert the status quo – can be lethal. As every demagogue worth his attic salt from Wimal to Nimal and Namal knows, there is a latent chauvinism lying dormant below the surface of our islanders’ cheerful spirit.

Maybe international cricket and internet crumpets have charms to soothe a savage breast. Although all it takes is a madman who is ambitious for the reins of power to conduct another Nuremberg-like rally in Nugegoda to rouse the sleeping beast in mindless automatons, whose raucous support can be bought by bread and booze for circuses – and another episode of carnage on a national scale.

Best strategise accordingly if the powers that be mean business. But for all intents and purposes, the coalition seems to have lost the plot. At least when it comes to a comprehensive national policy on transitional justice that is clear, concise, contextual and perhaps most importantly, communicated.

If the conviction of the masses was to be judged by the volume of noise made by any one claque, it would appear that the chauvinists were winning by a country mile… So clarion is their appeal, so strident their claims, so lucid their cause.

In contrast, while these ‘worst’ are full of passionate intensity about passé ideologies (e.g. national sovereignty, territorial integrity and so on), the ‘best’ seem to lack all conviction about some newer, better and far more beneficial ideas (peace with justice and an inclusive national identity).

In this respect, the powers that be may have lost a trick or three over the past two years or so. True… they have been fighting fires on some fronts that may have been fatal to ignore – for example, the insidious positions adopted by the joint opposition, which threatened to undermine the entire project of rescuing, reclaiming, returning, repositioning and restoring Sri Lanka.

The resultant lack of momentum on transitional justice among other salutary initiatives may have been frustrating to the segments of government with a genuinely reformist agenda.

But as they themselves have essayed in their own defence, their mandate was never going to be easy to implement in a few years. It will take a generation to cleanse the Augean stables of a systemically corrupt political culture and overhaul a slothful bureaucracy before the vestiges of a leftover ‘deep state’ that is inimical to the national interest can be eradicated.

So the weak and hamstrung ostensibly democratic-republican governors we have in-situ need not futilely lose sleep over opportunities lost…

It would be more than regrettable however, if (even now, at least in these last heady days of ‘national government’) they did not provide the ‘new social contract’ aspect of their reformist agenda a fresh impetus especially in the month at hand.

At the time of writing, Sri Lanka was like a sambur caught in a sniper’s crosshairs. Two types of noisy nationalists on both sides of the ethnic divide were rattling sabres long and loud: Tamil extremists, recollecting and perversely storing up past grievances and perhaps atrocities against them in pain; and Sinhalese reactionaries, outraged that their own hurts may be glossed over in favour of the greater national interest who maybe remembering wrongly the wrongdoings against their ilk, also in vain.

In such a milieu, the government can (or must) step in firmly and fairly, and speak out clearly, concisely and contextually. The war is over but the battle for Sri Lanka’s soul has only begun. There is a growing national need for a representative, inclusive, multi-partisan consensus on constitutional reform that will last beyond the avatar of one government’s incarnation of transitional justice.

A first step towards ensuring the success of the law of the land is in sussing out the lie of the land. At present, it seems we don’t need fresh legislation to forge a new national identity as much as forceful leadership to foster new hope that it is only precisely such a phenomenon that would spare us the rigours of potential future conflict.