The Rot behind the grand façade

| by Tisaranee Gunasekara
“…government as a profitable monopoly and people as hereditary property”.
Paine (To the citizens of United States)

( April 15, 2012, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) A cake worth US$ 35 million is a stupendously obscene gesture in a country where 53 percent lack enough money to buy food and 46 percent struggle to find adequate shelter.
The economic statistics are from a new Gallup Poll, according to which at some point in 2011 “about one half of Sri Lankans lacked money for food and shelter…”. Last month’s warning from the Asian Development Bank that Sri Lanka’s poor “will suffer if prices of wheat and other commodities rise further” (Sri Lanka Mirror – 19.3.2012) further compounds the image of a divided country with an economically distressed majority.
So in this country, at this time, that gem-studded cake is more than an expensive offering to execrable taste. It is a dish made to the palate of Marie Antoinette, with crass vulgarity and moronic insensitivity as its basic psychological ingredients. It is symbolic of what Sri Lanka is becoming: a country in which the powerful and the rich see impunity as their birthright and parade their abuses and their excesses, shamelessly.
This colossal insensitivity to the suffering of the ‘other’ began in the North. Most of us in the South looked away when civilian Tamils were being bombed and shelled under the cover of the ‘humanitarian operation’; most of us in the South opted to believe in the zero-civilian casualty lie; most of us in the South ignored the plight of 300,000+ Tamil men, women and children herded into open prison camps masquerading as welfare villages. We still fail to realise that lasting peace and a genuine reconciliation cannot be, so long as survivors are denied the timeless right to mourn their dead.
As the economic crisis worsens and living conditions deteriorate in the South, we too will begin to know what it is like to have our plight disregarded, our sufferings denied, our despair ignored…
When Minister Bandula Gunawardana claimed that a Lankan can live on a monthly income of Rs. 7,500 alone, he was not just being, characteristically, fatuous. He – and his political colleagues – speak and act with an utter disregard for public opinion, because they know that the public is a non-factor in deciding their political fortunes. Indeed, in Rajapaksa Sri Lanka, the God politicians and businessmen have to satisfy to retain their positions and possessions is not the electorate nor the market, but the Ruling Family.
Outré cakes and even more outré statements (such as that gem by Minister Basil Rajapaksa that ere long Sri Lanka might be able to give loans to the West!) hide an abysmal – and an exacerbating – gap between rhetoric and reality, in every field. For instance, the regime spends billions constructing international sports stadia, (including in war-torn Kilinochchi, where the majority lack the basics, from a house to a livelihood) and spent billions more in the vain pursuit of the 2018 Commonwealth Games-mirage. In the meantime no Lankan athlete qualified for 2012 Olympics and we failed to win a single medal at the 2010 Asian Games.
Sri Lanka is currently beset neither by an insurgency nor by a war and yet, a wave of extra-judicial violence is engulfing the land, from Pt. Pedro to Pt. Dondra. The March 3rd rape and murder of 13 year old Lakshini in the Delft Island, allegedly by a former EPDP cadre, is indicative of the structural insecurity which is the fate of ordinary Lankans in the Rajapaksa security state. Ubiquitous abductions (29 in February-March) constitute an equally disturbing omen of hard times getting harder. The tale of Sagara Senaratne, adducted and reportedly liberated thanks to the intervention of the Rajapaksa siblings, suffices to demonstrate the intimate nexus between the rulers and the white vans. There is no better indication as to who pays (and controls) these particular ferrymen.
While Mr. Senaratne’s deliverance indicates the importance of having relations in high places, the deliverance of Premakumara Gunaratnam proves the life-saving qualities of a foreign passport. There is little doubt that Mr. Gunaratnam and his colleague Dimuthu Attygala escaped the fate of so many vanished ones thanks to Australian pressure.
Unfortunately most Lankans have neither ministers nor ambassadors to lobby the Rajapaksa Siblings on their behalf. Who speaks for them, who can protect them, if ever they fall foul of Lanka’s new Ruling Deities?

Traitors in Eastphalia
In ‘God’s Jury: Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World’, Cullen Murphy identifies the inquisition as the ‘unheralded ancestor’ of all subsequent attempts to destroy dissent. The real purpose of the religious police in Saudi Arabia or Iran is the maintenance of the political status-quo. Mr. Pirapaharan used similar methods to maintain his throttling-grip on the LTTE and Tamil society.
Patriotism is the political religion of the Rajapaksas, their secular-opium for the Southern masses and hellfire and brimstone-weapon against opponents. The Manichean worldview of patriots and traitors is invading every sector, including sports. According to Lankan rugby captain and presidential offspring Yoshitha Rajapaksa, “players are prioritizing their clubs over the country, and…such players fall into the category of traitors…. If this is to be changed, a group of patriots should be cultivated….” (Sri Lanka Mirror – 9.4.2012). Will there be outcries of anger or howls of derision at this pronouncement? Or will there be silence, heralding the birth of a new practice whereby a lost game is deemed an act of treachery and a failed sports-personality is condemned as a traitor? To believe that white vans will come for such ‘anti-patriotic’ sportspersons is to stretch the imagination – though not by much.
This Rajapaksa outlook fits in perfectly with the Eastphalian dystopia, currently in vogue in parts of Asia. The Westphalian system was a necessary and a progressive development in its time, almost four centuries ago, in a Europe riven with wars and struggling to shake off the twin yokes of Pope and Emperor. One of its key premises was the acceptance of a ruler’s right to determine the religion of his state (a right which had belonged to the Pope or the Emperor previously). But an Eastphalia based on the same model will be retrogressive rather than progressive because it will advocate the return of the absolutist ruler under guise of national sovereignty. The resultant anti-democratic system will consist of super-powerful rulers and citizens disempowered and degraded into subject-hood. A Beijing Consensus promoting such an order will rival the Washington Consensus in oppressing and subjugating ordinary people.
The Rajapaksas remember sovereignty only when they are asked by the UN or UNHRC to respect the political and human rights of Lankans and not when the IMF imposes anti-people conditionalities. Thus Basil Rajapaksa assured the American ambassador that his brother’s government has done “all that the IMF has asked”. When the Siblings talk about national sovereignty what they really mean is the absolute right to use and abuse Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans.
A dystopia in which economic inequity is married to political repression is Sri Lanka’s destination under Rajapaksa rule. And for those who object, a traitor’s label will be ready and the white van will be waiting.

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Author: Sri Lanka Guardian

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