By Tisaranee Gunasekara
Few of us can easily surrender our belief that society must somehow make sense. The thought that the state has lost its mind and is punishing so many innocent people is intolerable. And so the evidence has to be internally denied.” — Arthur Miller, The Crucible
The war is won and the Tiger is stone-cold dead. The government assures tourists and investors that Sri Lanka is as safe as paradise. Police stations are replacing ramparts with flower-gardens and the security-details of politicians are being reduced.
But each month the dead Tiger is carefully resurrected, as Sri Lanka’s draconian Emergency Law comes up for renewal in parliament. In this month’s version of the ‘Undead Tiger,’ Prime Minister D.M. Jayaratne announced that the LTTE is secretly operating three training camps in Tamil Nadu! This piece of absurdist political-theatre about an Undead Tiger is critical to the success of the Rajapaksa project; it enables the Ruling Family to nourish a siege-mentality in the Sinhala South and justify the continued existence of the Emergency, in post-war Sri Lanka.
Despots need a perilous world, a world menaced by known and nameless foes, from within and without. They need frightened populaces, who will consent to subjugation, in return for illusions of stability and security. Thus despots seek to manufacture consent for anti-democratic rule by manufacturing national threats, via ‘bogeyman/gonybilla tactics.’
Despots feel unsafe with thinking populaces capable of forming informed judgements and making measured decisions. They want their populaces to be numbed (politically, intellectually and morally) with suspicion and dread. Despotic rulers cannot co-exist with independent citizens; they need dependent subjects who accept their worldviews and their interpretations unquestioningly. Like the Wizard of Oz, despotic-rulers need their populaces to wear reality-distorting politico-psychological spectacles. Anyone who resists participating in these exercises of mass self-deception is regarded as an enemy, and dealt with accordingly.
So Sri Lanka’s Ruling Family needs a spectral Tiger to haunt the collective psyche of the Sinhalese and compel them to consent to anti-democratic laws, autocracy-enabling constitutional amendments and repressive practices. According to the latest Amnesty International report, “Thousands of people are languishing in detention without charge or trial under Sri Lanka’s repressive anti-terrorism laws. Sometimes held in secret prisons, they are vulnerable to a whole range of abuses including torture or being killed in custody” (Forgotten Prisoners).
Without the Emergency and the PTA, such brutally repressive and manifestly unjust practices will be harder to sustain or justify. Thus Rajapaksas will continue to dab in political-necromancy (summoning the dead Tiger to life), even at the risk of antagonising India, and turning Sri Lanka into an international joke – because it is vital for the success of their despotic-dynastic project.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa often speaks in praise of patriotism. At a recent gathering he perorated that “those who love their country will be protected by the country itself” and that “those who work for the country and not for personal gains lead happy lives” (On Lanka News – 1.3.2011).
Juxtapose these Presidential pronouncements with the contrasting fates of Sarath Fonseka and Kumaran Pathmanathan. Gen. Fonseka, the war-winning Army Commander, has lost his rank, honours, pension, parliamentary seat and freedom. Pathmanathan alias KP, the LTTE’s financial wizard and key arms procurer, recently set up his own NGO and was reportedly presented with 100 aces of land in the Wanni by the regime.
The Lankan state which jailed Gen. Fonseka is rewarding Pathmanathan; and the favoured Pathmanathan is bound to be in a happier state than the persecuted Gen. Fonseka. Consequently President Rajapaksa’s assertion that patriotism is materially and spiritually rewarding can be true only if Pathmanathan is the patriot and Gen. Fonseka is the anti-patriot. And for such a radical re-classification to be possible, patriotism itself needs to be redefined, as defence of the ‘prosperity, freedom and rights’ not of the country but of the Ruling Rajapaksa Family. (i.e. patriotism as defined by Ambrose Bierce in his Devil’s Dictionary: ‘The first resort of the scoundrel’ and ‘Combustible rubbish ready to the torch of any one ambitious to illuminate his name’).
Patriotism is the fundament of the Rajapaksa political project, the sharpest Rajapaksa weapon and the most voluminous Rajapaksa mantle.
Once the redefinition of patriotism as unquestioning loyalty to the ruling family is accepted, the antithetical treatments meted to Gen. Fonseka and Pathmanathan become perfectly explicable. The moral of these two morality tales is clear: Rajapaksa loyalists will be looked after by the state and with public funds; Rajapaksa opponents will be persecuted, imprisoned and perhaps even killed.
Revenge as punishment is a key leitmotiv in this redefined patriotism. The former Army Commander is being denied a geyser by the authorities, despite a court order to provide him with one for health reasons. Last month, the cremation site of Velupillai Pirapaharan’s mother was desecrated. According to media reports, the Lankan military had built its new Northern Headquarters atop a Tiger cemetery it destroyed a couple of years ago. Each act aims to humiliate and denigrate a defeated/fallen opponent and sends an unequivocal warning to all would-be-opponents.
Allowing Gen. Fonseka a geyser or an exercise machine, for health reasons, would not have cost the regime anything. It may even have won the regime some plaudits for fairness and compassion, just as treating civilian Tamils and dead Tigers with common decency would have helped create bridges of understanding between the North and the South. But the regime is not interested in tolerance or reconciliation. The message it wants to send to Tamils in the North and political opponents in the South is identical to the message Gaddafi is sending the people of Libya with his tanks and his war planes: submit and obey unquestioningly; or suffer and die.
Despotism is impossible where sources of countervailing power exist. Thus the Rajapaksas are moving decisively to destroy all sources and forms of countervailing power. The 18th Amendment, which removed Presidential term-limits even as it enhanced, qualitatively, Presidential powers, marks a new and a critical nadir in this retrogressive journey.
But it is not only constitutional, legal and political countervailing powers the Rajapaksas want to eliminate. They also want to persuade us to abandon critical thinking, connive at our own bondage and accept the Rajapaksas as the only possible leader-saviours of Sri Lanka. Gramsci points out that “when one’s conception of the world is not critical and coherent,” it results in the creation of a composite personality containing “Stone Age elements and principles of a more advanced science…” (Prison Notebooks).
The Rajapaksas want to addle our minds with fear (via spectral Tigers and other bogies), awaken historic memories of hero-kings who defeated enemy hordes and saved the nation and encourage the belief that a ruler of the same mould is needed for national and popular salvation. Thus the official projection of President Rajapaksa as the uncrowned Hero-King, a modern day Dutugemunu.
The fact that we neither rage nor laugh when the elected President styles himself as the ‘Universally-Renowned Lord of the Three-Sinhala Lands’ is a measure of the success achieved by the Rajapaksas in strengthening the ‘stone-age elements’ within our collective-psyche at the expense of more democratic sentiments.