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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2556

The State of Impasse

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

“You were going, motionless,
Without defending yourself
Until you were smothered in the quicksand’

Neruda (The Dream)

Who is fooling whom? Is the regime the deceiver or the deceived? Are the public servants duping the government or is the government getting the public servants to dupe the people?

The controversy happened some weeks ago, even though the story did not gain much prominence amidst bloody tales of war and terrorism. The Auditor General issued a report claiming that the country lost 360 billion rupees due to weaknesses and inadequacies in its revenue collection system and the carelessness of its Ministry of Finance. The sum is a large one by Lankan standards, and particularly so, given the financial crisis that is gripping us.

The Finance Ministry responded by contradicting the Auditor General and implying that his report was a tissue of lies: “Sri Lanka's Finance Ministry has disputed a report by the auditor-general that weak collections led to a revenue loss of 360 billion rupees. The loss, it said in its annual report for 2006, was not more than 6.2 billion rupees of which half related to the VAT refund fraud which occurred during 2002-04” (LBO – 6.6.2007). The controversy was important partly because the disputed sum was colossal – a staggering 353.8 billion rupees.

If the pro-JVP website, Lankatruth is accurate, the Secretary to the Ministry of Finance has admitted to a parliamentary committee that the AG had been correct all along; he had also apologised to the legislature for misleading it with wrong information. If so, the incident is an unprecedented one; never did the Finance Ministry misrepresent facts to the tune of 353.8 billion rupees; never did the Finance Ministry mislead the legislature on such a scale. In any self-respecting country, after such a criminal fiasco, both the Secretary to the Ministry of Finance and the Minster of Finance would have had to leave their posts in disgrace. Not in Sri Lanka, where the Minister is also the President and the Secretary is a trusted acolyte. Be that as it may, two questions obtrude. Was the cover up done with the knowledge and the concurrence of the Minister-President? What steps will the government take to ensure that such monumental errors do not occur again?

Now that the AG seems to have been proven correct, it is necessary to pay some heed to his warnings about the general inaccuracy of the regime’s revenue figures. It does not take an outstanding intellect to surmise that a budget based on incorrect revenue figures cannot but result in major financial problems. To put it simply, in such a situation we would be making spending plans, based on money we do not have but think we do. And this is not conduct befitting a country in the throes of a financial crunch.

With the Rajapakse regime delusion seems to be more of a general condition, starting at the very top. That the regime forcibly expelled more than 300 Tamil civilians from Colombo is well documented; the evictions had to stop because of the national and international furore they caused and because of the Supreme Court stay order. President Rajapakse has his own, very different interpretation of this reality: “President Mahinda Rajapaksa said on Thursday that only 75 Tamil youths out of 15.000 Tamils living in Colombo lodges were to be evicted according to the original plan but some Tamil women also wanted to take advantage of the travel arrangements to go back to the North and East. “The result was that we had to transport 302 persons,” he said” (Daily Mirror – 30.6.2007). Is it that the President still does not know what actually transpired? Or is he deliberately lying? How is it that his understanding of the reality is so much at variance with what is factual and documented?

The Absence of Alternatives

Mahinda Rajapakse won an election he did not deserve to win simply because his main opponent was Ranil Wickremesinghe. As the war drags on and the economic crisis deepens, President Rajapakse’s lifeline continues to be the existence of Mr. Wickremesinghe as the leader of the UNP. Ranil Wickremesinghe too is unchanged; he still believes that political power comes through the goodwill of Vellupillai Pirapaharan and the confidence of the international community. Thus he makes no attempt to strengthen the UNP organisationally or to adopt a politico-economic platform attractive to the electorate.

The UNP rebels could have made a change for the better but they have opted for Mammon. Today they are the most uncritical adherents of the President, his main line of defence even on issues indefensible, such as the expulsion of North-Easter Tamils from Colombo. In return, scarce public funds are being spent on the upkeep of their superfluous new ministries. Instead of striving for a solution, the erstwhile rebels have made themselves into a part of the problem. The JVP – and the JHU – resides in a world that no longer exists, perhaps never existed. A party which mistakes the unreal and the non-existent for the axiomatic cannot become a viable alternative, even if it is filled to overflowing with good intentions. The SLFP rebels clamour for a return to the status quo ante; one has to be exceptionally self-delusional to believe that a return to that past represents an answer to the problems of the present or the way to the future.

