By Lasanda Kurukulasuriya
In several interviews after his recent appointment as Secretary to the Foreign Ministry, Adm. (Retd.) Jayanath Colombage has sought to explain the newly-elected government’s thinking on matters of foreign policy. In these media interactions it is evident that he conveys the views of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The President has, on many occasions, referred to a concept of ‘neutrality’ in foreign relations. As Colombage describes it, there is no indication that neutrality is the same thing as Non-alignment, that Sri Lanka, a founding member of the Non-Aligned Movement, has long espoused.
Referring to a 20-point ‘foreign policy directive’ the ministry is in the process of drafting, he told Derana 24 TV channel that “number one is neutrality.” Where security is concerned, he said “we have an ‘India first’ policy.” He emphasized that Sri Lanka cannot afford to be a strategic security threat to India. “
Seeing that India is not the only big power vying for dominance in the region, a question that came up repeatedly in these interviews was how Sri Lanka would remain ‘neutral’ in the face of intense geopolitical rivalry, that involves the US, China and Japan. Turning the question around Colombage asked, can we be non-neutral, can we go with one country, including militarily? That would be suicidal, he said. Remaining neutral is ‘very difficult’ but can be done, he asserted.
It’s not be possible to assess if this is a realistic approach to the geopolitical challenge faced by Sri Lanka, without taking into consideration a drift that has seen Indian policy increasingly come under the influence of the US. India has been designated a major defence partner of the US, and works towards inter-operability of its military with those of the US through key defence agreements. At the same time the US increasingly looks to its regional allies and partners to shoulder responsibility in achieving, what it calls, ‘shared goals’ in the region it has labelled the ‘Indo Pacific.’ In recent times the superpower has gone beyond its usual sabre-rattling against China to make moves on both military and economic fronts, that some analysts interpret as nothing short of preparation for war.
On the economic front, the US Commerce Department has announced sanctions against 24 Chinese state owned companies, including subsidiaries of the China Communications Construction Company Ltd (CCCC), “for their role in South China Sea activities,” according to the transcript of a US State Department briefing. CCCC’s role in China’s Belt and Road initiative, in which Sri Lanka is a participant, is also mentioned. It’s not clear whether the China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC) which is building the Colombo Port City, is among the targeted subsidiaries. The ‘activities’ refer to China’s constructions on islands in the disputed South China Sea, over which China claims sovereignty. This is “the first punitive action of its kind over the disputed waters,” CNN reported, adding that it is “one that is almost certain to escalate tensions between the countries.”
In the defence sphere, the US has sought a more formal NATO-type alliance with the Quad – a group comprising the US, India, Japan and Australia. The US’s goal is to get these countries to work together “as a bulwark against a potential challenge from China,” a senior State Dept. official reportedly said on Monday (August 31). The official had mentioned the upcoming Autumn meeting of the four in Delhi, citing the possibility of Australia’s participation in the annual Malabar naval exercise as ‘an example of progress towards a more formal defense bloc.’
Phone call to President
It is against this background that US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper made a call to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on August 30. A US Department of Defence (US-DoD) readout on the phone call, after congratulating the president for his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and the parliamentary election victory, went on to say: “The two leaders discussed their shared commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific that ensures the sovereignty of all nations. Reviewing common bilateral defense priorities, they noted opportunities to enhance military professionalization, counter-terrorism, and maritime security cooperation. Both leaders expressed their commitment to expanding bilateral defense relations and to advancing shared interests.”
Although the US language refers to ‘shared commitment (to a free and open Indo Pacific),’ ‘common bilateral defense priorities’ and ‘shared interests,’ Sri Lanka has not used similar terminology. There is no clarity as to what these terms mean. Sri Lanka has been reticent on the concept of ‘free and open Indo Pacific.’ President Gotabaya in his tweet thanking Esper for the good wishes, merely said “Discussion on cooperation with Indian Ocean and neighbour relations, defense, military to military linkages & counter terrorism, whilst strengthening bilateral relations was very assuring.”
The US Def. Sec.’s phone call did not come out of the blue. It followed a string of diplomatic interactions in the Asia Pacific region, which he concluded by tweeting that “The United States will compete, deter, and win in the #IndoPacific. …” Win what, we need to ask. Earlier the Wall Street Journal published an article by Esper titled ‘The Pentagon is ready for China.’ The military overtones are unmistakable.
In Guam, where the US has a military base, Esper met Japan’s Defence Minister Taro Kono. According to a US-DoD statement they “exchanged views on their shared vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific region. The Secretary expressed serious concern regarding Beijing’s decision to impose a national security law in Hong Kong, as well as coercive and destabilizing actions vis-à-vis Taiwan.”
