By Tisaranee Gunasekara –
arises from subservient lips.”
Andrée Chedid (For Salman Rushdie)
In a recent satirical column, American humorist Andy Borowitz reported the discovery of a new strain of fact-resistant humans. “These humans appear to have all the faculties necessary to receive and process information… And yet somehow they have developed defences that, for all intents and purposes, have rendered those facilities totally inactive… As facts have multiplied their defences against those facts have grown more powerful…”[i]
Mr. Borowitz is writing about American climate change deniers. But his ‘new discovery’ is a perfect for the (mercifully) small group of Lankan politicians who dream of restoring Rajapaksa power.
Lankan fact-resisters are no less delusional than their American counterparts. Their starting point is a refusal to admit the outcome of the January 9th presidential election. They perform amazing feats of contortionisms in order to reject the simple fact that Mahinda Rajapaksa lost an election he himself called, even though he contested as the incumbent and abused state power and resources with unprecedented liberality.
The former president himself heads the fact-resisters. In his message to the ‘Bring back Mahinda’ meeting in Kurunegala, Mr. Rajapaksa defined his electoral defeat, yet again, as a conspiracy. He also alleged that “Western imperialists divisonists may have snatched” his life without the love and protection of his supporters!
Other fact-resisters try to evade the election results by claiming that the outcome is not legitimate because more Sinhalese voted for Mahinda Rajapaksa than for Maithripala Sirisena. A direct line is visible between that Apartheid-type argument and the national flag fiasco. The Rajapaksa-patriots who demonstrated outside the Bribery Commission office, in violation of a court order, were caught on camera waving a distorted national flag. Though some of them claimed that this too was an international conspiracy, the truth is that they were waving the ‘national flag’ of their Sri Lanka – a country in which minorities do not count, politically or electorally.
Another favourite delusion of the fact-resisters is that they live in a police state sans freedom or rights. In his Kurunegala speech, former minister Dinesh Gunawardena vowed that the ‘Bring back Mahinda’ struggle will not be abandoned even if they ‘fall dead, one on top of the other’. Since Rajapaksa supporters enjoy the full benefits of restored democracy and are not being treated like the hapless protestors of Weliveriya, there is no reason for any of them to fall dead, except from some natural cause, including a fit of apoplexy.
The nature of the political project of the fact-resisters can be understood by the five demands they presented, as the basis for Sirisena-Rajapaksa talks. They wanted Mr. Rajapaksa to be declared the UPFA prime ministerial candidate and given a decisive role in picking candidates for the next parliamentary election. They wanted to lengthen the lifespan of local government bodies (dominated by Rajapaksa supporters). They wanted the FCID to be scrapped so that corruption investigations will cease. And they wanted the UPFA to form a government of its own. In other words they wanted what they lost – total power, total control and total impunity.
The fact-resisters persist in regarding Maithripala Sirisena as a man of negligible quantity, a mere puppet who can be forced or manipulated into compliance. They obviously believed Mr. Sirisena could be threatened and bamboozled into building an expressway back to power for the defeated Rajapaksas. In the end, not a single one of the demands were conceded (according to some reports when Mr. Rajapaksa threatened to walkout, Mr. Sirisena, instead of falling over backwards to prevent him, bade him a polite goodbye!).
Since President Sirisena cannot be duped or forced into re-enthroning the ancien régime, Mahinda Rajapkasa has two realistic options. He can stop being a fact-resister and retire from politics, at least for the time being. Or he can forge ahead along the only path open to him, and slice the largest possible chunk off the SLFP, thereby giving the UNP a free run. As the Central Bank bond issue demonstrated, no ruling party can be trusted too much. A spirited opposition is a democratic necessity. That is precisely what the fact-resisters will destroy with their harebrained schemes.
Marx and Engels described feudal socialism as “….half echo of the past, half menace of the future……but always ludicrous in its effect, through total incapacity to comprehend the march of modern history.”[ii] This definition is an ideal-fit for the Rajapaksa restorationist project. The best way to deal with this retrogressive project is by changing the socio-political and psychological soil which created it. Change the system and change the minds; let democracy and rule of law take root, so that Rajapaksas become passé, and fade away into a barely remembered and hardly lamented past.
