By Tisaranee Gunasekara
“For almost an hour in a suite in the Dorchester, Mr. Rajapaksa had painted a picture of his government and country that was as white and spotless as his traditional garb….. His large entourage, ranged on sofas around the room, nodded in rapt agreement at every word the President said”. — The Times (2.12.2010)
There is madness in the air. Instead of making a sobre analysis of the Oxford debacle and deriving appropriate lessons, the regime is frenziedly lashing out at the opposition, dementedly searching for suitable ‘sacrificial victims’ to propitiate the Jovian wrath of the President.
Very little is beneath a ruler with unlimited power and a tyrannical bent. The efforts to expel Dr. Jayalath Jayawardena from Parliament and present a no confidence motion against Karu Jayasuriya are unlikely to fail. Both would accelerate Sri Lanka’s descent into anti-democracy and intolerance, but neither would resolve the crisis of international legitimacy the Rajapaksa administration is plagued with, of which the Oxford debacle is but a telling manifestation.
The President is not content with lording it over Sri Lanka or even a regional entrée; he desires to cut a dash in the world. He is not satisfied being feted in Beijing or Tehran but yearns to visit London and Washington in style. Perhaps he regards staying in plush Western hotels with huge entourages as proof-positive that he is indeed ‘The Leader who conquered the World’, as his acolytes hail him.
Money or good sense is no impediment in this Presidential quest for international honours. In this spirit, Colombo volunteered to host the SAARC summit when the Maldives backed down and volunteered, again, to host the G15 summit, treating as a high honour that which other member states shunned as a wasteful extravaganza. We lack money to give public sector workers a salary increase; accidents at unprotected level crossings reached a ten-year high in 2009 because the Railway Department lac0The trip was made, in this insalubrious atmosphere, because of the President’s craving for another record (the first Head of State to address the Oxford Union twice; the invitation and the disinvitation were both by the Oxford Union proper). The large delegation accompanying him indicates that visiting London (in time for Christmas/ New Year shopping) at public expense was an alluring prospect. Thus an inadvisable trip was made which enabled the pro-Tiger elements of the Tamil diaspora to score an ego-boosting victory. (Incidentally, had the regime come up with a political solution to the ethnic problem, or treated Lankan Tamils with some generosity and consideration, or sounded even minutely contrite about civilian casualties and suffering during the war, the pro-Tiger elements within the Tamil Diaspora would not have been able to put up the show they did).
Channel 4 Bombshell
The growing gap between the Rajapaksa claims and the Lankan reality, which no propaganda effort can fully efface, is increasingly impeding the international ambitions of President Rajapaksa. Retaining expensive lobbying firms at extortionate costs cannot make up for the absence of a political solution or human rights. “We are very weak in our propaganda”, the President Rajapaksa lamented in his interview with The Times. How can our propaganda be anything but weak when it consists on trying to convince the world that we won the war without killing or injuring a single Tamil civilian? Or that Tamils are happy sans democracy, normalcy or devolution? Or that there never was a leader as democratic, as humane, as humble, as efficient as President Rajapaksa?
These Scheherazade tales still have some currency in the Sinhala South, but not in those Western capitals where the President yearns to sojourn, not when contrary ‘evidence’ keeps on popping-up. The Channel 4 video which is an elongated version of the initial video; “rather than stopping after the execution of a second bound man, it continues and the camera pans left to reveal the naked and dead bodies of at least seven women, with accompanying dialogue from onlookers who make lewd and callous comments, which seem to suggest strongly that sexual assaults have taken place before the death of the women,” (Channel 4 – 1.12.2010).
According to UN Human Rights Investigator, Philip Alston, “the reports by three US-based experts on forensic pathology, video analysis and firearm evidence ‘strongly suggest that the (first) video is authentic,’” (The Huffington Post – 9.12.2010). Channel 4 has forwarded the new video to the Secretary General’s Advisory Committee on Sri Lanka; the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions, Professor Christof Haynes opines that this video is ‘shocking’ and “clearly deserves more investigation” (Channel 4 – 1.12.2010).
Armies tend to retaliate against civilian populations seen as ‘enemy’; consequently even a just war contains within itself the possibility of war crimes. There are no exceptions to this rule, as the Wikileaks’ revelations demonstrate. This reality conflicts with the belief in ‘national infallibility’ (one’s own nation can do no wrong) which has replaced Papal/monarchical infallibility. This erroneous belief is fundamental to extremist versions of patriotism, which regards all criticism of one’s nation as treachery. The LTTE’s brand of Tamil nationalism belonged in this category, as does the Rajapaksa brand of Sinhala nationalism. This worldview renders certain issues taboo, categorising them as ‘psychological enemy territory’ and thus no-go areas for ‘patriots’. The ‘war crimes’ issue is one example. Consequently the ‘patriotic’ response to the Channel 4 video is an ipso facto denial, however incredible or unhelpful or counterproductive it may be.
Denial is comfortable and safe and resorted to by millions of ordinary, decent people in both dictatorships (Germans about concentration camps) and democracies (Americans about Guantanamo/Abu Ghraib). Many Tamils, especially in the diaspora, chose to ignore the manifold crimes of the LTTE. Now we are headed in the same unhealthy direction. But denials will not make the ‘war crimes’ issue go away. Moreover, can we justify atrocities even when they are committed for a just cause and against atrocious enemies? Would it not demean the victory over the Tigers and poison the peace we all need? If atrocities cease being atrocious when the victim is an enemy, and the Rulers can ‘make’ an enemy at will, will the resultant impunity spare the Sinhalese? The ongoing trial of the 79 year old grandmother of Gen. Fonseka’s son-in-law should make us pause for thought: in a country where a grandmother is persecuted and prosecuted for sheltering a ‘fugitive’ grandson, can any of us feel safe?