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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2959

Delusions of Impunity

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

"Loyalty to Bush is the ultimate royal principle of the imperial presidency. The ruler must be unquestioned and those around him unquestioning. Allegiance to Bush's idea of himself as the "war president", "the decider" and "the commander guy" is paramount…. Loyalty to Bush has become loyalty to his self-image and, in the case of Gonzales, loyalty above the law, betraying the meaning of the word itself". Sydney Blumenthal (King George’s Loyalty Oath – – The Guardian – 5.1.2007 )

Is President Rajapakse planning a showdown with the judiciary a la Pervez Musharraf?

A clash with the judiciary, at this time, and over the issue of fuel prices seems too irrational and excessive an enterprise even for the Rajapakses. Yet the administration has not only refused to abide by the Supreme Court verdict; it has also forced the IOC to follow suit and sell patrol at old and higher prices. With these twin actions the Rajapakses seem to be embarking on a journey, which will undermine democracy and may end in violent systemic instability.

Quite apart from every other consideration the issue is the wrong one. Since the government is reiterating its absolute and inalienable right to impose super-inflated taxes on the populace and the Supreme Court is advocating fairness in taxation, a majority of the public is bound to back the judiciary. If the regime resisted the Supreme Court on some other issue (for example its controversial verdict on checkpoints), the charge of a Tiger conspiracy may not have seemed totally outrageous. But when it comes to prices, the dividing line is not between pro-Tiger and anti-Tiger but pro-people and anti-people. And by refusing to give the overburdened consumers some benefit from record low international oil prices, the regime has placed itself unequivocally on the anti-people side.

Patriotism is a favourite pretext of any ruler who yearns to subvert democracy, to amass power and to stay in power for as long as possible. The Rajapakses have shown a tendency towards authoritarianism, using the war to justify this anti-democratic proclivity. The regime demands and expects a blank cheque from the populace on the strength of its willingness to fight the LTTE; the implication is that the populace must give the government uncritical support until the war is over. But as a former US President Theodore Roosevelt said, "Patriotism means to stand by the country. It does not mean to stand by the president or any other public official save exactly to the degree in which he himself stands by the country. It is patriotic to support him insofar as he efficiently serves the country. It is unpatriotic not to oppose him to the exact extent that by inefficiency or otherwise he fails in his duty to stand by the country" (Works – Vol 21).

To permit a government to use patriotism to arrogate unto itself the right of impunity is both wrong and counterproductive. When governments believe they have won the right to impunity, they not only act regardless of right and wrong; but also regardless wise and unwise, rational and irrational, moderation and excess….

Impunity therefore not only corrodes; it stupefies and undermines. The unenviable fate of George W Bush, once the most popular President in American history and now the most disliked, should be a lesson to other leaders who entertain delusions of infallibility and demand the right to impunity.

Imaginary Conspiracies

To regard or depict the Supreme Court decision on fuel prices as a Tiger conspiracy to bankrupt the state is nothing short of preposterous. Whether the government is cynically exploiting the war to stamp out dissent or whether it really believes in its outrageous rhetoric is uncertain. Perhaps it is a bit of both. In any case, if the administration can imply that the Supreme Court is pro-Tiger because it intervened to fix fuel prices, then no individual or entity, word or deed would be safe from the charge of treachery. Whenever the government needs to defeat an opponent or discredit a non-supporter, the label of traitor will be used. This will cause a politically implosive polarisation in society preventing the very anti-Tiger unity the regime says it is desirous of creating. Eventually this polarisation will permeate even the armed forces; officers who do not identify with the government’s political agenda will be looked upon with askance and treated with injustice.

If there is indeed a conspiracy to bankrupt the Lankan state, a good part of the Rajapakse government, from the President downwards, are aiding and abetting it to the hilt. The cabinet has approved the wet leasing of a plane for Mihin Lanka at the cost of Rs. 1,100 million. Minister Rohitha Bogollagama has busted Rs. 76 million in just one year on air travel alone. The country is burdened with a gargantuan cabinet and a President who uses the national wealth with wanton carelessness. Ministers not only get direct tax waivers; they also avoid paying most of the indirect taxes by using public funds to pay house rent, electricity, fuel and water bills. These are the leaders who preach to the masses about the virtues of taxation!

If there is indeed a conspiracy to bankrupt the state, the rulers are the prime movers in it since they, with their inefficiency, waste and corruption, brought the country’s finances to its current precarious level. It is no secret that the regime’s reluctance to reduce fuel prices stem from the disastrous effects of the CPC’s unprincipled and unintelligent hedging deal. The public is being forced to pay for the errors of the government and that is unjust by any standard. When oppressed by unjust taxes, a populace has two choices – it can either seek a systemic remedy or it can rebel. Any government that blocks the first, democratic, avenue would be paving the way for the second option. Is this where the Rajapakses want to push the populace?

