By Tisaranee Gunasekara
Never had anyone been at once so ridiculous and so powerful”.Roberto Calasso (The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony)
Last week, a group of Lankan airmen found themselves in the middle of a politico-diplomatic storm. Furious at the Centre’s unilateral decision to provide technological training to the Lankan airmen at the Tambaram air base in Tamil Nadu, the state’s fractious politicians screamed their protest in one voice. Chief Minister J. Jayalalitha called it “an insult to Tamil people”, a sentiment vociferously shared by her bitter rivals in the DMK.
24 hours of protest in Tamilnadu was more than Delhi could handle, especially with a crucial presidential election round the corner. The Lankan airmen were sent off to Bangalore, with immediate effect, on the orders of a “red faced MoD in New Delhi” (The Times of India – 6.7.2012).
The responsibility for this faux pas lies with the UPA administration in Delhi. The Congress government should have had the sense to foresee that the presence of Lankan airmen in Tamilnadu was bound to create uproar in the state. After all, there are plenty of airbases in other parts of India, and most of them in places where the presence of a handful of Lankan airmen will pass unnoticed, and even if noticed, will be a matter of complete indifference.
Sending those airmen to Tamil Nadu, of all places, and at this juncture in Lankan and Indian politics, was both insensitive and inane. Clearly when it comes to folly, Delhi is sometimes on par with Colombo.
For the Rajapaksas, whose view of the world veers crazily from phobia to mania, the incident presented a problem. The Siblings are unwilling to admit that there can be legitimate opposition to their policies and actions, nationally or internationally, because, in their eyes, they can do no wrong. Since they believe that they are always in the right, they think that every act of opposition to them is diabolically wrong and sourced in a vast conspiracy.
According to the Rajapaksa narrative, the world either looks up to the Siblings in boundless admiration or conspires against them with ferocious abandon. Between these extremes of ‘they venerate us’ and ‘they are conspiring to overthrow us’ no middle ground exists.
Thanks to this schizophrenic outlook, the Rajapaksas deal with real, actual bad news either by denying/distorting them and/or by attributing them to some evil machination. Their reaction to the airmen-controversy was no different. “The Ministry of External Affairs dismissed the claims made by the Indian media that the Lankan airmen sent to South India for training were returning to Sri Lanka due to political pressure from elements in Tamil Nadu. ‘This is not true, they have completed the first phase of training in Chennai and will now travel to Bangalore for the second phase of training. There is no question of political pressure’, Public Communications Director General Sarath Dissanayake (said)…. (Daily Mirror – 6.7.2012).
That denial is emblematic of Rajapaksa rule. It reveals why the Rajapaksas are so allergic to either a Freedom of Information Act or Freedom of Information.
The Rajapaksas create their own reality. Even when that reality is counterfactual, they want the country (and the world) to accept is as the only truth. A free media is an impediment to this illusion-mongering. And since the Rajapaksas are infallible – at least in Rajapaksa eyes – all those who are presenting a different reality are either conspirators or lunatics.
As the gap between the really existing reality and the Rajapaksa reality widens ever more abysmally, the need to deny and silence increases exponentially.
Just seven months ago, the Chairman of the Tangalle Pradesheeya Sabha (together with a gang of associates) reportedly murdered a British tourist and molested his Russian fiancé. Last week another member of the Tangalle Pradesheeya Sabha (together with several of his associates) was arrested for allegedly abducting a 14 year old girl, holding her in an inn named ‘Namal Rest’ and gang-raping her.
The accused, Anjana Liyanage, is not only a UPFA member of the Tangalle PS; according to the website ‘Gossip Lanka,’ he is believed to be the media secretary to Minister Mahinda Amaraweera. Again according to the website ‘Gossip Lanka’, efforts by the Women’s and Children’s section of the police to arrest the suspects did not succeed because they enjoyed political protection. It was after the people of Tangalle protested publicly that the suspects surrendered to the police.
Hambantota is the Rajapaksa political and home base. It is reasonable to assume that the Rajapaksas, brothers and sons, would have been (and will continue to be) personally involved in deciding who should get nominations from Hambantota at national, provincial and local elections. It is equally reasonable to assume that all candidates from the Hambantota district at every election would have received the personal seal of approval from the Ruling Family. Going by available evidence, at least two of these Rajapaksa nominees (both of them representing the Tangalle PS) seem to be thugs who do not baulk at such hideous crimes as child rape and murder.
The Rajapaksas cannot claim infallibility and escape from being tainted by the alleged crimes of their handpicked political acolytes. Either the Rajapaksas are extremely bad at judging men or they do not mind loyal criminals. It is one or the other.
