BY Tisaranee Gunasekara
"We must be horrified.” — Stephane Hessel, French resistance hero (The Alternative Information Centre)
Last week the Rajapaksa regime sold 10 acres of land located opposite the Galle Face Green, to Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts, for US$125 million. Little wonder the brothers are rearing to evict 65,000-75,000 low-income families from Colombo. Quite apart from the overwhelming need to deprive the UNP of its last electoral bastion (ideally before the next CMC election), the lands occupied by these families are ‘gold mines’ which can be ‘developed’ and sold to foreigners, satiating, albeit temporarily, the voracious appetite of a cash-famished regime.
Normally state land is not sold (especially to foreigners) but given on 99 year leases. But under the ultra-nationalist Rajapaksas, prime land will be sold, so that the Ruling Family can make a fast-buck to sustain its money-guzzling habits (including the stratospheric defence bill). Far from being limited to Colombo, this ‘Sell Baby, Sell’ policy will be implemented island-wide, often to the detriment of local communities, including the Sinhalese.
According to media reports, Shangri-La Hotels are interested in 100 acres of land in Hambantota while bidding is on-going for several islets off the North-Western coast. Soon it may be the turn of arable farming lands.
Development is the new Rajapaksa mantra. But their ‘development vision’ is as one-dimensional as their perspective on the North-Eastern issue. In the Rajapaksa worldview there is no ethnic problem, just Tiger terrorism; winning the war has solved all issues and Tamils no longer have grievances or fears requiring a political resolution (meanwhile in Jaffna, the disempowered inhabitants are being terrorised by a flash-flood of killings and abductions).
The same flat-earthism characterises the Rajapaksa development-vision. It begins and ends with economic growth and regards growth rates and per-capita incomes as sufficient indicators of economic wellbeing of the people.
Social justice is thus rendered a non-issue, like ethnic-justice. Special measures to ameliorate the adverse effects of lop-sided economic growth are perceived as unnecessary, even damaging, as devolution. Perorations about agricultural self-sufficiency and knowledge-hubs notwithstanding, the Rajapaksas’ really existing plan is to turn Sri Lanka into an R and R land (rest and recreation) for wealthy foreigners (thus, for instance, the Casino Bill, the low priority accorded to social infrastructure and the obsession with physical infrastructure).
There is a hitch though; this strategy cannot but have a devastating effect on the living standards of the masses. This is why the President, in his New Year Message, exhorted the people to make sacrifices for development. But Rajapaksa, an astute politician, would know that his Sinhala base will not consent to make endless sacrifices for an elusive future, especially with the political elite enjoying the good life at public expense and in plain sight.
So issues and events must be machinated, to divert and to unify the Sinhala base of the Ruling Family. Fudged statistics and events such as the Cricket World Cup, though helpful, would not suffice. The Rajapaksas would need more potent rallying cries and more enduring facades to cover-up the unpalatable realities of a ruthless and a jobless growth and keep the Sinhala masses ranged on their side. Thus the resonating calls to primordial identities and abrasive appeals to primordial fears.
In the mid-1950’s the Sinhala Only impacted on Lankan politics with the devastating suddenness of a tornado — not because a Sinhala majority clamoured for it but because S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike needed an election-winning slogan. ‘Sinhala Only’ was confined to a sliver of Sinhala extremists, leading a precarious existence on the margins of the polity, until Bandaranaike’s endorsement brought it – and its vocal supporters – into the political mainstream. Bandaranaike had expected his SLFP to win the 1952 election but was handily defeated by Dudley Senanayake (the UNP’s share of vote increased by 4% between 1947 and 1952, despite the Bandaranaike-Challenge).
An astute politician, Bandaranaike realised that without a politico-ideological tectonic shift, he was doomed to lose the next election too. The left had a near-monopoly on economic-class issues; Sinhala Only was the fastest way out. Though Bandaranaike was intelligent enough to comprehend the dangers inherent in strengthening extremism, power-hunger prevailed. With his adoption of Sinhala Only, not only did he create a new and a deadly polarisation; he also partially de-economised class by giving it an ethnic (and a religious) veneer. He tied ethnicity (via language) and class together, creating a make-believe world in which the class struggle was between poor Sinhalese (and Sinhalese, excepting those supporting the UNP, were ‘poor’ according to this rendition) and rich minorities. The Pancha Maha Balavegaya symbolised this politico-ideological Chintanaya which became the new commonsense and created conceptual myths which still endure.
With the definitive defeat of the Tigers, the objective conditions which created and sustained ethnic overdetermination are evaporating. Post-war, economic-class issues are likely to come to the fore. This would sunder the Ruling Family’s Sinhala base and reduce its capacity to hegemonise the South. The Rajapaksas need to keep ethnic overdetermination alive, and if the natural conditions for its perpetuation have eroded, it must be saved via artificial respiration. Various ruses will thus be used to make the Sinhalese feel that their country, nation, religion, culture, values and way of life are at grave risk.
The resultant heightening of the ‘Sinhalaness’ of the Sinhalese will sharpen the Tamilness of the Tamils and the Muslimness of the Muslims, but this would leave the Rajapaksas unfazed. A genuine Lankan nation is not their aim and the heightened ethno-religious consciousness of the minorities can be used to exacerbate Sinhala fears to a fever-pitch.
The purpose would be to burnish the Sinhala-Buddhist credentials of the Rajapaksas and to divert Southern attention from worsening economic woes and anti-democratic practices.
Last week Salman Taseer, the governor of Pakistani Province Punjab was assassinated by one of his bodyguards. The reason was Taseer’s courageous opposition to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. These blasphemy laws were introduced by the very pro-US military dictator Zia ul-Haq who used Islam to buttress his anti-democratic rule.
He introduced a series of religious-fundamentalist measures (which would have shocked Pakistan’s cosmopolitan founder Mr. Jinna) with the blessings of his American masters, who regarded fundamentalist Islam as a key ally in their battle against the Soviets, especially in Afghanistan. The current plight of Pakistan is the direct outcome of this politically motivated embracing of religious extremism.
This is a lesson Sri Lanka cannot ignore. We have already lost our way once, and brought a 30 year war upon ourselves. Unleashing the demons of extremism again will retransform Sri Lanka into a hub of violence. Our collective self-interest alone should compel us to oppose the ongoing Rajapaksa attempts to ignite the fires of ethnic and religio-cultural fundamentalism to buttress Familial Rule. The unnecessarily divisive, seemingly illogical reversion to a Sinhala-only National Anthem is a signal of things to come as is the inane proposal to ban miniskirts and introduce a public dress-code; soon the anti-conversion cry too will return.
Let us remember that the Rajapaksas have a proven capacity to normalise the preposterous. Just one year ago, Presidential term-limit removal was dismissed by serious-minded people as a figment of overwrought anti-Rajapaksa imaginations