by Tisaranee Gunasekara
The tyrant desires that his subject shall be incapable of action, for no one attempts what is impossible, and they will not attempt to overthrow a tyranny, if they are powerless.” – Aristotle (Politics)
The Samurdhi officials have shown that there is still a way. By refusing to tolerate the barbaric injustice done to a colleague and by using their collective strength to resist the über-power of the power-wielders, they compelled the Rajapaksa regime to digress, however temporarily, from its habit of impunity.
Whether this unprecedented victory becomes a trailblazer to a more liveable future or a mere footnote in the history of a Rajapaksa Sri Lanka will depend, to a considerable extent, on our capacity and willingness to resist attempts to transform us from citizens to subjects.
According to the Rajapakse ethos, the hottest place in hell is reserved for the traitors to the Ruling Family; the maliciously vengeful decision to strip the Army Commander who defeated the LTTE of his rank and hounours and dishonourably discharge him presage the future.
For almost a week after Deputy Minister Mervyn Silva tied a Samurdhi official to a tree in the presence of the media and the police, the regime did nothing. The President remained silent, the police was evasive and the UPFA tried to reduce l’affaire Mervyn from a national outrage into a mere personal fracas. The game-changer was the peaceful protest by Samurdhi officials, backed by a segment of the media and society. A somewhat belated attempt at damage control by Basil Rajapaksa failed when Samurdhi officials refused to accept his assurances on the future conduct of the delinquent deputy minister. Instead, they moved to widen their protest.
Milton Meyer opines that there is a “point at which atrocity would awaken the community to the consciousness of its moral habit…the point which the tyrant must always approach but never pass’ (They Thought They Were Free). The visuals of a public official being tied to a tree by a politician penetrated the customary Southern apathy. Moreover, Samurdhi officials form an important component of the support cum vote base of the regime and their democratic resistance was neither dismissible as an opposition plot nor condemnable as a pro-Tiger act.
Faced with an opinion-impasse, the Rajapaksas did the sensible thing and deserve praise for reining in Mervyn Silva, however belatedly. Hopefully, this chastisement is real and not a Rajapaksa sleight of hand. Silva’s fate can become a warning to others only if he does not return, via the next cabinet reshuffle, ‘vindicated’ by the SLFP disciplinary committee.
That is why Silva must be charged in a court of law for taking the law into his own hands.
L’affaire Mervyn demonstrates a vital truth. Democratic resistance still has the capacity to prevent some of the worst excesses of the rulers and slow-down Sri Lanka’s march towards a tyranny, characterised by absolute impunity for the Ruling Family and its underlings. And, yet, this propitious outcome was due in part to many special features of this particular case. Mervyn Silva is the ideal villain. The incident was recorded on tape.
Most of all, Samurdhi officials are numerous, organised and form an important support bloc of the regime. Therefore they have a clout not available to most. It is to their great credit that they used this clout courageously, without being swayed by spurious arguments about patriotism and ‘Ape Aanduwa’, into inaction. They refused to be subjects and asserted their rights as citizens, thereby bringing down a repeated offender who seemed impervious to both law and public opinion.
In the South, resistance is possible and, given certain conducive conditions, can become successful. In the North, democratic and peaceful resistance is near impossible, because the regime and its agents can implement any injustice, however abominable, under the cover of security. Once the mantle of security embroidered with patriotic rhetoric,, is used to cover an injustice, not only do victims lose the capacity to protest; the South opts for silent complicity.
According to media reports, 5,000 Tamil families (from Indrapuram and Shanthipuran in Killinochchi, Thiru-Murugandi in Mullaitivu and Munnikulam in Mannar) have been expelled from their villages to make way for cantonments for army families. And 15,000 school children have to study under trees, because their schools have been transformed into IDP camps, and the state, instead of building new schools and new houses, is constructing new military camps and cantonments (new temples too, while demolishing existing temples in the East, to build tourist hotels).
These are injustices, outrageous and dangerous. And they concern not just the victims, but all Lankan citizens. Sadly, the North is under de facto military rule, and the South loses its reason and acquiesces in anti-democratic acts, the moment ‘national security’ and ‘welfare of the armed forces’ are mentioned.
Had Mervyn Silva been disciplined just once, the latest outrage would not have happened.
Similarly, our silence about the displacement not just of Northern Tamils but also Eastern Sinhalese and Colombo’s urban poor will encourage the regime to perpetrate more injustices, pausing only to place them under suitable headings. By tolerating injustice done to the North and the East in the name of national security, the South is making itself vulnerable to similar injustices inflicted in the name of economic development. The time has come to discard the “narcissism of small differences” (Freud) which prevents us from seeing the Rajapaksa onslaught on basic rights for what it is — a common threat to all Lankan citizens.
In a democracy, no individual or entity should be above scrutiny and criticism; carte blanche can be conceded only at the risk of basic freedoms. Mahinda Rajapaksa is often hailed as ‘King’, in his presence, by supporters eager to show their fealty. This practice is more than a silly conceit; it entails a mind set which normalises servility to the powerful and degrading of the powerless. Mervyn Silva is a parliamentarian of long standing; yet his public delinquencies began only after the Rajapaksas established their familial rule.
Ranil Wickremesinghe gave himself the title ‘The Leader’. With hindsight, it is easy to see the link between this self-aggrandizement and his subsequent conduct, from annihilating inner-party democracy to clinging to leadership despite serial electoral debacles. His anti-democratic and intolerant mind set seems to be infectious, as evidenced by the defeat of Sajith Premadasa’s proposal to enable members of provincial and local councils to vote in a leadership contest and by the attack on Ravi Karunanayake’s supporters in Beliatte, allegedly by Sajith-loyalists.
A democracy can be destroyed from within only with the complicity of its citizenry. A citizenry cannot be transformed by their own government into subjects without their consent and cooperation. The transformation of Weimar Republic into Nazi Germany required the acquiescence of a majority of Germans, at every major turn. Velupillai Pirapaharan did not go from Thambi to Surya Thevan overnight, bulldozing all in one go. Such internal transformations take time and need a congenial atmosphere created by citizens willing to forego their rights in the name of an abstraction or a mirage, or out of disillusionment about the many failings of democracy.
The Rajapaksas dream of absolute power and dynastic rule (Namal Rajapaksa is already acting like the de facto crown prince). Ranil Wickremesinghe is the most ineffective opposition leader in post-independence Sri Lanka. The confluence of these two negatives is creating a conjuncture in which citizens have to be their own defenders, whenever possible.