By Rajan Hoole –
Present Realities and Precarious Options – I
The original idea in the quotation above from the 6th century BC, is contained in the words ‘my servant’. Nebuchadnezzar, the ruthless destroyer of the ancient world, had been given the benignant status of God’s servant. He came to be seen as the divine scourge of a people who had lapsed into the complacency of evil ways, to correct them. To put it differently, societies that lapse into evil ways come to have their fate determined by evil men. Moreover, the alienated sections of societies, as in Jeremiah’s time, draw satisfaction from seeing those evil men as liberators or avengers.
The long shadow of Prabhakaran thus, hovers over this land like an iron fate. The political culture of the Sri Lankan State, which made him, now faces him in confusion, self- seeking opportunism and mutual recrimination, instead of calmly taking stock of the dangers. How alienated many Sinhalese are, is evident from their admiration for Prabhakaran despite his repeatedly showing his contempt and homicidal impulses towards them.
A number of Sinhalese from smaller Left groups felt in their youth angry about the State and the social injustices that are part of the order. They spent the best years of their life working for a revolution that never came. Against their failings, the fear and dread evoked by Prabhakaran’s stormy impact made a strong impression on them. While the State and the major political parties had treated these Left groups slightingly, Prabhakaran made the mighty and arrogant sit up in disarray. To these left-leaning Sinhalese, any Tamil criticising the LTTE and Prabhakaran through their own shattering experience of him, took on the appearance of an enemy of the people and a crony of the State. We have also seen the instinctive sympathy, which Sinhalese colonists under state patronage in the model Sinhalese supremacist project of Weli Oya, feel for Prabhakaran and the LTTE, whom they live in dread of.
An incident of similar import during the North-Western Provincial Council elections in January 1999 was observed by members of the polls monitoring group, the PAFFREL-MFFE. Thugs of the People’s Alliance government invaded polling booths, chased away voters, man-handled women and stuffed ballot boxes. At one polling booth, the angry Sinhalese crowd shouted spontaneously, “Victory to Prabhakaran”. An arrogant and undisciplined state culture that is so alienating even to the Sinhalese, has enabled Prabhakaran to make terrible use of the gut feelings of the Tamil people. The Tamils are, as we have argued, a people separated from the State. In the final analysis, the power of Prabhakaran comes from the powerlessness of the people.
The attempt in 1991 to impeach President Premadasa failed after several UNPers who earlier supported it were bought over. While democracy was in the doldrums, the LTTE removed Premadasa, even to the relief and praise no doubt of many UNPers who had opposed the impeachment and performed bodhi poojas for him. It is in this context of a corrupt polity and a president enjoying virtually unlimited power, that Prabhakaran is able to intervene as an agent of benignant change at so little cost to himself.
The PA government led by Chandrika Kumaratunge was elected to lead the country in 1994, amidst high hopes of a return to the rule of law. On the Tamil problem, there was the expectation of a much more sensitive and competent approach. Six years went, and despite the atrocious nature of the LTTE being better known, Prabhakaran, the avenger, continues to be advanced worldwide as a man with a legitimate cause. It a reflection of the Sri Lankan State’s persisting problem of credibility. However, not all the blame can be placed on the PA government. The following lines from Tennyson’s The Lotos Eaters are fairly descriptive of the concern for justice among the Sri Lankan elite:
Let us alone. What is it that will last?
All things are taken from us, and become Portions and parcels of the dreadful Past
Let us alone. What pleasure can we have
To war with evil? Is there any peace
In ever climbing up the climbing wave?
All things have rest, and ripen towards the grave In silence; ripen, fall and cease:
Give us long rest or death, dark death, or dreamful ease.
Sri Lanka is a paradise. For many of us, the necessities of life come easily. Associated with a paradise is evil, slavery and moral lethargy. When we work hard, it is only for a limited duration, whence we hope to consolidate ourselves in a privileged station in life, and live happily ever after. Beyond that any serious exercise of the mind, particularly when it concerns the fate of others, becomes disagreeable. We long for dreamful ease, and when that is challenged, readily sanction the death of hundreds to restore our complacency.
