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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2783

Lanka’s Faustian Bargain

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

"Wiser not to ask just what has occurred
To them who disobeyed our word;
To those
We were the whirlpool, we were the reef,
We were the formal nightmare, grief…"

WH Auden (The Two)

Total subjugation to the LTTE is the price Vellupillai Pirapaharan demanded of and extracted from the Tamil people, in return for taking on the Lankan state. Is an equally self-destructive quid pro quo being imposed on the Sinhalese by the Rajapakse administration? Is the South being asked to consent to the steady undermining of democracy, rule of law and civilised norms, in return for the regime’s willingness to take on the LTTE?

In a self critical piece of seminal importance titled "War on Terror was wrong’, Britain’s Foreign Secretary David Miliband moved away from the 'them vs. us' premise of George W Bush’s 'Global War against Terror', criticising the practice of drawing "the battle lines as a simple binary struggle between moderates and extremists or good and evil" (The Guardian – 15.1.2009). More pertinently, he underscored the need to ensure that our own different values do not become a casualty of the struggle against terrorism: "Democracies must respond to terrorism by championing the rule of law, not subordinating it for it is the cornerstone of the democratic society. We must uphold our commitments to human rights and civil liberties at home and abroad" (ibid).

In Sri Lanka, as the Fourth Eelam War moves into its final phase, the opposite seems to be happening. Indeed, the more successful the Rajapakse administration is in the war against the LTTE, the greater seems its desire to subvert democracy and operate outside the rule of law. Every such departure from democratic and civilised norms is glossed over, excused or justified as necessary for the final triumph over the Tigers. The assumption is that everything normal – from the rule of law to basic decency – can be suspended until the LTTE is defeated and the country reunified. Anyone who opposes this normalising of the abnormal, this arrogation of infallibility and impunity by the state and the government, is seen as 'less than patriotic', a real or a potential traitor to the nationalist cause.

The Tigers too made such an absolute distinction between those who were for and against the national cause, a veritable Chinese Wall which left no intermediate spaces. In the end this maximalism divided rather than united. If the Tigers did not turn non-Tiger Tamils into anti-Tiger Tamils, the Lankan side would not have been strengthened by Tamil informants, Tamil para-militaries and Tamil allies. By deliberately destroying the natural space in between the pro-Tiger and anti-Tiger camps, Mr. Pirapaharan forced many non-Tiger Tamils to become anti-Tiger. A similar mistake was made vis-à-vis the Muslims, that other component of the non-existent Tamil speaking nation. No real effort was made to win over the Muslims through a process of dialogue, acceptance and accommodation. Instead most Tamil groups regarded the mere label, 'Tamil speaking people' sufficient for Muslims to flock to the Eelam banner. When they did not, they were castigated as traitors to the non-existent 'Tamil-speaking nation'.

Despite the obvious lessons from these negative examples, the Rajapakse administration seems to cling to the belief that those who do not support it unconditionally are somehow with the enemy. The regime also equates itself with the country, the nation and the armed forces. Criticise one and you are the enemy of all, and a closet supporter of the LTTE as well – that seems to be the operating principle of the Rajapakse administration.

"Tell your stories of fishing and other men's wives,
The expansive moments of constricted lives…."
(The Two – W H Auden)

Hannah Arendt called them language rules, the art of using normal terms to describe the abnormal. Last Wednesday President Mahinda Rajapakse met with the heads of media institutions. This in itself would not have been remarkable since the President is in the habit of meeting media heads regularly; what gave Wednesday’s meeting significance was the timing – just six days after Lasantha Wickramatunga was murdered – and the line of demarcation drawn by the President between journalists who are 'responsible' and journalists who are not. Given the existence of a mysterious entity which freely targets journalists who displease the powers that be, the queries stemming from this categorisation assume a particular urgency: What are the criteria used in separating the responsible from the irresponsible? Who decides on the criteria, their interpretation and their application? What is the fate of those journalists, deemed 'irresponsible' by the deciders?

Was Lasantha Wickramatunga a responsible journalist or an irresponsible journalist?

