by Tisaranee Gunasekara
"So in the body politic, as in the body personal, non-resistance to the milder indulgences paves the way for non-resistance to the deadlier.” — Milton Meyer, They Thought They Were Free
The Rajapaksas are leading Sri Lanka into the abyss of tyranny gradually, measure by insidious measure. Hitler raved about peace; the LTTE had a spokesman for human rights.
The Rajapaksas are creating a labyrinth of laws, rules and practices which would enable them to control the populace, prevent any revitalisation of the opposition, subvert basic rights and vitiate democratic institutions, behind an innocuous façade, and with the minimum of fuss.
Take the latest proposal to create a ‘New National Intelligence Service’, centralising all intelligence gathering activities (i.e. spying on actual and potential opponents of the regime, within and outside Sri Lanka) under the Defence Ministry. A cabinet paper is ready and a parliamentary act will follow. The new agency is bound to enhance immeasurably the ruling family’s capacity to legally intrude into the political and private lives of any citizen. These intrusions could vary from mail interceptions and telephone tapping to cyber policing and eavesdropping on private conversations, under guise of safeguarding national security.
Other repressive measures limiting or negating basic rights are bound to follow, in the form of parliamentary acts or constitutional amendments. Their ultimate purpose would be to enable the Rajapaksas to steal elections repeatedly and maintain stability in between elections, without needing to resort to large-scale repression.
Mahinda Rajapaksa, like Velupillai Pirapaharan, is adept at saying something and doing its opposite; he promises and does the obverse. This, for instance, was how he dealt with the APRC, various investigations into human rights violations, the 17th Amendment and the 18th Amendment. Therefore, resisting the Rajapaksas’ march towards tyranny would be preconditioned on developing a ‘will to doubt’, an ability and willingness to distrust even the most solemn Rajapaksa pledge.
The Rajapaksas cannot be trusted to go against their parochial interests. Thus the President’s pledge not to replace the Colombo Municipal Council (CMC) with a special authority under the Ministry of Defence should not be believed. The Rajapaksas desperately need to take Colombo away from the UNP. But they are intelligent enough to realise that this cannot be done electorally, except via a rigging operation of scandalously massive proportions. The proposal to turn the CMC into a special authority was aimed at squaring this particularly circle. However, the UNP, faced with the loss of its last bastion, reacted with unaccustomed vigour; there was some international concern too, as evidenced by the President’s subsequent complaint that the French ambassador asked him about the fate of the CMC.
Now the Rajapaksas have backtracked, just as they did with the 18th Amendment, to deceive and disarm the opposition. Once the UNP returns to its customary slumbering mode, the Rajapaksas can rush a bill (perhaps it is being drafted currently) replacing the CMC with a Defence Ministry controlled authority, on some pretext, such as dengue-eradication or flood-control (the Rajapaksas justified moving against a pro-Gen. Fonseka poster campaign claiming that it is causing environmental pollution in Colombo!).
The Rajapaksas excel at the de facto (like their patrons, the Chinese; Beijing, having allowed the wife of the Nobel prize-winning dissident to visit him with the news, promptly placed her under unofficial house-arrest). Many of the fatwas imposed in and on the North are both informal and extra-legal. For instance, in his perceptive and thought provoking submissions to the LLRC, veteran editor Manik de Silva mentions that two foreign interns at the Sunday Island were denied permission to visit the North, despite the absence of any formal ban. This is not a phenomenon limited to the former war-zone. According to last week’s Sunday Leader, outsiders cannot visit Ranajayapura, a housing estate built with pubic money for servicemen in Anuradhapura, without Defence Ministry permission.
A sudden headlong plunge into despotism may have alarmed even a nation with such a penchant for obliviousness as Sri Lanka. The Rajapaksas have removed that danger by ensuring that our descent from democracy is reassuringly gradual, a process managed and presented with such deviousness that it seems banal rather than alarming. In the past, the regime proposed such tyrannical measures as mandatory registration of all citizens with the Defence Ministry, cyber policing and a media regulatory authority. In the coming months many of these repressive measures may reappear on the political stage, mantled in patriotic rhetoric, justified as national security necessities, even though their real purpose would be to ensure the stability and longevity of Rajapaksa rule by impeding the creation of any counter-power.
An enemy should not be attacked where he is virtually impregnable. The opposition cannot resist the Rajapaksa juggernaut by trying to be more ‘patriotic’ than the Rajapaksas, as the JVP/DNA is trying to do. The regime has successfully monopolised the ‘patriotic’ space, having redefined patriotism as the acceptance of the sovereign right of the Rajapaksas to violate any norm and maltreat any citizen they deem inimical to the ‘nation’. Therefore what is needed is not a more ‘patriotic’ opposition but an opposition characterised by ‘tolerance and breadth of sympathy’, an opposition compassionate towards the poor and the powerless and inclusive towards the minorities.
The opposition needs to attract and energise those groups which are excluded by the very nature of the Rajapaksa project (the minorities, the urban poor) by fighting for their rights, instead of becoming born-again patriots, to win the rural poor/southern middle classes before the economy really bites.
The ‘bacillus like ideology’ which girds the Rajapaksa project, is intolerant not just of dissent but even of simple old-fashioned decency, when expressed towards the ‘wrong’ person or group. The Rajapaksa list of those ‘unworthy’ of generosity and compassion includes civilian Tamils (according to a minister, 165,755 are still in camps) and Gen. Sarath Fonseka and his family. And Colombo’s urban poor targeted for eviction; rural poverty (the picturesque little hut with lofty mountains or a bubbling brook as the backdrop) can be glorified by those who do not have to live it; but no such glorification is possible with the urban-slum.
The Minister of Culture has ordered the police to arrest ‘misbehaving’ couples at Galle Fort; a vice chancellor has reportedly ordered virginity tests on students; amidst this surfeit of morality (which we deem traditional Sinhala-Buddhist but is actually Victorian), The Sunday Times’ report that three children are raped daily in our virtuous Sri Lanka caused hardly a stir, perhaps because most of them belong to the Indian Tamil community.
Instead of trying to be more nationalist than the Rajapaksas, the opposition needs to focus on persecuted or marginalised individuals and communities and defend their rights, as a necessary first step in building a democratic counter-power to the regime. Wooing the Sinhala middle-class still intoxicated with patriotic euphoria can wait until economic woes dent the southern consensus in favour of the Rajapaksas.
The Central Bank in its current reincarnation as Orwell’s Ministry of Plenty (where statistics are not forgery but fantasy) may paint the Lankan economic condition in roseate hues. But happy statistics cannot endlessly dupe increasingly unhappy masses struggling with rising prices and deteriorating living conditions.