By Tisaranee Gunasekara –
“Where are the people of character, courage, conviction, competence and commonsense?”- Lee Iaccoca (Where Have All the Leaders Gone?)
‘The Conference of Birds’ is a peerless jewel in the crown of Islamic literature. Written in the 12th Century by the Persian poet Farid ud-Din Attar, this epic poem tells of an avian Odyssey in search of a king. The birds want the Simorgh[i] to be their king; but when they reach the distant home of that legendary bird, after an epic-journey, all they find is a lake in which they see their own reflections.
The king the birds seek is a spiritual and not an earthly one; ‘The Conference of Birds’ is generally interpreted as an allegorical poem about the quest for God. But this enchanting tale can be seen from a political angle as well, as a depiction of humankind’s eternal search for utopian systems and ideal rulers. The lesson the birds learnt is a lesson not irrelevant to humans as well: leaders are often a reflection of the people who choose them and sustain them, for good or ill.
And that, in Rajapaksa Sri Lanka, is a frightening thought.
Last week, the son of Minister Keheliya Rambukwella almost created a tragedy on a major key when he tried to open the cabin door of a plane-in-flight. The non-Lankan passengers aboard the British Airways flight had reportedly yelled, ‘Asian Idiots’ at the inebriated ministerial brat[ii]. That epithet may have emanated from not knowing which particular Asian country this intoxicated-miscreant hailed from; it may have stemmed from colonial hangovers. Either way, it is an insult to those Asian countries where ministers and their children behave like decent, law-abiding human beings.
Had they cried ‘Sri Lankan Idiots’, they would have been spot-on.
The lexical meaning of the word ‘idiot’ is ‘person so deficient in mind as to be permanently incapable of rational conduct’. The greatest idiots in this story are not Ramith Rambukwella or his ministerial father who tried to turn his mountainous misdeed into the smallest of molehills; or the Rajapaksas who have stocked their cabinet with the likes of Keheliya Rambukwella and Mervyn Silva (imagine the repercussion, for the country and even the regime, had the Ministerial-brat succeeded in opening the cabin door).
The greatest idiots are We, the People, who voted for the likes of Ministers Rambukwella and Silva, who elected the Rajapaksas, who sink into ever greater apathy with every economic-beating or political-outrage the regime inflicts on us.
In Brazil, people are protesting against the prioritisation of the Football World Cup (and the Olympic Games) over health and education, against corruption and against the mismanagement of national resources. “We want a different Brazil”, is their slogan. According to the latest Gallup Poll, the “combination of growing dissatisfaction with public services and widespread perceptions of corruption and insecurity appears to be linked to the erosion in Brazilians’ approval of their leaders. The recent increase in bus fares at a time when the government is spending billions on preparing for the World Cup and the Summer Olympic Games appear to have been the tipping point ….”[iii]
Brazil’s love affair with football is no less passionate than Sri Lanka’s love affair with cricket. And unlike Sri Lanka, Brazil had won the Football World Cup five times. Yet Brazilians have the sense to understand that international-tamashas bring very little benefit to a country; and that hospitals and schools are more important than state-of-the-art sports stadia to a people.
Brazil’s President Rousseff said “the voices of the street want more citizenship, health, transport, opportunities”[iv].
Does our own silence, in the midst of mounting incompetence and malaise, means that we are happy to be misgoverned and hoodwinked, abused and humiliated?
The principal of Raddolugama Pangnananda National School died after a fall in the Rantambe camp. He was undergoing physical exercises, as part of the military training programme the Defence Ministry has imposed on all principals. Will educationists take a stand against this humiliating practice, at least now?[v]
The Rajapaksas who gave us substandard fuel is now giving us substandard gas[vi], another historical-first. 20% of Lankan children under five-years suffer from some form of malnutrition. And the Rajapaksas are planning to build a five-acre artificial island off the Mahinda Rajapaksa Port in Hambantota, for leisure activities.
Are we so totally devoid of intelligence and sense that we cannot understand the harm that is being done to our country? Have we become nothing more than clockwork-toys in the hands of the Rajapaksas, to be wounded-up and down, against this minority or that traitor, as they wish?
Friends of Fanatics
In their determination to prevent a true Lankan unity, the Rajapaksas seem to be encouraging fanatics of every creed.
On the one hand they are facilitating Sinhala-Buddhist fanatics and encouraging deadly campaigns of hate against religious-minorities, especially Muslims. And while thus placing every Muslim man woman and child in danger of another outbreak of majoritarian-violence, the regime is also opening the door wide to the most fundamentalist variety of Islam.
Last month an MOU was signed for the establishment of a university in Kaththankudi, as part of the Mahinda Chinthanaya: “The founding of the first University for Ulamas is to be funded by Saudi Arabia. GCE A/L qualified Moulavy graduates from Mathrasas will be admitted for studies at the university”[vii]. The new university will turn out graduates who adhere to Wahabism, who will be akin to the BBS in their ‘loquacious ignorance’ of Islam’s magnificent historical contribution to science and arts and in their lethal intolerance of every creed and sect but their own.
The sectarian violence which is turning many Islamic-majority countries into charnel houses is being unleashed mainly by Saudi-funded extremist sects. As Dr Ismail Salami pointed out, “The root causes of religious extremism in Pakistan are traceable to the time when the US government sought to oust Soviet forces from Afghanistan. In those days, the ISI…was heavily mobilized by the US and funded by the Saudi Wahhabis to achieve this goal”[viii].
The Rajapaksas who gave us the scourge of the BBS may give us a Lankan Taleban as well.
The BBS has already expressed its intention of becoming involved in education. Do the Rajapaksas intend to hand over the education of future generations to fanatics of every religion, so that Lankans will never be able to unite across ethnic and religious divides to challenge the Ruling Family? Are they deliberately stoking fires of fanaticism in order to stupefy ordinary Lankans of all creeds into clinging to the Kurahan Satakaya seeking protection from the ‘religious others’?
Fear of minorities was used by Sinhala leaders from 1948 onwards to come to/stay in power.
Because Plantation Tamils voted for the left parties, they were transformed from citizens into virtual serfs.
Then came ‘Sinhala Only’.
The Burghers were demonised as socio-cultural aliens and political enemies.
Most Sinhala-Buddhists embraced this malignant, exclusionary and faux patriotism, without consideration, examination or pity.
Now the Rajapaksas seek to turn Lankans into prisoners of religious fanatics of every creed, so that they and their progeny can rule for ever.
Are they the leaders we deserve? Is congenitally stupid what we are?
[i] Persian version of the phoenix
[ii] Daily Mirror – 5.7.2013
[viii] Islam Times – 14.1.2013