By Tisaranee Gunasekara
Nazism offered….a society that had been scarred by deep divisions…a sense of lofty purpose, almost a national mission….”
— Michael Burleigh (The Third Reich – A New History)
Barring a last-minute judicial-intervention, the Rajapaksa plan to make ‘leadership training’ by army officers mandatory for all university-entrants will become a reality, this month. University entry will be denied to any student who does not participate in this three-month programme of physical and psychological regimentation in army camps. That this measure is a gross violation of several basic rights is obvious to the naked eye. More pertinently, if there is no judicial or societal opposition to this scheme, it may be expanded into a nation-wide dragnet (compulsory national service?) which catches 18 year-olds and habituates them into mindless obedience to Rajapaksa Rule.
After all, if the younger generations are conditioned to acquiesce unthinkingly to the decrees of their rulers, if they are disciplined into unquestioning acceptance of the status quo (a familial autocracy behind a democratic façade), a Lankan Spring may be preventable, even after decades of Rajapaksa-misrule.
Given the deadly potential inherent in this scheme, why is polity and society (including most of the academia) reacting to it with indifference? (A cogently argued piece by Prof. Prian Dias of the Moratuwa University, published in the website, Groundviews, is a notable exception to this appalling quietism). Just a couple of months ago, such a preposterous idea would have been unthinkable; today, it is a near fait accompli. And that is quintessential Rajapaksa modus-operandi; for instance, the possibility of the 18th Amendment was dismissed as an impossibility by the regime and by most Lankans, until it was sent to the judiciary for approval. (Similarly, the President has denied any intention of introducing a constitutional amendment limiting the term of the Chief Justice and enabling the President to appoint the Secretary to the Judicial Services Commission).
“I think the entire thing is mad, but I am not bothering myself with it”: this, according to Ian Kershaw, was the (not atypical) reaction of a non-Jew to the Kristallnacht (Hitler – Hubris). The planned militarisation of the universities is almost too surreal to be taken seriously; moreover it does not directly affect most Sri Lankans. Still, it should concern each one of us, because it marks an important milestone in the Rajapaksa project of societal regimentation. The Ruling Family aims to turn citizens into subjects via a process of politico-ideological standardisation; ‘patriotic standards’ are being introduced into every sphere, from politics to economics, from culture to personal conduct. Those who fail to conform to these Rajapaksa-decreed standards are considered anti-patriots, as the witch-hunting of Gen. Sarath Fonseka demonstrates.
C. Wright Mills defines America’s real rulers as men “….in command of the major hierarchies and organisations of modern society. They rule big corporations. They run the machinery of the state and claim its prerogatives. They direct the military establishment. They occupy the strategic command posts of the social structure….” (The Power Elite). Since the election of Mahinda Rajapaksa as the President of Sri Lanka in November 2005, his family has moved steadily to concentrate more and more power in its hands. Six years on, the Rajapaksas occupy the zenith of the state, with presidential siblings as military and economic czars. They are Sri Lanka’s new ‘power elite’. Concomitantly, Lankan armed forces are being transformed from an instrument of the state into a praetorian guard of this Familial ‘power elite’. The bloated military is fed a huge chunk of the national income and used by the Rajapaksas to control state and society.
Each week there are new examples of the steady encroachment of civil spaces by the Rajapaksa-ised military. For instance, last week, the Navy was put in charge of the Vihara Mahadevi Park while road development work of the CMC was placed under army supervision. The Navy is also helping tourism-industrialists in Kalpitiya to overcome opposition by concerned local communities. According to fishermen of the area, “the tourist industry is utilising the Navy to take hold of land….” (BBC – 9.5.2011). For this purpose, the Navy had set up a checkpoint in Mohottuwarama, a checkpoint which did not exist during the war. The armed forces will thus be used as enforcers to facilitate economic activities which endanger local communities and/or cause environmental degradation.
To ensure the continued success of their Familial project, the Rajapaksas need to destroy every democratic bone in Sri Lanka’s body-politic. Inculcating an anti-democratic ethos in civil society will enable this movement away from democracy to be accomplished with minimum force and fuss. Equating democracy with anarchy and glorifying iron-discipline as the path to peace and prosperity is a standard practice of despots. These appeals work best in societies facing ‘ontological crises’; for people battered by gales of political, economic and social instability, the prospect of order and discipline has a curious appeal. For instance, many Lankans may think that a dose of discipline would be good for university students. This, for instance, is how many Germans felt about the Weimer Republic, a discontent the Nazis used adroitly. The LTTE too used Tamil people’s natural affinity towards order and discipline to beat back left-wing competition and gain popular support in the 1980s.
Anarchy is undesirable; but mindless discipline is even more so. Arguably the greatest horror of human history, the Holocaust, was facilitated not by a dearth of discipline but by an excess of it. The Tigers became master-terrorists not because they were anarchic but because they adhered to an iron-discipline and obeyed all ‘Superior Orders’, however irrational or immoral; it is mindless obedience and not wild-ass independence which creates ranks of suicide bombers.
The Rajapaksas, like most despots, advocate a false dichotomy, between rigid discipline and wild anarchy. This is not the choice before Sri Lanka. Until the next national-election season dawns, the choice is not even between Mahinda Rajapaksa and Ranil Wickremesinghe or the UPFA and the UNP. Currently, the real choice is whether we allow Sri Lanka to become a Rajapaksa-property. We must decide whether the Rajapaksas should be given a carte blanche to forge ahead with their project of familial autocracy; or not. This is a choice available to all Lankans, irrespective even of political party-allegiances. A Rajapaksa autocracy will be as damaging to the SLFP/UPFA as it is to Sri Lanka, because the Ruling Family is empowering itself by disempowering the governing party/coalition. A symbol of this debasement is the fact that the 20-something Rajapaksa offspring have more real power than senior SLFPers with a lifetime of loyal service to the party.
The Rajapaksas have proved to be past masters at replacing democratic governance with familial rule, step by stealthy step. Stopping that deadly journey thus entails opposing each anti-democratic measure, even when it doesn’t affect us directly. Tyranny, even at its best, exacts a far bitter price from the populace which nourishes it than democracy, even at its worst. The twin-facts that Sri Lanka has fallen by three ranks in the 2011 Mother’s Index and that, according to the latest Gallup poll on Global wellbeing, only 5% of Lankans consider themselves thriving (while 75% categorise themselves as struggling) presage our really destined destination under Rajapaksa rule.