By Tisaranee Gunasekara –
“Amma! I have committed a big mistake; Forgive me; Give me life.” The wording on Tamilnadu billboards depicting Mahinda Rajapaksa craving forgiveness from Chief Minister Jeyalalitha[i]
Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s short story, ‘One of these days,’ is set in a small town. The town’s mayor is also its military-torturer. When the dentist refuses to treat the mayor’s toothache, the mayor pulls out a gun and threatens to shoot him. The dentist too has a hidden gun but decides not to use it. Unlike the mayor, he is not a killer and is unwilling to become one.
The Rajapaksas rule like Marquez’s mayor, using violence and the threat of violence to have their arbitrary way. Nationally it works because the Siblings have a near complete stranglehold on the state. But internationally this Medamulana approach can result in shameful fiascos and dangerous pitfalls.
The limits inherent in the Rajapaksa foreign policy became embarrassingly manifest last month, when the Defence Ministry website carried an article on Tamil Nadu-Delhi relations accompanied by an inanely juvenile sketch of Chief Minister Jeyalalithaa writing love letters to Prime Minister Modi. Chennai protested to Delhi and Delhi acted in a manner which left the Rajapaksas reeling. Colombo was compelled to tender an immediate and abject apology to PM Modi and CM Jeyalalithaa.
Gone are the days the Rajapaksas could insult India at will. The gentlemanly Manmohan Singh is no longer in office. Narendra Modi and his BJP are Hindu fanatics; and like all fanatics they are bullies with thin skins. In the Bully-universe, the small and the weak must succumb to the big and the strong. This new reality was clearly evident in the statement issued by Indian External Affairs Spokesman, Syed Akbaruddin: “We have achieved our objective…. as soon as we took up this matter, we drew immediate results and to our entire satisfaction…”[ii]
As CM Jeyalalithaa pointed out in her letter to PM Modi, “…..the visual itself….is not part of the article written by a journalist but…..deliberately and mischievously put up on the official website itself. This reprehensible visual clearly indicates that these are not necessarily the views of the author but of the Sri Lankan government itself.”[iii] So the real problem was not the article but the sketch. And that sketch, which depicted a senior political leader of a neighbouring land as a lovelorn woman, was emblematic of Rajapaksa foreign policy – uninformed, juvenile, shallow, racist and misogynist; and utterly psychotic in its inability to understand the international reality.
The Rajapaksas can pose, shout and bluster, but in the real world Sri Lanka has no power and infinitesimal influence. Sri Lanka lacks the politico-economic muscle of a China and the moral clout of a Cuba. And, as the recent fiasco demonstrates, the Rajapaksas can throw their weight around only until they encounter a bigger bully.
This dangerous dissonance between the Rajapaksa worldview and the reality was hilariously depicted in an e-mail which did the rounds when Minister Wimal Weerawansa began a boycott of American products. The e-mail titled “The American Economy Collapses; Obama Resigns” (with a picture of a devastated Barack Obama and his one sentence resignation letter – ‘Dear America, I quit’) stated, “The USA is facing the greatest economic collapse in its entire history… This calamity has reduced the American government to a state of helplessness and compelled President Obama to resign…. International economic experts believe that this devastation was caused by Minister Wimal Weerawansa’s campaign to boycott American products. After Mr. Weerawansa decided to stop using his Gmail the world famous Google Co. had to close down; its chairman and the CEO are said to have taken their own lives. A delegation comprising of American Vice President, Secretary of State and other top officials are believed to be on their way to Sri Lanka; the purpose of their visit is to beg Minister Weerawansa’s forgiveness and persuade him to change his tough decision”.
An exaggerated depiction of the Siblings’ Rajapaksa-centric universe, albeit a recognisable one. The Rajapaksas believe that Sri Lanka is of vital strategic importance to all major powers. They think they can bend Indians and Americans to their will by waving the China card.
This ‘if you do not back us we will go to China’ approach was evident in an article written by Ajith Nivard Cabraal (an ‘organic intellectual’ of the Rajapaksa Risorgimento) for the Forbes magazine. Mr. Cabraal asks, rhetorically, “Is the US ‘losing’ Sri Lanka?” and answers, “Not yet”. He wields the China-card, a tad crudely, “Just last month, Sri Lanka opened its second international airport funded by a $209 million Chinese loan” and concludes by saying, “….Sri Lanka would welcome a recalibration of US policy towards a more symmetrical US strategy that takes into consideration, the key strategic, economic and trade perspectives. Surely such a strategy will serve both countries’ long term interests.”[iv]
That then is the rationale of the Rajapaksa foreign policy. The Rajapaksas are effectively telling Washington and Delhi, ‘Allow us to treat our Tamils/Muslims/Christians/Sinhala political opponents as we will; let us steal our national wealth and violate our national laws as we please. Just help us with loans and investments; welcome us to your countries. And we will dump China and join your camp.’ When Americans and Indians refuse to give them the carte blanche they desire, the Rajapaksas become irked and unleash their lay and ordained furies.
The Rajapaksas think the same way, nationally and internationally- ‘if you do not support us wholeheartedly, you are our enemy’.
Who Gets the Bill?
The totally unnecessary Jeyalalithaa-Modi fiasco does not seem to have taught the Rajapaksas the unwisdom of their Medamulana-style foreign policy. Perhaps the Siblings will act with greater circumspection towards India (and Tamilnadu). But the fundamentals of their psychotic foreign policy will remain unchaged. This was evident from the invasion of the CSR meeting and the regime’s silly and execrable defence of that outrageous incident.
Next to the ‘China-stick’ the Siblings value the ‘lobbying-carrot’. Sajin Vaas Gunawardena has hired two more US lobbying firms to persuade Washington to change its Lankan policy. One firm reportedly has links to an Obama-supporter/financier. Clearly the Siblings think that the White House will pay more attention to propaganda materials by paid lobbyists than to official reports by the State Department. Since the Rajapaksas prefer to ignore the Lankan foreign ministry and conduct their international relations through their kith and kin, they may believe that to be the global-norm.
Or perhaps what the Rajapaksas are really after is not major changes in Washington’s Lankan policy but buying some insurance for those Lankan Americans, Gotabaya and Basil Rajapaksa. Maybe that is why the government which is selling drinking water to drought-stricken people of Moneragala and Hambantota (at Rs.4-5 per litre) is paying the newest lobbying firm Rs.118 million for one year[v].
In Marquez’s story, after extracting the mayor’s tooth, the dentist asks who the bill should be sent to, “To you or to the town?” The mayor replies, “It is the same damn thing.”
It’s the same damn thing here too – in the end, the wages of the Rajapaksa foreign policy will have to be borne by Sri Lanka and her people.