The Indian Rope Trick and the dire need for critical thinking among us Sri Lankans

100civ19-indian-rope-trick-set-1127-pSri Lanka seems shy to reflect on the past, because its not considered “smart” – “stale news”, “don’t live in the past”, “what’s done is done”, “lets move on”, are some of the retorts one hears whenever one tries to draw lessons from history. I on the other hand, have no qualms about freely traversing the past, present and future when finding answers, like Minkowski in his Block Universe.

We are witnessing what I feel is the strangest episode in the history of Sri Lankan politics as yet – an episode that is unfortunately an outcome of the naive thinking that prevailed in the minds of the majority of our nation’s good citizens, during the past year. I’d like to urge us all to think more independently and critically about our country’s governance in future, without riding the wave of propaganda ever again.

Let us first consider these facts.

  • We recently chose a twice-failed and prematurely jettisoned politician as our administrative leader for a third time, against overwhelming evidence for his lack of courage and fortitude1, in favor of a twice-successful administrative team2. Only to find the said twice-failed “leader” heading for a third failure, being check-mated by political forces3 he is unable to outwit.
  • We recently deposed a President for being a “dictator” based on anecdotal reports and hearsay4, only to appoint another who publicly meddled with the electoral process and appears to be meddling with the judicial system. Not only does he throw out the former attorney general5, but also subverts the democratic values in his party by sacking candidates who were standing for election6, during an election. Furthermore, he appoints defeated candidates loyal to him7, through the National List, instead of the publicized list of “intellectuals” who should have been rightfully appointed.
  • We have a “new” government whose appointed attorney general, under the auspices of two cabinet ministers, investigated Avant Garde – an invaluable maritime security arrangement falsely touted as the greatest scandal to befall Sri Lanka8. It was said to be a “crime” committed by the former government, particularly by the former President’s brother. We have these appointed officials and their policy makers exonerate the previous government of any wrongdoing under our criminal law. We then have the President (of the “new” government) cast aside this verdict and appoint another set of officials to conduct “a full investigation”. The cabinet spokesman continues to tout Avant Garde as a “horrible crime” against Sri Lanka, contrary to the opinion of the ministers responsible for this investigation.
  • We had a government voted out for its supposed incompetence in economic affairs, only to find the new government see the country’s development visibly retarded9, with once robust public infrastructure crumbling10 due to lack of maintenance.
  • We saw the defeat of a supposedly “vile, greedy, unforgiving and superstitious man”11 – who, curiously enough, never spoke in anger in public, and hardly ever mentioned the ills of his political predecessors or opponents. We replaced him with a man who believes in an “eye for an eye”, is determined to bring back the hangman as a speedy solution to crime12, and who openly spouts hatred of his political opponents through his own tongue13 and that of his cabinet spokesman14.
  • We have appointed a “new” government that appears to be hung up on a punitive system of justice, seeking to punish political opponents from the previous government through various investigative bodies like the FCID15, as opposed to taking a more restorative stance of dialog and reconciliation with them. The government spends far more “nervous energy”, as is evident from the debates in parliament, on punishing opponents or using them as an excuse, as opposed to developing the nation.
  • We see terrorists suspected of grave crimes (such as the murder of our former foreign minister) pardoned and released, and instead have secret services officials imprisoned under counter-terrorism laws.16 With no apparent transparency around what the facts are – no justification of this peculiar approach to justice.
  • We see the government facing cash flow problems and grasping at straws such as “taxing the rich”, and taxing salt, sugar17 and “mansions”. In contrast to 2014, where taxation was reduced, particularly for businesses18, and where there was a visible boom in the economy.

One could go on, but I feel the above facts are sufficient to justify my hypothesis: We as a nation chose a worse political arrangement, whose inadequacies were staring in our faces at election time, in favor of a better arrangement that was governed by a more talented team. This former team had many faults, like being obsessed with the public image of their “leader” to the point where it was nauseating to see the good gentlemen’s sky-high cutouts plastered all over town. We saw a couple of makeweights in their cabinet that were reputed for being lowlifes. Worst of all, we saw state controlled media channels drum the victory against terrorism beyond decorum, to the point where old wounds would not have a chance to heal.

