The Contagion of Mahinda Chinthanaya
The Colombo Municipal Council is at war. The UNP-led institution is battling, not dengue mosquitoes or disease vectors such as open drains, sewage spills or uncollected garbage, but birds.
According to media reports, the CMC has identified bird-droppings as a major aesthetic problem and their stench as an unbearable olfactory intrusion. So ratepayers’ money will be utilised not to alleviate the innumerable problems affecting ordinary city dwellers and businesses (especially the dengue epidemic) but to remove birds’ nests; and to cut branches of trees to prevent future birds’ nests!
When the Rajapaksas dissolve the CMC early – as they are planning to do with the provincial councils – and the UNP city-fathers are compelled to go back to the electorate, they can tell their irate constituents that they were unable to do much about drainage, sewage, garbage and mosquitoes because they were too busy fighting birds. A few more addlebrained acts of this nature by the CMC and the Rajapaksas will be able to deprive the UNP of the Colombo city without any violence or malpractices, in a free and fair election.
“The way ideology functions, it is not so much….people didn’t know about it. But the way those in power manipulate it; yes we all know dirty things are being done but you are being informed about it obliquely in such a way that you are able to ignore it.” Slavoj Žižek (Discussion at the Frontline Club in London – 2.7.2011).
This inane anti-bird campaign is not only a gross waste of public funds and official time and energy; it is also indicative that the UNP-controlled CMC is beginning to internalise Gotabhaya-thinking on city-management – focusing on cosmetic-changes while the fundaments rot.
Political beliefs, habits and practices are like fashions: they are contagious. People, including political opponents, learn from leaders, consciously and unconsciously.
During the time of Rome, Roman habits, from the toga to public baths, became de rigueur within the Empire and beyond.
We learnt tea-drinking from the British and a large part of what passes off as Sinhala Buddhist culture and traditions is really remnants of Victorian morality transferred to us by the Colonial rulers. And the Kandyan costume (nilame anduma) bears a striking resemblance to the European sartorial fashions of the 16th and 17th centuries (doublet, hose and ruffs).
The possibility that Mahinda Chinthanaya may infect the collective psyche of Lankans, including the political opponents of the Ruling Family, is a real and present danger. If so, Rajapaksa governance will survive Rajapaksa rule. Even after Sri Lanka rids herself of the Siblings (as she will someday), Lankans may continue to be afflicted by some of the more execrable Rajapaksa habits, such as family-bandysm, corruption, abuse of power and impunity.
From Jaffna to Hambantota
What is most shocking about the Katuwana incident is neither the manner of the attack nor its lethal outcome but the disclosures made by a judge in open court about the chief suspect, Geeganagamage Amarasiri alias Julampitiye Amare. According to the High the Court Judge of Tangalle, Chandrasena Rajapaksa, the chief suspect who, in theory, was in hiding since 2003, with several arrest warrants against him, had behaved so much like a free man, with such impunity, that he even visited an associate in prison last week.
Hambantota is the politico-personal base of the President himself. And the district, under Rajapaksa rule, has earned for itself a name not only for political violence but also for violent politicians. In Hambantota, more than in any other part of Sri Lanka, politicians behaved like criminals and criminals enjoy political power and impunity. It was in Tangalle, a few miles away from the presidential abode, that a British tourist was killed and a Russian tourist was sexually harassed, allegedly by the Chairman of the Pradesheeya Sabha, a card-carrying member of the UPFA and an associate of the Rajapaksa clan.
The Rajapaksas have a penchant not just for bending the rules but also for breaking the law to help/save a favoured acolyte. Take the case of Mervyn Silva, minister and serial law-breaker. The manner in which his serial crimes and misdemeanours have been dealt with by the Ruling Siblings is invaluable in comprehending the basics of Rajapaksa governance. Some time ago, a disciplinary committee comprising of SLFP lawyers found Minister Silva innocent of tying a public official to a tree in broad daylight and in full view of the public. Hundreds of people, including police and media personnel watched the Minister committing his crime.
There were photographic records of the deed. None of that mattered to the committee which had obviously been given a mandate not to find the truth but to whitewash the guilty. Mr. Silva was ‘exonerated’ of all wrong doing and promptly rewarded by the President with a ministerial portfolio.
Politicians have to look after their supporters. That is an accepted fact. But this should, and can, be done without violating the law, without going against all sense of justice and fair-play, without undermining systemic legitimacy. The Rajapaksas, unfortunately, take their favouritism and nepotism to the outermost extreme, till the point of criminal abuse of power.
Practices such as nepotism, corruption and abuse exist even in the most developed democracies. But under Rajapaksa rules, these abhorrent practices are becoming an integral part of governance. As the hitherto aberrant becomes the new commonplace, vices are transferred into virtues. And learning bad habits are much easier than unlearning them, be it in the case of individuals, institutions or countries.
