by Tisaranee Gunasekara
“Our government has kept us in a perpetual state of fear - kept us in a continuous stampede of patriotic fervour - with the cry of grave national emergency. Always, there has been some terrible evil at home, or some monstrous foreign power that was going to gobble us up if we did not blindly rally behind it”. - General Douglas MacArthur (Nation, 17.8.1957)
It defies reason. The year the war was at its most intense and critical, Sri Lanka’s defence allocation was Rs. 177 billion; but in the first year of peace Sri Lanka’s defence allocation increased by a massive Rs.24 billion to Rs. 201 billion. Normally, defence expenditure increases in times of war and decreases (or stabilises) once peace dawns. Sri Lanka has become the antithesis of this norm; in this surreal land, defence expenditure actually increases during peacetime.
This anomaly is sourced in the Rajapakse attitude to peace and nation-building which, in turn, flows naturally and logically from the Rajapakse attitude to war. Peace will not be consensual; it will not be achieved via reconciliation; nation-building will not be voluntary; there will be no attempts to win over the Tamils by addressing their developmental needs and political concerns. Instead peace will be achieved and nation building effected via force and compulsion.
The North and the Tamil areas of the East are treated as occupied territory, its people kept under control by a continuous and overwhelming display of force. Dominance rather than hegemony is the aim. Temporary army camps become permanent while new camps are built; in and around them, Buddhist edifices multiply, under state patronage. Tiger cemeteries, the last resting places of so many young Tamils, are razed to the ground and replaced with monuments to the victors. Every act is a reminder to the Hindu/Christian Tamils that they are but guests in a Sinhala Buddhist country, that they have no inalienable rights even in the land which had been their traditional homeland for centuries.
This policy of pacification requires the accordance of primacy to the military over civilian and to defence over resettlement. This prioritisation is symbolised in the relative allocations in the 2010 budget – a whopping Rs.201 billion for defence and a paltry Rs. 2 billion for resettlement; the sum allocated for resettlement less than 1% of the sum allocated for defence. This stark statistic, in itself, is a sufficient indicator of the future Tamils can expect in a Rajapakse Sri Lanka.
The Sinhalese masses will not fare well either, economically or politically. This is evident in the low financial importance accorded to such key areas as education and health. Education (including higher education) is allocated a mere Rs.46 billion – i.e. around 18% of defence expenditure. Health at an allocation of Rs.52 billion fares only a fraction better – i.e. about 25% of defence expenditure. Thus the living conditions of a majority of Sinhalese are unlikely to improve, despite the ending of the war and the dawning of peace. How can there be a peace dividend in a country which spends more on defence in peacetime than it did during the war?
The Rajapakses would hope to offset this decline/stagnation in real living standards in the South by enhancing the ‘feel good factor’. The Sinhalese will have the doubtful felicity of feeling superior to their non-Sinhala brethren. They will have the dubious satisfaction of going to Nagadeepa, Jaffna or Trinco as members of the victorious race, basking in remembered glory, worshipping at the few old and many new Buddhist shrines, paying homage to the victory memorials.
They can feel proud that they have a leader who defies the world, who refuses to make concessions to the minorities. Whether these psychological factors can make up for the decline/stagnation in their actual living conditions (and for how long), only time can tell.
Namal Rajapakse is not a cricketer. Yet during the IIFA extravaganza, when the visiting Indian film stars engaged in a friendly contest with Lankan cricketers, young Rajapakse was included in the Lankan team, otherwise made up of professional cricketers and led by the national captain. His sole qualification was being the eldest son of the Lankan President, and according to some, the heir-apparent.
The inclusion of young Rajapakse on the Lankan side is a symbol of the present and an omen for the future. Increasingly, the only real ‘qualification’ needed to get ahead in many a field, from politics to cricket, is to be a member or a faithful servitor of the Rajapakse Family. Intelligence and expertise, talent and hard work, commitment and seniority are beginning to matter less and less in Sri Lanka, as the tentacles of the voracious Rajapakse octopus reaches out to almost every aspect of Lankan life.
A regime based on a family is narrow-based, by definition. Such a regime needs an ideology which can win for it the support of the masses, a façade for its true parochial objectives and nepotistic deeds. Thus the Rajapakses have Sinhala supremacism. The Rajapakses’ strong psychological predilection for Sinhala supremacism is indubitable; its extremism and xenophobia fit in very well with the obscurantist outlook of this family of minor aristocrats, big fish in a small pond. Even so, had Sinhala supremacism not been a potential winner, the Rajapakses would not have embraced it, fully.
When Mahinda Rajapakse became the Presidential candidate of the ruling UPFA, conditions were ripe for Sinhala supremacism to recover from the strategic setback of 1987 and surge ahead. The obvious inability of the appeasement oriented peace process of Ranil Wickremesinghe to appease the LTTE and Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s failure to occupy the anti-Tiger, pro-devolution space, paved the way for the return of a different anti-Tigerism, which was also anti-devolution and anti-Tamil. The Sinhala supremacist lobby, numerically small but ideologically stringent and vocal, rallied round Rajapakse, forming the bedrock of his campaign. He, in turn, incorporated many of their positions into his manifesto, Mahinda Chinthanaya.
