Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Man of the Year 2014: Athuraliye Rathana Thero

It happened in 2006. Nearly the whole of the Eastern Province was being deprived. Of water. The sluice-gates of what is known as Mavil Aru had been shut down by a bunch of terrorists who were playing for time. They had thought that the new government would submit to them. Didn't happen.

What took off in 2006 ended in 2009. The war ended. We are all the happier for that.

There were people who marched to Mavil Aru that day. People with no hidden agenda. People whose only reason for their act, if at all, was to get the government to see their way.

For years, if not for decades, the LTTE always had the upper hand. The government had always kowtowed to them. Shamelessly. The LTTE, to put it shortly, had thought that Mavil Aru would end. They've had the upper hand before. The government, they thought, could be tided over on this one too.

That didn't happen, of course. The ruling party, realising just how shamelessly the LTTE were breaking the agreement they had signed with them some years back, took action.

But this isn't all. Wars aren't won that easily. There are mindsets that need to be changed. The people who marched to Mavil Aru did just that. For years, the magic word for conflict-resolution here had been "appeasement". The march to Mavil Aru changed all that. Among those who marched that day, there were names. Big names. Athuraliye Rathana Thero was one of them.

He is a person some hate and some begrudgingly admire. In politics, that's rare. Rathana Thero was there, all the way, when ideology-thrust was needed. He countered, together with the party he helped create, the Jathika Hela Urumaya, the claim that the war could not be won militarily.

And today, he is on the other side. Some of his admirers have now become foes. Some of his foes have now become admirers. That's politics. He was a factor in the Maithripala Sirisena defection. If at all for this reason, the latter's campaign is considered cleaner than that of the government. That's not enough, I agree. Still.

He never compromised. He could have stayed. Could have waited. He didn't. His opposition to the Executive Presidency and of course that notorious Casino Bill was known long before he left. Together with Patali Champika Ranawaka, he is perhaps the only politician who can connect reason and emotion with whatever he says. That's rare, even for someone with an academic background.

His life and career hasn't been read enough. Like Mahinda Rajapaksa, he was born in the South, in Akuressa. What many don't realise is that long before he took to nationalist politics, he was a fervent JVPer. He once remarked that it was Buddhism and Marxism that moved him to what he is today. That's true. Like many in his generation and those before it, nationalism came to him long after he had dabbled in Marxism.

His background in politics is phenomenal. During the bheeshanaya of the late '80s, he together with some other University undergraduates formed an organisation called the Janatha Mithuro ("Friends of the People"). This later developed into the National Movement Against Terrorism, which was in itself a precursor to the Sihala Urumaya and later the Hela Urumaya.

One can argue that all this dates back to the early '80s, when the likes of Gunadasa Amarasekara and Nalin de Silva formed what would be known as the Jathika Chinthanaya. It was the Hela Urumaya, however, which made the most effective inroad into politics. And Rathana Thero was an important figure. All this time.

Some claim that he's a racist. A chauvinist. But even those who vilify him find reason to admire him. The truth is that even while moves against monks entering parliament were being tabled (by the same people who have joined his campaign today), we were more willing to listen to him than to those who continually, with no reason, vilified the war. His first victory, if you can call it that, was 2009. But that's just one thing.

He sticks to principle. That is why he has left the government. And that is why, when he left it, the ruling party lost. Badly. It is open to debate whether this will be a negative factor at the election next year. What we know, however, is that the JHU is not going to come back.

Rathana Thero was instrumental in the Maithripala-factor. As Malinda Seneviratne has pointed out recently, whenever he gets up to speak for him, Maithripala's vote-bank stays fixed. That is more than what one can say about the others who have rallied around him. Like Chandrika Kumaratunge.

It is the Jathika Hela Urumaya that once backed this government. They won. Whether that will be enough to break them is another matter. But while I may not agree with what they have decided to do, I have to acknowledge that they mean what they say.

Ideals are hard to stick to. Rathana Thero is no idealist. He left all that in his pre-Jathika Chinthana days. He is a pragmatist, one who appears to be driven by reason. Some say that he almost never breaks into emotion. Others say that he's become too emotional these days. Both are correct. He is not reason-driven to the point where he is emotionless.

These are still early days. We don't know whether what he advocates will backfire on him. What we do know is that for the first time, there is a split between the two most potent nationalist camps in the country. The Jathika Chinthanaya school has distanced itself from the Hela Urumaya. Gunadasa Amarasekara has called the Hela Urumaya a "Helu Karumaya". There is also talk that there will be defections from the JHU in the days to come. And that the Bodu Bala Sena, an offshoot of the JHU, will join the government, just as they had done before. All this is peripheral to the subject at hand, however.

Rathana Thero, in all this and despite all this, can take a bow. He is an unacknowledged giant. Always has been. He has friends and enemies. Admirers and detractors. Naturally.

We don't know whether he'll win or lose in the end. We can't be sure. But taking stock of his past and of what he did at a time when what he advocated was considered impractical, we can be sure of one thing. He won't shy away. He won't back down. True to form, he will prevail. For that reason alone, he is the Man of the Year. For me.