by Tisaranee Gunasekara
DELUSION, n. The father of a most respectable family, comprising Enthusiasm, Affection, Self-denial, Faith, Hope, Charity and many other goodly sons and daughters.” — Ambrose Bierce (The Devil’s Dictionary)
The prime target of Minister Wimal Weerawansa’s delusive fast was neither the UN nor its Secretary General, but the Lankan public.
Minister Weerawansa and his political handlers would have known that their attempt at blackmailing the UN Secretary General was bound to fail. And, as even the Sinhala nationalist defenders of Weerawansa’s actions admit, the fast was not really meant to end in, death. So why fast, if one knew that the UN was not going to knuckle down?
And why call it a fast-unto-death, if there was no real intention of, fasting unto death?
Minister Weerawansa’s was a pseudo fast (unto death) and its real aim was to delude the Lankan people into forgetting, at least momentarily, their many substantive discontents and rally round the Rajapaksas in outrageous ire against the ‘evil machinations’ of the latest ‘arch-villain’, Ban Ki Moon.
Juvenal in his Tenth Satire came up with the term ‘bread and circuses/games’ (panem et circenses) to describe the methods used by Roman emperors to divert public attention from the debasement and disappearance of political rights, consequent to the transition of Rome from a republic into an empire: “The people that once bestowed commands, consulships, legions and all else, now meddles no more and longs eagerly for just two things – bread and games!” (Vanity of Human Wishes).
Minister Weerawansa’s fasting drama was aimed at deluding the populace into forgetting their many cares, including the exorbitant prices of bread. What better poseur to implement this carefully choreographed show than Minister Weerawansa and what better theme, than patriotism, which, as Ambrose Bierce said, is the first resort of the scoundrel.
Minister Weerawansa’s antics indicate with what contempt he and his political masters hold the Lankan people. The thespian exercise which began with such melodramatic intensity (with Minister Weerawansa, in an absurd echo of Che Guevara’s ‘Message To The Tricontinental’, asking others to take his place, if he dies from his fast) ended less than two and a half days later, on a pledge given by President Rajapaksa not to betray the armed forces! In a bizarre post-script, multi-coloured posters appeared on Colombo walls thanking Minister Weerawansa for his patriotic feat.
Cleary the Rajapaksas and their coterie believe that the southern public is easily dupable. Other pieces of absurdist theatre will follow, aimed at promoting the Rajapaksa message of combined triumphalism and fear: we have won a unique victory but an envious West is trying to destroy us, so forget all cares and concerns and rally round the patriotic Rajapaksas to save the motherland.
The Tiger was a past-master at anesthetising the Tamil people into compliance by creating beguiling or frightening illusions. The Rajapaksas seem to be following suit. Minister Weerawansa’s farcical fast is indicative of the regime’s preferred method of dealing with thorny issues – creating illusions which are often the complete antithesis of the reality (the death-fast which was not a death-fast). Nowhere is this practice more prevalent than in the economy.
The politicised Central Bank (which is beginning to resemble Orwell’s ‘Ministry of Plenty’) routinely celebrates stupendous economic successes, while the lower and the middle classes struggle to survive financially. There is always a moment and an opportunity to avoid the downfall, before the trickle becomes a tide and the public becomes anesthetized by familiarity to regard the abnormal as normal. One of the earliest warnings about the Rajapaksa brand of delusive politics came in 2006 from the then Auditor General.
In a report, the Auditor General warned about a new tendency to inflate revenue figures and claimed that Sri Lanka lost Rs. 360 billion due to weaknesses and inadequacies in its revenue collection system and the carelessness of its Ministry of Finance. The Finance Ministry responded, not by taking remedial measures, but by contradicting the Auditor General and implying that his report was a tissue of lies. Since then, inflating revenue figures and deflating expenditure figures have become the regime’s tried and tested method of reducing budget deficits, on paper; supplementary estimates are introduced subsequently to bridge the gap.
Governance by delusion is necessary because a more reality based approach would interfere (perhaps terminally) with the Rajapaksa project. There is a pithy Sinhala proverb which can be translated, inelegantly, as ‘one does not pluck a honeycomb just to lick one’s fingers’ – meaning when a man attempts a difficult or dangerous task, he does so in anticipation of ample reward. The real goal of Velupillai Pirapaharan was not Tamil Eelam but Tiger Eelam; and his single-minded pursuit of Tiger Eelam undermined the Tamil cause terminally. The Rajapaksas defeated the LTTE not to create a unitary Sri Lanka but to create a unitary Sri Lanka under Rajapaksa rule.
The Rajapaksas’ plan was to defeat the Tigers militarily, without making any political concessions to the Tamils, thereby winning the gratitude of the Sinhalese and, as a mark of that gratitude, their freely given consent for long term Familial Rule. The President and his brothers are still popular in the South. But this happy state may not last, if the much awaited peace dividend does not materialise. And the peace dividend cannot materialise so long as the present budgetary bias of guns over butter remains.
