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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2958

Searching For Enemies

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

It is not easy to stand apart from mass hysteria,
Michael Lewis (The End - Condé Nast Portfolio – December 2008)

According to media reports a principal in a Galle school had ordered the father of a Muslim pupil out of his office for wearing a prayer cap. This act of bigotry demonstrates that the toxic anti-minority propaganda of Sinhala supremacists has begun to poison the social soil in Sinhala society. Last week posters and banners appeared (by a hitherto unknown organisation) exhorting Buddhists to save Buddhist schools. For the Sinhala supremacists some Muslim girls wanting to wear headscarves to 'Buddhist' (read state) schools is a crisis while the closure of 660 schools over a decade is a matter of little concern. These self-designated saviours of the Sinhalese seem as sang froid about the plummeting of education expenditure by a massive Rs. 34.54 billion in the last two years as they are about the alarming increases in malnourishment and under-nourishment.

Extremists constantly need enemies, to define who they are and to demarcate their universe. Their politics constitute of a relentless search for ever newer casus belli against the ‘other’. The Sinhala fanatics who believe that the Tigers are on their last legs and Tamils taught a lesson in obedience are out looking for new threats and new enemies. And they will not rest until they have created new faultlines in the Lankan social fabric by sending the Muslims and the Christians where the Tamils were sent by their ideological forefathers, the perpetrators of that colossal stupidity, Sinhala Only.

Sinhala supremacists, like most religious extremists, believe that all human history is one of conflicts between civilisations. They argue that the war against the LTTE cannot be won without bringing out the fanatic in the Sinhala soldier and the Sinhala civilian. It is easy to conjure spectres; getting rid of them when the work is done is quite another matter. There is a folk tale of a Buddhist monk who summoned a demon to build a temple wall. The demon not only fulfilled his task but kept badgering the monk endlessly for more chores. The pithy Sinhala saying ‘Yaka bendagaththa wage’ (like having a demon as an indentured servant) probably stems from this tale.

It is a dangerous business, doing business with fanatics. Fanatics are unfathomable because they inhabit a different mental universe, a psychological wasteland in which reason does not exist and any barbarity is permissive in the name of the chosen ‘cause’. And once summoned, they assume a life of their own, uncontrollable and uncontainable. In a recent opinion piece, President Zardari of Pakistan reminded the West of its own role in conjuring the spectre of (Sunni) Islamic fundamentalism: “The world worked to exploit religion against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan by empowering the most fanatic extremists as an instrument of destruction of a Super Power. The strategy worked but its legacy was the creation of an extremist militia with its own dynamic (The New York Times – 9.12.2008). It was these malevolent chickens who came home to roost on September 11th.

Ignoring the Real Crisis

The military gains against the LTTE are welcome but they also need to be seen in relation to the political, economic, financial and social losses. US President George Bush ‘responded with bold measures to prevent an economic meltdown’, at least according to a memo containing ‘upbeat talking points’ sent by the White House to cabinet members (and published by The Los Angeles Times). This in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression with more than half a million job losses! President Mahinda Rajapakse’s self congratulatory peroration at Kerawalapitiya was equally dismissive of facts. In it the President presented a roseate hued picture of Sri Lanka’s economic present and future, contrasting it gleefully with the global economic crisis and the economic ‘pneumonia’ affecting the West. A ruling class inhabiting a self-created realty, a weak opposition with a penchant for failure, a Tiger Supremo determined to fight to death and assorted Southern extremists who seem to regard moderation with revulsion – with such real and alternate leaders how can Sri Lanka hope to avoid an existential crisis?

Though inconceivable now, while we are still dazzled by being within ‘kissing distance’ of Killinochchi, Eelam War IV too will end not in victory but in another round of pointless, counterproductive negotiations, not because of Tamil Nadu or the West, but because we have simply run out of money. When a country hits financial rocks and starts leaking, the only option is to seek a bailout from international financial institutions; their assistance will be conditional on reducing military expenditure substantially. Objective reality cannot be changed by any amount of braggadocio. That is why the government, for once, wisely did what it said it will never do - submit to an EU review thereby getting a temporary extension of the GSP+ facility. Countries ruled by leaders who refuse to accept reality even in the face of an existential crisis end up like Zimbabwe.

The plight of Zimbabwe began with a task conducive to nation-building – taking over of huge white-owned estates to be distributed to landless blacks. But even necessary measures, when not implemented with intelligence and reason, produce results which are the diametrical opposite of the expected outcome. Thanks to Robert Mugabe’s irrational governance Zimbabwe has become a hell for its own people, a cholera epidemic being the newest addition to their plight. The epidemic is symbolic of the disastrous deterioration in Zimbabwe’s public services. The abysmal quality in water, housing and sanitation services brought the epidemic into being in the first place. It has spread like a wildfire because the two huge hospitals in the capital Harare no longer function - doctors and nurses stopped coming to work because hyperinflation made their salaries worthless.

