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Asian Tribune is published by E-LANKA MEDIA(PVT)Ltd. Vol. 20 No. 109

The Sin of Hubris

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

“And none can be called happy until that day when he carries his happiness down to the grave in peace”.
Sophocles (King Oedipus)

The candle is being burnt on both ends. The regime, having lost the battle for international public opinion, is in the process of loosing the struggle for national public opinion as well. We did not loose international support because of the war per se but because of the manner in which we pursued that war, with scant regard for the security of unarmed civilian Tamils. Similarly, it is not that the people of the South have become anti-war; it is not even that they are unwilling to bear some hardships for the sake of defeating the LTTE. The problem is the blatant inequality and injustice in the distribution of the costs of war. What human rights violations are to the North-East, cost of living is becoming to the South. And the seeming incompetent impunity with which the regime is handling both issues is making enemies of not just neutrals but also friends.

The undeclared Fourth Eelam War rages, costlier than ever before, and with no end in sight. In the South there is discontent in the air, and more than a whiff of instability. As economic woes multiply, so does public dissatisfaction. The regime seems as unwilling and unconcerned about the cost of living problems of people of the South as it is about the life and death problems of the people of the North-East. In fact the regime’s handling of the Southern economic issues seems every bit as callous, inept and counterproductive as its handling of the security issues of Tamil people. Denials, evasions and outright lies are interspersed with increasingly futile time buying exercises. Meanwhile the problems fester, to the common danger of all of us.

The week gone was saturated with the results of these avoidable errors. The JVP is said to be planning a general strike. The Australians issued a hard-hitting statement blaming both the regime and the Tigers for blatant human rights violations. Abductions continue; the story that a young Sri Lankan woman and her little daughter (on holiday from the Netherlands) held illegally in a suburban police station for two days, even as police denied all knowledge of her whereabouts in response to frantic inquiries by parents, sent a shockwave through the South – doubtless because the victims are Sinhalese. The bad news peaked with a remote control bomb in Pettah and a successful Tiger assault on the Navy camp in the Delft Island. The week ended with a battle of words and a poster skirmish between the government and the JVP over a plan to sell the state’s stake in the SLT to a Malaysian company. Both sides predictably charged each other of being unpatriotic and pro-Tiger.

Loosing the Initiative

Even at the beginning of this year, the Rajapakse administration was in control of the situation (though signs of coming dissolution were visible). No more. Politically, economically and militarily the initiative has slipped from our grasp because of our own faulty conduct. Politically the regime failed to deal with the security concerns of civilian Tamils and followed it up with a ‘devolution’ proposal which is as ludicrous as it is counterproductive.

Economically we have been spending, abundantly, money we do not have, not just on the war but also on maintaining the luxurious life styles of our political class - even as foreign aid dries up and the economy slithers into a rut. Militarily the Tigers regained some of the lost initiative with their successful deployment of air capacity, made possible by our bungling of the entire issue through over-confidence and under-preparedness. The Thoppigala battle is reportedly not going well. The sad end of the Karuna rebellion – with the murderous schism said by some to have been engineered by a section of the state – will enable the Tigers to make a politico-military comeback in the Tamil areas of the East. And our mishandling of the rebellion from the beginning to the end would discourage others in the LTTE from taking the Karuna option.

Hubris – the deadliest of sins according to the ancient Greeks; to that could be attributed many of our current and future woes. Instead of seeing our Eastern victories in context and redoubling our efforts to win over the Tamil people and the world through generous devolution and greater attention to human rights, we did the polar opposite. Our policies and practices brought back the fear of a Pax Sinhala, a Sinhala rather than a Sri Lankan peace, with 1956 and 1983 as its benign and malign faces. The turning of the political tide began with those fears; unfortunately we did nothing to allay them; on the contrary we seem to be acting in a manner calculated to stoke those fears. In that sense we are doing the Tigers’ politico-propaganda work for them (just as the Tigers regularly do our politico-propaganda work for us, with their terroristic and fascist conduct) discrediting our own cause and proving Tiger allegations right every step of the way.

Our problems would not have become so acute had we not mishandled the Air Tiger issue so badly. When the first attack came we should have seen it for what it was – not an isolated irritant but a new factor capable of causing a tectonic shift in the overall situation. The first attack took us unawares and we comforted ourselves by laughing at the ‘Tiger’s air folly’. This may not have been so damaging if, out of the public eye, our leaders took the new threat seriously and prepared to meet it. That obviously was not done. Our sanguinity was not just a pose for public benefit; we really believed in our own propaganda. Consequently when the subsequent attacks came, we were caught napping; and like any person rudely awoken from a deep slumber we overreacted.