In 2007, at a Financial Consultative Committee meeting, the abrogation of President Premadasa’s circular mandating public sector recruitment via competitive exams and the reinstatement of the disreputably dangerous practice of recruitment via political patronage came up for discussion. When the JVP, which was still a part of the ruling coalition, protested against this change, President Rajapakse responded revealingly: “Piyasiri, there is no point in protesting against this…. We must help those who helped our party by giving them appointments. If both of you also have lists, give them to me and I will see that they are appointed” (Lakbima News – 9.9.2007).
Clearly the Rajapaksas are intent on taking care of their own – be it party members, human rights violators in the armed forces or relations/friends in politics/business – irrespective of the cost to the economy, the country and the people – the majority of whom do not belong to any of the favoured categories and thus are unprotected and vulnerable.
The Need for Resistance
The South should, at least now, understand the lesson: abuse and impunity cannot be contained within a district or a province; once they infect an institution or a country, they will move with the speed and the virulence of a cancer, attacking and infecting every healthy cell. The South cannot expect to enjoy justice and the rule of law when the North is reeling from abuse and impunity.
The Tigers too believed in abuse and impunity. They too rejected accountability. They believed that their indubitable commitment to Eelam gave them a carte blanche. This attitude made them commit unavoidable excesses and avoidable crimes with nary a thought for consequences. Tamil society in general and Tamil intelligentsia in particular, instead of resisting the LTTE, caved in and abdicated their political, moral and social responsibilities, in the name of nationalism and national liberation: “…a large section of the allegedly educated and intelligent elite turned a deaf ear to all the painful moral and political questions and joined the stampede after a lie. They denied the LTTE’s mass prisons and systematic extermination of political dissent or justified it. When forced to face the reality of the LTTE’s conscription of children, they called it voluntary and paid moving tributes to the thirst these children harboured for Tamil Eelam. They simply refused to face the reality of their maimed lives and stolen childhoods” (UTHR Special Report No. 32: A Marred Victory and a Defeat Pregnant with Foreboding – 10.6.2009).
We know how that story of abuse, excess and impunity ended. Legitimate states too can succumb to barbarism, if they accord themselves carte blanche, even in the defence of a just cause.
The Tigers started the Fourth Eelam War. The Lankan state and the Rajapaksa administration had to either fight back or concede a separate state. But this incontrovertible truth cannot be used to reject accountability or justify abuses committed in the context of that war.
Video and photographic records of abuses allegedly committed by the Lankan Forces, some in the immediate aftermath of the war, keep on emerging. For instance, last week, the website, Colombo Telegraph, carried a new video with dead bodies of Tiger cadres (including the Tiger radio announcer Ms. Issipriya). According to the website, “The video clearly demonstrates a pattern of woeful consistency of the Lankan Forces. Most of the female armed and unarmed combatants, and civilians, are always stripped naked” or stripped down to their underwear. What lends the video and the charge credibility is that following the Black Tiger assault on the Air Force camp in Saliyapura, in October 2007, the army stripped the bodies of the Black Tiger attackers, piled them into a tractor and displayed them in the town. The pictures of this grisly spectacle appeared in national newspapers and caused an outrage; reportedly people of the area too were appalled by it. Clearly the humiliation of the enemy by desecrating his/her body has become a tradition in the Lankan army. Equally clearly the Rajapaksas have no problem with this horrific practice. That is how bad habits proliferate and become rooted.
Democracy has to factor in the fact that free people elect bad rulers in fair elections. That is an inbuilt fault in the system; and the purpose of laws and constitutions is to ensure that these bad choices are conjectural and not structural and their effects are tactical rather than strategic. But sometimes, in some places, democracy throws up a government which uses the tools of democracy to undermine it from within.
It is not logical – or intelligent - to expect the regime to implode any time soon. Of course the Rajapaksas have their differences and these differences can help sink them someday, when the habit of power had made them careless of it. But for now, what the Chinese dissident Bao Tong has to say about the top Chinese leaders is relevant to Sri Lanka as well: “…everyone is in one boat. If that boat turns over, everyone ends up in the water. When I say everyone, of course I mean the people in power. So in China everyone helps each other out. If you are in trouble, I’ll help you out and if I am in trouble you help me out” (interview with the New York Review of Books – 14.6.2012).
In a country with a vibrant opposition the task of resisting such despotic threats need not fall on the shoulders of the citizenry. But in Sri Lanka the fissiparous opposition is a part of the problem rather than the solution. Therefore the citizenry is compelled to shoulder more than its fair share in the task of impeding the Rajapaksa march to despotism. As the famed film director Costa Garvas said, “Resistance is the most important thing” (The Guardian – 4.4.2009). Resistance, with a simple r, everyday resistance of ordinary people who refuse to sink into the mire of cynical indifference or agree that wrong is right.
- Asian Tribune -