By Tisaranee Gunasekara
“Tragedy tomorrow, Comedy tonight!” — Stephen Sondheim (A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum)
During the final Peace Process, the LTTE held several Pongu Tamil rallies, ostensibly to celebrate Tamil culture but actually to flex Tiger-muscles and pay obeisance to Velupillai Pirapaharan. As the LTTE monopolised the Tamil struggle, Tiger members and diaspora sycophants began hailing Pirapaharan as ‘Sun God’ and ‘The Leader of the World’. By exacerbating Pirapaharan’s belief in his own infallibility, this infantile leader-veneration would have hastened his hubris-laden march to an inglorious end (and the LTTE’s descent into an ignominious defeat).
This is our ‘Pongu Mahinda’ week, our time to celebrate the Second Inauguration of a President hailed by the state-media as ‘The Leader who conquered the World’. Sri Lanka may be cash-strapped and debt-ridden; still, an extravaganza to beat all extravaganzas cannot but be apposite for a leader who, according to an official slogan, is ‘the Sun and the Moon of a Country which overcame Terror…’! (Comparing the cost of this exercise in ‘leader-veneration’ with 2011 budget allocations for children or poverty allocation or resettlement would be instructive indeed).
The ‘simple but gallant’ celebration (as Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake characterised it) is a fascinating mishmash of the banal and the bizarre, with a pronounced tendency towards the superlative. Poster campaigns and religious ceremonies jostle with the planting of 1.1 million saplings and the spectacle of a shipload of Buddhist monks voyaging from Galle to Hambantota (Magampura) Harbour, chanting the ‘Sagara Piritha’. A military parade is sandwiched between an exhibition titled ‘Nidahasa: Suba Sanskruthiyaka Peradekma’ (Freedom: Foreseeing An Auspicious Culture) and the largest milk-rice in the world weighting 4,000kgs, cooked by 300+ chefs (including several five-star ones) with 1,200kgs of rice, 1,500 coconuts and 300kgs of cashew-nuts (and relayed live on TV).
Nothing is to interfere with this political orgy. Tuition-guru turned Education Minister Bandula Gunawardena has decreed that all school students should listen to President Rajapaksa’s ‘Address to the Nation’. The Rajapaksas, like Velupillai Pirapaharan, know the value of catching them young, while their minds are a politico-ideological tabula rasa; thus on the 19th schools must hold special assemblies and enlighten students about the importance of the Second Inauguration. There was, however, a hitch; the year-end term tests were to begin this week. Given a choice between paying obeisance to ‘The Leader who showed the Way’ and mere term-tests, the regime did not hesitate for a nanosecond; the term tests were postponed.
Any objections to this inanely arbitrary decision (on the grounds of inconveniencing students or upsetting the O/L schedule) can be dismissed as ‘educational terrorism’, because, nowadays, any spoke in the wheels of the Rajapaksa triumphal-chariot is ‘Terrorism’.
Thus we have ‘Wheat Terrorism’, courtesy Minister Wimal Weerawansa and ‘Climate Terrorism’, courtesy Minister Champika Ranawaka (incidentally, both supported the JVP during its most terroristic incarnation, the Second Insurgency). We have no ‘casino terrorism’ though; casinos are patriotic because they have Presidential blessings and the President decides what is patriotic and what is not. As Minister Keheliya Rambukwella said, no other can invoke “patriotism or dedication towards Motherland and religion because it is the President who penetrates (sic) these qualities more than any other leader” (The Daily News – 17.11.2010).
Voltaire said of Monarchy, “In this, all mankind are made for one individual: he accumulates all honours with which he chooses to decorate himself, tastes all pleasures to which he feels an inclination, and exercises a power absolutely without control; provided, let it be remembered, that he has plenty of money” (A Philosophical Dictionary). This week’s gala-celebration and the arbitrary postponing of something as crucial as year end term-tests prove it: We do have a King, in the Voltairean sense, a king who prioritises his own whims, has an insatiable appetite for honours and encomiums, jealously monopolises the credit for defeating the Tigers, regards impunity as his birthright and uses the public exchequer as his own.
When such a King, who is said to epitomise discipline and morality, tolerates asinine ministers or sets free a ‘man-of-god’ (the former Basnayake Nilame of Saman Devalaya, Ratnapura) sentenced to life-imprisonment by the courts for murder (even as he refuses to show any mercy to the war-winning army commander), his conduct indicates not hypocrisy (or vengeance) but a sensibility too esoteric for our imperfect understanding.
(Northern Tamils were subjected to incessant bombing and shelling and Colombo’s poor are to be evicted from their homes, for their own good).
Fernand Braudel in his seminal work, A History Of Civilisations explains that the word ‘civilisation’ in its plural form is used to denote ‘the characteristics common to the collective life of a period or a group’; thus one can talk of the ‘civilisation of the fifth-century Athens’ or ‘French civilisation in the century of Louis XIV’. In January, the state-owned ITN held a musical show titled Jaya Jayawe under the auspices of the Rajapaksa brothers. Delivering the guest-lecture on the occasion, Rajapaksa-intellectual J.R.P Sooriyapperuma defined the show as a symbol of the emerging ‘New Civilisation’.
It was a revealing remark, because the show, though billed as a ‘Musical Tribute to the Heroes of the Nation’, was nothing but a long panegyric to President Rajapaksa, his brother and their mother.
For instance, the show opened with a lullaby retelling the ‘heroic saga’ of ‘King Mihindu’ and ‘Chief General Gotabaya’ who defeated the ‘demons’ threatening the motherland (just them, no Gen. Fonseka; not even a cook). Reverencing the Ruling Family is the leitmotiv of the ‘New Civilisation’ of the Rajapaksa era (the PM, opening the Nidahasa exhibition, opined that more was done in the last four years than in all 2,500 years of history).
According to the official narrative, Sri Lanka is permanently imperilled, from within and without, and Rajapaksa Rule is the sole guarantee of the island’s survival as an independent nation.
Patriotic defence will thus become the foundation of the new ‘Rajapaksa civilisation’. Life and governance will be informed and determined by a permanent war with a Hydra-like ‘National Enemy’; implicit trust in and unquestioning obedience to the Rajapaksas will become dominant civic virtues.
Velupillai Pirapaharan needed the war, partly because peace would have loosened the politico-ideological shackles which held the Tamil people in thrall. In 2008, The Economist called Sri Lanka ‘the most militarised state in South Asia’ (7.2.2008). This militarisation has intensified post-war, as evidenced by budgetary allocations or the plan to garrison all districts.
The Rajapaksas need Sri Lanka to remain a ‘frightened country’ to justify the continued absence of the peace dividend and the steady erosion of democracy. There is nothing like an enemy to make a populace accept its own misery or acquiesce in its own subjugation. As the South becomes stupefied with fear, it will be easier to gloss over the ever-widening democratic and developmental deficits; and to justify Rajapaksa Rule, the only bulwark between us and an omnipresent Existential Threat.
The ploy may work, at least for a while, because there is nothing like a siege mentality to make people forget their humane instincts and enlightened self-interests, as the Tamils did, until the hour of tragic dénouement.