I am old enough to remember a time when Robert Mugabe was a hero to his country and to most of the Third and Second Worlds. That was when he and Joshua N’Komo led the struggle against white rule in Rhodesia (as Zimbabwe was known at that time). When Rhodesia gained independence as Zimbabwe, many expected her to become a beacon to Africa and the Third World. Today that hope lies shattered, destroyed by the excesses of one of the two founding fathers of independent Zimbabwe.

Breaking a long silence South Africa’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu begged his one time comrade to leave power before his own people rose against him. The warning made no impression on Mr. Mugabe who once again made headlines by claiming that there was no cholera epidemic in his country; his spokesman then explained that the President was being sarcastic and what he meant was that there was no need for any international intervention in Zimbabwe. Clearly Mr. Mugabe intends to keep waving the banner of national sovereignty and portray himself as a ‘national leader’ standing up to imperial bullies while he continues to cling to power at the cost of his country and his people. The fate of Zimbabwe is demonstrative of the disastrous consequences of irrational governance.

Abusing Patriotism

Patriotism is indeed the last refuge of scoundrels of all sorts. Donald Rumsfeld, was the former US Defence Secretary and partner-in-chief of Vice President Dick Cheney’s attempts to spread American rule abroad and undermine democratic rights at home under cover of the ‘Global War on Terror’. A bipartisan report by the US Armed Services Committee (the signatories include the defeated Republican Presidential candidate Senator John McCain) severely criticised the use of torture against terror suspects and named Mr. Rumsfeld as one of the top officials responsible for this abhorrent situation.

According to this report (which should become required reading for political and military leaders everywhere) the use of physical and psychological torture and other ‘aggressive’ interrogation methods "damaged our ability to collect accurate intelligence that could save lives, strengthened the hand of our enemies and compromised our moral authority …. The impact of those abuses has been significant. In a 2007 international BBC poll only 29% of the people around the world said the United States is a generally positive influence in the world. Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo have a lot to do with that perception. The fact that America is seen in a negative light by so many complicates our ability to attract allies to our side, strengthen the hand of our enemies and reduces our ability to collect information that can save lives.…..While some argue that the brutality and disregard for human life shown by Al Qaeda and Taleban terrorists justifies us treating them harshly Gen. David Petraeus explained why that view is misguided. In a May 2007 letter to his troops Gen. Petraeus said “Our values and the laws governing warfare teach us to respect human dignity, maintain our integrity and do what is right. Adherence to our values distinguishes us from our enemy. This fight depends on securing the population which must understand that we – not our enemies – occupy the moral highground" (Report of the US Senate Armed Services Committee Inquiry into the Treatment of Detainees in US Custody).

The report is a critical step away from the ‘my country, right or wrong’ attitude which prevailed under the Bush administration. This meant that any criticism of one’s own side, however warranted or true, was condemned as unpatriotic conduct. This was the approach adopted by Mr. Rumsfeld in his response to the report, delivered through his spokesman Keith Urbahn: “It’s regrettable that Senator Levin has decided to use the committee’s time and the tax payers’ dollars to make unfound allegations against those who have served our nation….” (The Washington Post – 12.12.2008). The report advocates a starkly different approach to patriotism best described by the following words of German revolutionary turned US radical Republican Carl Schurz “Our country—when right to be kept right; when wrong to be put right” (Speeches, Correspondence and Political Papers of Carl Schur - Vol. 6). This attitude rejects the infallibility attributed to patriotism (an extension of that ancient monarchic principle ‘King can do no wrong’ with country – and thus leader/s of the moments - substituted for king) and demands a critical attitude towards one’s own country and its leaders.

Appreciating the role played by the Armed Forces against the LTTE should not result in a permissive attitude towards any attempts by military leaders to meddle in politics. Quite apart from the danger inherent to democracy in such attempts, they can cause irreparable harm to internal harmony and external relations of a country. The Army Commander having belittled Lankan minorities with impunity tried his wit on Tamilnadu politicians and walked into a hornets’ nest. According to media reports the Defence Secretary has been compelled to apologise to the Indian Ambassador for Gen. Fonseka’s latest faux pas. Extremism is myopic. And myopia prevents one from seeing the danger before one’s very eye. Such as the decision by the US State Department to confer one of its three annual Human Rights Awards to the head of the Political Section in the US Embassy in Sri Lanka (the other two went to Russian journalist and the US Ambassador to Zimbabwe). As noteworthy as that choice were the comments of the outgoing Secretary of State: “Sri Lanka’s 25 year old conflict has escalated over the last two years, triggering a sharp increase in human rights violations by the warring parties – the government, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and paramilitary organisations”. Not having anticipated the problem we will react by overreacting, seeing enemies in every critic. Such is the way of extremism.


Last Sunday’s reference to the Somali situation is from an article by Nicholas D Kristof and not Bill Kristol. This mistake is sincerely regretted.

- Asian Tribune -

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