Our surreal response to the second Air Tiger attack on Colombo did more damage to our image than did the attack itself. Not only did we unleash anti-aircraft fire long after the Flying Tigers have come and gone; according to residents, for a couple of hours, parts of Colombo became a nightmare city, like Lebanon or our own North-East. In Colombo Central and North, fear-crazed people and their weeping children cowered in their flats and shanties as the night sky dazzled with tracer bullets and their dwellings reverberated with the monstrous sounds of the big guns. In the streets outside everything was chaos, as soldiers and policemen shot at the sky with personal weapons. According to media reports we almost shot down a passenger aircraft belonging to some country.

The end result is a tattered image, a drastic drop in tourist arrivals (a foreign correspondent quipped that tourists have become an endangered species in Sri Lanka), an airport which closes at night and a general loss of morale, both at the level of the economy and society. The general belief in a short, victorious war has vanished with the feeling that the President has things under control.

A war is fought not just on the battlefields. Political and economic factors are as important to the outcome of a war as military factors. The economy has not recovered from the after effects of that third Air Tiger attack. Tourism – a major foreign exchange earner – has grinded to a halt. The government in general and the minister in particular seem to be handling the issue by going into denial while the industry is being forced to curtail operations drastically and consider lay offs. Banks have hiked interest rates and legitimate businesses are feeling a cash crunch.

The global response to the Air Tiger attacks demonstrated the extent to which we have dissipated the international goodwill we possessed until recently; not even the Chinese or the Pakistanis condemned the attacks. We ignored international concerns partly because we believed that the world has no choice but to back us irrespective of what we do because the Tigers are terrorists and international terrorism is a global scourge. Quite apart from the well known hypocrisy of the global and regional powers, there was another reason why this calculation backfired. The international community no longer equates the Tigers with the Tamils; therefore even as it opposes Tiger terrorism, it continues to be mindful of the rights of Tamils. This attitude has made it possible for the international community to take stances which are anti-Tiger and anti-Sri Lankan – on the basis that both sides are unmindful of the rights of the Tamils and insufficiently committed to finding a political solution to the ethnic problem. Even as many Western governments cracked down on Tiger operations in their countries they also began to put pressure on Sri Lanka politically and financially.

Southern Instability

That was the path we travelled to get to where we are today; a short distance ahead is a point of confluence of the Northern and Southern crises. A regime which demands that people tighten their belts without making a corresponding sacrifice runs the risk of loosing moral authority. The Rajapakse administration is dangerously close to that point. The President may think that he does not have to worry about the South electorally because of the unelectable nature of the leader of opposition. He may be right. But this in no way precludes the possibility of political unrest in the South, fuelled by socio-economic factors. And as is becoming evident the JVP will go along with it, despite the best efforts of the Presidential allies such as Wimal Weerawansa.

The necessary war against the Tigers will be badly affected if there is unrest in the South. The answer is not to crack down on demonstrators or ban trade union actions, still less driving the JVP underground. The only possible palliative is for the regime to impose financial discipline on itself, with the President leading the way. In the last weeks there have been many media revelations about the exorbitant amounts the President spends on his propaganda and his cronies. The size of the entourage every time he goes abroad has become an enduing scandal. For starters these will have to be changed. Then the President can justifiably impose financial constraints on his ministers and other followers. When this is done and adhered to, the public will become less discontented about the exacerbating economic burdens and more willing to bear the costs of war. Needless to say this is only a time buying exercise, but it is a positive one and it is becoming increasingly necessary if we want to keep the South stable.

The writing on the wall may not be blazoning, but it can be read nevertheless. If the UNP had a different leader, more popular, more dynamic and less Tiger-friendly, politics would have become predictable. Given the unelectable nature of Ranil Wickremesinghe, the future course of the Lankan polity and society is uncertain. It is hard to say how the growing public anger and disillusion will manifest itself. In the absence of the normal politico-electoral channels, the manifestation can take the form of violent implosions – more and worse crimes which can develop into a state of lawlessness bordering on semi-anarchy. Devoid of an opportunity to go forward, the country will stagnate and her wounds will fester and become more malignant. Ours will become a diseased society, ‘a weed-choked field’, that man made desolation devoid of pity or honour W H Auden described with such mind-chilling eloquence in ‘The Shield of Achilles’:

“A ragged urchin, aimless and alone - loitered about that vacancy;
A bird flew up to safety from his well-aimed stone:
That girls are raped, that two boys knife a third - were axioms to him, who'd never heard
Of any world where promises were kept,
Or one could weep because another wept”.

- Asian Tribune -

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