In virtual bilateral talks with Singapore, Esper expressed appreciation to Singapore’s Defence Minister, for renewal of an MoU on use of facilities, the US-DoD said.
Meanwhile, on Twitter, he referred to his call to the Defence Minister of Papua New Guinea – where he anticipates the conclusion of a Defense Cooperation Agreement. He also tweeted about his visit to Palau – whose defence minister he met, his call to the Governor of CNMI (Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands), and meeting with the Governor of Guam, lauding the security role of these tiny Pacific islands,
Esper’s phone call to Gotabaya Rajapaksa was the last in this string of diplomatic manouvres, end August.
Given the thrust of his exercise of touching base in locations where the US has, or hopes to have military facilities to use against China, it would be fair to assume that in Sri Lanka, the US is intensifying pressure to conclude the MCC compact and SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement). Both face intense public opposition due to threats to sovereignty, but the new government is yet to categorically reject them.
Reports say US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is expected to meet with his counterparts from the Quad countries, in Delhi, Sept-Oct. this year. While it is true that India prides itself in its strategic autonomy, its defence ties with the US are being steadily strengthened. The recent India-China border clash in Ladakh could further tilt the scales. Will India end up a US proxy in the Indian Ocean region? The answers to these questions are not straightforward. What’s clear is that there’s a backdrop of complex variables, against which Sri Lanka asserts that it will remain ‘neutral,’ and yet follow an ‘India first’ policy. Given Sri Lanka’s economic ties and friendship with China, alongside a stated policy of ‘friendship with all,’ we need to ask – is it possible?
Inaugural NDC symposium: Focus on contemporary security issues
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s two years in office – a period of unprecedented political turmoil, uncertainty and further deterioration of Parliament – should be thoroughly examined. In fact, the UNP, with the support of the then President Maithripala Sirisena, paved the way for Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s candidature, at the 2019 presidential election, by blocking Mahinda Rajapaksa’s path to contest another term. The yahapalana government brought in the 19th Amendment, in 2015,limiting the presidential terms to two, to deprive Mahinda Rajapaksa the opportunity to contest the presidency again. The 19th Amendment also prevented dual and foreign citizens from contesting presidential and parliamentary polls, under any circumstances. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, whose entry into active politics had been facilitated by civil society organizations, ‘Viyathmaga’ and ‘Eliya’, gave up his US citizenship, to enter the fray.
By Shamindra Ferdinando
The Defence Ministry couldn’t have chosen a better person than Lalith Chandrakumar Weeratunga (72), former Principal Advisor to ousted President Gotabaya Rajapaksa (73), to discuss contemporary security issues and related matters with the military, the police and the academia.
Weeratunga will deliver the keynote address at the inaugural National Defence College (NDC) symposium 2022 at the auditorium of the Faculty of Graduate Studies, Sir John Kotelawela Defence University, on August 17. Secretary to the Ministry of Defence, General (ret.) Kamal Gunaratne, will be the Chief Guest.
UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, who received the parliamentary endorsement as the eighth President (to complete the remainder of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s five-year term), re-appointed the battle-tested Gajaba Regiment veteran Gunaratne as the Secretary, Ministry of Defence. Perhaps, it was the first re-appointment of a Secretary to a Ministry, made by the new President, amidst unprecedented turmoil.
Colonel Nalin Herath, Officiating Director, Media, in a statement, dated August 03, stated: “The event is exclusively designed to promote defence research culture and create an environment to explore research ideas, related to the discipline of national security and strategic studies.”
As the Principal Advisor to the ex-President, Weeratunga, who had joined the Sri Lanka Administrative Service (SLAS), in 1977, can speak authoritatively of the entire gamut of developments since the last presidential election in Nov 2019, thereby helping the public understand what really went wrong, if he cares.
The NDC has allocated Weeratunga approximately 30 mts for his speech, to be delivered after Gen. Gunaratne addressed the gathering. The former General Officer, Commanding the 53 Division that had been credited with killing LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, on the morning of May 19, 2009, too, can help throw light on the issues that brought the curtain down on President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in a worldwide shocking situation. Gunaratne is one of those ex-military personnel who campaigned for Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in the run-up to the November 2019 election, from his retirement.
