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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2737

Warning Bells for 2008

“Who knows where a panic-stricken crowd runs to?”
Anatole France (Monsieur Bergeret in Paris)

While the world was in a state of shock over the brutal assassination of Benazir Bhutto, Sri Lankans across every divide celebrated the richly deserved come-uppance of Minister Mervyn de Silva. Most Sri Lankans would have been deeply affected by the tragic fate of Ms. Bhutto. But the sight of Minister Silva, that marauder par excellence, being manhandled by the usually docile and politically correct employees of the state owned Rupavahini Corporation was a sight too rare to be bested by any happening, however horrendously momentous. When the worm finally turns the result can be quite spectacular; and portentous.

The ‘Mervyn debacle’ demonstrates the correlation between a culture of permissiveness and anarchic mob violence. When law enforcement authorities turn a blind eye towards criminal actions by the powerful, the powerless will feel compelled to take law into their hands. If no punitive action is taken against Minister Silva, the signal would be that the government is condoning his ‘pig-ethics’. Such a message will undermine public confidence in the rule of law and strengthen anarchic impulses lying dormant in society.

Minister Silva attacked a senior employee of a premier state institution; the senior employee is a Sinhalese and the incident happened in the South. So far the President has maintained a studious silence; no prompt action against Minister Silva for breaking the law of the land as there was against Peter Hill of Sri Lankan Air Lines for refusing to offload 35 pre-paid passengers to make room for the mammoth presidential entourage. If the power-wielders enjoy so much impunity in the South, vis-à-vis Sinhalese, it is all too easy to guess their conduct vis-à-vis the Tamils (especially in the North-East), where any act of criminality can be justified on the grounds of anti-terrorism.

It is said that patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel. If the government conducts itself in 2008 as it did in 2007, it runs the risk of becoming living proof of this adage. If the gap between the incessant calls by the regime for patriotic sacrifices and the limitless self-indulgence of the rulers at public expense continues to increase as we move through 2008, public forbearance would diminish and discontent would grow. Already trade unions – including ones controlled by the JVP – are warning about impending strikes and demonstrations. As economic distress grows the possibility of spontaneous manifestations of public dissent cannot be ruled out. If President Rajapakse fails to impose financial and behavioural discipline on his ministers and officials, the South might descent into lawlessness in the coming year.

The National and the International

The old year is ending with a massive hike in the price of flour and bread. At a time even the cheapest variety of rice costs more than Rs. 50/- per kg this new hike is a body blow to the general public. The Central Bank, headed for the first time in its existence by a failed politician, may play hide and seek with figures, seeking to gloss over the grim reality with happy pronouncements. But no amount of ‘truthspeak’ can make the populace experience anything counter to the really existing reality of galloping cost of living. The expectation of a quick victory over the LTTE will make a majority of Sinhalese tolerate their burdens for a while, but this ‘window of tolerance’ is, by its very nature, of short duration. If by the end of next year economic distress of the masses and the war are both raging unabated, public mood is bound to turn sour.

Mihin Air, a Presidential whim, is a metaphor of the Rajapakse approach to governance. That a country in severe financial distress should spend billions of rupees on starting a budget airline borders on the grotesque. Objectively a budget air line cannot be considered a priority since it cannot help the government to address the two most critical issues of the day – the war and price hikes. So why prioritise Mihin Air? Because it bears the President’s name and provides lucrative employment and income generating opportunities for Presidential favourites? Because it can function as the private airline of the First Family whenever they are globe-trotting?

The war is a tragic necessity because nothing less than Tiger Eelam would satisfy Vellupillai Pirapaharan. Neither Ranasinghe Premadasa nor Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga wanted war; Mr. Pirapaharan imposed a war on both of them. President Rajapakse seems intent on winning the Fourth Eelam War; he needs to win the war since he has nothing else going for him. Then, why are his flitting away scarce public resources on unnecessary absurdities? The gargantuan cabinet, though reprehensible, is understandable from a ‘real politik’ point of view; the President has to bribe greedy parliamentarians with ministries and privileges in order to save/enhance his unstable majority. Mihin Air and presidential profligacy in general are not so understandable because they are not necessary for the survival of the regime and the continuation of the war effort. In fact they undermine the legitimacy of the government and the sustainability of the war. Then why do it? Is it lack of intelligence and foresight? Or is it that the Rajapakses believe they are the state?

Once again posters are out demanding that the government ceases its efforts to make a political appointment to the post of Auditor General. A previous attempt to present this critically important post to an amenable outsider had to be shelved due to trade union and media opposition. Obviously the regime is endeavouring again to subvert the independence of the Auditor General’s department. A government that has no conception of the critical difference between the public and the private naturally cannot abide or afford independent auditing of state expenditure. Such a government needs to subvert the independence of the Auditor General’s department in order to abuse public funds in peace and with impunity. Previous governments too misused public funds though not to this degree; and none of them tried to hand over the Attorney General’s Department to a stooge so that financial malpractices can be made kosher as a rule.