Occupation is an expensive business; every anti-democratic or Sinhala supremacist measure breeds resentment among the subjugated Tamils, creating an increasing need for men in arms to maintain stability. According to media reports, the Navy is seeking permission to set up a camp in a neglected cashew plantation in Vaharai; two Hindu Kovils in Trinco and one in Batticaloa have been taken over by the Army upon being been categorised (by the UDA?) as unauthorised structures; two magistrates hearing cases against pro-Rajapaksa Tamil politicians have been transferred, willy-nilly; the government is to build houses for soldiers in the North while the task of building houses for displaced Tamils have been delegated to the Indians; Wellawatte police has begun registering Tamil residents again.
The Rajapaksa policy of ruling the North through compulsion (‘consent without consent’) would turn high defence allocations into a budgetary staple. This in turn will create a politico-military complex (led by the Defence Secretary) with a vested interest in maintaining the budgetary bias of guns over butter at whatever cost.
Unfortunately for the regime, the lopsided nature of the budget impacts negatively on the South via the non-appearance of the peace dividend. The Ruling Family’s solution to this dilemma is to appeal to the darker side of the collective Sinhala psyche by inculcating fear and hatred, jingoism and xenophobia.
A research conducted by the York University in the UK has found that anxiety and uncertainty can make people more prone to political radicalism or religious extremism, according to the July issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The South is being fed on a daily fare of Tiger resurgence and international conspiracies in order to justify the Rajapaksa politics of extremism and intolerance.
According to this xenophobic narrative, the West is jealous of us and is out to get us because we have succeeded where they are failing. The UN Secretary General is playing their game. The white barbarians are at the gate, so we must take all measures necessary to protect politically what we have won militarily. Thus every other issue must be de-prioritised, from the gradual replacement of democratic governance with Familial Rule and the possible consequences of the loss of the GSP+ facility to the anti-popular nature of the budget and the worsening dengue epidemic (132 deaths and 19,960 reported cases so far; most of the victims are children).
A combination of phantom enemies and phantom achievements can serve multiple purposes, from winning the consent of the Sinhalese to long term Familial Rule to excusing the crimes and misdeeds, the ineptness and incapacities of the regime. The economic and political cost of this delusive and demented politics will have to be borne by the masses, especially the Sinhalese in whose name it is being practised. That too is apposite. The Tamils had to pay the full price for allowing the LTTE to hijack their cause and speak in their name. Someday it will be our turn.
In October 2006, the ruling SLFP and the opposition UNP signed a Memorandum of Understanding to implement a Common National Agenda. The MoU, singed at an auspicious hour amidst much fanfare, was to last for two years. ‘This agreement today is to achieve peace and a political solution’, Wickremesinghe declared; ‘We have placed the country first’ President Rajapaksa announced.
The MoU’s Common National Agenda consisted of four issues: finding a political solution to the North-Eastern conflict, reforming the electoral system, ensuring Good Governance and achieving Social Development. An air of peace and goodwill permeated the South. The West was thrilled and optimists everywhere declared the beginning of a new era.
In reality the political marriage between the SLFP and the UNP turned out to be not so much a marriage as the briefest of flings. Mahinda Rajapaksa and Ranil Wickremesinghe both had partisan and personal political reasons for signing a truce with each other. The inner-party feud between President Rajapaksa and Mangala Samaraweera was gathering momentum while a group of UNPers, including Deputy Leader Karu Jayasuriya, were feeling restive about the less than happy state of their party.
The real purpose of the MoU between the SLFP and UNP was to pave the way for the defeat of these potential inner-party challenges to the absolutist leaderships of Mahinda Rajapaksa and Ranil Wickremesinghe. The MoU ended in acrimony in February 2007, with 18 UNP parliamentarians defecting to the government. By that time both Mahinda Rajapaksa and Ranil Wickremesinghe had stabilised themselves by ensuring that the respective inner-party rebellions were stillborn.
News about a new pow-wow between Mahinda Rajapaksa and Ranil Wickremesinghe is trickling out. According to media reports, the two parties may work together to produce a new consensual constitution. If the past practices of both leaders are any indication, this détente too is likely to be an illusion perpetrated by President Rajapaksa and Opposition Leader Wickremesinghe to hoodwink the public. Wickremesinghe needs to hang on to party leadership, at whatever the cost; therefore it would be in his interest to ensure that the government does not back any of the contenders to his job.
The Rajapaksas need to present a moderate façade to the world even as they pursue their brand of extremist politics. They also need to present a fait accompli in the form of a readymade two-thirds majority to silence the handful of grumblers in the UPFA (to call them dissenters would be to overstate the case); preventing the opposition parties from launching a united public campaign against the removal of presidential term limits would be another aim.
A pseudo-détente would enable Ranil Wickremesinghe to beat back potential contenders and confuse and confound the few UPFA grumblers. This powwow too will end in a stillborn inner party rebellion in the UNP and a new wave of defections to the government. Ranil Wickremesinghe will be able to hang on to the leadership of an ever diminishing party while the Rajapaksas will be able to clear the sole constitutional impediment to dynastic rule. The deluded public will not reap any benefits, but that is the usual fate of all dupes