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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2679

Sri Lanka in Metamorphosis

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

"When you have prayed for victory you have prayed for many unmentioned results which follow victory-*must* follow it, cannot help but follow it". Mark Twain (The War Prayer)

As the conventional war against the LTTE nears its bloody end, a sea change is taking place in Sri Lanka - the unearthing or implanting of a set of values which are at variance with the principles of pluralist democracy. A new ‘commonsense’ is in the making, in consonance with the anti-democratic and Sinhala Supremacist beliefs of the ‘leading group’ and this ‘conception of the world’ will play a dominant role in charting the future trajectory of Sri Lanka.

In Sri Lanka, 'patriotism' is becoming the sole criteria on what is allowable and what is disallowable. And the Rajapakses have anointed themselves as the sole arbiters of what is patriotic and what is not. A particularly illuminating case in point is the following definition of ‘media freedom’ by Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse: "If you take two words, media freedom, it is very beautiful, very nice. Who can object (to) that? I allow it; President allows it. We will support it. Free media – take two words; nice two words. But remember you have to think of the situation that we are facing. In that situation when you take the media, they have a different role to play. They should act responsibly. They must take the country first. Not these two words, free media" (Hunting the Tigers – Dateline – ABC; I emphasise that particular sentence it speaks volumes about the mindset of the ‘ruling group’; Mr. Rajapakse is fascinatingly unaware that as a civil servant he has no legal right to allow or disallow a Constitutionally guaranteed freedom; not even his Presidential brother has such a right; if they claim such a right and implement it, it is a clear usurpation).

‘Terrorist’ is an incendiary accusation which enables the regime to overstep legal boundaries in dealing with the accused. The accusation itself suffices for a trial, with the accompanying lurid propaganda barrage, hinting tantalisingly at unnamed or semi-named crimes, substituting for proof. Arrest a man, call him a ‘terrorist’ and detain him indefinitely, pending investigations – because in Sri Lanka, when it comes to the crime of ‘terrorism’, a man is guilty until he is proven innocent and often he must prove his innocence while in detention, with little or no access to lawyers or the outside world, with the full weight of state power and propaganda ranged against him. The so called ‘Sinhala Tigers’, arrested with much beating of patriotic drums almost two years ago, have still not being charged with any (just last month the Supreme Court directed the AG’s Department to either bring charges against these men or release them, within a month; already 11 such detainees have been released by the Supreme Court, following the inability of the AG’s Department to charge them). But the government continues to arrest or threaten to arrest dissenting journalists and human rights activists, accusing them of ‘terrorism’. Patriotism is an effective tool for rulers and a beguiling narcotic for the ruled and the Rajapakses are using it with dexterity to silence real or potential troublemakers.

Different Laws for Different Folks

Today more than ever before the Sri Lankan reality experienced by Sri Lankans varies, depending on ethnicity, religion and political affiliation. For some Sri Lankans there is very little normalcy even outside the war zone. The fact that an editor has been attacked and another arrested since the assassination of Lasantha Wickramatunga three months ago, demonstrate the dangers faced by dissident voices. As the regime veers ever faster towards Sinhala Supremacism, Tamils, Muslims and Christians feel a growing sense of insecurity. But for the vast majority of politically uninvolved Sinhalese, life continues in its normal grooves and the sole black cloud in the horizon constitutes of economic fears and uncertainties. For them the woes of civilian Tamils are news from a faraway place and warnings about the increasing pervasiveness of anti-democratic tendencies wild exaggerations, if not outright canards. They would have been concerned about Sri Lankan military casualties but the regime’s effective ban on reportage has relieved them of this worry.

According to media reports one of the charges made against senior journalist J Tissanayagam is attempting to create racial disharmony via racist comments. Minister Champika Ranawaka openly declares that the minorities are ‘like migrants’ (Lakbima News – 16.10.2008) and warn that they should not take Sinhala patience for granted: “The Sinhalese are the only organic race of Sri Lanka. Other communities are all visitors to the country, whose arrival was never challenged out of the compassion of Buddhists. But they must not take this compassion for granted. The Muslims are here because our kings let them trade here and the Tamils because they were allowed to take refuge when the Moguls were invading them in India. What is happening today is pure ingratitude on the part of these visitors” (Daily Mirror – 16.10.2008). The fact that J Tissanayagam is in detention while Champika Ranawaka is in the Cabinet of Ministers indicates that hate speech is not hate speech if it targets minorities and is made by a Sinhalese ally of the regime. It is also an eloquent testimony to the Sinhala Supremacist and intolerant nature of the new ‘commonsense’.