Sri Lanka is likely to come under heavier international pressure in the coming year. The choice of parliamentarian Mano Ganesan as the first runner up of the Freedom Defender’s Award instituted by the government of the USA was as portentous as the words used by the American embassy in its announcement of this honour: “Mr. Ganesan has been in the forefront of those seeking an end to the abductions, disappearances and extra-judicial killings that afflict Sri Lanka. He has demonstrated commendable integrity in combating the climate of impunity for human rights violators.” Since Mr. Ganesan (unlike the UTHR) specialises in opposing human rights violations by the Lankan state while turning a blind eye to Tiger crimes, both the choice and the words indicate a change in the official American attitude to Sri Lanka. If the Bush administration too is turning against us, we can expect the international climate to become far more hostile in 2008 than it was in 2007.

With the US imposing soft sanctions on us, greater punitive measures can be expected from the EU, Canada and Australia in 2008. India is said to be insisting on a political solution to the ethnic problem within the first quarter of the year. The regime is unlikely to oblige; it cannot oblige given its politico-ideological dependence on and affinity with the JVP and the JHU. In fact the JVP has already declared its opposition to any political solution emanating from the APRC. Our persistent failure to bring the APRC to a successful conclusion may destroy the current ‘thaw’ in Indo-Lanka relations. A Democratic President – be it Ms. Clinton or Mr. Obama – would be less interested in the ‘war against terrorism’, more intolerant of human rights violations by non-American troops than Mr. Bush, more inclined to see a similarity between Sri Lanka and Serbia.

Optionless

Moral-ethical common sense is not a constant; it changes over time. Richard Dawkins calls this the ‘shifting moral zeitgeist’: “There seems to be a steadily shifting standard of what is morally acceptable. Donald Rumsfeld, who sounds so callous and odious today, would have sounded like a bleeding heart liberal if he had said the same things during the Second World War” (The God Delusion). What was regarded as permissible to a sovereign state in defence of its territorial integrity ten years ago may be seen as unacceptable behaviour today by the international community. Of course, the US interred Japanese Americans and Britain interred German nationals during the World War II. But that does not mean we can, with impunity, launch a witch hunt against our Tamil citizens in the name of anti-terrorism, today. The ‘moral climate’ has changed and we must understand this and act accordingly if we want to avoid the Kosovo route.

The Tiger leader is as much of an obstacle to democratic Tamil aspirations as the JHU or the JVP. If the Tamil people were led by a more savoury leader and a more palatable organisation they would have been able to garner the unconditional support of India and the West for a substantial power sharing deal. Some Tamil nationalists accuse India and the world of doing very little in the face of Rajapakse administration’s obvious intent to impose a victor’s peace on the Tamil people. The fault lies primarily with the LTTE and those Tamil expatriates who help the LTTE financially. How can India move decisively in favour of Tamil demands when the primary representative of Lankan Tamils is the same entity that murdered Rajiv Gandhi (not to mention innumerable Indian soldiers and officers)? How can the world unrestrainedly back Tamil aspirations when those aspirations are articulated mainly by an organisation that conscripts children and has transformed the act of suicide killing from a force multiplier to method of regular warfare?

Though most of the international community is far from enamoured of the Rajapakses they find the LTTE and its megalomaniac leader even less passé. Col. Karuna, who rebelled against the Tiger on behalf of Eastern Tamils, became an oppressor of his own people once he was assured of the patronage of the Lankan state and the Rajapakse administration. In the official view and parlance, the East today is liberated. But in many parts of the East the TMVP, now led by Col. Karuna’s erstwhile deputy Mr. Pilliyan, is running a parallel administration of terror. The democratic Tamil leaders are as powerless and voiceless as the ordinary Tamils of the North East.

The Rajapakse administration is anti-Tiger, fortunately for the country. But it is also dismissive of the minorities and non-responsive to their political demands, even when these are expressed democratically. It is also an administration of robber barons. While commending the regime’s capacity to take the war right into the Sun God’s den, it is also necessary to realise that the Rajapakses are ideologically incapable of coming up with a political solution to the ethnic problem or improving the country’s human rights record. They are also naturally disinclined to restrain corruption and waste, tolerate dissent or work efficiently to improve the living standards of a majority of the people. Under the Rajapakse rule Sri Lanka may win some battles against the Tigers; but country may become economically unviable and socially uninhabitable.

Ranil Wickremesinghe is a genius at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Thanks to his leadership the UNP is in shambles organisationally and its morale has hit the rock bottom. Mr. Wickremesinghe’s unrequited partiality for the LTTE plus his total inability to understand the existential conditions of the normal people – Sinhala, Tamil or Muslim – makes him unpalatable as an alternative even to the Rajapakses.

In Sri Lanka, like in Auschwitz, the status quo is unbearable and any change will be change for the worse.

- Asian Tribune -

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