There were other more serious allegations against the former government, ranging from kidnapping in white vans to massive corruption and wastage of public expenditure, none of which are substantiated in a court of law to date, even under the keen guidance of an administration determined to “nail” its predecessor. To the contrary, some “scandals”, like Avant Garde, are declared to be non-issues.

These weaknesses were small in comparison to the strengths displayed by that deposed administration: competency in economic development, the right intuitions on national security and an honest desire for public welfare. These areas (or at least activity outside of the private sector’s engine of growth) are more or less stagnant today.

Why did we do this – vote in a less talented and “delivery-incapable” administration? I doubt its because our nation is purposefully subversive. The roots of this costly mistake run deeper than mere political naïve ness. I fear our country’s recent “poor choice” stems from an inherent flaw in our culture; we are not a nation of independent, critical thinking people who question ideas for evidence.

Astrology, homeopathy and mystical healing, state acknowledgement of “multiple systems of medicine”, an examination system that hinges on cramming, devil-riddled Poya-day sermons, cash-cow arranged marriages, hallucinations of Sri Lanka being a “paradise in 1975 under Sirimavo Bandaranaike” (a popular reflection amongst cabbies, when in truth the country was literally starving during that period), conviction that eating handsomely in old age is “bad for you”, aspirations for racially homogenous “homelands” and a myriad other cockeyed ideologies being almost ubiquitous is surely an alarming sign of wooly thinking and intellectual gullibility.

In a land beguiled by such profoundly bad ideas, one must be cautious when believing what one’s neighbor proclaims. Especially when the message comes in the shape and form of a stereotypical rumor, such as “Hey, my best friend works in the Presidents House, and he told me that he saw the President visit a brothel, with his own eyes… he runs it, and one of his promising junior lady-ministers is his main consort. He can deliver, but has no moral sense, yada yada yada” (this was a popular meme floating around late last year, and was one of many such memes).

Every one of us has a social obligation to square such rumors with evidence available to the general public; evidence that would (at least conceptually) survive critical scrutiny (such as a video of the person in the act, in the case of the previous example). The Avant Garde scandal exemplifies the problem we must overcome – a fascinating story that grabs our attention, but with no real value in it. It is like the Indian Rope Trick of yore (men climbing a rope dangling in thin air, cutting it off from the top and falling down). Everyone talks about it and word spreads. Unfortunately, there is no such trick. Other than being a mind-teaser, it’s a waste of time thinking about it.

We all know that even highly skeptical Western European societies do have a large appetite for rumor, but not to the extent that they are duped into voting for such an obviously weaker administration, and cheated of a better future. We owe it to our children’s future to not believe or parrot hearsay without our personal evaluation and endorsement.

We must also lean to become better judges of character. We should have been able to differentiate between public-spirited, talented persons who perhaps have ordinary human failings, and resentful, vengeful back-stabbers that have little to show for themselves beside their hate.

I leave with two cautionary quotes from two of the greatest philosopher-politicians of all time.

To the fans of the present government:

The fact that an opinion has been widely held is no evidence whatever that it is not utterly absurd; indeed in view of the silliness of the majority of mankind, a widely spread belief is more likely to be foolish than sensible.” – Bertrand Russell

To the leaders of the former government:

In a world of democracies, in a world where the great projects that have set humanity on fire are the projects of the emancipation of individuals from entrenched social division and hierarchy; in such a world individuals must never be puppets or prisoners of the societies or cultures into which they have been born.” – Roberto Unger


  1. Ousted from the role of Party Leader in 1994 by Gamini Dissanayake, oversaw a government collapse in 2004, oversaw a Norway-brokered peace process that failed and cost many thousand innocent lives, and muddled through a record 29 election defeats.





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