As one of the key members of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s team, Weeratunga, embroiled in controversial ‘sil redi’ case during the previous Rajapaksa administration, had been involved in the overall operation, at the highest level, and was seen almost at every meeting chaired by the ex-President at the Presidential Secretariat, the primary target of the public protest movement. Weeratunga had been always by the ex-President’s side, during the high profile ‘Gama samaga pilisandarak’ project, meant to provide relief to remote villages. Weeratunga accompanied the then President at the inauguration of the project, on September 25, 2020, at Welanwita, Haldamulla.
In spite of clear warning signs, the political leadership allowed the situation to deteriorate and absolutely no effort was made to address the issues at hand. Instead, the government engaged in a propaganda offensive meant to suppress the ugly truth. Unfortunately, even after public protests erupted, the government lacked the political and financial will to undertake reforms required to bring relief to the suffering and increasingly irate public.
Having blocked the Presidential Secretariat (old Parliament) in early April, protesters overran it on July 09, soon after they brought the President’s House under their control.
Contemporary security issues here cannot be discussed without taking into consideration how overall negligence, on the part of the administration, caused such rapid deterioration of the national economy, probably with a mysterious foreign hand, from behind the scene, activating the protest movement with unlimited funds and required intelligence, especially to keep its nerve centre at Galle Face going as an overt non-partisan and peaceful movement. It was more like a copy book case of what was done to oust Libyan Leader Muammar Gaddafi, by Western powers, with the help of their local quislings. The mistake Gaddafi made was to attempt a legitimate counter strike amidst overwhelming odds stacked against him by Western powers, who plotted his ouster. He stood no chance and he was lynched by Western-hired mobs, joined by ignorant locals, who fell for Western propaganda, in public, no sooner he was captured, despite him being such a benevolent leader to his people. Ousted Iraqi Leader Saddam Hussein was at least given a show trial and hanged, despite a majority of the members of the Western coalition, that invaded Iraq, abhorring capital punishment.
The well-orchestrated supposed public anger exploded at the private residence of the then President, at Pangiriwatta, Mirihana, on March 31. Wartime Secretary to the Ministry of Defence, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, had no other option but flee from the country and resign just 14 weeks after the first violent protest, without even a single bullet being fired against the violent mobs, whether on March 31, May 09 or July 09, whom interested parties painted as legitimate peaceful protesters, especially by the holy Western media.
Having served Mahinda Rajapaksa during his short tenure as the Prime Minister (April 2004 to Nov 2005) and President (November 2005 to January 2015), Weeratunga was then appointed as Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s Principal Advisor, a position that carried immense weight. Weeratunga once played the role of a journalist when he interviewed President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in late April 2020. The interview dealt with the economic recovery, while battling Covid-19. By then, a section of the government knew the country was facing a rocky road ahead. Weeratunga certainly can share his experience, pertinent to the issues under discussion, at the NDC symposium.
IMF warning ignored
At the time of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s triumph over Sajith Premadasa, Sri Lanka was already on the verge of experiencing a balance of payments crisis, mainly caused by the collapse of the vital tourist industry, in the aftermath of a series of suicide attacks by Muslim extremists, on Easter Sunday, 2019. Presidential Secretary, Dr. P.B. Jayasundera, a veteran central Banker and a long time Treasury hand, who advised the then President on economic matters, couldn’t have been unaware of the impending crisis. It would be pertinent to ask whether the ex-President consulted Weeratunga on matters relating to the economy, as well.
Appearing before the parliamentary watchdog, Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) on May 25, Central Bank Governor, Dr. Nandalal Weerasinghe, didn’t mince his words when he explained the circumstances that led to the economic crash. The outspoken official described the political leadership’s response to the impending crisis. The then Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa cum the Finance Minister, though been briefed, in March-April 2020, on the developing situation of unprecedented magnitude, had foolishly chosen to ignore the dire warning.
The COPE was told how the IMF warned the then Governor of the Central Bank, Prof. W.D. Lakshman, and Treasury Secretary, S. R. Attygalle, of Sri Lanka’s inability to procure loans, unless the country undertook debt restructuring immediately. The IMF also asked the government not to go ahead with a massive tax cut that deprived revenue to the tune of Rs 500-600 bn.
Massive tax cut must have been granted with good intention to encourage new investments by the private sector that benefited from it. However, the unexpected coronavirus pandemic, that affected economies worldwide, should have alerted the then government to immediately reverse it.
May be all this happened because they relied too heavily on soothsayers’ advice as happened to the previous Rajapaksa administration. How are we to know whether soothsayers, too, were on foreign payrolls?
Dr. Nandalal Weerasinghe declared that the IMF warning hadn’t been heeded at all. Dr. Weerasinghe stated that the relevant decisions should have been made by the Premier, in his capacity as the Finance Minister, and the entire Cabinet of Ministers. The IMF has made its position clear after having asserted Sri Lanka lacked debt sustainability.
