By Tisaranee Gunasekara
“No spectators at chasm’s door…”
– Mahmoud Darwish (I have a seat in the abandoned theatre)
Sri Lankans are a notoriously impulsive people, quick to violence and to generosity. In times of public disaster, if left un-manipulated, the generous impulse is likely to dominate. Deeply divided racial and religious communities coming together to help each other in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami was a case in point.
That same generous impulse could have become dominant during the pandemic had the Rajapaksas not used that public health emergency to ratchet up Muslim-phobia. From day one, Muslims were demonised as virus-spreaders. On 29 March, army commander Shavendra Silva, in his capacity as the head of Presidential Task Force on COVID-19, told a TV channel, “Yesterday a patient was discovered from Akurana… Then we discovered another person from Puttlam. He has also associated with a lot of people. He is a Muslim. In both places they are Muslims” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T0Z7qz8T40I&feature=youtu.be). The compulsory cremation policy was an integral part of this anti-Muslim approach.
According to section 12 of the new Online Safety Act, anyone who poses a threat to public health by communicating a false statement would be guilty of a crime. The act defines false as “A statement known or believed by its maker to be incorrect or untrue…” (https://www.newswire.lk/wp-content/uploads/2024/02/09-2024_E.pdf). Long after science concluded that burial of COVID-dead was safe, ‘Rajapaksa-science’ insisted that burial could enable the virus to enter groundwater. Until early 2021, a contrary assertion was deemed officially false. Had the Rajapaksas been armed with the Online Safety Act, they could have used section 12 to arrest anyone opposing mandatory cremation as perilous to public health – including possibly Sajith Premadasa and Ranil Wickremesinghe!
If the true purpose of the Online Safety Act is protecting people, sections 12, 14, 15, and 16 would not be necessary. The purpose of those sections is the protection of vested interests and powerful political and religious groups. The inclusion of such crimes as promoting ‘ill-feeling and hostility between different classes of people by communicating a false statement’, ‘disturbing a religious assembly by a false statement’, and ‘insults or attempts to insult a religion or religions’ indicate that the Government is using a real problem (online crimes) to further a different agenda.
Given the way the ICCPR is being abused, there is every reason to think that the new Act too would be deployed in a repressive manner. For example, Sections 15 and 16, together with the ICCPR, can be used as a de-facto anti-blasphemy law, criminalising the questioning of religious teachings and practices, and the conduct of the clergy.
During the Muthuraja incident, Lankan social media activists reproduced a post by the sister of Thailand’s minister of environment revealing that 2.8 kg of liquid gold was presented to the chief incumbent of the Kande Vihare to persuade him to relinquish that abused elephant into Thai care.
Today, a post like that can be tagged under several provisions of the Online Safety Act. Had this law been in place, writer Sakthika Sathkumara, comedian Nathasha Edirisooriya, and many others might have been found guilty of violating sections 12, 15, or 16.
We live in a time of a global war on words. This is evident, for instance, in US, British, and German attempts to muffle criticism of Israel in general and its genocidal war in Gaza in particular. As Roland Barthes wrote in The Last Happy Writer, “I was about to say: there is no longer an Inquisition. This is wrong, of course. What has disappeared is the theatre of persecution, not persecution itself (A Barthes Reader). Today, persecution dons the shining garb of protection. The Online Safety Act is no different.
In 2018, Imran Khan, playboy-cricketer turned pious-politician, used a totalitarian defence of Pakistan’s brutal blasphemy laws to win election. As PM, he tried to get the West to criminalise the insulting of Prophet Muhammad. Just four years later, now out of power, Khan was charged under the same blasphemy laws he had defended and promoted.
Repressive legislations tend to boomerang. When the PTA was introduced by the Jayewardene regime, the opposition correctly decried it as repressive and promised to scrap it. Once in Government, that promise was discarded; instead, the weaponisation of the PTA continued. The Online Safety Act is a curse to the nation but a boon to any future government (be it JVP or SJB). And its victims may well include those who authored and enabled it.
