By Tisaranee Gunasekara
“To take the wrong road is to arrive at snow” — Federico Garcia Lorca (Little Infinite Poem)
They had to stand in a sweltering-queue, in the baking-hot April sun, for hours, they who, ensconced in their public-funded air-conditioned offices and mansions, rarely experience the gruelling tropical heat. They were body-searched, they who zoom through traffic and life, pausing not for laws or norms. And they had no choice but to submit to these humiliations, they who humiliate their fellow citizens as a matter of course.
In a Grimm’s Fairy Tale, a discontented princess is compelled to experience the bitterness of poverty and powerlessness, when she is magically transposed into a life of servitude. Similarly, several Lankan ministers experienced a pinch of the powerlessness, indignity and injustice that is the daily fare of ordinary Lankans (especially Tamils) when they went to Mumbai to watch the Cricket World Cup. According to an outraged Sports Minister, his colleagues were forced to “buy their own tickets…and stand in queues for nearly two hours in the scorching sun and be subjected to body searches by Indian security personnel” (The Sunday Times – 10.4.2011).
The Sports Minister is equally ‘displeased’ at the treatment accorded to President Rajapaksa by Indian authorities. The President was given just 10 free tickets and not the 30 (or 40) he asked for (a large fawning entourage is a must for any Rajapaksa-sojourn abroad). He was not ceremoniously introduced to the two teams nor accorded a role in the award ceremony.
The President (and his advisors) should have expected a somewhat arctic reception in India for three very obvious reasons. Firstly, President Rajapaksa was not invited by the Indian government but by cricketing authorities. Since he was not a state visitor, he should not have expected to be honoured as one. (This was analogous to the situation he found himself in, when he made an unofficial visit to the UK to address the Oxford Union).
Secondly, Indo-Lanka relations are not in a very happy state currently. Thirdly, with Tamil Nadu elections in the offing, Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh cannot afford to be seen hobnobbing with President Rajapaksa; the plight of Lankan Tamils is a major election issue in the state.
In five years, the Rajapaksas have managed to manoeuvre India into a position of relative optionlessness vis-à-vis Sri Lanka. While the war raged, the fear of another Indian intervention (though remote) coloured Colombo’s perceptions and compelled the Rajapaksas to treat India with kid-gloves. But this fear-factor evaporated, with the victorious end of the war; today India is ‘up a creek without a paddle’ vis-à-vis Sri Lanka. Delhi is suspicious of Colombo’s closeness to Beijing and Islamabad, but avoids stridency for fear of driving the Rajapaksas even more into the Sino-Pak embrace.
Sonia Gandhi may wax eloquent about ensuring justice for Lankan Tamils; but this is just election-rhetoric. In reality Delhi has failed to get the Rajapaksas to honour their (repeated) promises to implement a political solution to the ethnic problem. Lacking the capacity to influence Sri Lanka strategically, India would grab any opportunity to administer a discreet slap-on-the-wrist to the Rajapaksas. When the officially uninvited President Rajapaksa arrived in India with an unwieldy delegation and demanded head-of-state treatment, he gave Delhi a superb opportunity to assuage its irritation by delivering him a well-targeted snub.
President Rajapaksa has excellent relations with China, Iran, Burma and Pakistan; therefore he can expect every honour and indulgence when he visits Beijing, Tehran, Rangoon or Islamabad. His relations with the West and India are chillier and raddled with problems; thus he cannot expect to be treated as a welcome guest, when he invites himself to these countries to watch matches or deliver lectures. When we go, uninvited, to houses of people with whom we have ‘issues’, we invite snubs and cold-shoulders; had President Rajapaksa remembered this rule of thumb, he could have avoided the Oxford Fiasco and the Mumbai Fiasco.
Every action has a reaction; some are instantaneous while others have shorter or longer gestation periods. The Rajapaksas may think they are immune from this universal reality because they have got away with so much, but it is an illusory impunity. The illusion will last longer nationally (years, perhaps decades) but internationally, Sri Lanka is already paying for the misdeeds of her rulers.
According to media reports, the OECD has refused to amend the low-ranking accorded to Sri Lanka, despite persistent lobbying by the Sri Lanka Central Bank. In consequence, “European businesses will have to pay higher risk premiums in obtaining credit insurance if they are to trade with Sri Lanka” (ibid). Rajapaksa loyalists may argue that the OECD is punishing us. Perhaps; if so, by maintaining the Emergency, the PTA and other repressive laws, almost two years after the war, the Rajapaksas have presented the EU with a clincher to justify its punitive policy.
During the April Emergency Debate, PM Jayaratne invoked the Tiger bogey, predictably, saying that some former Tigers are lapsing into Tigerism! The Rajapaksas are maintaining repressive laws as a protective-shield not for Sri Lanka but for themselves. But by invoking the Tiger bogey to justify the prolongation of the Emergency, they are damning Sri Lanka internationally, as an unstable and a not-very-safe place. After all, when the Lankan Prime Minister repeatedly warns the Lankan Parliament that the Tigers are still alive, the world cannot be faulted for regarding Sri Lanka as a risky prospect for trade and investment. The regime needs to understand that it cannot keep on invoking the Tiger bogey, maintain repressive laws, tolerate human rights violations (disappearances are continuing in Jaffna, reportedly) and expect the world to see Sri Lanka as a stable democracy.
The Ruling Family’s determination to create a ‘Rajapaksa Security State’, by maintaining repressive laws and high levels of military spending, post-war, is costing Sri Lanka dear, not just in international goodwill, trade and investment but also in national development and popular advancement. According to the Minister of Education, “budgetary allocations for the upgrading of schools that lacked libraries, laboratory facilities and even common facilities like water and sanitation, were insufficient” (The Island – 3.3.2011). As US President Dwight Eisenhower warned, with great prescience, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed” (Speech to American Society of Newspaper Editors – 16.4.1953).
When Sri Lanka maintains defence costs at astronomical levels, she is wasting on Rajapaksa-security, the resources she should have spent on education, health and in assisting the war-affected, Tamils, Sinhalese and Muslims, civilians and soldiers. If the regime removes the Emergency (and the PTA), it can, with one stroke, confound its critics and counter a possible adverse report by the UN Secretary General’s Advisory Panel.
In Stendhal’s The Charterhouse Of Parma, despotic-prince, Ranuccio-Ernesto IV, would get his security chief look under his bed, nightly, for enemies. A despot’s universe is coloured by fear. The Rajapaksas will maintain repressive laws and military spending, at enormous cost, for that future-day they lose their popularity and need protection from the wrath of their people.