"Looks like we are in for nasty weather…
There is a bad moon on the rise."
John Fogerty/Creedence Clearwater Revival (Bad Moon Rising)
The Rajapaksa administration won the war by riding the lion; it cannot implement the 13th Amendment in full (let alone 13th Amendment plus) without disembarking from the lion. And lions, just like tigers, are man eating beasts. Having won the war by harnessing Sinhala supremacism, will the regime now do a volte face? Can it?
According to the official statement by the External Affairs Minister of India, the high powered Lankan delegation which visited Delhi last month had promised to implement a devolution package going beyond the 13th Amendment. A laudable and a necessary step, assuming it is actually taken. But given the government’s track record of broken promises and unmet deadlines, can this latest undertaking be taken seriously? In the past, whenever pressure became too much to ignore, the regime would make a promise about devolution and, at times, even set dates to denote seriousness. Once the heat is off, the promise would be consigned to oblivion; occasionally the Sinhala hardline allies of the regime would make a big fuss publicly, providing the President with an invaluable excuse to justify postponement.
Has a similar charade begun already? The JHU has threatened to leave the government if the 13th Amendment is implemented, in full. One government spokesman, Minister Rambukwella, says that the administration’s priority is ‘not issues like the 13th Amendment’ but taking care of the displaced people (who continue to be illegally incarcerated in camps) Another spokesman, Minister Yapa Abeywardana, quotes the President as saying, "The issue of finding a solution to the ethnic problem and bringing durable peace to this country is my job…. Hence no one must comment or express anything supportive or dissenting on the devolution of power and the 13th Amendment" (Daily Mirror – 2.7.2009). In the meantime the Peace Secretariat, under the auspices of which the APRC functions, has been given a month to cease existing. The APRC thus has a maximum of 31 days to come up with a consensus report, before it too is consigned to the rubbish heap of history (this was the fate of the Udalagama Commission, appointed by the President in 2006 to investigate 16 cases grave human rights violations). To add to the confusion, an All Party Committee has been appointed ‘for development and reconciliation work’; it will function directly under the President.
This kaleidoscopic labyrinth is enhanced by the rhetoric about a ‘home grown solution’, beloved by the President, and presented as an alternative to ‘alien’ models (including the Indian imposed 13th Amendment). Will the spinning of a home grown solution become akin to the weaving of Penelope’s robe, a task never meant to be over? Or will the home grown solution be a version of President Rajapaksa’s previous political proposal which advocated the replacing of provincial councils with district councils, under the control of the Executive? That plan had to be abandoned due to its ludicrous parsimony. Will a version of it be revived, as part of a new constitution, which will also include the removal of Presidential term limits (in a parody of Hugo Chavez)?
Astrology has always been a popular occupation in Sri Lanka….and, until a fortnight ago, one of the safest. That is about to change. The incarceration of a popular astrologer for making an ‘anti-government’ prediction is symbolic (and symptomatic) of the paranoid and intolerant state Sri Lanka is rapidly evolving into.
Attacking, abducting or even killing media personnel is already common fare in Sri Lanka. Equally unsurprising is the ability displayed by the perpetrators of these extrajudicial acts to elude the tightest security measures. The abduction of veteran journalist Krishni Ifham, was an outrage and an infamy; though a horrific act it was hardly a surprising one, since being punished for expressing one’s opinion is an occupational hazard faced by all Lankan media personnel. But the arresting of an astrologer is a first in a country with a time honoured tradition of star gazers making political predictions of every sort and hue. Who can say that, in time, other professions too, will not feel the heavy hand of an administration, which seems to see an enemy in every critic and a conspiracy in every act of dissent?
