By Tisaranee Gunasekara
“Believe that a further shore is reachable from here.” — Seamus Heaney, The Cure At Troy
Last month Mahinda Rajapaksa had his very own Marie Antoinette moment. Questioned about galloping inflation, at his February meeting with media heads, the President stated that “there was no cost-of-living issue” (The Sunday Leader – 27.2.2011).
As substantiation, he told the tale of a man who bought a car for a monthly installment of Rs.24,000 on a monthly income of Rs.28,000. The real problem is “the inability of the people to prioritise their spending patterns,” opined the President, even as he treated the gathering to a lavish repast, at public expense!
President Rajapaksa is reputed to be a man who understands the pulse of the people, an organic leader of the Sinhalese. Indeed, he has managed to carry his primordial support base with him, even when he did things which went against its grain, such as the witch-hunt against the other Sinhala-hero, Gen. Sarath Fonseka. His strategy has been to cajole and frighten his Sinhala-base into backing him unconditionally, by drawing word-pictures of prosperous futures or terrifying enemies.
Why did the President suddenly abandon these proven methods of mirage-making and fear-mongering, especially vis-à-vis an issue which is of singular concern to his Sinhala-base? After all he could have found any number of ‘reasonable’ excuses for burgeoning food prices, from calamitous weather conditions and rising world-market prices to subversive importers and greedy wholesalers. But he did not. Instead he denied the very existence of a COL crisis and went on to blame the masses for their own economic woes.
Denial and victim-bashing are favoured Rajapaksa methods in dealing with minorities or political opponents. The regime has denied the existence of an ethnic problem, civilian casualties and human rights violations and blamed victims for their own plight; for instance, the disappeared, such as Prageeth Ekneligoda, were blamed for their own disappearances!
Until last month, the President did not apply this ruthless and insulting treatment to his Sinhala base. Was his Marie Antoinette moment a mere gaffe or does it indicate a radical policy-shift? Are we entering a period when the traditional Rajapaksa sauce for the minority/dissident goose will be applied, with increasing regularity, to the Sinhala gander
Sri Lanka has a vampiric ruling caste. Shortly after the President, who is being maintained at public expense, lectured the public, which does not enjoy such generous handouts, about the importance of proper expenditure management, 35 of his ministers demanded government housing in Colombo. These welfare-moguls already draw a monthly rent-allowance of Rs.50,000 each but argue that this sum (which is more than double the country’s per capita income) is inadequate to rent a house to commensurate with their elevated standing. The Minister of Public Administration has promised a ‘prompt solution’ to this problem, which unlike the COL issue, is a real crisis, at least in the eyes of the regime.
Denying the existence of an ethnic problem freed the Rajapaksas from seeking a political solution. It has also enabled the regime to de-legitimise Tamil struggles (however democratic or peaceful) for political rights by branding them Tiger/terrorist. A similar logic could have prompted the President to declare cost-of-living a non-issue. A non-existent crisis does not require resolution (in the form of lower prices or higher incomes). This frees the regime to continue with its deadly brew of neo-liberal economics, uninhibited corruption and gargantuan waste. Most importantly, it enables the Rajapaksas to brand trade-union actions or popular demonstrations on the COL issue as subversive and anti-patriotic and crush them mercilessly.
Employing the twin tactics of problem-denial and victim-bashing vis-à-vis one’s primary vote-base is not exactly intelligent behaviour in an election season. The curious timing of this (curiouser) ‘shift’ indicates that the regime does not feel seriously challenged by the local government election. The main reason for this sanguinity is not the enfeebled opposition (a staple of many years) but the 18th Amendment. That piece of legislation is to Sri Lanka what the Enabling Law was to Nazi Germany; it has secured for the Ruling Family a system of elections with predetermined-results (via a supremely accommodative Elections Commissioner and an equally malleable police chief). This election season therefore is different from all previous ones; consequently the Rajapaksas have little cause to mind their language or improve their performance (thus probably their lackadaisical attitude towards flood-relief).
While the regime plans to give more handouts to ministers in the form of palatial houses, hundreds of thousands of people displaced by war/calamitous weather-conditions still suffer from inadequate shelter. And around 70,000 families in Colombo are in the process of being rendered homeless, in the largest land-grabbing exercise since Colonial times. Power-wielders have expropriated 1,300 acres of land in Kilinochchi, expelling the legal owners to uncleared forest-land. In Kuchchaveli, another 500 acres of land are being leased to hoteliers, endangering the livelihood of 5000 resident fishermen plus many more seasonal fishermen.
(Ambassador Palitha Kohona has urged the world to stop scratching a wound Sri Lanka is desperately trying to heal, an advice he should tender first to his political-masters. How would those Tamil people expelled from their traditional lands into jungles feel about Sri Lankan justice? What about that abominable act of placing the bodies of three dogs at the cremation site of Velupillai Pirapaharan’s mother? Since Jaffna is under tight military control, the claim that the regime had nothing to do with this uncivilised-deed is far from credible. Do not such acts amount to spiking the ‘wound’ repeatedly, with sharp instruments?)
Budding despots, who plan to rule for life and scheme to create political-dynasties, cannot afford to admit the existence of too many problems. After all, if problems (old and new) abound, that is both a tacit admission of failure and a potent argument for change.
Therefore despots cannot but seek refuge in denial; they need to create their own roseate-hued politico-psychological landscape, which is increasingly at variance with an unpalatable reality. For despots, delusion is a survival mechanism. How else can they maintain that their rule has been, is and will be beneficial? How else can they argue that deluge will follow their departure? Libyan Leader Muammar Gaddafi, in his insistence that Libyans love him and will die for him, even as the said Libyans are risking their lives to oust him, is symbolic of this terrifying politico-psychological condition which is the inevitable fate of most dynastic despots.
Hitherto, the Rajapaksa hegemony in the South was impeccable. This perfect-state ended with Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Marie Antoinette moment. The unravelling of Southern consent to Rajapaksa rule is on, though many years of barely-noticed erosion will precede any visible signs of the eventual avalanche. As economic woes pile-up, the gap between the Rajapaksas and their Sinhala base will begin to widen. This process of politico-psychological separation will happen in fits and starts; it will be delayed considerably by the President’s still extant popularity and his skilful use of the patriotic card.
Mass illusions do not die easily, quickly or painlessly. But with Mahinda Rajapaksa himself opting to deny the very existence of a COL problem, an issue which is of critical import to his Sinhala base, the parting of ways has begun.