By Tisaranee Gunasekara –
“Despotic governments…..all follow the same logic”. Umberto Eco (The Prague Cemetery)
Economic punches and developmental disappointments might have bruised and battered Mahinda Rajapaksa’s once enormous popularity among Sinhala masses. Yet a considerable part of it still endures. There is nothing outlandish about this; despotic leaders are usually popular, for a while, before the devastating costs of their rule become manifest. Vellupillai Pirapaharan was popular in his time. So was Adolf Hitler, until the Americans’ daylight carpet-bombing of German cities and the Red Army’s arrival on the borders of the Thousand Year Reich compelled ordinary Germans to realise the inevitability of a defeat on a Götterdämmerung scale.
Mahinda Rajapaksa is popular among Sinhala masses because his promise of ushering a developmental Shangri la is believed, still. He has credibility because the 30 year Eelam War came to a victorious conclusion under his leadership. The non-appearance of the much anticipated peace dividend and the consequent exacerbation of economic hardships have dented, somewhat, the hope of a richer tomorrow. But a huge chunk of the Sinhala South still clings to the belief that the Rajapaksas can and will deliver the promised felicitous future.
The Siblings would know the importance of keeping that faith alive. They would also know that economic outrages, such as the electricity rates hike, can cause serious fissures in that belief.
The Rajapaksa development strategy is an amalgam of economic neo-liberalism and state capitalism. Their stirring populist rhetoric serves to cover a gamut of policies which are iniquitous, viscerally. The Siblings follow a tax-borrow-and-spend approach, with crucial differences. Their taxing is of the indirect variety, targeting essential goods and services; therefore a disproportionate share of the tax-burden falls not on the rich but on those clinging to the bottom half of the income-totem pole. When it comes to spending on popular needs, the Siblings are deficit hawks. But they spend, limitlessly, on megalomaniacal projects with nary a benefit to the economy at large, or to the people in general.
Mihin Air, which never made a profit in its entire existence, is an excellent symbol of the counter-developmental effects of Rajapaksa development. So is the highway craze. The Southern Highway is costing the nation an annual loss of Rs. 5.5 billion; according to Prof. Amal Kumarage of the Transport and Logistics Management Department of the Moratuwa University, “The annual revenue collected from vehicles using the Expressway is approximately Rs 1 billion, whereas the maintenance and debt service cost is around Rs 6.5 billion” (Ceylon Today – 29.3.2013). That Rs.5.5 billion could have been used to improve feeder roads, rural roads and public transportation. But the Rajapaksas are as unconcerned about popular needs as they are blasé about economic logic. All they care about is their power and their glory.
Mattala Mahinda Rajapaksa Airport is a metaphor, not just for Rajapaksa development but also for Rajapaksa Rule.
The Mattala Airport was built not to fulfil a national, regional or developmental need but to satiate a Rajapaksa desire. In Rajapaksa Sri Lanka, the premier international airport cannot be named after a bygone ruler (especially since his retired-daughter remains a bit of a headache). Since the name of the Katunayake airport cannot be changed from Bandaranaike to Rajapaksa without creating some unfavourable flutters in the SLFP, the obvious way out is to build a new airport and name it after the new rulers. The long term Rajapaksa plans might include turning Hambantota into Lanka’s administrative capital (after changing its name to Sri Rajapaksa Pura). The plan to shift the National Lotteries Board to Hambantota might be the beginning of a generalised transfer of state institutions to the new epicentre.
A new capital would need a new airport.
Passengers and airlines are not exactly flocking to Mattala. But birds are. Mattale airport is close to the time immemorial flight-paths of migratory birds. Then there are peacocks – the symbol of God Kataragma/Skanda, and sacred alike to Sinhala-Buddhists and Tamil-Hindus; plus elephants and other wild animals.
Already two airlines have had close encounters of the avian kind. If the word gets around, not even the most outrageous concessions would succeed in attracting international airlines to Mattala.
Thus the launching of a new ‘humanitarian operation’, to turn Mattala into a bird-and-animal-free-zone. It includes plans to closedown waterholes and destroy feeding-grounds in the area which have sustained the bird and animal populations for millennia.
The animals, crazed by hunger and thirst, will venture into human settlements. The human-elephant conflict (which has caused so many human and elephant deaths and is threatening to wipe out the already dwindling elephant population) will intensify and become a human-animal conflict. Sinhala farmers, struggling with innumerable problems – including that of severe water shortage – will be confronted with a new menace.
Ordinary humans and ordinary animals would suffer and die in increasing numbers so that the Rajapaksas can embark from and disembark in an airport named after them.
There is nothing pro-people about Rajapaksa economic policies. On the contrary they can be best summarised as counter-Robin Hood; they take from the poor/middle classes and give to the rich. Consequently Rajapaksas economics will enrich the rich, pauperise the poor and cause the middle classes to become mired in debt (including credit-card debt) to maintain their living standards. This trend is indicated by the fact that Sri Lanka’s HDI for 2012, when discounted for inequality, falls from 0.715 to 0.607; this loss of 15.1 is due to ‘inequality in the distribution of the dimension indices”, according to the UNDP. (It cannot be accidental that the poverty/inequality figures for Sri Lanka are unavailable).
The recent electricity hike which imposes punitive increases on low-end and mid-level uses while shielding high-end consumersi should suffice to prove to the Sinhala masses that Rajapaksa economics cannot bring about the richer tomorrow of their dreams.
If the Rajapaksas are to retain their Sinhala base, they must prevent the Sinhala masses from focusing on economics and drawing logical conclusions. So long as the Siblings can retain their Sinhala base, they need not to use generalised violence to win elections or generalised repression to maintain order. And so long as the Rajapaksas can manage with targeted violence and repression, they can keep some parts of the democratic façade intact.
That is where the minority-bogey in general and the Muslim-bogey in particular become indispensable.
The old myth of rich Tamils preying on poor Sinhalese, of Tamil students from privileged homes hogging the universities and professions while Sinhala students from underprivileged homes languish in unemployment has been recast to suit the new Muslim bogey. Today it is the ‘wily Muslim’ standing in the way of Sinhala prosperity; the ‘fecund Muslim’ conspiring to occupy Sinhala lands and monopolise Sinhala resources; the ‘violent Muslim’ readying to turn the Sinhalese into a cowering minority.
Creating minority-bogies is a standard despotic ruse. Its purpose is to create a target into which the just Sinhala anger at the growing economic predicament can be displaced; to make the Sinhalese masses forget the real authors of their suffering and focus their hatred on the Muslim scapegoat.
Are we inane enough to fall for that lie, again? Is our national trajectory to be determined forever by an Idiotic Gene?