The activist tradition in this country too suffers from a lack of stamina. Its best is a short burst of energy towards a presumed state of dreamful ease. To many, it is a matter of backing a particular party or position and expecting some sinecure as reward. Globalisation is today very much part of elite life in Colombo, in commerce as well as in activist circles. Paradoxically, it is the very character of crisis and tragedy facing this country, which has provided a further impetus to the ‘paradise syndrome’. Although global links enhance a local activist’s reach, independence and security, a key problem in this relationship – that of quality – has not been resolved.
There is today a flourishing non- governmental activist sector with Colombo as its hub. However, what was conspicuous in 1999 was an air of sterility. The air of openness and honesty that prevailed in 1994 was missing. The People’s Alliance, which was then elected to govern, and most of those who then supported it, had lost direction in different ways. Anger and acrimony more than the issues themselves marked the later exchanges. The anti-democratic trends in the PA government were aired, but there was no discussion of the utterly foolish proposal by UNP candidate Ranil Wickremasinghe at the 1999 presidential stakes to hand over the North-East to the LTTE on an interim basis. The interests of the Tamils and the question of democracy for them were subsumed under the self-serving assumption that they were happy to live under the LTTE. The UNP that had apologised for nothing of its past wrongs was deliberately or by default made to look a fresh option, without having to make any tangible guarantees. The latter could have meaning only through an honest appraisal of recent history.
Politics by 1999, had all the hallmarks of a game about power and personalities, and not about people and issues. Only the ruthless exercise of power and the decibel power to sling mud seemed to matter. The state of political, human rights, and peace activism must also be seen in the overall context of ‘paradise economics’. Prudent frugality is no longer in vogue. There is no serious long term planning. It has become so easy to obtain foreign loans for projects of doubtful value that the consequences to the country and the resulting indebtedness being passed on to the poorer sections, have ceased to be of any weight. Local skills have become increasingly disregarded.
Money thus flows freely, benefiting a privileged class. The country itself is being progressively strangled by a parasitic class, which comprises politicians, bureaucrats and professionals. The absence of meaningful protest, and indeed, virtual silence, is a measure of the vested interests that have become entrenched (see Sect. 23.3.6).
The effects of this culture can be seen in unabashed displays of wealth in Colombo and in increasingly harsher attitudes towards the poor. To a significant extent, the non- governmental sector, as reflected in their attitudes, has been co-opted. The little autonomy presently exercised by Provincial Councils has been grudgingly allowed. The attitudes of these vested interests are seen in their alarm even at Mrs. Kumaratunge’s feeble attempts at devolving real power to the regions, which in turn may demonstrate political will to give their people a better deal.
Originally, the PA’s moves that caused it to lose direction had an element of paranoia and frustration with institutions and personnel earlier under the UNP. But once on that road where power becomes a means to narrow or personal ends, it is also bound to become an instrument of criminal abuse that changes the character of the government.
Had there been activism, which concentrated on issues without getting lost in parties and personalities, both the PA and UNP would have been compelled to put their house in order. Then there may have been a UNP with a more credible leadership. The private media only helped the UNP to evade real issues while acting as its salesmen. The state media too responded in a manner that was irrational and repellent. Behind the cacophony of the 1999 presidential campaign, the election was one where a choice had to be made without any real hope.
Mrs. Kumaratunge won the December presidential 1999-election by a significant margin. Islandwide, the result of the poll was broadly consistent with the pattern established days earlier in the postal ballot. This is not to suggest complacency about the conduct of the election or to exonerate the governing party from charges of election violence. The main issue is that politics had been criminalised a long time ago as part and parcel of the executive presidency. Yet, an impression was kept up through influential networks that the country had entered a new Dark Age after Mrs.Kumaratunge allegedly retained power by some diabolical sleight of hand.
*To be continued..
*From Rajan Hoole‘s “Sri Lanka: Arrogance of Power – Myth, Decadence and Murder”. Thanks to Rajan for giving us permission to republish. To read earlier parts click here