By Tisaranee Gunasekara
“….the dream of justice became subsumed into the callousness of reality, and people settled into a quarter century of life-waste and spirit-waste, of hardening attitudes and narrowing possibilities….” — Seamus Heaney (Nobel Lecture – 1995)
As 1.2 million Lankans struggled with the devastating effects of back-to-back floods, at an ostentatious Independence Day ceremony in Kataragama, President Rajapaksa delivered a peroration about the need to safeguard national-freedom. That evening, in the heart of Colombo, a peaceful protest demanding the release of Gen. Sarath Fonseka was attacked by armed thugs, as the police, in its new role as the guardians, not of the Rule of Law but of the Law of the Rulers, watched impassively.
That brutal attack demonstrated, yet again, that in today’s Sri Lanka, the primary foes of democracy and freedom are the Ruling Rajapaksas and their dynastic project.
Juvenal in his Satires asked, Quis custodiet ipsos custodies? (‘But who will guard the guards themselves’?) When accorded carte blanche, even elected leaders can metamorphose into tyrants; Adolf Hitler, Papa Doc Duvalier and Robert Mugabe are examples of elected rulers who transformed democracies into tyrannies, from within. The deciding factor thus is not the manner in which a leader comes to power but the nature of his political project. Even the most democratic state can be transformed into a tyranny under a leader who nurses a “terrorist power philosophy” propounding a “barbaric friend-foe principle as opposed to the democratic idea of compromise” (The German Dictatorship – Karl Dietrich Bracher).
Such rulers wilfully conflate national freedom with their own freedom to rule with impunity and democratic opponents as national enemies. In such situations, the freedom of the rulers and the freedom of the people become mutually incompatible; rulers can be free only by depriving people of their freedom while people, in order to be free, must resist their rulers.
In his Independence Day Speech President Rajapaksa boasted, “We have taken many giant strides towards upholding and strengthening that freedom as never taken before”. In reality, this transliterates into keeping the Emergency, the PTA and a host of other repressive laws in place despite the end of the war, removing presidential term-limits, turning Independent Commissions into presidential appendages, subverting the judiciary, and using violence to silence dissent. In a move which is symbolic and symbiotic of this predatory rule, First Son Namal Rajapaksa was entrusted with the management of the historic Namal Uyana in Dambulla, a treasure trove with its pink-quartz mountains.
President Rajapaksa’s Independence Day Speech contained many Orwellian moments. For instance, he waxed eloquent about building a ‘law abiding society’ with ‘respect for discipline’, just four days after the LankaeNews office was torched and even as officially-mandated goons were preparing to attack a peaceful demonstration. Tyrants are not law-abiding; they are the first violators of the law. Their notion of a law-abiding society is one in which the rulers order and the ruled obey while their idea of discipline consists of rulers acting like wild asses as the ruled bow their heads in eternal docility.
The President clearly indicated what freedom means in the politico-ideological lingua franca of Rajapaksa Sri Lanka: “Similar to the right of all citizens to the freedom of expression, it is also their duty and responsibility to respect the dignity of the motherland in enjoying that freedom. I wish to emphasize this is also the responsibility of the Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim and all communities among us, as well as of all political parties”. Since motherland is equated with the Rajapaksas, opposing them is translatable into disrespecting the ‘dignity of the motherland’. Anyone who violates this basic principle will be treated as an enemy of the motherland. None is exempt from this iron-rule, not even the war-winning Army Commander. That is how Gen. Fonseka is not only languishing in jail but has ceased to be a national hero.
Despite his enormous contribution to the Sinhala supremacist cause, he became an anti-patriot, the moment he went against the Rajapaksas. His fall is the best possible indication that the Rajapaksas cannot be beaten at their own game, in their own terrain. The South must be weaned away from the Rajapaksa narrative, according to which the Ruling Family is the sole bulwark against persistent attempts by an envious, malicious world to destroy Sri Lanka. Such a transformation of the psycho-ideological terrain is a necessary precondition for freeing Sri Lanka from the Rajapaksas tentacles.
Floods and Circuses
As the first round of floods subsided and people across the land were trying to piece together their shattered lives, the Rajapaksa administration officially launched the logo for the 2018 Commonwealth Games bid for Hambantota. The choice of the location is indicative of the real motive behind this expensive folly. Why have the Commonwealth Games in Hambantota where every facility will have to be built from scratch? If the object is to enable a non-Colombo District to host the Games, why not Kandy, Galle, Anuradhapura, Trincomalee or Jaffna?
Because Hambantota is the family-fief of the Rajapaksas; and the real purpose of these international circuses is to bring greater glory to the Rajapaksas, to slake their parching-thirst for global renown. The Rajapaksas want to stride the international stage, winning accolades from Washington to London. (It is not for nothing that two of the Rajapaksa siblings are also citizens of the US!) To satisfy this megalomania, Sri Lanka is being compelled to pay thorough her nose to host international tamashas, spending money she does not have and must borrow, money she should have spent on helping the victims of wars and natural disasters.
According to media reports, the Treasury has set aside Rs.850 million for flood relief. Given that more than a million people have been directly affected by the floods, this amounts to the princely sum of Rs.800 per person!
Lopsided priorities are the norm under despotic rule. The only concession the Rajapaksas made to the double-deluge was to cancel two musical shows connected to the Cricket World Cup. The Independence Day was held with the usual pomp and pageantry in Kataragama while the Deyata Kirula exhibition too went ahead, devouring state funds, resources and energies which could have been used for flood relief purposes.
The Rajapaksas taught us to turn a blind eye to the plight of civilian Tamils during and after the war. In an equally distressing development, the callous indifference of the rulers to the plight of the flood victims is becoming mirrored in Southern society. Normally when a natural disaster occurs, Lankan society mobilises itself to assist its affected members. Such a societal effort at providing assistance is conspicuous by its absence this time around, despite the magnitude of the havoc wreaked by the floods. Lankan society, like the rulers, seems to have gone into a collective denial, preferring the escapism provided by the Cricket World Cup to dealing with the devastating plight of the flood victims and the effects the destruction is likely to have on the entire society (especially in the form of higher prices).
Is Lankan society embracing the hypocrisy and the ruthless self-centredness which are the hallmarks of Rajapaksas ethos? Are the Rajapaksas turning us into a nation like themselves?