By Tisaranee Gunasekara
“You’ve made the world in to a madhouse….an enclosure in which the sane are trampled underfoot by a herd of galloping lunatics”. - Ernst Toller (Hoppla, Such is Life!)
We are living through a transformative time, a time when the hitherto inconceivable become the norm.
Take, for example, the hostage-taking demonstration by Minister Weerawansa and his National Freedom Front. Until 6th June, the idea of a senior government minister (and a confidante of the President) leading a braying mob to besiege the UN complex in Colombo and turn some of its staff into hostages would have seemed preposterously impossible. On 6th June, this hitherto preposterous impossibility became a fait accompli. Until 6th June, the idea of the Defence Secretary (and Presidential sibling) giving a carte blanche to a demented mob, which was breaking both national and international law would have seemed preposterously impossible. On 6th June, this hitherto preposterous impossibility became a fait accompli.
Whenever a protest demonstration takes place in Colombo, the police turn up in full force, complete with riot gear including tear gas and water cannons. No such display of muscle was in evidence on Tuesday. Though the police did intervene to ensure the safety of the UN staff, compared to their usual response to demonstrations (including peaceful demonstrations), they acted with uncharacteristic forbearance. This different response indicates that the NFF demonstration had government sanction.
There is another piece of evidence which proves beyond reasonable doubt that the NFF siege is being carried out with the knowledge and the blessing of Presidential sibling and Defence Secretary, Gotabaya Rajapakse: “After police intervened Weerawansa made a call on his mobile phone, a Reuters reporter said. The call was to Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapakse, the President’s brother who also oversees the police, Weerawansa spokesman Mohammed Mussamil said. Weerawansa passed the phone to the commanding officer who answered: ‘The Inspector General of Police ordered me to do this, sir’. Moments later he ordered his men back and the demonstrators erupted in cheers” (Reuters – 6.7.2010). Minister Weerawansa was visible and audible on TV, demanding the identification numbers of a few policemen who entered into fisticuffs with his unruly supporters, and threatening them openly.
The inescapable conclusion is that Minister Weerawansa began his ‘hostage-taking demonstration’ with the connivance (if not at the instigation) of the Rajapakses. As Sri Lanka metamorphoses from a flawed democracy into a full fledged neptocracy, a new mode of governance, more attuned to the ruling ethos, is coming into being. It is instructive to remember that this is not the first time government backed mobs carried out virulent demonstrations against embassies of countries which had incurred the wrath of the Rajapakses; both the British and the Canadian High Commissions got a dose of this brand of ‘Chandi Malli’ diplomacy in the recent past.
Do the Rajapakses and their coterie really believe that by mounting a siege on the UN compound in Colombo or by undertaking a fast unto death they can make the UN Secretary General disband his advisory panel? Surely the Rajapakses realise that after Tuesday’s display of (government backed) hooliganism, the Secretary General cannot afford to disband the advisory panel even if, for some obscure reason, he wants to do so?
In fact this shameful outburst of officially sanctioned low-intensity violence may adversely affect our chances of obtaining the backing of the NAM against the advisory panel. Even some of our traditional friends may think twice about openly supporting us, after the ongoing disgraceful display of inane intemperance.
A Rajapakse Sri Lanka was the rewards the Ruling Family expected for defeating Vellupillai Pirapaharan. But public anywhere is fickle, and economic difficulties can make it even more so. The clear and significant bias accorded to defence over development in the first post-war, post-LTTE budget indicates that the regime has no intention of trying to win over the people by easing their economic woes and improving their economic prospects. Instead, the regime has decided to stick to what it is better at – protecting the country. And the country cannot be protected without a threat and an enemy, potent enough to strike fear into the hearts of the Southern public and to win its consent for the prioritisation of national security over and above democracy and development.
Since the LTTE is no more a new threat and a new enemy must be constructed. Without a threat and an enemy, the continuance of Rajapakse Rule cannot be justified, especially if the Rajapakses fail to deliver any economic relief. Without a threat and an enemy, the use of extraordinary measures to pre-empt or defeat the opponents of the regime cannot be justified, especially when these measures also curtail the basic democratic rights of the people and cost Sri Lanka international aid and trade privileges. Without a threat and an enemy the Rajapakses cannot claim right to immunity and impunity. Without a threat and an enemy, the very rationale for Rajapakse Rule and dynastic succession can come into question.
Therefore threats and enemies play a fundamentally vital role in the Rajapakse power project. The Rajapakses need threats and enemies to render legitimate their new brand of governance. They need threats and enemies to blame for their own economic incapacities and politico-diplomatic blunders, from price hikes to the loss of GSP+. They need to mould the public psyche to regard every misfortune which befalls the country not as outcomes of unintelligent and nepotistic governance but as results of national or international conspiracies. They need to justify their departures from democracy and the rule of law as vital necessities to safeguard the perennially endangered national security.