Perhaps, the COPE should also take into consideration that the ruinous tax cut had been included in Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s much publicized election manifesto, thereby implicating every person either elected on the SLPP ticket or appointed on the SLPP National List. Weeratunga can discuss what really prompted the Rajapaksa administration to go ahead with a tax cut, in spite of economic difficulties caused by (i) sharp drop in foreign remittances due to Sri Lankan working, overseas, returning home, due to Covid-19 eruption (ii) Decrease in tourism arrivals as a result of Covid-19 hitting rich countries, as well, and the 2019 Easter Sunday massacre and (iii) drop in exports.
The Russia-Ukraine war, that erupted in late February, 2022, caused sharp increases in prices of crude oil, wheat and other commodities. Sri Lanka suffered badly.
Ali Sabry, PC, in early June, disclosed how those who had advised President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, on economic matters, deceived the leader and the Cabinet-of-Ministers. The reference clearly alluded to Dr. PBJ, Secretary to the Treasury S.R. Attygalle and CBSL Governors, Prof. W.A. Lakshman (November 2019-September 2021) and Ajith Nivard Cabraal (September 2021-March 2022).
The prohibition of chemical fertiliser imports, in May 2021, and the subsequent ban on agro chemicals, devastated the agriculture sector. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa never recovered from the utterly reckless decision on the fertiliser and agro-chemical ban. Instead of reversing the decision, the government pressed ahead with this project to substitute with organic fertiliser, overnight. The circumstances, leading to Sri Lanka having to pay USD 6.7 mn, in December, 2021, to a rejected Chinese carbonic fertiliser load, and accusations pertaining to the alleged interventions made by Dr. PBJ and Gamini Senarath, the then Secretary to Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa, in the import of fertiliser, from India and China, respectively, brought pressure on the government (both senior officials denied allegations made against them.)
Prez opens NDC
Lalith Weeratunga, Principal Advisor to the then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, explains the status of high profile govt. project to meet the Covid-19 threat
The then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa inaugurated the NDC, located at the Mumtaz Mahal building (former UNP Headquarters), that had been under the purview of the Ministry of Defence, at Galle Road, Colombo 03, on November 11, 2021, at a time his government was grappling with the menacing economic issues. Defence Secretary Gen. (ret.) Gunaratne and Principal Advisor Weeratunga were among those present on that occasion. The NDC has been dubbed the highest seat of learning on national security and strategy.
In spite of warnings issued by the Opposition, the government proceeded with its activities. Warnings were ignored. Did those responsible for national security ever make an attempt to warn of the impending crisis the country was heading into? Political stability depends on responsible management of the economy. The pathetic performance, no doubt, came under extraordinary circumstances, caused by the Easter Sunday attack of 2019, followed by the pandemic and the Ukraine conflict delivering body blows to the economy. Those who had been waiting to undermine the Rajapaksa presidency, swung into action. The high profile destabilization project should be examined, taking into consideration the Swiss plot against President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, within a week after his triumph at the November 2019 presidential election. Things that happened to Gotabaya Presidency was more like a Greek tragedy with faults in his character compounding his fate.
The Swiss government made a despicable bid to trap President Gotabaya Rajapaksa by falsely implicating security authorities, in the staged abduction of a Swiss Embassy employee, Garnier Francis, former Siriyalatha Perera. The Swiss ended up with egg on their face and quietly gave up attempts to hold the government responsible for abduction and rape of an Embassy employee. The President thwarted an attempt by the Swiss to evacuate the Embassy employee in an air ambulance, which they had on standby at the BIA tarmac, no sooner the fake incident was reported. Had that happened, they would have been able to make highly damaging accusations stick from abroad. We, being a poor third world country, the Swiss got away with another dastardly act like how they always get away with handling blood money, even when their leading banks are exposed for some of those outright criminal acts.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa appointed retired Major General Amal Karunasekera as the first Commandant of the NDC. The President had to flee the country, within 10 months after the inauguration of the institute. Former infantryman and one-time Director of the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI), Karunasekera, were among those arrested by the CID in connection with the abduction and assault on Keith Noyahr in 2008. Karunasekera was taken in April 2018 just a couple of weeks after his retirement having served the Army for over 35 year in an unblemished military career.
