“Dictators free themselves but they enslave the people…” — Charlie Chaplin The Dictator
By Tisaranee Gunasekara
President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s speech to the UN General Assembly consisted of the usual banalities and platitudes, with one outstanding exception. That exception was a perniciously riveting idea symbolic and symbiotic of the Rajapaksa ethos, a transformative concept which, if implemented, would negate much of the progress made in the sphere of human rights in the last few centuries and normalise tyranny in the name of anti-terrorism.
Waving the banner of ‘anti-terrorism’, President Rajapaksa (who flew to New York with a 100 plus delegation) opined that international humanitarian laws should be changed to give states carte blanche to combat terrorism.
The Rajapaksa proposal would normalise excess and enable sovereign states to act as they wish, unconstrained by laws and norms, against whomever or whatever they designate ‘terrorist’. It would thus empower all states at the expense of their own populaces and strong states at the expense of weaker ones. The Rajapaksa proposal, if implemented, would herald the jungle.
In a world shaped by the idea that states can do no wrong in combating terrorism, regimes will be able to persecute democratic opponents by the simple expedient of attaching the terrorist tag to them. Such a world view would render permissible every act of illegality or immorality, so long as it is committed under the banner of anti-terrorism. Rulers will be able to violate the rights of citizens with total impunity, with no concerns about national or international accountability.
In brief, the Rajapaksa proposal would empower states to use unbridled terror as a tool of governance or of foreign policy, under the banner of anti-terrorism. The worst features of American foreign policy or Israel’s policy towards Palestinians, the abhorrent internal practices of countries such as Myanmar and Zimbabwe will become the new global norm. And in this anti-democratic world, the Rajapaksas would be able to pursue their dynastic agenda, with total impunity.
The Rajapaksas enjoy impunity within the borders of Sri Lanka. Constitutionally only the president is above the law; but in reality this exemption is extended to the entire Ruling Family and most of its acolytes, as demonstrated by l’affaire Mervyn Silva. Thanks to a servile UPFA, a weak opposition, a pliant media, a flexible judiciary and a malleable society, the Rajapaksas face little or no impediment nationally to their single-minded pursuit of absolute and long term power. To the extent there is any constraint on the Ruling Family, it is international, the fear of being held accountable by some international tribunal, someday. This is hardly a significant threat let alone an immediate one, but it is something the Rajapaksas would like to see removed for good. If their right to impunity is accepted internationally, the Rajapaksas would feel totally empowered to act unrestrainedly towards their opponents in particular and towards all Sri Lankans in general.
An Anti-democratic Ethos
Being cognizant of the Rajapaksa proposal is important not because the international community will accept it but because it demonstrates the endemically tyrannical nature of the Rajapaksa vision and mission. This proposal reveals the Ruling Family’s yearning for absolute, unconditional and eternal impunity. The successful transformation of a democracy into a family oligarchy requires the creation of a new value system with absolute, unquestioning obedience of the ruled to the rulers as its leitmotiv. Those citizens who refuse to abide by this cardinal rule will be ostracized from the national community. In the present national and international climate what better epithet to justify such persecution as that of terrorist?
There may be internationally accepted definitions of terrorism but the label ‘terrorist’ is an extremely amorphous one which can and has been bestowed on a wide variety of organisations and individuals, from Osama bin Laden and the Tigers to Nelson Mandela and the Suffragists. That is why it is dangerous to permit a state to stick the label of terrorism on any persons/entities at will and combat them unrestrainedly, without having to bother about humanitarian laws or moral considerations. Such permissiveness would enable would-be-despotic regimes to undermine democratic systems from within by imposing the epithet of terrorism on even unarmed opponents.
Imagine the Rajapaksas armed with the sort of carte blanche the President advocated at the UN. Even without such a licence, the regime stretches the law to the limit and observes it in the breach in combating democratic critics and opponents. Suspects dying under suspicious circumstances in police custody and family members being arrested in the place of suspects have become Lankan norms. The registration of Tamils continue, even post-war, as do attempts to suppress the media. The only reason the opposition is being tolerated to the extent it is being tolerated is because of its total ineffectiveness. The regime moves with ruthless efficacy against any opponent or act of opposition it deems effective, the incarceration of Gen. Fonseka and the persecution of a printing press owner and his family for printing a poster comparing the President to Hitler being the latest cases in point.
The Rajapaksas tend to justify their anti-democratic policies and deeds by flavouring them with nationalistic and patriotic rhetoric. International humanitarian norms are castigated as imperialist constraints on Sri Lanka’s right to defend herself and her people. For instance, the regime refused a request to treat 8,000 Tiger suspects in custody according to international law, and justified this departure by invoking national sovereignty: “We are an independent nation. We are not going to bow down to foreign powers in order to get aid” (BBC – 28.9.2010).
Lofty words hiding an ignoble reality; the regime while incarcerating 8,000 ordinary Tamils as Tiger suspects is treating as estimable guests known Tiger leaders such as Kumaran Pathmanathan and Daya Master. The real criterion therefore is not whether one was a Tiger or not but whether one is willing to support the Rajapaksas or not. Life can be pleasant for those who are willing to submit to the Rajapaksas and exceedingly unpleasant if not downright dangerous for those who are not, as the curiously similar fates of the 8,000 Tiger suspects and the Army Commander who defeated the Tigers clearly indicate. When national interest is equated with Rajapaksa interest and patriotism with loyalty to the Rajapaksas, any opponent of the Ruling Family can be deemed a terrorist and a traitor and treated as such.
In a country where citizens are treated as subjects who must obey their rulers unconditionally, there is little room not just for democratic rights but even for individual consciences or basic decencies. The arrest of the aged grandmother of Danuna Tillakaratne, the son-in-law of Gen. Fonseka, for her failure to betray her grandson to the authorities is the clearest possible indication that in Rajapaksa Sri Lanka loyalty to the Ruling Family is the only absolute virtue. This supreme duty surpasses every other consideration including family ties, including a grandparent’s unconditional love for a grandchild, which many of us would know from experience. Under such conditions, national sovereignty is little more than a euphemism for the right of the Ruling Family to act at will. Any more freedom for the Rajapaksas would mean less freedom for the Lankan people a great leap towards tyrannical rule.