Paring down the Political Caste
Sri Lanka is a world-leader in ‘legislature burden’ (the ratio of parliamentarians to populace)[iii]. Lankan parliamentarians constitute a privileged caste. Most are addicted to publicly funded high-life and this renders them extraordinary corruptible and extraordinary manipulable. They have no commitment either to the people they claim to represent or to democracy. Their main – perhaps sole – concern is to retain their privileged positions and to increase their perks. This insalubrious situation is reproduced in provincial and local councils.
A single example would suffice to illustrate the extortionate freebies Lankan parliamentarians are entitled to – a large portion of our workforce is not entitled to a pension, even after labouring for a lifetime; but parliamentarians get a pension after being in parliament for just five years!
And like any privileged caste, our parliamentarians too are infused with a sense of entitlement. This sense of being a breed apart has reached such ludicrous levels that some parliamentarians even think that the law of the land should not apply to them. (Recently former minister Bandula Gunwardane argued that by issuing notice on him for violating a court order, the judiciary breached his parliamentary privileges!). The Rajapaksas deliberately used this situation to their advantage. In return for slavish obedience, acolyte parliamentarians, provincial and local councillors were guaranteed innumerable benefits, from financial perks to de facto impunity .This strata cannot exist without the corrupt and corruptive lifestyle they have become addicted to; and to maintain that lifestyle they need the Rajapaksas back in power. It is not ordinary people but these parasitic politicians with a world to lose who drive and sustain the Rajapaksa restorationist project.
20th Amendment is a necessity. The preference vote system has created a vicious cycle of electoral overspending and political über-corruption. The need for a new electoral system, which is an optimum combination of the PR system and the first-past-the-post system, is undeniable. But if this change requires an increase in the number of parliamentarians, it must be balanced by a substantial reduction in the unconscionably massive privileges the legislators currently enjoy.
Democracies cannot survive without democrats. Most of our current crop of parliamentarians are not democrats, as became obvious during the debates and discussions over the 19th Amendment; a de facto monarchy rather than a restored democracy is to their taste. If this slavish political culture is not changed, it can become a serious hindrance to the ongoing re-democratisation project. An important step in this direction would be to reduce some of the completely unjust perks and privileges of parliamentarians and other elected officials which make them easy prey for leaders with monarchical/dictatorial longings. (Incidentally, if extortionate freebies are pared down to a decent normal, a career in electoral politics will become less attractive to human parasites who love a strong leader they can latch onto.)
Jean Paul Sartre talks about the “existence of different ethics in different epochs”[iv]. The Rajapaksa era created its own brand of ethics, a noxious brew of quasi-tribal and semi-feudal, with infallible leaders and unquestioning acolytes, the whole masked behind a virulent form of majoritarian supremacism. The post-Rajapaksa era needs a different commonsense, something less unfair and unjust, less parasitic and servile, which values reason, justice, compassion and ordinary decency.
Neither Saviours Nor Censors
The Fourth Eelam War (like the Second and the Third) was unavoidable given the nature of Vellupillai Pirapaharan. But as President Sirisena stated in his Independence Day Speech, it was also a particularly barbaric war, a no-holds-barred conflict in which neither side cared a tuppence for the civilians caught in the middle.
Had the Rajapaksas responded to the victory with humanity and humility, many of the national and international problems the country encountered in the subsequent years could have been avoided. Instead the Rajapaksas succumbed to Sinhala-Buddhist supremacism and wallowed in merciless triumphalism. Even something as basic and time-immemorial as mourning one’s personal dead was branded an act of treachery, for Tamils.
The democratisation project requires the replacement of this violently intolerant ethos with a different commonsense which places a premium on compassion, justice and tolerance. The new government’s decision to transform May 18th from a day of triumphalism to a day of commemoration is a necessary step in this direction. As Minister Karu Jayasuriya pointed out, allowing Tamils to personally mourn their personal dead is a basic act of civility. But much more needs to be done, in order to create a new morality which does not venerate physical strength or see violence as the best – and first – solution to any problem.