Ranil Wickremesinghe, during whose premiership (January 2015-November 2019) the CID investigated the Noyahr abduction, is the President cum Minister in charge of the defence portfolio. At the time President Gotabaya Rajapaksa inaugurated the NDC, Wickremesinghe completed just six months as the UNP’s only National List Member of Parliament. A toxic combination of economic, political and social issues, some definitely caused by foreign actors, and their local quislings, forced President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to flee the country, thereby upended the political set up. The ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) has managed to somewhat consolidate its position by engineering Wickremesinghe’s victory at the July 20 presidential contest in Parliament. In spite of having just one seat (Wickremesinghe’s vote) in Parliament, the UNP leader secured 133 votes thanks to the majority SLPP support, despite its internal splits, that led to its dissidents fielding their own candidate, with the backing of the SJB.
Obviously, Wickremesinghe is the SLPP’s man, though lawmaker Mahinda Rajapaksa, for some strange reason, declared soon after the July 20 vote that the party backed the defeated SLPP dissident candidate Dullas Alahapperuma, the Matara District MP obtained 82 votes.
Clear re-assessment needed
The NDC can undertake real re-assessment of challenges faced by the country against the backdrop of major international controversy over Sri Lanka being forced to withhold permission for the docking of a high-tech Chinese research vessel at the strategic Hambantota port. New Delhi raised concerns over the Chinese move. New Delhi has been deeply upset over the then Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe’s government handing over the Hambantota port to China, in 2017 on a 99-year lease. The then Ports and Shipping Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe, who signed on behalf of Sri Lanka, has been rewarded with a plum diplomatic post as Sri Lanka’s top envoy in Washington.
The Chinese space and satellite tracking research vessel ‘Yuan Wang 5’ was scheduled to dock at the Hambantota Port from August 11 to 17. China received Sri Lanka’s permission on July 12 in the wake of the protest movement seizing control of the President’s House, Presidential Secretariat and the PM’s Office.
The forthcoming NDC sessions can be utilized for this purpose. The former Principal Advisor to the exiled President can certainly help in this endeavor. The sessions include a presentation on ‘post-independence foreign policy of Sri Lanka’ by Brigadier W.A.S.R. Wijedasa and SSP E.M.G. Seram and ‘National security concerns of Sri Lanka amidst current geo-strategic perspectives and economic crisis: challenges and vulnerabilities’ by Brigadiers, C.S. Munasinghe and R.K.N. C. Jayawardene.
New Delhi’s strategy, implemented in line with the overall Quad policy, has placed bankrupt Sri Lanka in an unenviable situation. Quad widely considered as Asia’s NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) consists of the US, Australia, Japan and India.
China, embroiled in a deadly ‘battle’ with the US, may not accept Sri Lanka’s stand on the research vessel. In fact, China may consider Sri Lanka action ‘hostile’ and respond accordingly. That would definitely jeopardize ongoing efforts at debt-restructuring in line with the understanding reached with the IMF.
Credible Leadership And Governance Shakespeare’s Relevance To The Present
by Dr. Siri Galhenage
Once upon a time, in the isle of Serendib, a soldier-turned politician was offered the reins of governance by popular choice. The chosen ruler commenced his journey with a pledge to reshape the nation against the backdrop of an ancient monument, reminiscent of past glory. He embarked on his mission with a vision for prosperity, riding his favourite stallion named ‘patriotism’, and was accompanied by his kith and kin, a sprinkling of war lords, a few learned courtiers and a large coterie of foot-soldiers, with varying degrees of intellect. The plebeians rejoiced: giving lyrical expression to their joy and painting colourful murals on ramparts. Renowned men of letters portrayed the new leader as an incarnation of a legendary monarch of yore who helped to vanquish the foe.
The vision turned out to be an illusion. The mission failed as a result of poor governance: bad decisions, alleged corrupt practices, and the refusal of the leader to wear the cloak of humility. The lilies that sprung up along the wayside, withered in their bud. The nation was thrown into an abyss of despair, debt and depravity, of unprecedented depth. A proud nation – endowed with an ancient cultural and spiritual heritage, a wealth of human potential, and a land like no other – was brought to its knees, having to swap the sword for a begging bowl.
The plebeians felt deceived; they poured out into the streets in large numbers, and the corridors of power were inundated. ‘Bernham wood did come to Dunsinane’. The protesters were mostly peaceful but some errant individuals displaced their anger onto property causing wanton destruction; their identity remaining illusive, covered in a veil of smoke.
The ruler, after a period of procrastination, fled the country, handing over ‘the baton’ to a tried and tested leader, resulting in the perpetuation of agitation amongst the plebeians.
The hapless plebeians remain in a state of perplexity, scraping the bottom of the barrel for credible leadership and good governance. Vultures from the east and the west, and from the north, hover over our resplendent isle, and the nation remains curled up and vulnerable with only the dumb sea to the south to escape to.