“If I must die, let it be a tale,” Palestinian poet Dr. Refaat Alareer wrote on 1 November. He was killed in an Israeli airstrike on 6 December. Commenting on that death, Palestinian poet Najwan Darwish said, “We didn’t just lose Alareer, but we lost his poetry; it’s all underneath the rubble, all the future poetry he could have written. And all these other artists who have been killed… what’s happened to their art? We talk about numbers of people dead, and we can’t even begin to comprehend this other loss.” (The Guardian – 4.1.2024).
Indeed. Destroying the building blocks of Palestinian identity and culture is a key component of Israel’s genocidal war in Gaza. This was always what the Israeli hardliners wanted to do, destroy every pillar, every brick, every grain of sand of Palestinian nationhood. And it was the nature of Hamas’ 7 October attack, the inclusion of not just military but also civilian targets, which gave Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies the excuse they have been waiting for to bomb Palestinian people to extinction.
Every choice has consequences. Had 44.5% of Palestinians not voted for Hamas in 2006 elections, Palestine’s subsequent trajectory might not have been so self-defeating. According to an election-day opinion poll, 79.5% of Palestinian voters supported a peace agreement with Israel. The vote for Hamas was mostly a protest vote, against the Fatah-led government’s corruption and incompetence. Commenting on the result, Palestinian intellectual and politician Hanan Ashrawi expressed her concern that “Hamas would impose its fundamentalist social agenda and lead the Palestinians into isolation” (Al Jazeera – 26.1.2006). Hamas did both and worse; it gifted Israel with an excuse for genocide. More than 30,000 Palestinians have been killed, including over 10,000 children. The carnage continues.
In a democracy, voters too bear responsibility for the governance that results. If 6.9 million Lankans didn’t vote for Gotabaya Rajapaksa in 2019, Sri Lanka would not have become a bankrupt country in 2022. That vote was driven not just by Muslim-phobia but also by understandable anger against the ineptitude and corruption of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration. That anger generated a slash-and-burn mind-set, a warped outlook equating change with upending.
Writing about American race relations, Marxist political scientist Adolph Reed cautioned, “…when reckoning with the past becomes too much like an allegory, its nuances and contingencies can disappear. The history can become either a narrative of inevitable progressive unfolding to the present or, worse, a tendentious assertion that nothing has ever changed” (The South: Jim Crow and its afterlives). The error of inevitable progress breeds complaisance which prevents us from seeing, let alone dealing with, critically important problems; an excellent case in point is the irrational belief that economic growth would inevitably lead to greater equity and social development. The opposite error of seeing the past as an unmitigated disaster breeds cynicism, despair, and, eventually, mindless anger. From there to a willingness to slash-and-burn in the hope of a brand new future is but a step. This is where we are today.
In his Introduction to Eqbal Ahmed’s On Empire, Edward Said talked about the ‘callow exuberance’ of those “who had not thought long and hard enough about the realities of human political and social life.” That was Sri Lanka in 2019, full of childish anger and even more infantile hope. Have the subsequent disasters taught us the need for reason, nuance and measure? Or are we still the same people, driven by blinding rage and even more blinding faith?
GR and AKD: Economic affinities?
On June 2022, Anura Kumara Dissanayake was the special guest on Swarnavahini’s Ira Hari Kelin program. Analysing the crippling crisis with his customary dexterity, he stated that the NPP/JVP will restore societal normalcy in three to six months, if allowed to form an interim government. He itemised what this restoration would entail: opening schools and offices, ensuring medical supplies to hospitals, ending fuel and gas queues and shortages of essential items, providing fuel to farmers and fisher-folk.
The media personnel on the panel asked how a NPP/JVP government would fulfil these momentous tasks. Dissanayake responded with a list of 5 measures: seek to postpone a sovereign loan repayment, take a new loan, develop tourism, re-attract foreign remittances, and change our consumption patterns (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tTvtPrs2gtE&t=12s).
