| by Tisaranee Gunasekara
Only those who support terrorism can request to reduce
allocations for defence”. – Basil Rajapaksa (SLBC – 30.11.2011)
(December 04, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) As President Mahinda Rajapaksa was declaring open the Southern highway amidst fanfare, the people of Galle and Matara were struggling with the aftermath of a deadly gale. Despite the regime’s boast of turning Sri Lanka into a Hub of all things great and glorious, the Met Department had failed to forecast the gale. It took the people unawares, especially the fishermen who went out to the sea, trusting in the Met Department’s ‘all clear’.
So while a celebratory-spirit permeated the Southern highway, a few miles away, ordinary Southerners were grappling with lost lives, destroyed homes and damaged infrastructure. A sensitive administration would have either postponed the opening or toned it down. But Rajapaksas do not allow national disasters to spoil their self-adulatory bashes. For instance, this year’s Independence Day was marked with pomp and pageantry while floods were raging in 13 districts. In his self-laudatory speech, the President made only a passing reference to the ongoing devastation, which had, by that time, displaced more than a million Lankans.
Insensitive rulers and unjust policies are our particular self-destructive memes. In the North they paved the way for an ethnic problem and a three-decade war; in the South they fuelled two destructive insurgencies.
On the 57th Birth anniversary of Vellupillai Pirapaharan, Sri Lanka took yet another step towards exacerbating the still unresolved ethnic crisis. 65 Tamil Prisoners in the Anuradhapura jail were reportedly stripped and assaulted by jailors and made to stand in the rain; a Hindu shrine inside the prison was allegedly destroyed. The prisoners have launched a hunger-strike, in protest. Decades of bloodshed have failed to teach Lankan authorities that humiliation breeds resentment and injustice fuels anger.
The brutal and degrading assault was supposedly the authorities’ way of preventing LTTE suspects from commemorating Heroes Day. The explanation seems credible as it blends seamlessly with the Rajapaksa approach to peace-building. The Siblings believe in peace through force and domination, rather than consent and persuasion, with violence as the first rather than the last resort. Keep them quiet by keeping them down seems to be the Rajapaksa path to peace. As Presidential Sibling Minister Basil Rajapaksa said, winding up the budget debate, “military camps (must be) maintained in all parts of the country in order to accept it as one land” (Sri Lanka Mirror – 1.12.2011).
Altering Northern demographics by implanting military cantonments in traditional Tamil areas is a key strand of the Rajapaksa-way. Individual Lankans acquiring land anywhere in the island is antithetically different from state-sponsored/aided colonisation aimed at creating new demographic-realities. The first is a necessary democratic freedom; the second is an unjust and politically-explosive measure. The erection of new military camps, despite the end of the war, and the building of Buddha statues and Temples in places with no civilian Buddhists are making matters worse.
Opposition is treated as treachery and Tamils have been rendered right-less and turned into de facto prisoners in their own homes, villages and towns. This peace-via jackboot approach is causing disillusionment even among staunchly anti-LTTE Tamils as is evident, for instance, by the desperate pleas by V. Ananadasangaree: “My question is, when the bloodshed due to the war in the North has still not dried up and the wounds of the war not healed yet, why should the Government or any one representing the Government harass the people and wound their already wounded hearts, beyond their limits of toleration” (Letter to President Rajapaksa – 15.11.2011).
The Rajapaksas will never devolve power, not only because, as Sinhala supremacists, they disbelieve the existence of an ethnic problem. The Rajapaksas will never devolve power because they are power-monopolists and not power-sharers. The Siblings do not want to share power with outsiders, which, according to their archaic perspective, means all those who do not belong to the Ruling Family/clan. Since genuine devolution promotes democracy, it is doubly inimical to their despotic project of familial-rule and dynastic-succession.
Non-consensual, compulsive peace via increased militarization is ultimately self-defeating, both politically and socio-economically. The crisis-laden Israel is a classic example: “Shir Hever, a researcher at the Jerusalem-based Alternative Information Center, estimates that…US$100 billion was spent in the occupied territories between 1970 and 2008, money that could have gone to education, health care, or building more affordable housing in Tel Aviv” (The New York Review of Books – 24.11.2011).
In Sri Lanka too the peace via jackboot approach is causing stratospheric increases in defence costs, post-war. This unsustainable escalation is compelling the regime to borrow ever more to make ends meet, pushing the country towards a Greek-style debt crisis. The Rajapaksa Way can cost us both peace and economic development.
The mammoth Lankan delegation which descended on St. Kitts for the 2018 Commonwealth Games Vote hosted a gala-dinner for the assemblage. Speaking on the occasion, Central Bank Governor, Ajith Nivad Cabral said, “Tonight could not have gone better. We proved that not only could Sri Lanka host the Games – but that we could do it in style”.
The Lankan delegation certainly did things in style that night. The website of Hambantota’s rival, Goldcoast (which did not host a gala-dinner), carried a lengthy article on Lankan festivities (the above quote comes from it), illustrated with a picture titled, ‘Sri Lanka Upbeat about the Bid’. The picture depicts Namal Rajapaksa and Governor Cabral, their faces wreathed in blissfully-vacant grins, playing at ‘trains’, together with several members of the Lankan delegation (see more details). ‘Trains’ is a popular children’s game in which players move in a row, making chuffing noises, with hands on the shoulders of the one in front. Indubitably Sri Lanka has the only Central Bank Governor, in the national and global history of Central Bank Governors, to publicly engage in this infantile pursuit. It is a unique honour indeed, but whether that charming sight convinced Commonwealth delegates of Sri Lanka’s capacity to host anything more serious than a no-holds-barred party is somewhat debatable.
Sri Lanka spent at least US$8 million on the Hambantota-bid. When asked whether the money could not have been more productively spent on alleviating poverty, Governor Cabral replied, “it was necessary to change the perception that Sri Lanka was still a Third World country” (The Island – 16.11.2011). That answer is symbolic and symbiotic of the Rajapaksa Way. The Siblings are master-illusionists. They renamed a brutal war a humanitarian operation. They are passing off an inflationary, iniquitous, jobless and unsustainable growth as national development. They are depicting a de facto occupation as nation-building and a cowed silence as peace. Little wonder they believe that extravagant bashes can get Sri Lanka promoted from the Third World to the First.
Rajapaksa-illusions are unconvincing internationally and have a limited shelf-life even nationally. As the peace-dividend is gorged by militarization, corruption and waste, the South, grappling with higher prices and lower living standards, will move from disappointment to discontent. In the North, militarization, colonisation, the denial of basic rights and freedoms and the ubiquity of injustice will breed discontent and anger. Fear may compel obedience in the short term. But eventually, the cauldron will boil-over bringing generalised disaster on the guilty and the innocent alike.