By Tisaranee Gunasekara
“…when the plague begins, it’s easy for people to see the first blackbird as a harbinger. But when it lands on the climbing fence it’s just one bird”. – Salman Rushdie (Joseph Anton: A Memoir)
The constitutional path to tyranny is a well-worn one; its many previous travellers include a former corporal named Adolf Hitler.
Sri Lanka took a giant leap along this path with the 18th Amendment. The Divineguma Bill, prepared in equal secrecy and propelled with similar unseemly haste, constitutes the second gigantic leap.
The 1978 Constitution created an overweening executive. The 13th and 17th Amendments sought to correct the resulting power-imbalance. The 17th Amendment was a 100% home-grown product; the consequent absence of a foreign protector enabled the Rajapaksas to hatchet it, with the 18th Amendment.
The 13th Amendment remains a major impediment to the Rajapaksa-project. The siblings do not dare to decapitate it at one go, because it was an Indian construct. Instead, they will undermine it, measure by measure, until devolution evaporates.
To understand the Divineguma Bill, ignore the rhetoric and study the budgetary figures. Ministry of Defence and Urban Development, (under Mahinda and Gotabhaya Rajapaksa) will get the biggest financial chunk in 2013 as well. Currently, only Rs. 88.9 billion is allocated to Brother Basil’s Ministry of Economic Development. Once the Divineguma Bill is through, the new mega-Divineguma Department will be given Rs. 80 billion. This massive financial-injection will make Brother Basil’s fiefdom second only to Brother Gotabaya’s, in terms of budgetary allocations.
According to the Bill, all Divineguma employees will have to sign a secrecy-clause. Such a requirement, while normal in matters defence, is utterly abnormal in matters development. This clause is another step in infusing (anti-democratic) military ethos into the economy and turning development into the new ‘war’ (this transmutation will enable the regime to affix the ‘terrorist-label’ to anyone opposed to its development projects – be it urban poor, farmers, professionals or environmentalists). The secrecy-clause will also give Minister Rajapaksa a carte blanche over that gigantic stash of cash.
The Bill also mandates the creation of several layers of unelected organisations from the Grama Niladhari division upwards, another Rajapaksa army, ‘waiting for a sign’.
In a familial state, all of this is as it should be.
Last week all elected provincial councils approved the Bill. The succumbing of the SLMC was an expected shock. By gifting the Eastern PC to the UPFA and approving the devolution-denuding Divineguma Bill, the SLMC opted for that kamikaze-path taken by the old left and the JVP; discredit, fraction and irrelevance is the invariable fate of any party which becomes the subaltern partner of the SLFP.
The only remaining obstacle to the Rajapaksa power-grab is the Northern PC. The democratic solution would be to have elections and let the elected-council decide on the Bill. But the Rajapaksas would know that the UPFA and its Tamil proxies will not be able to win the Northern PC without an unaffordably massive electoral highway-robbery. So the regime will argue that the Governor can decide. Since the Governor is a presidential-appointee, his decision is a foregone conclusion. Hopefully the matter will be referred to the Court. Hopefully Rajapaksa attempts to subjugate the Judiciary will fail.
If the Bill becomes law, it will open the anti-democratic floodgates. Other Rajapaksa-strengthening measures will follow, such as the Bill to subordinate the CMC and several other councils to a mammoth ‘Corporation’ under Gotabaya Rajapaksa; and the amendment to empower the regime to acquire any land by declaring it of religious/economic import.
And tyranny will become an everyday experience.
The Rajapaksas (like Vellupillai Pirapaharan) are guilty of what the late great historian Eric Hobsbwam termed “a strategically blind maximalism” (Revolutionaries).
The Divineguma Bill tells the Tamils that the regime is hell-bent on obliterating devolution. When the same government which denies the very existence of an ethnic problem and scrapped the national anthem in Tamil denudes the provincial councils of their power, it will inadvertently accord the dead Vellupillai Pirapaharan a prophetic-mantle. The LTTE always maintained that in its absence, Colombo will render Tamils powerless. The Divineguma Bill will create a host of receptive ears for that deadly message.
The government, by bending the SLMC to its will over the Bill, has sent the wrong message to the Muslims as well. Schisms will follow the SLMC’s stark inability to defend its mandate; irrelevance may be its end. The question is: what sort of entity will replace the SLMC in the East?
The SLMC, for all its lacunae, is a democratic party firmly committed to peaceful methods. Its successor might not be either, at least to the same degree. An ethno-religious enemy may benefit the Rajapaksas, because there is nothing like a ‘threat’ to justify those despotic-powers and tyrannical-practices needed to bolster familial rule. But another alienated minority is the last thing Sri Lanka needs.
Divineguma, India and China
During his recent visit to Delhi, President Rajapaksa was reminded again of the need for a political solution. The Divineguma Bill, if it is bulldozed through without being approved by an elected Northern PC, will render a reasonable political solution impossible and embarrass Delhi.
A series of mutually offsetting balancing acts is what often passes for India’s policy towards Sri Lanka. Delhi wants to keep Colombo out of a Beijing-Islamabad axis and further Indian economic interests, without antagonising Tamil Nadu. In this context the interests of Lankan Tamils are often just asides and afterthoughts (for this de-prioritisation, the LTTE’s murderous conduct was considerably responsible). For instance, 8,000 Sampur residents were reportedly evicted (forcibly) to make way for an Indian-funded coal power plant and a Special Economic Zone. This rank injustice is a perfect example of cohabitation by Indian and Lankan establishments to further mutual economic interests, at the expense of thousands of hapless Tamils. While the elected representatives of those Tamils downplay the iniquity, for fear of antagonising Delhi!
This absence of a coherent Lankan policy has created loopholes for irresponsible extremist elements in Tamil Nadu to engage in juvenile and violent practices, such as the attack on innocent pilgrims to a Christian shrine. Delhi’s tolerance of Chennai’s Tamil extremism is the concomitant flipside of its tolerance of Rajapaksas’ Sinhala supremacism. The ‘Do nothing’ policy applies both ways; Delhi ignores or glosses over the Rajapaksa regime’s many broken promises even as it gives Tamil Nadu a semi carte blanche to perform anti-Colombo antics.
Its inability to save the 13th Amendment may propel an embarrassed Delhi into greater tolerance of Tamil Nadu extremism; plus ensuring that Sri Lanka’s UPR report is more unfavourable than favourable. In return the Rajapaksas will cling tighter to the Chinese. The sudden outbreak of virulent animosity between China and Japan over Diaoyu Islands is an indication that Beijing’s conflictual international relations extend beyond Washington and Delhi. Not the most sensible time for a small Asian nation to be identified as a Chinese-satellite.
The patron-client relationship with Beijing is essential for Rajapaksa power and survival.
But for Sri Lanka it can open an unnecessary Pandora’s Box. Let us not forget that the Cold War was fought most destructively not in the US, the USSR or Europe but in client Third World states.