Child rape is becoming an epidemic in Sri Lanka. “At least four rape cases are reported in the country every day and most of them are of children under 16, Police statistics reveal” (The Sunday Times – 24.6.2012). Last week, the UPFA Chairman of the Akuressa PS was also arrested for child rape.
If the UPFA leaders want to save Sri Lanka from becoming a hub of child abuse, they should exercise particular care to ensure that they do not give nominations to criminal-types for the upcoming provincial council elections.
Denial is a Rajapaksa panacea for most thorny problems. When Tamil political prisoners went on strike demanding that they be charged or released, the relevant minister responded by denying their existence: “The Sri Lankan government says there are only former LTTE suspects and no political prisoners in the country. Responding to a statement made by the leader of the major Tamil political party, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), R. Sampanthan, the Leader of the House, Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva has told the parliament that there are no political prisoners in the country” (Colombo Page – 24.5.2012).
Sometimes the Rajapaksa priorities are so irrelevant to the really existing Lankan reality that they sound disconnected to the point of insanity. “There is a possibility of Sri Lanka sending an astronaut into space in less than four years” (Daily News – 5.7.2012). One wonders how many years it would take for the Rajapaksa administration to be able to conduct an exam, print a text book or order a consignment of fuel without making some horrendous error.
Sri Lanka, according to the Ruling Family, is to become an infrastructure hub. Yet, Palmyra trees are sprouting on a road in the Puttalam district. The road was recently carpeted at the cost of Rs. 70 million. When the issue came up in parliament, the Deputy Minister of Local Government and Provincial Councils had a one-of-a-kind response. Initially he claimed that if Palmyra seeds get mixed with the tar accidentally, they can take root. When told that the chemical properties of the tar would be toxic to plants he responded by saying that it is quite usual for trees to sprout on roads: “There are roads round the world, including highways, where grass and other plants have popped up. That is nothing new” (Ceylon Today – 7.7.2012).
Fortunately the Speaker showed a degree of affinity with reality unusual for a Rajapaksa (as he does occasionally) and told the Deputy Minister to investigate the matter immediately, quipping, “This is a matter that cannot be ignored. At this rate Palmyra trees could come up even here (in the chamber)” (ibid).
Is it a case of trees sprouting on roads while agricultural lands are vandalised to build?
No wonder the Rajapaksas are viscerally opposed to a Freedom of Information Act and are intent on frightening the media into a submissive silence.
Roads are not development; nor are they reconciliation.
Imagine a Southern landscape teeming with a mostly Tamil army. Imagine Sinhala families forced to live cheek by jowl with Tamil soldiers, who cannot speak more than a few Sinhala words. Imagine that these Tamil soldiers have the powers to enter Sinhala houses at any time they like – or as many times they think necessary – for inspections. Imagine that the Sinhala villagers have to ask permission from this Tamil army for such common or garden activity like a child’s birthday party.
How tenable would such a situation be?
Would it be conducive to peace, reconciliation and harmony or the opposites?
Would it not plant the seeds of another conflict?
This is the life many Tamils seem to be leading three years after the war. “Gathering in a spot that they judged safe enough to speak freely, a group of Tamil women recounted the daily humiliation of life under the victorious Sri Lankan army — almost exclusively made up of ethnic Sinhalese Buddhists. Twice a month, the women said, soldiers enter their homes to photograph everyone.
Permission from the military is required for even the smallest gathering, or just to collect firewood in the nearby forest. ‘I even have to go and ask someone for permission to have a birthday party for my daughter in my own home,’ said a 46-year-old mother of six from the Kandavalai area. Like the others, she spoke on the condition of anonymity, fearful that revealing their names could endanger their lives. ‘And if they say no, I am not going to have a party for my 8-year-old daughter in my own house.’
The women described how they were forced or tricked to attend demonstrations in support of the government and against its foreign critics. One said villagers were not even allowed to light a single prayer candle in their local church, because the army suspected them of trying to honor dead Tamil Tiger fighters buried nearby. Another woman complained about soldiers turning up in her kitchen and demanding a cup of coffee. ‘We are scared,” said the mother of six. “More than that, I am frustrated, I am angry. It is a feeling you cannot describe’” (The Washington Post – 6.7.2012).
There is a vast gap between keeping an adequate military presence in the North and choking that wounded province with soldiers armed with not just guns but also total impunity. That is not the road to harmony but an expressway to renewed hatred. A new conflict rather than a lasting peace will be its ultimate destination.