By Dayan Jayatilleka –
Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa just addressed the nation. It will go down as the worst speech he ever made and marks the nadir of his political career and more tragically, the manner he will be seen by history. Most seriously of all, his speech—the one he agreed to read out—may signal a round of repression that sends the country plunging into the abyss.
For a man who had a romantic political history as a dissident and rebel, Mahinda’s speech failed utterly to empathize with or even understand the sentiments and aspirations of the young protestors. A politician who always had his finger on the pulse of the people, he has now completely lost touch with their sentiments.
He has also lost his touch as a communicator. His speech was cold, stony, and slightly sinister. He was no longer the appealing rascal of many decades. No longer the exception to the Rajapaksa rule, he looked and sounded like a harshly admonitory spokesperson for the family oligarchy which is determined to rule, overriding the sentiments of a vast majority, most especially the island’s youth.
He unblinkingly defended the regime’s economic record, with the single exception of promising to restore the fertilizer subsidy. If the ongoing mass movement achieved something it was that. It took the recent mass protests to secure even a pledge of the return of that which had been snatched away cruelly by the regime.
Attempting to give himself and the regime an air of moral superiority, Mahinda Rajapaksa took the moral low road. Knowing full well that the Jayawardene regime falsely accused the JVP of the attacks of July ’83 and repressed it, thereby driving the country into civil war, Mahinda echoed that false propaganda, accusing the protestors or the alleged organizers of the protests of proceeding on the same road as the violent JVP insurrectionists of the 1980s and worse, the LTTE in the North.
He then went on to say that every second that the protests went on, obstructed the dollars that could be coming into the country. What the logical connection was, remained unexplained. How the protests could be a greater causative factor of the dollar shortage than his kid brother the President crashing food production thereby requiring imports, as well as ruining tea production which was a traditional foreign exchange earner, with his zany fertilizer policy, wasn’t explained either.
Where Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa enacted his very worst moment so far in politics and history, indelibly tarring his great historical contribution of winning the war, was in his remarks about the military.
He said that everything the protestors said and did, including insulting his family may be excusable, but what cannot be excused is the disrespect and humiliation – the trashing, so to speak—of the military; the war heroes. He gave absolutely no evidence, failing to cite any person or place. As far as I can tell, as a keen observer of the reportage of the protests, is that there was never any disparaging by the protestors anywhere, of the military, present or past. That is of course, unless of course, a girl in dungarees giving a rose was such a disparaging act.
In short Mahinda Rajapaksa was making at best, a false insinuation; at worst, making an insidious and false accusation. It seemed and sounded to me like this falsehood was uttered for two purposes. Firstly, to rouse the ire of the armed forces towards the peaceful—if verbally impassioned—protestors. Secondly, to pre-emptively justify the deployment of the military in a crackdown on the protests.
Taking the totality of the speech the logic was clear. The protests prevent, by the second, the inflow of much needed dollars. The organizers of the protest are proceeding on the path of the armed insurgents of the 1980s in the North and South. The protestors are dissing the armed forces, and are the sort of people who disrespect the armed forces.
I have heard this kind of thing before. National Security Minister Lalith Athulathmudali made such a speech on TV in 1984. The very next day two university students were shot dead by the Police, one in Peradeniya the other in Colombo, before my eyes.
I have also heard this type of discourse all over the world. I was in Indonesia accompanying my parents the month before the military coup that massacred 1 ½ million people. (My father was last foreign journalist to interview DN Aidit of the PKI, the unarmed Indonesian Communist Party, murdered months later by the army). I was with my parents when my father smuggled in a clandestine communication from the BBC London to the BBC correspondent in Athens, where the Colonels had just seized power.
Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s speech tonight could be a curtain-raiser on a military crackdown on the protests. If there is such a crackdown, it will wreck the negotiations with the IMF which now cares about governance criteria. It will ruin tourism and foreign investment. It will lose Sri Lanka GSP Plus. It will shrink markets for our products in the West. It may lead to sanctions. It will turn international opinion totally against the Government. It will accentuate the nearly planetwide protests by the Sri Lankan Diaspora from Poland and Estonia to the USA and New Zealand. isolate Sri Lanka and crash an already free-falling economy.
A crackdown will in short, lose many times more dollars than Prime Minister Rajapaksa accuses the protestors of causing the country to lose.
A crackdown on the peaceful protestors, who are no more or less forceful than the ones Mahinda Rajapaksa was prominent in, back in the day, which include the demonstrations of 1987, will simply not restore order. Like a tsunami wave it may recede momentarily but will return with irresistible force and mass, sweeping away the Rajapaksa regime.
Meanwhile the protestors, especially the parties of the left which are engaged in but hardly dominate or monopolize the protests, must remember the lesson of world politics and history. The only answer to military or fascistic repression is the combination of the broadest UNITY, UNITY, UNITY, and the widest INTERNATIONAL SOLIDARITY.
*Dr Dayan Jayatilleka was a Vice-President of the United Nations Human Rights Council and a former Chairperson of the ILO