A Shakespearean Tragedy
I am no ‘upstart crow in borrowed feathers’ but the above synopsis is not dissimilar to a tragedy in a Shakespearean sense. The theme is consistent with most of Shakespeare’s tragedies – the passions of men and women, and the transgressions they lead to, weaving the web of their own fate, and of their state. In Shakespeare, there were no unflawed or ideal leaders; their inadequacies are instructive in imagining the leadership we look for.
At a time when a nation struggles as hard as now to find solutions, regarding political leadership and good governance, one could draw lessons from Shakespeare’s insights by reflecting on some of his characters that dominated the stage. It is the central concern of this brief essay, at a time when stable, effective, ethical, and, most of all, sensible, leadership is in short supply. It is a measure of Shakespeare’s stature, not only as the world’s greatest playwright, but also as an equally great analyst of human behaviour and motivation, that he provides a window to matters of the state, so perceptively. He remains meaningful and relevant to many of the political challenges we face today, and has a way of throwing light on the darker places we fear to tread.
Despite the scarcity of records, regarding his early education, Shakespeare appears to have drawn heavily from Greek and Roman classical literature, and from the historical records of medieval Britain. He wrote scripts that projected the social and political realities of his time and engaged with the deepest desires and fears of his audiences. Sensitive contemporary issues were addressed in alien or historical settings in order to avoid political censure. He succeeded in linking past history to events of the day. And his timeless work with universal appeal is of relevance to us in the 21st century as never before.
Shakespeare is not didactic and does not offer solutions to the challenges we face. But he is educational in the way of parable, inference, and demonstration. At a time when he thought was dangerous to speak out, he found it safer to communicate through dramatic expression by locating his plays in medieval Europe. He presented controversial issues wearing a mask of innocence! ‘Play’s the thing’, for him.
Political Power – Its Use and Misuse
Political power is of the essence in the delivery of governance; its energies meant to be utilised for common good. Such honourable intensions, with a community focus, are not foremost in the minds of many who pursue a career in politics today: personal aggrandisement and pecuniary interest being their primary motive, bringing politics and politicians into disrepute. Many distort the truth and tap into people’s ignorance and prejudices to gain power, and some may even be prepared to sacrifice the lives of fellow human beings in the pursuit and maintenance of power. No wonder politics and politicians are treated pejoratively at the present time.
Pursuit of Power in Politics
Shakespeare went back to medieval Scotland to discover a story that depicted such ruthless ambition for power, in MACBETH, a story that spoke to his own times.
A ‘war hero’, whose innate desire for power, ignited by the cryptic prophesies of three witches, is driven on a path of destruction to achieve his goal and maintain it, bringing about a collapse in moral order. He is made to suffer and eventually destroyed. Enemy forces encircled and invaded his castle resulting in him losing his head, both metaphorically and in reality. Power misused does not bring in peace, but inner and outer turmoil: “In the affliction of these terrible dreams/ That shake us nightly: better be with the dead/ Whom we, to gain our peace/ Than on the torture of the mind to lie/ Is restless ecstasy”.
Political Machinations in Vying for Power – Hypocrisy and Deceit
The propensity to manipulate the truth, through political machinations, is a common strategy in vying for power in affairs of the state, given dramatic expression by Shakespeare in ‘The Tragedy of Julius Caesar’, bringing forth the moral depravity in politics. “Men may construe things after their fashion/ Clean from the purpose of things themselves” [Cicero: Act1 -1.3.34-5].
The plot depicts the assassination of Caesar as the pivotal event of the play. Caesar emerges as a formidable leader but with a paradoxical mixture of characteristics of arrogance and vulnerable physique. Cassius, malcontent and conniving, instigates a plan to remove Caesar from power and hatches a plot to draw Brutus and others to conspiracy, claiming that Caesar would ‘soar above the view of men’ and would establish a new monarchy. Brutus says to Cassius: “Let not our looks put on our purposes/ But bear it as our Roman actors do/ With untir’d spirits and formal constancy”.
Following the fall of Caesar, Antony, a Caesar loyalist with his own leadership ambitions, outshines Brutus in a rhetorical contest. In the aftermath of Caesar’s death, the newly formed alliances [Brutus and Cassius on the one hand and Antony, Lepidus and Octavius on the other] take up arms against each other. Antony emerges as victor.