From an opportunistic point of view, the same point of view which motivated SWRD Bandaranaike to adopt Sinhala Only, this alliance between the Rajapakse Family and Sinhala supremacists made perfect sense. Both were on the margins, dreaming of and plotting to occupy the political centre. Alone, it was a feat beyond them. The Sinhala supremacists needed a leader who would rescue their extremist policies from political oblivion and bring them back on to centre stage; the Rajapakses needed a suitable façade for their project of familial rule, a platform capable of guaranteeing majority support. Bandaranaike, the cosmopolitan, the man who supported federalism early in his political career, would have had his moments of discomfiture with his Sinhala supremacist allies (he was eventually killed by a Buddhist monk).
But between the Rajapakses and Sinhala supremacists, there cannot but be near total ideological congruity. Rajapakse had always been on the anti-Tamil, anti-devolution side of the political divide; he was at the forefront of the opposition to any concessions to Tamils in the 1980’s and was a leader of the anti-Indo-Lanka Accord/Provincial Council ‘alliance’ between the SLFP and the JVP (interestingly he maintained a tactical silence on Wickremesinghe’s appeasement process until the UPFA returned to power in 2004). In 2004 his supporters (clearly with his approval) used race and religion to defeat the notion of a Lakshman Kadiragarmar premiership.
(With an anti-Tiger Tamil as the PM, Sri Lanka could have moved ahead, instead of moving back. The JVP, to its eternal credit, was strongly supportive of it and the SLFP would have fallen into line, if Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga did not give into the ‘chandi malli’ tactics of the Rajapakses.) With this history, and with his innate parochialism, Rajapakse fits in well with his Sinhala supremacist allies who believe that Sri Lanka is a Sinhala country and all minorities are nothing but guests in it.
From the inception, Rajapakse’s anti-Tigerism was sourced in a Sinhala First position. As he said, having won the Presidency with Sinhala support, it was incumbent upon him to put Sinhala interests first, over and above minority concerns. This electoral consideration fitted in very well with the Rajapakse aim of concentrating as much power as possible in the hands of the Family. Devolution, like the 17th Amendment, would reduce rather than enhance presidential powers.
Furthermore, devolution would empower a community which had not and was not likely to support Rajapakse. Anti-devolution and the intrinsic Rajapakse disinclination to share power with anyone made a perfect fit. The alliance had worked to perfection, so far. The Rajapakses honoured their part of the bargain by defeating the LTTE, without making any concessions to the Tamils, while negating most of the concessions made to the minorities in the Indo-Lanka Accord. Now the Sinhala supremacist must back the Rajapakse moves to establish dynastic rule and provide it with patriotic cover.
Patriotism is the official creed of Rajapakse Sri Lanka, the sole measuring rod of what is acceptable and what is not; it draws the line of demarcation between a good citizen and a bad citizen. Tigers said Tamils are Tigers and damned any Tamil who did not support the Tigers as a traitor. Similarly, according to the new creed, Rajapakses are Sri Lanka, and anyone who opposes them is a real or a potential traitor to Sri Lanka. The fate of Sarath Fonseka, who, together with Mahinda and Gotabhaya Rajapakse, waged a victorious war against the LTTE, is symbolic of the potency and relevance of this new equation. With patriotism as creed, doubts and questioning are not permitted and anything other than unquestioning belief is seen as heresy. Periodically, government leaders talk about a resurgent Tiger threat, to keep Sinhala phobias alive, to justify the patriotic creed and the repressive, anti-democratic measures, which stem from it.
Take, for example, the latest outburst by Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse, in an interview with the BBC’s Hard Talk. When told that former Army Commander Sarath Fonseka has expressed his willingness to give evidence before a war crimes tribunal, Rajapakse becomes incoherent with rage. “He can’t do that. He was the commander. That’s a treason. We will hang him if he do that….. How can he betray the country? He is a liar, liar, liar”, spluttered the Presidential sibling. His remarks capture the essence of Rajapakse rule - arbitrary and capricious, of the Family, by the Family and for the Family, a tyranny made palatable to the Sinhala majority via its role as the main purveyor of the new patriotic creed.
The debate on the most desirable and acceptable mode of devolution can wax and wane; the relative merits and demerits of the 13th Amendment or federalism can continue apace. In reality there will be no devolution; not even the full implementation of the 13th Amendment. Instead, with the proposed constitutional amendments, devolution will contract and become nothing more than provincial decentralisation. A patriotic government cannot act otherwise.
In actuality, as the latest budget figures indicate, Sri Lanka is on its way to become a national security state, a state in which every other area from popular wellbeing to democratic rights will be subservient to that nebulous term ‘national security’. Patriotism provides the ideological rationale for this transformation. Patriotism as creed justifies the use of extraordinary measures against anti-patriots, measures beyond not just democracy and justice, but also common human decency. Throughout history, religions have been used for such purposes. The new patriotism too will be used to justify the perpetuation of Rajapakse rule, at any cost, by any means.