By Tisaranee Gunasekara
“But these were monstrous times. So, naturally Jennie turned monstrous”. Klaus Mann (The Turning Point)
Neither President Mahinda Rajapaksa nor his administration can be faulted for the calamitous weather conditions afflicting Sri Lanka. Global warming is a global phenomenon, an environmental malaise to which the entire world (and each one of its people) has contributed, to a greater or a lesser degree.
(To talks of rain gods who punish countries because they have bad rulers is to insult intelligence; such beliefs belong in pre-scientific times, when man ascribed the frightening and the inexplicable to unseen deities.) Global warming (a man-made phenomenon) is causing catastrophic climatic changes across the world; Sri Lanka too can expect her own share of resultant environmental disaster, irrespective of the identity or the nature of the president/the governing party.
What President Rajapaksa and his government can and must be faulted for is their totally inadequate, indeed callous, response to the back-to-back floods which devastated Sri Lanka in January and February. According to official estimates, 1.2 million people have been directly affected by the second round of floods alone. Floods have also caused massive damages to all harvests; for instance, the damage caused to the paddy harvest has been estimated variously at 35% to 90%, by different ministers. Repairs to the road networks destroyed by the floods alone are expected to cost a massive Rs.5 billion.
Putting the flood and landslide affected areas and the afflicted people back on their feet will be a gigantic task requiring billions of rupees plus much time and energy.
Given its critical importance and immense magnitude, this task of reconstruction and rejuvenation should be accorded absolute priority by the government, over and above any other endeavour. The government should also make an effort to mobilise the society to help in this massive effort. (After all, the disaster happened not in some distant country but in our own; the affected are not foreigners but our own people.) But neither is being done. Instead, the government is de-prioritising the entire crisis, effectively turning it into a non-issue.
Even as the rains were falling and the floods were raging in 13 districts, displacing more than a million Sri Lankans, the regime went ahead with its extremely ostentatious Independence Day ceremony in Kataragama; the President, in his Speech, made only a passing reference to the ongoing devastation. Then there was the Deyata Kirula exhibition in Buttala which went on for five days, guzzling resources, energy and attention which should have been spent on providing immediate relief to the affected people.
A stranger witnessing the Independence Day ceremony and the exhibition should have been pardoned for thinking that the floods had but a marginal impact on Sri Lanka. The President is yet to visit the areas affected by the second round of floods; in the official discourse, the floods and their aftermath are accorded negligible import, almost a post-script in the day’s news.
The government’s current priority is beautifying Colombo and its environs in time for the Cricket World Cup. Once this match-mania is over, the regime is likely to focus its attention on promoting Hambantota’s bid for the 2018 Commonwealth Games.
The regime’s blasé attitude towards the havoc wreaked by the floods seems to be affecting the society as well. In general, when a natural disaster strikes, Sri Lankans forget all that which divides them and unite, however ephemerally, in compassion. It is one of the best qualities of the Lankan people. This time, society seems to be following the insalubrious example set by the regime, turning an almost blind eye and a deaf ear to the sufferings of a segment of fellow Sri Lankans (victims include Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims; discrimination is alien to nature).
The usual and rather enthusiastic voluntary efforts at providing aid and assistance to victims (the normal Lankan response to any natural disaster) seem rather thin on the ground, almost to the point of non-existence. Instead, the unaffected parts of society are waiting with baited breath for the World Cup to begin. Complaining about the rapid rise in the price of many essential food items in the wake of the floods seems to be the sole concession the absolute majority of the unaffected Sri Lankans are making to the disastrous reality surrounding them.
People often take their moral cues from the leaders. Perhaps one of the best known historical examples of this transference of values is the transformation experienced by British society from the more liberal moral climate of the Regency Period to an extreme form of moral Puritanism under the Rule of Queen Victoria (her consort Albert is seen as a pioneer of this change). That transformation affected the British Colonies as well; many of the most cherished values of Sinhala Buddhist extremists since Anagarika Dharmpala have nothing to do with either Sinhala history or Buddhist ethos; they are Victorian imports and implants.
When rulers are hegemonic they are able transplant their own values and beliefs on to the society they rule; and by doing so successfully, they manage to maintain their moments of hegemony longer. This is what the Rajapaksas seem to be doing currently; the last five years has wrought so many changes in the way a majority of Lankans see themselves, their country and the world.
These changes range from the disappearance of the ethnic problem and the need for a political solution from the public political discourse (the President set seal to this by not mentioning either in his Independence Speech) to a permissive attitude towards Familial Rule. Current societal indifference to the plight of 1.2 million Sri Lankans is part of this strategic transformation of Sri Lanka into a more atomised society, breeding a more self-centred man.