Drawing from Roman history, Shakespeare brings to life the so-called heroes, traitors, conspirators, betrayers, hypocrites and opportunists, who often cluster on the political stage, not to mention the gullible masses who constantly get carried away with the tide of rhetoric. Shakespeare makes himself our contemporary by bringing forth issues such as patriotism; authoritarianism; militarism; fact and fiction in political rhetoric; personal interest versus common good; violence and war as a continuation of politics [as Clausewitz aphorized]; and lack of permanent friends or foes, in the affairs of the state.
Moral Virtues and Failings in Politics
Drawing from a collection of biographies [‘Parallel Lives’] by Plutarch, the Greek essayist who took up Roman citizenship, Shakespeare illustrates the moral virtues and failings of a legendary Roman military leader turned politician, Gnaeus Marcius Coriolanus, in one of his most political of tragedies.
Coriolanus was a ‘war hero’ in the true sense of the title: a valiant soldier credited for the sacrifice he made in the defence of Rome [“Every gash of mine was an enemy’s grave”] and for his military achievement in Corioles against the invading Volscians, and entering into a lone battle with the enemy leader, Aufidius. Coriolanus emerges victorious.
Coriolanus was nurtured to be a fighter by his mother who lived vicariously through his triumph, and, to the rulers, he was a symbol of strength in averting any future threat to the security of their land. After his military success, Coriolanus was urged to take up politics by the rulers and by his mother. He was expected to relocate his ‘inner strength’ from military prowess to political acumen – a misrepresentation of the notion of strength for political expedience. And, therein was the rub.
Pressure was put on the reluctant soldier ‘to don the gown of humility and present his wounds to the people’, and woo them for votes. But Coriolanus was reluctant. “It is a part/ That I shall blush in acting [2.2.144-5]. “’Why did you wish me milder? Would you have me/False to my nature? Rather say I play/The man I am” [3.2.14-16] “You have put me to such a part which never/I shall discharge to th’ life” [3.2.105-106]. His mother, Volumina suggested, “Seem/ The same you are not” – in other words, to put on an act!
Although Coriolanus preferred to keep his honour and his principle together as a soldier and defend his homeland, he succumbed to the pressure from his family and the rulers. He reluctantly took up politics and alienated the public due to his obstinacy. They rescinded their vote, and is banished from Rome. He became vengeful and unpatriotic and was ultimately destroyed.
Despite its simple narrative, the play Coriolanus is about politics, politicians and ‘policy’. It is about the pressure placed upon a politician to project himself as what he is not.
Coriolanus was expected to present his ‘policy’ [principles of governance] in which political expediency was to be placed above morality, with the use of craft and deceit to gain power, in a Machiavellian sense. He defied all such pressures and wished to be true to himself. His personal choice of truth was put to death and was carried away in a coffin.
Power and Privileges in Politics
An ageing ruler wishing to cling on to power and privileges despite his failing health is not an uncommon scenario in political circles, greed being at the heart of such motivation. Such a scenario was given dramatic expression by Shakespeare in his play the tragedy of KING LEAR. Lear, a legendary ruler of Britain, thought to be a man of ‘knowledge and reason’, transferred his sovereignty to his progeny contingent upon the expressiveness of their love towards him, with no intension of relinquishing his authority and privileges. He commands that Britain be divided equally between his two elder daughters [and their respective husbands] but with the condition that they accommodate him in turn along with his entourage of hundred knights. Having taken over the reign, the two daughters treat their father with disdain, refusing to fulfil their commitments.
Stripped off his sovereignty, the old monarch is reduced to madness and beggary, failing to negotiate between the polarities of ‘integrity’ in the face of diminishment and despair. He ends up in a ‘desolate field’ in a ‘raging storm’ accompanied by his court jester, ‘the fool’, with a corrective satire. The fool quips, “Thou shoudst not have been old before you hadst been wise”!
Regime change is a favourite theme in the Shakespeare canon. Abdication, abandonment, usurpation, military overthrow, political upheaval and even assassination are some of the common circumstances that are given dramatic expression by the bard. One of the most popular narrative poems by Shakespeare which culminates in a significant regime change, which I hope to present in an allegorical sense, is the ‘RAPE of LUCRECE’.
Drawn from a story by the Roman Historian Livy, the poem wrings pathos from the hapless exposure of Lucrece, a woman of exceptional beauty and virtue [which I equate to my motherland] to rape by a member of the ruling class. She laments: “My honey lost, and I, a drone like bee/ Have no perfection of my summer left/ But robb’d and ransack’d by injurious theft/ In thy weak hive a wand’ring wasp hath crept/ And suck’d the honey which thy chaste bee kept”.