Fact resisters are also myth creators. The abuse of history to exacerbate ethno-religious divisions became an officially mandated/assisted endeavour during the Rajapaksa years. Of particular efficacy was a series of popular movies which disseminated the Host and Guest concept – the depiction of Lanka as the chosen land of Sinhala-Buddhists and all minorities as perennially untrustworthy enemy aliens.
For myths to flourish, facts must be banished. For example, the myth that only Sinhala-Buddhists fought European invaders is being maintained by completely ignoring well-documented historical facts. For centuries, Wanni “was divided into several independent principalities, over each of which a Malabar prince of princess, under the title of Wanniya or Waninchi presided. Soon after the Dutch became masters of Jaffna, they prevailed on some of the Wanniyas to pay them an annual tribute of elephants, and when this was withheld, they invaded their territory, which they ultimately subjected to their government, after making MARIA SEMBATTE, the chief of the Waninchis, a prisoner, and banishing her to Colombo, where she died. The English took possession of the country on the expulsion of the Dutch from the Island, and the Wanniyas and their dependents remained quite till 1803, when PANDARA WANNIYA, (one of the original Wanniyas) raised a formidable insurrection against the British government; and being assisted by the Kandyans, they at once overran all the Northern districts, and had the temerity to penetrate even into the province of Jaffna, as far as the Elephant’s Pass. His object was to recover the independence of Wanny, and to render himself as head of all its principalities; but he failed entirely, for, though he possessed uncommon bravery, his undisciplined troops did not equal him”[v].
Here is proof contrary to the ‘only Sinhala-Buddhists fought European invaders’ myth. The story of Pandara Wanniya is particularly important because it not only provides an example of Tamil resistance to the British but also of Sinhala-Tamil cooperation in resisting colonial rule. Muslims too often came to the aid of Sinhala rulers in their struggles against European invaders. Such stories of inter-racial/religious cooperation against a common enemy should be highlighted in the media and taught in our schools, because they can become important building blocks of a future Lankan identity. Unfortunately the history taught in our schools is a ‘Sinhala-Buddhist Only’ history, which deliberately ignores any facts contrary to dominant majoritarian supremacist myths.
Democracy in this country can flourish only if the various ethnic and religious groups living in it develop a democratic modus vivendi. An important precondition for this is an end to the habit of looking at everything always via an ethnic/religious lens. The Wilppattu controversy is an excellent example. Deforestation is not a Muslim crime (or Tamil or Sinhala crime). It is a human crime. And it is a crime irrespective of the primordial (or political) identity of the perpetrators. Opposing deforestation or defending it on the basis of primordial identity is equally unacceptable. According to a recent news report, 75 acres of Yala Sanctuary have been occupied illegally for sugar cane cultivation. The ethnic/religious identity of the perpetrators is not mentioned in the story. And rightly so, because it is as irrelevant as the ethnic/religious identity of Wilpattu deforesters. A democratic commonsense will be impossible, if we insist on using the distorting lens of primordial identity to analyse the past, report the present and shape the future.
The Presidential election of January 8th was not just a contestation between two political camps but also a contestation of ideas, including between two readings of Lankan present and two visions of Lankan future. The victory won on January 9th cannot be safeguarded unless the battle of ideas continue, not just against those who seek to monopolise political and economic power but also against those who seek to limit rights and freedoms of others on various ruses including religion. There is nothing much to choose between Bodu Bala Sena and those Islamic fundamentalists who are threatening the life of social activist and writer Sharmila Seyyid for exercising her constitutional right to express her opinion[vi]. Fundamental rights are universal; they cannot be compartmentalised. The Rajapaksas deserve every right guaranteed to Lankans constitutionally, no less and no more. Ms. Seyyid has the right to express her opinion about any matter; others have the right to disagree and debate with her but not to threaten her. The era in which ideas were opposed with censorship, threats, imprisonment, abduction and death came to an end on January 9th. No one must be allowed to resurrect it, in any form or under any banner.
[ii] The Manifesto of the Communist Party
[iv] Between Existentialism and Marxism
[v] The Ceylon Gazetteer – 1834; italics/capitals in the original