The attitude of the main parties to the North-Eastern crisis is symbolic of this state of impasse. Mr. Rajapakse continues to adhere to ‘there is no ethnic problem, only a terrorist problem’ line despite its clearly discernible limitations and pitfalls, its political and economic costs. The alternative offered by Mr. Wickremesinghe is merely a return to the old appeasement process based on the obviously fallacious belief of a reformable Vellupillai Pirapaharan. The former UNP rebels have become subservient to the President’s Sinhala supremacist line while the current SLFP rebels seem to be drifting towards Mr. Wickremesinghe’s appeasement mindset. The JVP, as does the JHU, wants the war to continue and yet is unable to tell us how a war can be sustained – let alone won – without the backing of civilian Tamils and the international community. The Southern polity is polarised along pro-Tiger/pro-peace vs. anti-Tiger/anti-devolution lines, with no attempt by any of the contenders to develop a stance that is hard on the LTTE while being soft on Tamils/minorities and devolution. (The stance of the international community is equally unhelpful; instead of focusing on devolution and human rights it is demanding a cessation of hostilities, an impossibility given the nature of the LTTE).

That is our dilemma – the absence of a viable alternative to the not very palatable status quo. The Lankan crisis is a total crisis precisely because of this critical absence of alternatives. Primo Levi records that at the death camp, Auschwitz the inmates had a proverb – ‘when things change, they change for the worse’; because “experience had shown us many times the vanity of every conjecture” (If this is a Man). Cheated of hope and chastened by experience, that is Sri Lanka today.

In a democracy, the option of electorally replacing one governing party with another is an inbuilt safety valve, an unfailing source of stability and continuity. The change may not result in anything other than a facile improvement which nevertheless acts as a catharsis by creating a sense of well being, of a forward movement, of hope – all powerful and essential underpinnings of political stability. Devoid of such a state, a sense of hopelessness can set in, the ideal breeding ground for mindless rage and directionless violence. Impasses can make people loose their reason, like caged-animals.

The price increases in fuel, Shell gas and bus fares are merely the tip of the iceberg; they will lead to other price hikes (the much vaunted price reductions happen only on the government media; in the market the prices remain the same or go up). The steady drop in the value of the rupee –currently it is at an all time low – will add to the inflationary pressures via imported inflation. A blasé regime has thrown prudence to the four winds and is openly soliciting more UNP defectors with promises of ministries and attendant privileges. One is reminded of that man in Buddhist literature who, while facing three imminent deaths, still occupied himself with eating honey. It is not a sustainable state of affairs but one cannot expect a regime devoid of common sense to understand obvious truths.

A Witches Brew

From the small to the big, the regime seems intent on acting in a manner that is often counter to its own best interests and that of the country it leads. Take the blocking of the Tamilnet, which works only in Sri Lanka; internationally the website can be accessed and would be read with greater avidity. All we have done with our short sighted action is to enhance the prestige of the website and dent our own democratic credentials.

In the East we seem to be creating the groundwork for a new Sinhala-Muslim conflict. Some Muslim organisations have expressed dismay about the new Eastern flag in which the lion – that animal identified with the Sinhala race – represents the Muslim majority Ampara district. The recent killing of four Muslim civilians in Seruwila, blamed by the regime on the LTTE but by some commentators on the Army, is an example of the kind of incident which can cause much misunderstanding and bad-blood. The East is multi-ethnic and multi-religious; a Sinhala Only or a Sinhala First attitude will severely limit our capacity to hold that vital province. The political importance of the Karuna factor has been negated by the anti-people conduct of the Karuna rebels themselves; in the absence of an anti-Tiger Eastern Tamil factor, the Muslims assume an added importance. In such a context we must go out of the way to reassure the Muslims – and Tamils – that there is no hidden agenda to impose Sinhala hegemony on the East, with state assistance. Currently we are failing in this task and this failure will help the Tigers to regain parts of the East, sooner or later.

Even as the regime plans to celebrate the retaking of the East, the political conditions for its undoing are being created. Foremost among these is the clash between the Karuna faction and the EPDP. It is to be hoped that the regime will act sensibly and instead of playing favourites make both sides understand that such conflicts must not happen. Given that both parties to the conflict are dependent on the goodwill of the government for their survival, this should not be an impossible task. This is precisely what the government did not do when the Karuna group began to act in an illegal and undemocratic manner, conscripting children, attacking civilians and extorting money. As most visitors to the East confirm, these acts happened with the knowledge of the Lankan forces and, often, in their full view. Instead of convincing the Karuna group of the inadvisability of such criminally anti-people, the regime denied that such wrongdoings took place.

People or entities degenerate by degrees. The degeneration of the Karuna group could have been prevented in the early stages, if the regime took effective political countermeasures. It is to be hoped that the government will respond with a little more intelligence, a little more sense to the brewing conflict between the Karuna group and the EPDP. Such a conflict is not in the interests of either party; nor is it in the interests of the regime or the state of Sri Lanka. An East beset with a shooting war between the TMVP and the EPDP and a cold war between the Sinhalese and the Muslims will be an East endangered, an easy picking for the Tiger. It is to be hoped that at least this once the regime will understand the danger and act in a manner that is not totally contrary to its own enlightened self interest.

- Asian Tribune -

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