The other charge against Mr. Tissanayagam is said to be ‘discrediting the government and the Armed Forces’. According to the constitution, criticising the government or the Armed Forces is not an offence. But the emerging ‘commonsense’ places the Armed Forces (and by extension the Defence establishment and the Commander in Chief) above criticism, ascribing to them an infallibility and rendering them sacrosanct. Taken to its illogical conclusion, this tenet will make a crime of exposes of human rights violations by and corruption and waste within the armed forces.

The LTTE was excellent at playing word games and sustaining illusions. It expressed support for democracy, media freedom and human rights even as it moved inexorably to take over the Tamil struggle and establish the power of life and death over Tamils. As the UTHR pointed out, the Tiger credo was, “Political pluralism and democracy, yes. But after all dissent, opposition groups and the possibility of voicing alternatives have been eliminated. Human rights, yes. But that really means the right to self-determination, meaning all power with the authentic Tamils - the Tigers. All others are traitors and don’t irritate Balasingam with foolish talk about their rights, for no one knows and fears the Leader as he does” (Information Bulletin No. 31 –13.1.2003). The Tigers implemented a plan to rehabilitate child soldiers (together with the UNICEF) even as child conscription continued at breakneck speed. The Tigers set up a Peace Secretariat, even as it prepared for the next war. The Tigers prepared a Human Rights Charter, even as they continued to murder political opponents.

The Rajapakses’ course of action seems not dissimilar; their modus operandi is to keep the façade of democracy intact, while hollowing it out from within. Consequently attacks on media personnel and other extra-judicial activities happen in a political environment saturated with multiparty elections. Privately owned media exist, cheek by jowl, with state media, even though many of the critical voices are silent – due to death, incarceration or self-exile. Days, perhaps weeks, can pass without abductions or extra-judicial killings, making it easy to forget the frighteningly abnormal amidst the tediously normal. Government statements about a war to liberate Tamils accompany the incarceration of Tamils, who liberate themselves from the deadly grip of the Tiger, in open prisons.

Ends do not justify means. The crimes of Vellupillai Pirapaharan would have been crimes even if they were committed in the service of a different cause, including the cause of reunifying Sri Lanka. The LTTE’s targeting of civilians, its suicide bombings, its use of child soldiers and its intolerance are crimes irrespective of the identity of the author. Just as the Tigers thought (and continue to think) they have an absolute and axiomatic right to impunity because they are battling the Lankan state for a Tamil Eelam, the Rajapakse regime believes it has an absolute and axiomatic right to impunity because it is waging a war against the Tigers for a re-unified Sri Lanka. It demands uncritical, unconditional support in the name of patriotism and equates dissent with disloyalty to the country and treachery. And as President Rajapakse stated in his 61st Independence Day Speech, such ‘internal enemies’ will be the regime’s next target: “We are today a nation that has defeated a powerful enemy that stood before us. Similarly we should have the ability to defeat all internal enemies that are found in our midst”.

Unrealistic Expectations

President Rajapakse has never made a secret of his disinclination to implement a political solution to the ethnic problem. Not only does he disbelieve in the existence of an ethnic problem; as he once explained, “You must remember my political legacy and constraints. During my election I received few Tamil votes because of the LTTE-enforced boycott. I was elected primarily by a Sinhala constituency on an election manifesto which made it clear that an ultimate solution to the ethnic crisis could be evolved only on the basis of a unitary state” (Friday - 13.9.2007). Consequently, whatever the promises the President may have made to Delhi, these will be honoured only in the breach.

The Rajapakse regime is waging the war as the main axis of a restorationist project, to give back to the Sinhala race the place of dominance it enjoyed since 1956 and lost in 1987 due to the intervention of an external force, India. Consequently it cannot devolve power to the minorities once the war is over. Instead it will try to keep the minorities quiescent through a combination of terror and miniscule economic bribes. Minister Keheliya Rambukwella was echoing the oft repeated opinion of the President when he said, “Rehabilitation, reconstruction and development come first. There is no point in discussing politics with a region that had known only war for decades…. There are no grievances particularly for a community. Grievances are there with every citizen. When hostel facilities are limited, university students call it a grievance and protest. Then there are salary anomalies and they call it a grievance. There are issues everywhere and they all need to be addressed” (The Sunday Leader - 2.3.2009).

Initially the focus of the regime will be on keeping the minorities in their place and silencing Southern dissenters. But as the economic crisis worsens, the government will be compelled to place more and more burdens on the masses. Economic woes will breed political discontent amongst Sinhalese who hitherto backed the ‘patriotic’ regime; and the regime will not hesitate to use the ‘patriotic’ cudgel to suppress these manifestations. Starting with organised labour, more and more Sinhalese would come to know what the minorities and a small group of Sinhala dissenters experience today – being branded as a traitor for the crime of opposing the Rajapakses.

- Asian Tribune -

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