It is a simple politico-psychological universe – there are the Rajapakses who embody and epitomise patriotism; without them the country will not be safe and will fall pray to traitors from within and marauders from without. Then there are the enemies; and since nation and the Rajapakses are one, the enemies of the Rajapakses are also national enemies (and vice versa). This recasting of politics is necessary to justify those radical departures from democracy, rationality and decency, so essential for a Rajapakse future. The siege of the UN complex fits in well in this mental universe.
Minister Weerawansa has begun a fast unto death demanding the disbanding of the UN advisor panel on Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is now firmly embroiled in a a no-holds barred political war against the United Nations and the West. This is a path which would lead us into that international wilderness occupied by countries such as Zimbabwe and Myanmar. Hannah Arendt warned that irrational extremism can make countries act with “supreme disregard for immediate consequences rather than ruthlessness and neglect of national interest rather than nationalism” (The Origins of Totalitarianism).
She called this condition ‘a radical loss of self-interest’. Such states (or entities) act counter to their own interests, the best case in point being the LTTE. If the Tigers did not kill political opponents or terrorise civilians, if they did not conscript children or practice suicide killings, they would not have been abandoned by India and ostracized by the West as terrorists. By resorting to such illegal and anti-civilisational responses as hostage taking, and by launching a farcical fast unto death, the Rajapakses are undermining the cause of Sri Lanka they claim to espouse. And the political and economic cost of the resultant stigmatisation and isolation will have to be paid by the people, as the loss of GSP+ facility demonstrates.
Moral-ethical common sense is not a constant; it changes over time. Richard Dawkins calls this the ‘shifting moral zeitgeist’: “There seems to be a steadily shifting standard of what is morally acceptable. Donald Rumsfeld, who sounds so callous and odious today, would have sounded like a bleeding heart liberal if he had said the same things during the Second World War” (The God Delusion). In Rajapakse Sri Lanka the change in the moral climate can be best judged by the public indifference to the still ongoing spate of brutal murders of beggars, most of them handicapped men and women. To use a sound-bite from Lee Iacocca, “Where the hell is our outrage? We should be screaming bloody murder” (Where have all the Leaders gone?).
If, as the President says, no civilian died as a result of the war (except, of course, those killed by the Tigers), then the government has no reason to fear any inquiry, national or international, by the UN or by any other organisation. If the zero-civilian casualty assertion is true, there is no need to make such an almighty fuss about a panel which is not a war crimes tribunal but a body tasked with advising the UN Secretary General on whether ‘war crimes’ happened in Sri Lanka. But if, on the other hand, war crimes did happen, then, the perpetrators must be brought to justice, irrespective of their race or political adherences.
This is particularly so since genuine reconciliation (as distinct from sullen passivity) requires some degree of accountability. Let us remember that war crimes are crimes according to the Lankan law, as well as according to international law. And how can a country remain democratic or law abiding, if it strives to condone war crimes by its own while condemning war crimes by others?
The regime cannot have it both ways. Either there were no war crimes, in which case we have no reason to fear the advisory panel or there were war crimes in which case the perpetrators must be brought before justice, especially since the victims would have been civilian Tamils who are our own people. (Incidentally, as the Sudanese example shows, reluctant Third World leaders are not dragged physically before war crimes tribunals; nor do they lose their jobs as a result)though found guilty of war crimes, the President of Sudan remains the President of Sudan.
Therefore even in the virtually impossible event of some of the Rajapakses being tried and convicted in The Hague, in absentia, they can continue to rule Sri Lanka. The only price they will have to pay in reality would be a mere inconvenience – not being able to travel, especially to the West).
Must one suspend all one’s critical faculties and intelligence in order to be considered a patriot?
Are inanity, gullibility and thinly veiled racism the necessary ingredients in the making of a patriot?
We, as a society, are becoming tolerant of what should not be tolerated, from the undermining of democracy by the rulers to gross violation of the rule of law and the growth of a corrosive culture of impunity. We are indifferent to developments and trends which not only violate every notion of justice and decency but also undermine systemic stability, from proposed constitutional amendments which openly serve the interests of the Ruling Family to economic policies which rob the poor to keep the rich and the powerful in clover.
It is in the interests of the regime, to ignore these signs of neglect, abuse, ill-governance and dissolution, because it is the Ruling Family and their allies who are predominantly responsible for these crimes, outrages and misdeeds, as the disgraceful drama that is being played out in front of the UN complex in Colombo clearly demonstrates. But we, as a society, should be cognisant of this disturbing undergrowth before it consumes us because, “in the body politic as in the body personal, non-resistance to the milder indulgences pave the way for non-resistance to the deadlier” (They thought They were Free: The Germans 1933-1945 – Milton Meyer).