By Tisaranee Gunasekara –
“Never will tyrants freely consent to the extirpation of servitude….” – Thomas Raynal[i]
Of all the spectres the Rajapaksas fear, Oppositional-unity would arguably be the most terrifying.
The Rajapaksas began getting jittery when it became evident that the May 15th demonstration against the electricity hike would be supported by both the UNP and the JVP. The usual bag of tricks was deployed: the shrill screams about undead-Tigers, incoherent rumblings about NGO-cum-international conspiracies; and a hastily organised counter-demonstration.
None of the ploys worked; the demonstration on the 15th was a success. If the UNP and the JVP continue their cooperation and the plantation workers join in, the token strike on May 21st too can become equally successful. And these twin successes might inject some much needed life into the Opposition and help inculcate the habit of cooperation in the oppositional ranks.
The Siblings would know that one demonstration and one token strike, however successful, is no threat to their power in the here and now. But the Rajapaksa project is an epochal one; therefore they regard even long term threats with a certain degree of immediacy and urgency.
A dispirited and a disunited opposition is a sine qua non for the continuance of Familial rule. If the Siblings look at this rare moment of oppositional unity and see in it a microcosm of a certain unhappy future, they would be correct.
In the coming days, the Rajapaksas will redouble their efforts to ensure that the token strike is a failure. They will try to induce oppositional disunity; they will use propaganda with a heavy hand and engage in targeted acts of repression. If the opposition can withstand all these, an important politico-psychological threshold would have been reached and breached.
There is a pithy Sinhala proverb which can be translated, inelegantly, as ‘one does not pluck a honeycomb just to lick one’s fingers’ – meaning when a man attempts a difficult/dangerous task, he does so in anticipation of ample reward. The LTTE took on the Lankan state not to create a Tamil Eelam but to create a Tiger Eelam. Similarly the Rajapaksas successfully took on the task of defeating the LTTE not to create a unitary Sri Lanka but to create a unitary Sri Lanka under Rajapaksa rule. Their plan was to defeat the Tigers militarily, without making any political concessions to the Tamils, thereby winning the eternal gratitude of the Sinhalese and, as a mark of that gratitude, their freely given consent for long term Familial Rule.
Economics is the serpent in this land the Rajapaksas promised to themselves.
The electricity hike is not the work of Treasury Secretary PB Jayasundara, Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi or the Public Utilities Commission. The huge rates-hike obviously had Presidential approval; it was certainly motivated by the Rajapaksa need to extract the maximum from the public (it may also have been a conditionality imposed by the IMF for a new loan).
Clearly the regime thought that the opposition was too busy navel-gazing to take up this issue with the vigour it deserved; and that media/public attention could be diverted with artificial crises, such as the Muslim threat (including the unjust arrest of Azath Salley) and political pantomimes, such as the curious case of Duminda Silva.
Excess has become a Rajapaksa habit; indulgence a norm The electricity hike could have been handled with more finesse, but the Siblings have got away with so many economic hammer-blows they did not see any need to use a scalpel this time. That perhaps was their main miscalculation. The hike was so crudely gigantic, that it gave the lie to Rajapaksa rhetoric about developmental miracles in a way that no amount of oppositional propaganda could.
Unravelling Rajapaksa Lies
Lies and dissembling, false promises and mendacious declarations, illusions and delusions form the bedrock of Rajapaksa governance. The Siblings are master-illusionists; they excel at using words to create a totally unreal counter-reality. They did that when they called the Fourth Eelam War a ‘humanitarian operation with zero-civilian casualties’ and open prison camps ‘welfare centres’; they did it when they called the 18th Amendment a democratic measure, the Impeachment travesty a legal recourse and the arrest of Gen. Fonseka a patriotic act.
They are implementing a similar hoax when they hail their particular concoction of state-capitalism and economic neo-liberalism as ‘progressive economics’ and ‘pro-people development’. That lie has worked so far and will continue to work, in fits and starts, for a while more. But the electricity hike, thanks to its chainsaw-like effect, has caused an unprecedented dent in the hitherto smooth façade of Rajapaksa developmental-lies.
Given the nature of the Rajapaksa project, the Siblings have no choice but to continue to impose economic burdens on the masses. The huge outlay on defence must be maintained to ensure the survival of familial rule; megalomaniac projects must go ahead to satisfy the family’s desire for glory.
So the Rajapaksas have to continue their policy of tax and borrow, even at the cost of causing Southern discontent. Creating a fear psychosis by demonising minorities and equating legitimate, democratic and peaceful acts of opposition with treachery constitute their way out of this conundrum. They want an unthinking, uncritical mass; a stupid mass incapable of seeing the obvious and willing to turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to facts.
Trying to ignore or gloss over facts in order to maintain the inviolability of a belief is a practice which is neither new nor uncommon. When the geo-centric model of universe pioneered by Ptolemy and embraced by the Catholic Church failed to fit in with the observable planetary movements, instead of ditching the model, the theory of epicycles was added to it, to bridge the gap between Biblical theory and cosmic reality.
So far the Sinhala South has opted to accept the Rajapaksa myth about a dawning developmental miracle. But as shocks akin to – and worse than – the electricity hike accumulate it will be harder for the South to ignore the truth – living conditions cannot improve, so long as the rulers spend scarce resources on defence and on such wasteful projects as the Mattala airport or the Commonwealth Summit.
A Sinhala South capable of removing its ‘patriotic-blinkers’ and seeing the world for what it is would be the worst Rajapaksa nightmare. The Rajapaksa-days would be numbered if and when the Sinhala South asks itself whether it makes sense to spend the largest chunk of national income on defence, in the absence of a war; or why 40 million rupees should be spent annually on maintaining a category of individuals called ‘senior ministers’; or even ponder the connection between the dispossession of the Sinhala villages of Ampara and the Tamil villages of Jaffna.
Is having a mammoth cabinet in national interest? Is giving those innumerable ministers uncountable perks/privileges in national interest? Is allowing the powerful to ignore/break the law with impunity in public interest? Is wasting borrowed money on airports, harbours and other prestige projects which bring very little benefit to the county, economy or the people in national interest?
A people capable of seeing and hearing, questioning and understanding; a united opposition: for the Rajapaksas that would be hell, incarnate.
[i] Quoted in ‘A Revolution of the Mind’ by Jonathan Israel