by Tisaranee Gunasekara
"We assaulted the protesting students at the Dehiwala Higher Technical Institute and chased them away leaving them only with their underwear…. In Peradeniya, they had put up a hut and were conducting a big fast.… We stripped them naked and chased them away.” — Minister of Higher Education, S.B. Dissanayake (Speech at a workshop on ‘Preparing for a Strategic Plan to Develop Skills’ – News 1st – 19.12.2010)
Beliatte, Tangalle, Matara, Mahawa, Maharagama…......
Five defeats for the UPFA, in one month. In five local-government bodies, the UNP and the JVP, backed by some governing-party members, trounced the UPFA at budget-votes.
These defeats, though encouraging, are not the ‘writing on the wall’; the regime is firmly ensconced and will remain so, barring a miracle. Yet, they reflect a malaise at the grassroots-level which can be used to rein-in the Rajapaksas at the national-level — if the opposition remembers its raison d’être and stands-up for citizens whose livelihoods, homes and rights are endangered by the regime.
The government can conjure an economic Shangri-la through statistical skulduggery (according to The Sunday Leader, bread was replaced with biscuits in the food-basket used to compute monthly-inflation, to reduce inflation, statistically!). But these ersatz-statistics cannot fool the average citizen struggling with stagnant incomes and soaring prices. The absence of the bustling throngs in Colombo and suburbs this festive season indicates harder times and non-sanguine expectations.
The drab emptiness stems also from the absence of pavement-traders, confined to hastily constructed commercial-ghettos. Their expulsion has deprived average citizens of a source of shopping which combined infinite variety with reasonable prices and easy access. Pavement-vending is a global phenomenon, present even in developed metropolises. ‘Pavement’ forms the starting point of many a rag-to-riches tale and its absence would benefit neither the economy nor the masses.
In the Rajapaksa-worldview, development is not a complex process which seeks to balance conflicting/incompatible interests of different classes/groups and strives to broaden the stakeholder-base of the economy by incorporating marginalised elements.
The Rajapaksas see development as an all out war; consequently economic tasks are undertaken as if they are military operations, with no consideration for side/after-effects. Take the proposed electricity hike. Sri Lanka already has the highest electricity rates in the region (until 1994, ours was the lowest); the latest hike will increase production costs of industries, reducing our export-competitiveness (already affected by GSP+ withdrawal) and worsening domestic inflation. To compensate, industrialists may try to reduce wage-bills, causing public misery and political discontent.
Creating fear psychoses and seeking scapegoats are standard reactions of regimes bedevilled by economics. The Rajapaksas may try to ignite a ‘war-crimes’ hysteria to divert public attention from rice-and-coconut issues. An international war-crimes trial on Sri Lanka is almost impossible; even if it happens, the President and his henchmen will be safe, as Sudan’s leader is, if they forego Western-sojourns. Surely not an impossible sacrifice for such committed nationalists?
Last week authorities denied Ranil Wickremesinghe permission to give a birthday cake to Gen. Fonseka – not the action of a regime truly loyal to all ‘war-heroes’! And the arguments used by the regime to justify proceedings against this ‘premier war-hero’ are equally applicable to ‘lesser-heroes’, such as those mentioned in the Wikileaks-exposes: “XXXXXXXXXXX stated that the GSL allows Karuna’s cadres to recruit children forcibly from within IDP camps in the East…. XXXXXXXXXXXX also explained that Karuna operates prostitution rings out of the IDP camps to “take care of” GSL soldiers…. XXXXXXXXXXXX and XXXXXXXXXXXX independently described how women are forced into prostitution, or to give up their children to traffickers….. Working in concert with SLA soldiers stationed in the Jaffna peninsula, the EPDP is able to conduct extortion, abductions, extra-judicial killings….” (Cable by Ambassador Blake – 18.5.2007).
Forget the UN and the West; the state investigated corruption allegations against Gen. Fonseka; why cannot the same state investigate these far more heinous allegations, instead of hiding behind faux-patriotism? Surely trafficking in children and women or extortion is incompatible with our laws too, and our morality?
‘Patriotism’ (in its currently-dominant Sinhala-supremacist version) is a Rajapaksa preserve. On that terrain the opposition can never effectively challenge the regime (even the war-winning army commander couldn’t). Because of this natural advantage, the regime would try to inveigle the opposition onto the ‘patriotic’ terrain. Instead the opposition should focus on socio-economic conflicts and democracy-issues, such as the proposed mass-expulsion of 70,000 low-income families from Colombo. This is an issue the UNP can ignore only at its peril, since these families form the bedrock of its urban support-base.
This is a battle not just Ranasinghe Premadasa but also J.R. Jayewardene, Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamani Dissanayake would have plunged into. That neither Ranil Wickremesinghe nor Sajith Premadasa comprehend the political significance of this issue is symbolic and symbiotic of a party which has lost the capacity to understand who its natural allies are.
Another critical issue is the fate of Negombo lagoon. The Ports and Aviation Authority and the Navy (both Rajapaksa-fiefs) plan to build a 2 km-long, 100 meter-wide runway for sea-planes which “will destroy the livelihoods of 15, 000 villagers and run down the lagoon into a dead eco-zone….” (Lakbima News – 19.12.2010).
The direct involvement of the Ministry of Defence is a thread linking the expulsion of pavement-traders, proposed expulsion of Colombo’s poor and the sea-plane project. Indeed, the Defence Ministry’s intrusion in areas totally unrelated to ‘defence’ is a leitmotiv of Rajapaksa rule and demonstrates the growing militarization of socio-economic spaces even in the South. Post-war, the regime is acting like an amputee suffering from the ‘phantom-limb’ syndrome; instead of focusing on democracy and development, it is obsessed with defeating enemies long-dead or unborn.
For instance, the Defence Ministry has a five-year plan “to set up a ‘naval air station’ with the involvement of the Air Force…. The SLN will acquire four Israeli-built vessels to strengthen the FAC squadrons…(and) its own Chinese-built YLC radar system to counter a possible air threat…. New naval ground infrastructure facilities are also in the pipeline” (The Island – 20.12.2010). No wonder military expenditure is sky-rocketing, post-war.
A corollary of this militarization of the economy is the increased use of armed forces in the ‘development war’. According to Anura Roshantha, a leader of the Alliance to Protect the Negombo lagoon, “The Navy called us for a meeting on November 24 and everyone who came to the meeting was photographed and videotaped. The commanding officer told us that the Navy is in charge of security. He added that when the project commences the Navy will not allow anyone to enter or leave the area without permission.
A Rajapaksised military seems set to become a key stakeholder in the economy, using its muscle to conduct ‘economic operations’, such as expelling Colombo’s poor or countering the peaceful protests of Negombo fishermen. Soon it will be the turn of trade unionists and other dissenters unmanageable by the likes of S.B. Dissanayake and Mervyn Silva.
The Rajapaksa-juggernaut may be unstoppable, but it can be compelled to a slower pace, if the opposition can kick its navel-gazing habit and shift the terrain of conflict from ‘patriotic’ issues to socio-economic and democracy issues. If so, 2011 may not be as bad a year as 2010.