The Rajapakses are in a class of their own when it comes to incompetence. This government cannot even set an OL Maths paper without messing it up. Its only credible boast has been the successes in the war. What will happen if these too become few and far between? The public has been conditioned to expect a fast war and fast victories and to implicitly trust in the government’s ability to deliver these, at minimum cost. Perhaps this was an unavoidable feint given that the government has nothing else to offer the populace, not even marginal competence and bare consideration in governance. How else can that Martian trinity, the President, the Defence Secretary and the Army Commander, maintain the myth of infallibility? When battles are not won fast enough, when the enemy does not cut and run, lies and deceit become indispensable. The government began by lying about Tiger casualties and has now graduated to lying about Lankan casualties. Once mere lies cannot suffice, censorship would follow, justified in the name of nation. Ensuring the existence of a malleable judiciary is essential for the success of this and other repressive measures the government will be compelled to enact in order to stay in power in the context of a war un-won.

Other Fronts

2009 is certainly not the time for the Rajapakse administration to pick fights with the judiciary or antagonise Lankan and Tamilnadu Tamils still further. The horrendous carnage in Bombay seems to be causing a political realignment in the India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka triangle. Though Pakistan did make some moves against Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jamaat-ud-Dawa Delhi, understandably, sees these as grossly inadequate. Consequently Indo-Pakistan tensions remain as does the possibility of Indian aerial attacks on ‘terrorist targets’ in Pakistan controlled Kashmir. If Delhi, in imitation of George W Bush, takes such an erroneous step, it will cause an anti-Indian, anti-Hindu backlash in Pakistan which in turn may enable the BJP to polarise India along Hindu-Muslim lines in time for the upcoming general election.

Such an outcome would be bad for Sri Lanka in more ways than one. The obvious fallout is the possibility of Delhi policy makers regarding Colombo as ‘the friend of the enemy’; this, in turn, can make them regard Colombo’s enemies in a more lenient light. There is another danger which can become a reality if the BJP forms the next government - an anti-Islamic, pro-Hindu understanding between the LTTE and Hindu fundamentalists in India. The BJP is on record expressing its determination to impose a ceasefire on Colombo if it wins the next election. Early this month TNA parliamentarian MK Shivajilingam met leaders of the Hindu extremist VHP and RSS. Both organisations expressed their support for the ‘Hindu Tamils’ in Sri Lanka, with VHP President Ashok Singhal declaring, ‘You can tell your people that we will be with them. We are here to help Hindus. Since most Sri Lankan Tamils are Hindus, we won’t let them down,’ (Sindh Today – 16.12.2008). Mr. Singhal has defended the anti-Muslim riots in Gujrat and talks regularly about Christian conspiracies (he is violently opposed to Dalits converting to Christianity). Predictably some JHU leaders used to quote his fundamentalist rhetoric not so long ago to justify their own anti-conversion campaign. Extremists do have something in common, a temperament, a way of looking at the world, a mental landscape in Black and White, which permits no intermediate colours or spaces.

Since the TNA would not make a single important move without Tiger blessings, Mr. Sivajilingam’s meetings with the RSS and the VHP and his depiction of the Lankan war in religious terms would have happened with Mr. Pirapaharan’s knowledge and approval. It is hard to believe that the LTTE leader would want to Hinduise his struggle thereby alienating Christian and Catholic Tamils. But he may not mind depicting the war as an attempt by the Buddhist South to subjugate the Hindu North thereby gaining the support of the Hindu right-wingers in India. After all, a Tiger suicide bomber tried to assassinate the Pakistan High Commissioner in Colombo in August 2006. The Hindu right may regard an organisation willing and able act in such a manner as a ‘proxy’ worth having. And if tensions between India and Pakistan escalate further, this point of view may find favour with secular-minded decision makers in Delhi who see Pakistan as India’s existential enemy.

Winning over civilian Tamils become an imperative in this context because that is the only way stymie the Tiger project of using the Hindu card to win over India. In its most recent report the Human Rights Watch has detailed the human suffering caused by government policies such as the internment of civilians fleeing into cleared areas and the expulsion of humanitarian organisations. Logically the HRW’s unsparing (and continuous) criticism of the LTTE should suffice to save it from the charge of pro-Tigerism but logic, sadly, has no place in the regime’s mental universe. Therefore the government is likely to respond to the second report ‘Besieged, Displaced and Detained: The Plight of Civilians in Sri Lanka’s Vanni Region’ not by rethinking its extremist policies but by getting its propagandists to accuse the HRW of being Tiger-friendly.

In any situation there are impossible concessions as well as possible ones. Refusing possible concessions is as damaging as granting impossible concessions. While the Lankan state’s right to resist the Tiger threat should be non-negotiable, it will be the acme of stupidity to place devolution, human rights and civilian welfare in the same non-negotiable category. In fact, in order to sustain the war against the LTTE politically, the government will need to make concessions on these other front. But if the unintelligent belligerence displayed by the Rajapakse administration towards the Supreme Court is any indication, we can expect to see a continuation (indeed intensification) of its policy of irrational extremism in the coming year. That would auger ill not only for the economy and popular wellbeing but also for the war against the LTTE itself.

- Asian Tribune -

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