This was July 2022. Sri Lanka had declared bankruptcy more than three months ago, in April. Consequently, seeking to postpone a sovereign loan repayment was moot; we weren’t repaying loans at all. A media-personnel reminded Dissanayake of this basic fact. Yet, when he was asked again about a NPP/JVP administration’s response to the crisis, he repeated the same five points, starting with the totally irrelevant one of postponing the repayment of a sovereign loan, almost as if he was reciting something he had memorised by heart.
Dissanayake’s performance was reminiscent of the only media conference candidate Gotabaya faced in 2019. Asked how he would handle the debt trap and finance his extravagant promises, Rajapaksa looked clueless. Dissanayake is too articulate, and too much of a performer ever to look clueless. But his answers indicate a similar lack of understanding about what is to be done, economically. Despite surface differences, Rajapaksa and Dissanayake both seem like economic ingénues with no clear notion of how to deal with a 21st century economy.
In mid-2022, the shadow finance minister of a future JVP administration Sunil Handunnetti stated that a NPP/JVP government would resolve the fuel crisis with dollars sent by comrades domiciled abroad. Sajith Premadasa’s professed solution was to request fuel-on-loan from a friendly Middle Easter nation.
Meanwhile, Ranil Wickremesinghe, in his capacity as prime minister, had set up a group of experts to create the QR system to regulate fuel distribution and sales. He also ensured that the experts were not hobbled by political interference. In August, the new system was implemented and fuel queues petered out.
Before gas queues, there were exploding gas canisters. The gas shortage was created in part by the incompetent and ignorant favourites appointed by Gotabaya Rajapaksa to head Litro. In June 2022, PM Wickremesinghe appointed a person of competence and experience at Litro’s helm, thereby taking the first step to end the gas crisis.
Once gas and fuel queues were over, tourism picked up. In December 2022, tourist arrivals went up to 91,961. Tourist arrivals in 2023 were close to 1.5 million. Similarly, foreign remittances, down to $ 279 million in July 2022, picked up, reaching $ 475 million in December. For the first 11 months of 2023, foreign remittances were as high as $ 1.4 billion.
By the end of 2022, Ranil Wickremesinghe was the least unpopular of party leaders. His net unpopularity rating was 45%, better than Sajith Premadasa’s 57% or Anura Kumara Dissanayake’s 55% – an acknowledgement of the deftness and speed with which he restored societal normalcy. But in 2023, he failed to consolidate and build on this gain, because he didn’t move with equal speed and originality to redress the economic suffering of the bottom 60% of the populace.
In a November 2022 IHP poll on public spending priorities, most Lankans placed education, health, and agriculture on top. Police, military, and roads occupied the three bottommost positions. Had President Wickremesinghe taken these public opinions into consideration in formulating policies and programs, he and the UNP might not have ended as electoral outliers by 2024. Far more important, Sri Lanka’s recovery would have been less unequal, militarising, and unstable.
Again, according to the December IHP report, 50% of likely voters intend to vote for Anura Kumara Dissanayake in a presidential election while 33% would vote for Sajith Premadasa. The JVP, whatever its past bloody depredations, is now in the democratic system. Their right to occupy the presidency and/or form a government on winning elections is indisputable. The problem lies not in their past, but in their present, in their economic simplicity and naiveté and the resultant willingness to unmake with no realistic plan to remake. But in this moment of general malaise, this uncomprehending can-do-ism is probably the main source of their allure, the reason why so many voters are filled with callow exuberance and blind hope.
Chena cultivation is believed to be the oldest cultivation method in Lanka. Slash and burn practices integral to chena cultivation have prevailed in this island for millennia. Unfortunately, what might work for a chena would not do for a complex economy or a myriad society. Even more unfortunately, we may not understand that seminal difference until the day after. Again.