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

Beyond Limits

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

“Men go mad in herds, but only come to their senses one by one.”

Charles Mackay (Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds)

By defeating the LTTE, President Mahinda Rajapakse has earned his place in Sri Lankan history; most Sinhalese (irrespective of their political persuasions) and some Tamils and Muslims are grateful to him (and will continue to be so) for this reason. But in a democracy, eternal gratitude does not amount to a licence for eternal or limitless power, let alone both. In a country with a mature electorate, appreciation for a politician for the role he played in a specific area and in a given time, does not mean uncritical support for whatever he, his family and his government do, evermore.

The leader who is right for one season is not necessarily the man for the next; enabling such timely changes, peacefully, is one of the key advantages democracy has over other systems of governance. The British admired Winston Churchill tremendously and were deeply grateful to him, for the role he played in defending their country against Nazi Germany. Though Mr. Churchill remained a British hero, he did not remain the British Prime Minister. The fact that they voted him out of office did not make the British admire Mr. Churchill’s war-time role any less. His defeat did not deprive him of his deserved place in British (and world) history. More pertinently, no one, least of all Mr. Churchill, considered that the Britons who worked and voted against him to be deficient in patriotism. It was simply a robust democracy and a free electorate at work.

There is little doubt that President Rajapakse will win a second term (as things are now); his victory over the LTTE will ensure it, with an added guarantee being provided by Ranil Wickremesinghe’s proven penchant for defeat. But available evidence, from officially sanctioned astrological predictions to the elevation of family members to high places, suggests that for the Rajapakses this would not be enough. Creating a new political dynasty seems to be their aim. However the Rajapakse Family has no historic or axiomatic base and it is this critical absence which has necessitated the placing of the dynastic project within a broader Sinhala supremacist project (in the manner of a Russian doll). The Rajapakses have embraced Sinhala supremacism, identifying its interests with their own, creating a symbiotic link between that project and their own familial one – because that is the best way to build a popular base. The efforts to turn Sri Lanka into a hierarchically pluralist country (with Sinhalese occupying the primacy of place) will thus happen in tandem with the efforts to hollow out Lankan democracy, leaving only the shell behind. In this twin effort, patriotism is an indispensable label and slogan, sword and shield.

It was the outbreak of the war which provided the Rajapakses with both the opportunity and the instrument to create a nexus between the continuance of their rule and ‘survival of the nation’. The victory over the LTTE has strengthened this identification, while, paradoxically, rendering it less relevant. Consequently the raison d’être for Rajapakse rule can be restored only via the restoration of the primacy of ‘threats to national security and territorial integrity’, over and above concerns such as poverty, economic development, democratic rights or social progress. For the Rajapakse project to be successful, politics must continue as a war by other means, a zero-sum conflict against national ‘enemies’.

Redefining Patriotism

In his recent interview with The Hindu, President Mahinda Rajapakse reiterated his belief in a Sri Lanka divided solely between patriots and anti-patriots (‘there are those who love the country and those who don’t). According to the Oxford dictionary, a patriot is ‘one who defends or is zealous for his country’s prosperity, freedom or rights’. But what happens if the interests of a country are equated with the interests of a single ethnic group or if one party/family is perceived as the sole protector of a country, in perpetuity? What becomes of patriotism in such a context, when ensuring the primacy of a community or a family clan becomes the touchstone of patriotism? Will not this turn patriotism into ‘combustible rubbish read to the torch of anyone ambitious to illuminate his name’ and a patriot into ‘one to whom the interests of a part seem superior to those of the whole, the dupe of statesmen and the tool of conquerors’ (The Devil’s Dictionary – Ambrose Bierce)?

Does it advance the prosperity of a country or its rights or freedom to appoint a man, faulted by the highest court in the land for erroneous conduct in the sale of state properties, as the Minister of Justice and Law Reform (Milinda Moragoda)? Does it advance the prosperity of a country or its rights or freedom to appoint a man out on bail on a murder charge as the Minister of Cultural Affairs and National Heritage (Piyasiri Wijenayake)? Does it advance the prosperity of a country or its rights or freedom to seek to reappoint as the Secretary to the Treasury a man who was compelled to leave that post by the Supreme Court for acting ‘contrary to law and against the public interest in the conferment of benefits to a private party’ (Dr. PB Jayasundara)? Does it advance the prosperity of a country or its rights or freedom to build 150 ‘state of the art’ houses for parliamentarians, in the midst of an unprecedented financial crisis? Does it advance the prosperity of a country or its rights and freedoms to permit politicians to take the law into their own hands, so that they become a nuisance and a danger even to fellow party members (Mervyn Silva)? What is such conduct more consonant with – the definition of patriotism in the Oxford Dictionary or in the Devil’s Dictionary?