Such transformations are not unique to Sri Lanka but common to many societies. For instance in China, “The socialist slogans that the government touts are widely seen as mere panoply that covers a lawless crony capitalism in which officials themselves are primary players. This incongruity has been in place for many years and no longer fools anyone. People take it as normal, but that very normality makes cynicism the public ideology. Many people turn to materialism—whether in property or investment—in search of value, but often cannot feel secure there, either; even if they gain a bit of wealth, they do not know when it might disappear or be wrested away” (The New York Review of Books – 13.1.2011
Israeli human rights activist and co-founder of B’Tselem, Daphna Golan-Agnon, points out that there are multiple layers of denial operating in Israel on the war crimes issue: literal denial (it never happened); denial of significance (these weren’t really war crimes); justification (we had no alternative).
A similar system of collective denial is becoming lodged in the Lankan polity and society, denying anything that is unpleasant or ugly, problematic or criminal. It began with the ‘humanitarian operation’, became honed in the ‘welfare villages’ and reached a nadir with the incarceration of the ‘Sinhala Arch-hero’ Sarath Fonseka.
Since then, it has been applied in multiple areas from the Sinhala Only National Anthem to attacks on Indian fishermen in the Palk Straits, from the new wave of terror in Jaffna and the rapid construction of cantonments (while many of the displaced Tamils still lack adequate shelter) to the planned mass eviction of Colombo’s poor to land-grabbing in Kalpitiya. The capacity of this new morality to subsume the age old Lankan penchant for assisting the afflicted in natural disasters indicates that the task of creating a new Rajapaksa morality to buttress Rajapaksa Rule is continuing apace.
In almost any country, during tough times, it is the people who make the sacrifices; never the rulers; this is more so in autocracies than in democracies. When leaders preach to the people about the need for unpopular decisions, and the necessity for sacrifices, the subtext cannot be clearer: be ready for harder times because we will be making decisions which are going to make your lives more difficult than they already are.
So when President Rajapaksas mentioned the need to make unpopular decisions in his Independence Day Speech he was not referring to decisions which will be unpopular with the ruling elite. For instance, the unending and ever-growing duty-free vehicle bonanza to politicians will not be curtailed; nor will the cabinet be downsized or the perks and privileges of ministers and parliamentarians reduced. The President was referring to decisions which will be unpopular with the ordinary people, such as price hikes and subsidy cuts, demolition of houses and destruction of livelihoods.
Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe, before flying to Geneva, told The Sunday Observer (6.2.2011) that he will be making efforts to ‘win over the West’. The regime’s favoured way of winning over the West is to hire expensive Western lobbying firms; these firms function as political beauty salons and their clients include some of the more unpleasant regimes and private firms in the world. Since these beautification tasks are far from easy, and the needs of their clients are desperate, the firms can and do command top dollars. For instance, Sri Lanka is said to be paying the UK firm Bell Pottinger (whose motto is ‘Better Reputations; Better Results’) about Rs.500 million a year to lobby UK, UN and EU officials.
The regime says it needs to hire expensive PR firms because there are enemies out there trying to tarnish the image of the country. For instance, the Central Bank Governor said that Sri Lanka will do “everything possible to boost that image and I believe it is our duty” (BBC – 22.10.2010). Not quite ‘everything possible’. Had the government not treated its political opponents like public enemies, incarcerated Gen. Fonseka after a politically stage managed military trial, attacked media institutions and media personnel, clamped down on dissent, launched public demonstrations against the UN and some Western countries, the need to hire PR firms at such enormous costs would not have arisen. Sri Lanka has to spend billions of rupees hiring Western public relations firms not because of the war but because of what the Rajapaksas have done after winning the war to strengthen Familial Rule and to build a political dynasty.
What will we do next?
Hire an Indian PR firm to burnish our image in Delhi, even as attacks on Indian fishermen at sea continue?
So Sri Lanka has enough money to hire Western PR firms and to bid for expensive international events, but not to look after its own displaced people. For instance, for the people of Dimbulagala “the promised assistance from the government did not arrive. They had reportedly not got anything from the government in the past few days. After repeated complaints and appeals that were unsuccessful, the people became very frustrated due to not receiving assistance due to them and a lack of solution for their shelter problem. On Friday morning it boiled over on to the streets and several hundred people were seen protesting in front of the Dimbulagala DS office” (Groundviews – 12.2.2011). That is the new Rajapaksa morality in a nutshell.