Is the exposing of corruption, waste and mismanagement by the powers that be responsible or irresponsible journalism? What about exposes on corruption in the military? Where does reportage on the worsening economic situation in the country fit in? What about the plight of civilian Tamils in the war zone and outside – is writing about their endless suffering (which is, in part, caused by our shelling, aerial bombing and blockade) to be construed as pro-Tamil or pro-Tiger? Are the journalists permitted to report about civilian casualties, particularly when these are believed to be caused by the Lankan side? What about the atrocities committed by government allies such as the TMVP against civilian Tamils? How does one deal with the communalist ravings of the JHU and the Army Commander?

According to the identical reports of the meeting which appeared in all three English dailies, the President said, “while politicians were free to make any statements about matters of public interest, the media had to ensure that they were not reported in a manner that would divert the inquiries that were being conducted into other directions, and not give the police a chance to carry out proper investigations" (The Daily News – 15.1.2009). This rule does not seem to apply to the Defence Secretary, who told the ITN that the attack on the MTV/Sirasa was an inside job: "Mr. Rajapakse, the younger brother of President Mahinda Rajapakse, has said that there were many motives for the MTV-MBC to destroy its own station. 'At this moment Sirasa is the Voice of Tigers. In Colombo Sirasa is the station that represents the LTTE. As we are winning now they have become desperate. Now the Tigers are losing the war, they are seeking public sympathy. That is why they set fire to Sirasa,' Gotabhaya Rajapaksa said. Claiming a huge compensation from insurance companies was another motive for the attack, he said. ‘The station was insured for millions of rupees. They did the same thing in 2000 to claim compensation from insurance companies", he added” (BBC – 16.1.2009).

Mr. Rajapakse is no ordinary citizen; he is the President’s brother and the country’s powerful Defence Secretary and any statement he makes is likely to affect the police far more than all the statements by opposition politicians. Still he is permitted to make any accusation he pleases, using the state media, while the non-state media is told not to report 'irresponsible' statements by (opposition) politicians. This is one more indicator that the regime and its backers are allowed to bend the rules as much as they want.

The President is the Minister of Defence and his brother is the Secretary of Defence. There exists currently between the top political and top military leaders a degree of ideological closeness, a kind of personal affinity that is almost unprecedented. This unusual status quo makes any claims of plausible deniability, when crimes such as the killing of Lasantha Wickramatunga happen, very implausible. In any case, if, as the President claims, there is a conspiracy to discredit the government, it is in the interests of the government to apprehend the conspirators without further ado. This is far more important than telling the media what to report and what not to report. Or, are we expected to believe that the President tolerates an all powerful entity, a virtual state within a state, which periodically engages in criminal conspiracies to discredit the government?

"On your left and on your right - In the day and in the night, We are watching you." (W H Auden - The Two)

According to media reports the government has asked all citizens to register with the Ministry of Defence – online. The harebrained nature of such a programme in a country where an absolute majority of the populace do not posses (or even have access to) computers should be obvious to any person with a modicum of common sense (maintaining a bogus identity is also easiest online). Quite apart from that, given the government’s oft repeated assurance that the war will be over by the year end, one cannot but wonder at the need for a such Gargantuan operation which is likely to cost the tax payer an enormous amount of money. The other cause for concern is the whiff of tyranny emanating from this latest measure. According to the Director General of the Media Centre for National Security, "there is no time limit for registering, but if the response from the public is slow, the authorities may have to enforce registration through the law, perhaps even using emergency regulations" (The Sunday Times – 11.1.2009). Is this an attempt to implement those population control measures Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse has advocated time and again, in the name of fighting terrorism?

Today the Rajapakse administration is at the height of its popularity. And such moments of hegemony are the best times to put in place measures which will help control and contain future dissent and opposition. Is the online registration scheme an example of such a futuristic measure (quite apart from the fact that some well connected entity will make millions – if not billions – by obtaining the contract to process the collected data)? Given the ineffectiveness of the opposition (which will be made worse by the absence of Lasantha Wickramatunga) the only counterweight to the administration is the judiciary.

But what will happen once the present Chief Justice retires, particularly since he is likely to be replaced by someone more amenable to the regime’s needs and wants. In such a context many an anti-democratic measure struck down by the judiciary will become viable while any attempt to criticise or oppose them will be castigated as anti-patriotic and treated as such. Can democracy survive in such a situation, where the President and his coterie control the legislature and the judiciary, the administration and the armed forces?

- Asian Tribune -

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