By Rajan Philips –
The crisis of Sri Lanka has become a lot more than the crisis of its government. Aluthgama has exposed multiple complications in our politics, society, culture and governance, and there is no easy remedy to any of them. The Rajapaksa government excels in misgovernment and makes misgoverning look not only easy but also normal. If it is only the government that is the problem, then it can be solved at least partially by changing the government. But when the problem goes beyond the government, and when the social presuppositions and cultural prerequisites of good governance go missing, then we get stuck in a vicious spiral. And we are.
Aluthgama exemplified the collusion of connivance and incompetence at the highest levels. It has since revealed the shocking absence of shame and the alarming incapacity for sorrow at all levels. The government has become too predictable for anyone to expect anything better. What is unpredictable is how much worse it can get. But this government will keep going, winning election after election, a third term after the second, and with no end in sight to its continuing misgoverning. There are no alternatives in the land – be it a common candidate or an uncommon avatar. And if there is an almighty out there, it must surely be agnostic about the future of the once chosen, and Milton’s utmost, isle.
Aluthgama was an underserving Muslim tragedy. What did the Muslims in Aluthgama and in abutting towns ever do to have the Bodu Bala Sena thugs unleashed on them? It was a wholly preventable disaster but one the government wanted to happen anyway. The government sat on its hands in Aluthgama while the town was burning, even as it stood on its hind legs in parliament to pass a redundant resolution against the UNHRC investigation in Sri Lanka. The Rajapaksa government can certainly make a claim to consistency in one respect: it is opposed to all investigations and it will ignore any and all calls for accountability. Sri Lanka’s parliament is opposed to the UNHRC investigating the military actions of the government of Sri Lanka, and the government will not carry out any investigation of who did what in Aluthgama, and why.
Instead, the government will undertake whitewashing, courtesy of the presidential largesse of Rs.200 million and the detailing of the army to rebuild the homes and shops destroyed in Aluthgama and nearby towns. This is the government’s response to the Muslim question, much of which has been its own making in the last three years. And it is similar to the government’s response to the Tamil question over the last five years, namely, building roads and resorts while denying that there is a political problem crying out for a political solution. Is Rs.200 million the price of buying the silence of Muslim cabinet ministers? What is the government’s price tag for the TNA?
Apart from the cheap retail politics, there is a serious and wholesale fiduciary problem here, but one that will concern only a handful of people such as the Citizens for Good Governance. It is normal to have and utilize approved government funds to deal with unexpected events such as a natural disaster, or an epidemic outbreak, where there is no human agency involved and society as a whole must and does take responsibility for redressing victims and restoring their lives. But when a bunch of thugs go about burning buildings and destroying properties, the process of compensating the victims and restoring properties must go hand in hand with the process of identifying and exposing the rascals who caused the mischief and holding them accountable for their actions. To throw public money to clean up the mess while letting those who messed up go scot free, is fundamentally improper and inappropriate. But these are standards that have become so high in the Sri Lanka of today that our political creeps can easily crawl under without the bother of surmounting them.
It would be naïve to expect any serious investigation of those who ran riot in Aluthgama when the puppet strings of the rioters can be traced all the way to the establishment in Colombo. The state police was there and in numbers to serve even if only by standing and waiting. They were not waiting for orders, they had their orders. The President tweeted from afar, just as an ancient emperor fiddled while his capital was burning. But presidential tweeting was no match in the social media to the instant broadcasting of the unfolding arson and violence in Aluthgama. The social media turned Sri Lanka into a glass house while the mainstream media dropped its pants in trying to pull down the house curtains obeying orders for self-censorship from the landlord.
With this exposure and, one would have thought, embarrassment, it seemed reasonable to expect that the government would learn its lessons and mend its ways. Even without undertaking an investigation, the government could have shown empathy to the traumatized Muslims, and embarked on an educational process to ensure that there will not be another Aluthgama. No fat chance of anything like that from this government. On the contrary, the President has cynically exonerated the BBS by harping on Muslim extremism and what he considers to be constitutional violations on the part of TNA politicians. So long as the government does not put Muslim and TNA politicians in jail, the argument seems to go, the BBS and its allies can roam free at large.
1983 comparisons and the new culture of excuses
What is more remarkable, and worrisome, if there is anything worthwhile left in the current Sri Lankan dispensation for us to worry about losing, is that similar arguments and exoneration attempts are emanating even from those on the political left who justify their support of the President by claiming that they do not support the actions of his government. Some of them are still part of the government and its bandwagon. A notable, if not the only, exception is Dayan Jayatilleke, even though he seems to be in full flight of a process of intellectual externalization to demonstrate a thread of consistency through the various twists and turns of his political past. In any event, he deserves to be commended for accurately and eloquently exposing the religious-securocratic-nepotistic make-up of the present regime and its non-SLFP social bases at home and abroad. I will not name the others, even though they deserve to be named and shamed, who would rather be all the President’s men at this time in contrast to the principled positions they took thirty one years earlier in 1983. Rather, I would express my hate only for their opinions while retaining my good wishes for them personally. Their publicized opinions on the Aluthgama tragedy deserve to condemned, because they are not critical reflections associated with the political left, but are a part of the chorus of excuses for the government. In fact, they even border on anti-Muslim innuendos.
First, their comparison to 1983 and the commendation that the government acted much sooner in Aluthgama than was the case thirty years earlier is nonsense. The only relevance of 1983 ought to be that nothing like that should ever be allowed to happen again in Sri Lanka. It should not be the benchmark for evaluating repeats of anti-minority pogroms such as Authgama. When the current anti-Muslim hysteria began in 2011/2012, there were enough warnings by Muslims and others that the country was heading for a repeat of 1983 in 2013, this time targeting the Muslims. What did not happen in 2013 has happened in 2014, in Aluthgama. The government could have easily arrested and stopped the anti-Muslim campaign including its acts of violence long before it exploded in Aluthgama. On the contrary, the government not only did nothing to stop the BBS before the Aluthgama disaster, but it is also refusing to do anything after the disaster. It deserves no commendation at all in a false comparison to 1983, and certainly not from anyone who calls himself a leftist.
President Jayewardene, tongue in cheek, blamed the 1983 riots on Marxists and Naxalites. He even arrested a few leftists to prove his point. Some of them have gone occult now and are seeing an invisible hand behind the BBS. Others are seeing western conspiracy and even Tamil diaspora connections. Still others are trying out pseudo-social science hypotheses to give the BBS some benign explanation. Then there is the utterly despicable attempt to explain the intolerance against the Muslims in Sri Lanka as a reaction to the emergence of Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East. It is unworthy of those on the left to attempt to make this connection, which is analytically untenable and quite dangerous politically and socially.
There is no need to elaborate the obvious that all Sinhalese are not racists. Everyone knows that. No society is absolutely intolerant and chauvinistic. The hallmark of progress in a society is the cultivation of a political system and social norms that are consistent with the inherent plurality, tolerance and inclusiveness involving substantial sections of that society. What I call ‘cultivation’, albeit not too rigourously, is a constant work in progress. It is also a struggle against those sections of society who are not readily inclusive and tolerant, a struggle that should not be violent but democratic, educational and experiential. The question after Aluthgama is whether the BBS represents the highest common factor of tolerance and inclusiveness in Sinhalese society? The question is also whether the Rajapaksa government is helping or hurting the democratic, educational and experiential struggle to establish in Sri Lanka a political system that is plural, tolerant and inclusive. The answers these questions are obvious and need no elaboration from me.