Enraged by the assault on this ‘incomparable woman of worth’, the masses pour out into the streets of Rome, carrying her body, demanding to avenge her death and to overthrow the regime. By public acclaim the ruling monarchs were rooted out and political power handed over to people of their choice.
Moral Enhancement Away from the Precincts of Power
Often referred to as the pastoral drama, Shakespeare’s ‘AS YOU LIKE IT’ unfolds in a rural setting close to nature – the Forest of Arden – the domain of simple folk, the shepherds, far removed from the brutal precincts of power where politicians prowl. Duke Senior, banished from court by his brother, Duke Frederick, takes refuge in the forest with several of his faithful followers, to be purified and returned to where they came from, or to be retained in the wilderness! To be interpreted allegorically, the Forest of Arden acts as a milieu for purification and regeneration, and for redemption and restoration of order. It is a great leveller where the corrupt and ambitious rulers are brought together with the simple but honest folk with basic needs, living close to nature, to instil a sense of moral wisdom. ‘Then there is mirth in heaven/ when earthly things made even’. [Hymen]
Five years before his death, Shakespeare bid farewell to the stage having written his last solo-authored play, The TEMPEST, thought to be his parting song, with a complex allegory, open to a variety of interpretations. To me, it conveys a lesson in moral enhancement to those who occupy positions of power.
Shakespeare transforms the stage to a ‘desolate island’ somewhere in the Mediterranean, and places his leading character Prospero to use his ‘magical art’ to combat his inner turmoil.
Prospero [‘the one who prospers’] has once been the Duke of Milan, a learned man constantly in pursuit of further study of ‘liberal arts/ without a parallel’ dedicated to ‘closeness and bettering the mind’. For him the ‘library was dukedom large enough’ and was so immersed in his books that his brother, Antonio, found it easy to depose him and grab power. Prospero with his three-year-old daughter, Miranda, was set adrift on the open sea in a boat with neither sail nor mast. Carrying a few provisions and some of his prized books, thrown in by Gonzalo, a kindly courtier, they drifted at the mercy of wave and tide, finally to be deposited on the shores of an island.
Living with his daughter in a cave in the island, part of which converted to his study, Prospero was in pursuit of bettering his mind through the study of ‘liberal arts’ – the art of inculcating wisdom, virtue and ethical practice, and the art of respectful dialogue – many a bibliophile is unable to achieve!
To cut a long story short, Prospero mobilises the services of Ariel, the winged spirit, to conjure up a storm that wrecks a passing ship and disperse its distraught passengers around the island, while ensuring their safety. The passengers happened to include his usurper and his fellow conspirators, giving Prospero the opportunity to exercise his compassion and forgiveness over vengeance, to bring about reconciliation, and to let go of power and possession.
‘King Becoming Graces’
Following the damnation of Macbeth, in the play by the same name, Macduff requests Malcolm, the new monarch, to outline what he believes to be ‘king becoming graces’. Malcolm enumerates them as, ‘justice, verity, stableness/ Bounty, perseverance, mercy, lowliness/ Devotion, patience, courage, fortitude’, admitting that he has ‘no relish of them’, but adds, ‘Nay, had I power, I should/ Pour the sweet milk of concord into hell/ Uproar the universal peace, confound/ All unity on earth’. A tall order!
The ancient Greeks, the lettered race, pioneered the notion of tragedy. Despite the hardship and agony caused by a tragic experience, they recognised its potential in bringing about a moral order – evil is beaten back, and truth emerges with the restoration of peace and harmony. The religious faith of Shakespeare is subject to conjecture, but the central moral principle – justice, redemption and grace – embedded in many of his tragedies, may guide us move from darkness to light, whichever faith we belong to.
The Complete Works of William Shakespeare [The Alexander Text] Introduced by Peter Ackroyd  Collins
New Statesman April 22-28, 2016. “Shakespeare 400 Years Later”
Bell, John 2022: Boyer Lecture: “Order versus Chaos”. Australian Broadcasting Corporation Radio
Galhenage, Siri: 2020: “Shakespeare and the Human Condition”. S. Godage & Brothers [Pvt] Ltd.
Galhenage, Siri: “A Window to a Literary Landscape” [in manuscript]
The Moribund State
By Lynn Ockersz
Bone-thin bodies drift ashore,
In a solemn funereal tempo….
Bullet holes gape out of foreheads,
Gagged mouths and bound limbs,
Greet passers-by dashing for queues,
Bringing back harrowing memories,
Of the Mailed Fist of past years,
But what’s plain and beyond doubt,
Is that there’s a growing Black Hole,
In the minds of the isle’s overlords,
That makes history-learning a lost cause.
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