But as unpleasant realities assault the Rajapaksa utopia with increasing frequency this populist mask is beginning to slip. What is most shocking about last week’s fuel price hike was not its magnitude but the insensitive manner in which it was implemented. Only a government which is totally uninterested in the well being of its people and supremely insensitive to the opinions of its voters could have permitted such an economic coup de foudre, with no warning, explanation or apology.
l by Tisaranee Gunasekara
“It is not the politicians who are suffering, it’s the people”.
A Greek demonstrator (The Guardian –13.2.2012)
(February 19, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) This is how braggarts end, with egg on their faces and blood on their hands.
Last week, at a press conference in Colombo, US Under-Secretary of State Maria Otero announced Washington’s decision to support a resolution on Sri Lanka, at the February-March UN Human Rights Council sessions. This stunning pronouncement was greeted with an eerie quiet; there were no outraged shrieks by Buddhist monks, no effigy-burning demonstrations by the JHU and no ‘fasts unto death’ by Minister Weerawansa. The puppet-masters seem to have realised that the usual melodramas would not suffice and that the crisis required a different sort of thespian exercise, even if it meant swallowing one’s pride together with the shibboleths about national sovereignty.
So during the Geneva Season, ‘Outraged Patriots’ is to be replaced with ‘Sincere Reformers’. The Army Commander commenced the new phantasmagoria by announcing the appointment of a ‘court of inquiry’ to investigate the observations made by the LLRC. Whether this ruse will satisfy the West or whether the regime will be compelled to implement a few more deceptive measures remains to be seen. In the meantime rights-violations continue unabated. Even as the Rajapaksas were confabulating with Secretaries Otero and Blake, a Tamil businessman was abducted from his home in Wellawatta and a handcuffed detainee was abducted from the Hulftsdorf courts complex; both crimes were committed in broad daylight by armed groups in white vans. On Tuesday a partially burnt corpse was discovered in a Colombo suburb. On Wednesday night another businessman was abducted from the Dehiwala Railway Station.
Abduction was one of the main issues highlighted in the LLRC Report. That abductions and extra-judicial murders are proliferating, in Colombo, in the run up to the critical UNHRC sessions, is a clearer indication of the Rajapaksa intents and purposes than any amount of alluring promises and spurious undertakings.
Sri Lanka’s Greek Tragedy
In real life, Greek tragedies can happen anywhere. All that is required are rulers blinded by hubristic ambition and people habituated into self-deception.
In Rajapaksa discourse the myth of ‘humanitarian operation with zero-casualties’ has been succeeded by the myth of ‘Lankan economic miracle which is immune to the global financial contagion’. Just weeks ago, Minister Basil Rajapaksa bragged that “Sri Lanka’s current economic growth rate of around 8.3 percent would rank the country among the top four performing economies in the world… (and) an IMF study had predicted that Sri Lanka would remain as the second best performing economy in the world next year, after China” (Ministry of Economic Development website). The IMF’s official forecast, ‘Regional Economic Outlook – Asia and Pacific’, paints a rather different picture. That study makes no mention of Sri Lanka becoming the second best performing economy in Asia, let alone the world. It revealingly categorises Sri Lanka not as a part of ‘Emerging Asia’ but as a ‘Low Income Asian Country’.
Myths cannot be maintained without superimposing hopeful illusions on not-so-happy realities. To substantiate their development-miracle myth, the Siblings needed the illusion of a strong rupee which remained rock-solid even as dollars and euros stumbled. Maintaining this illusion required the prodigal use of the country’s limited dollar reserves, despite warnings by economic analysts of the unsustainability and the dangers inherent in that course.
For months, the Rajapaksas spurned the IMF demand to end the practice of selling dollars to maintain the value of the rupee at hyper-inflated levels; bragging about their economic prowess, the Siblings swaggered towards the precipice, with gathering speed. But the reality of plummeting dollar reserves and the repercussions of an IMF decision to withhold the last tranche of its loan facility were too intrusive to be ignored for long. Douched by this double-dose of reality, the Siblings veered to the other extreme. Instead of assisting the rupee to depreciate to a more realistic level gradually, the regime embraced a laissez-faire policy overnight, pushing the rupee into a disastrous free-fall.
During the Fourth Eelam War, the Rajapaksas demonstrated their complete lack of concern about the safety of ordinary Tamils. Over the last seven years they have amply demonstrated their willingness to violate the basic rights of their political opponents, including to the point of murder.
Insensitivity is thus a Rajapaksa staple. But this insensitivity was supposed to be limited to the minorities and to the Sinhala opponents of Familial Rule. The majority of the Sinhalese, who form the politico-electoral mainstay of the regime, was supposed to be treated rather differently. The Rajapaksas make much ado about their supposed care and consideration for the opinion and wellbeing of their Sinhala base. For instance, a key Rajapaksa argument against enhanced devolution and an accountability mechanism is that such moves would be unpopular with the Sinhala majority.
But as unpleasant realities assault the Rajapaksa utopia with increasing frequency this populist mask is beginning to slip. What is most shocking about last week’s fuel price hike was not its magnitude but the insensitive manner in which it was implemented. Only a government which is totally uninterested in the wellbeing of its people and supremely insensitive to the opinions of its voters could have permitted such an economic coup de foudre, with no warning, explanation or apology.
Mahinda Rajapaksa, a veteran of many an anti-inflation demonstration, would have known that the fuel price hike, arguably the steepest in Lankan history, would cause outrage. That is why before announcing the murderous price increase he opened a legal door for the violent quelling of democratic protests. On Friday 10th, President Rajapaksa “placed all members of the armed forces on alert” ostensibly to prevent “terrorist acts or any public disturbance” (Sri Lanka Mirror – 10.2.2012). On Saturday 11th, his regime announced the mammoth fuel price hike. By Monday 13th most of Colombo looked like an occupied city, with armed soldiers guarding busy junctions and quiet street corners. On Wednesday 15th, the burgeoning crisis claimed its first casualty; W Antony Fernando, a 38 year old father of two, was killed when the STF reportedly fired live bullets at a demonstration by Chilaw fishermen protesting against the fuel price hike. A few hours later the regime announced a huge increase in electricity rates…
February thus confronted not just the Rajapaksas but also their Sinhala base with a reality-check. For all their pious pronouncements, the Siblings do not care about Sinhala opinion, any more than Vellupillai Pirapaharan cared about Tamil opinion. The reason is obvious: the Rajapaksas do not intend to win future elections by being popular. Mechanisms are being put in place which will enable them to hold elections with predetermined outcomes. Under cover of national security, the army is being groomed to ensure Rajapaksa electoral victories and insure Rajapaksa Familial Rule. If safeguarding their power necessitates knuckling down before powerful foreigners and shooting at powerless Sinhalese, the Siblings will do that too.
As economic woes exacerbate, the deployment of ‘war heroes’ against Sinhala demonstrators and strikers will intensify. When national security is equated with Rajapaksa security, all those who oppose the Rajapaksas become traitors who endanger the motherland. The violent injustice the Tamils experience today will thus become the fate of the Sinhalese tomorrow.