Under Rajapakse rule, patriotism is thus becoming synonymous with ‘Rajapakse supporter’; consequently anyone not supportive of the Rajapakses would be suspect of deficiency in patriotism. This categorisation are labelling are, then, used to crackdown on opponents of the government. For instance some time back, the government blocked access to the website, Tamilnet. Initially the various government spokesmen denied any such deed was being done and once it became undeniable admitted that the website was banned because it was pro-Tiger. Now the government is blocking access to another (this time Southern) website, Lanka news web. Since matters are still in the denial stage, there is no official reason given for this anti-democratic act. This particular website is critical of the government and according to media reports the banning was occasioned by a story stating that Presidential offspring Namal Rajapakse was stoned by some internees of the Menik Farm when he visited it. Clearly the regime will not hesitate to use the patriotism as a cloak for its actions and a cudgel to beat its opponents with. Even those working within the democratic mainstream, peacefully and legally, against the government can be branded as traitors. After all, if the Rajapakses epitomise patriotism, if they represent the country in perpetuity, striving for their electoral defeat cannot but be an act against the ‘nation’.

So long as the LTTE remained the argument that the main threat faced by Sri Lanka was to its territorial integrity was plausible. Not any more. Going by the emerging trends, the main challenge seems to be to protect the country’s democratic system from attempts to hollow it out from within.

And, as the tragic experiences of the Tamils demonstrate the time to stop a dangerous trend is at the beginning, before it becomes rooted and bears its bitter fruits. That is why the following phrase (said to have been inscribed on the Pillars of Heracles prohibiting the passage of ships beyond) is apposite for the Lankan situation: Ne plus ultra – Not further beyond

The Rightless

“I am in prison now…. Of course I am getting all these comforts. But what is comfort? This is not comfort. I can’t get out, I can’t drop in on my friends, I can’t bring them here. I can’t enjoy anything” – that was President Rajapakse (in his recent interview with The Hindu) expressing universal human (and animal) desire to be free. President Rajapakse can walk out of his ‘glorified prison’ a free man, any time he wants to; all he has to do is to resign from his job. The nearly three hundred thousand Tamils interned in ‘welfare’ camps do not even enjoy that theoretical freedom (quite apart from the fact their prison is not ‘glorified’ – or comfortable; far from it).

In his latest letter to the President (July 5th), V Anandasangaree, leader of the TULF, highlighted a case which epitomises the lawless state that prevails in the Northern internment camps: “What provoked me to write this to you today is the denial of the authorities to release a one year old child with the 61 year old grandmother with whom the child is now staying in a IDP camp at Pulmoddai. The father of this child and the son of the grandmother had his left leg amputated and is now in Pulmoddai. His wife had a right leg amputated with a multiple fracture on the left leg and is now in Vavuniya…. What is the security risk the country faces from these four individuals?” Hopefully, the President will pay heed to this plea and enable this unfortunate family to unite in freedom. It is equally important to address the root causes of such inexcusable injustices, so that they can be prevented from generating another cycle of hatred and bloodshed.

It is important to prevent the LTTE from raising its head. But can this be done by treating Tamils with rank injustice? Does it make sense to intern (and thus alienate or antagonise) almost three hundred thousand Tamils, just to catch a few thousand Tigers (and not one of them leading ones)? When a sense of proportionality is absent, when excess stops being excessive because it has become the norm, even the pursuit of justice can turn unjust. That is what is happening in the Northern internment camps, where, in the absence of the rule of law, arbitrariness rules. There have been persistent stories of visiting relatives (some coming all the way from Colombo) being denied access to some camps. Since there are no clear rules, much would depend on the whims and fancies of camp authorities, including the guards, especially in a context in which the inmates are considered de facto prisoners, rightless and defenceless. Worse than prisoners, since these interned Tamils have no visiting rights and no way to contact the outside world, which even those who are condemned of the worst possible crimes enjoy, under the law.

What augurs ill for the future of a peaceful Sri Lanka is the Southern silence about the gross injustices done to the displaced Tamils. Even the opposition seems to be circumspect in taking up this issue, perhaps due to the fear of being branded insufficiently patriotic by the regime coupled with a belief that such advocacy would be unpopular with the Sinhalese. The Tamils are effectively leaderless and the Diaspora is more concerned about the dead Tigers rather than the living Tamils. The Tamil allies of the regime are interested only in their own survival and advancement; consequently they conduct themselves with the same kind of mindless servility the TNA displayed towards the Tigers. The TULF leader, V Anandasangaree, seems to be the only Tamil politician to talk about the plight of the displaced Tamils consistently. If this state of affairs continues, the day may not be long, when they remember the Tiger times with nostalgia.

- Asian Tribune -

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