The regime’s bizarre overreaction to an astrological prediction also demonstrates the significance it accords to astrology as an instrument of public-opinion moulding. In this context, an astrological prediction prominently displayed in a state-owned newspaper assumes particular relevance, especially since it provides a supernatural underpinning for an idea which is currently in vogue amongst extreme supporters of the Rajapaksa family -the perpetuation of Rajapaksa rule: "President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the Rajapaksas will rule this country for a long time…. At the next Presidential election, President Rajapaksa will be victorious with more than 75% of the votes… The Rajapaksas will become beloved leaders of this country…. The next chapter in Sri Lanka is reserved for the Rajapaksas… Before 2010 this constitution will become invalid and the country will get a new constitution. This will get not a two thirds but a three fourths majority" (Silumina – 7.6.2009).
Juxtapose this prediction with another recent development – the public and publicised attempt by Minister Janaka Bandara Tennakoon to garner political support for an extension of the President’s term sans an election. Both share an underlying premise – President Mahinda Rajapaksa deserves to rule and should rule Sri Lanka beyond the maximum period possible for him under the current constitution. Are these trial balloons to check public reactions to the idea of dynastic governance? The song, which hails President Rajapaksa as the divinely ordained ‘High King’ of Sri Lanka, can be dismissed as a politically irrelevant absurdity only by those who did not notice his mien, as he listened to it at an official ceremony to honour the war heroes at Kotte.
That the SLFP is going through a process of Rajapakasization, to the detriment of non-family members, is self-evident. The Uva election campaign marks the introduction of the next generation of the Rajapaksas into the political arena, with the elevation of the political neophyte and Presidential nephew Shashindra Rajapaksa as the de facto Chief Ministerial candidate. When a political party becomes the property of a clan and its leadership is turned into a familial prerogative, real stakeholders are narrowed to the members of that family and their hangers-on. In such a context paranoia becomes the norm, and even loyal party members can assume inimical guises in the eyes of a family intent on concentrating as much power as possible in its hands. It is perhaps not accidental that the offending prediction, by the unfortunate astrologer currently detained by the CID, speaks of a change which entails the Prime Minister (the veteran SLFPer Ratnasiri Wickramanayake) becoming the President and the Leader of the Opposition becoming the Prime Minister.
Impunity is a cancer; it will gradually occupy and eventually destroy the body politic and the society which spawned it. In Sri Lanka the cancer of impunity is spreading rapidly; the practice of covering up a crime, if it is committed by one’s own side, is being established and the habit of allowing wrongdoers with right connections to get away scot-free is being created. By the time the cheering or the indifferent people in the South notice the presence of the monster, a practice, a habit, a mindset would have been established. By that time letting the powerful to get away with crimes would be the norm rather than the exception. By that time rulers would have come to believe in their right to impunity and the criminality (and anti-patriotism) of any who opposes that right.
According to media reports, Presidential Secretary Lalith Weeratunga has advocated the use of a ‘spy service’ by the President to curb corruption. Hailed by the state owned Daily News (of June 30th), editorially, as ‘A Timely Move against Corruption’, the idea is to deploy a "spy service….a mole planted in every state department…working incognito". This suggestion may have seemed more credible and less ominous had it followed prompt legal action against politicians and top officials responsible for such fraudulent transactions as the fire sale of the Insurance Corporation (such as Minister Milinda Moragoda, faulted by the Supreme Court for it, or PB Jayasundara faulted for the fraudulent sale of the Lanka Marine Services Ltd.). But given the unwillingness of the regime to take appropriate legal action against persons found guilty of wrong doing by the highest court in the land, the suspicion cannot but obtrude that the real aim of the proposed ‘spy service’ would be to keep tabs on less than loyal public servants and to further tighten the control of the First Family over the state.
Lord Acton’s in his famous letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury argued against bestowing immunity on men in power: "You say that people in authority are not to be snubbed or sneezed at…. I cannot accept your cannon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption it is the other way against the holders of power, increasing as the power increases… Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely". The Rajapaksa administration has expressed its intention of reactivating the Press Council in some form, even though Sri Lanka’s legal system and the extraordinary powers granted to the rulers under the Emergency and the PTA (still in force, despite the end of the war and the defeat of the Tigers) should suffice to deal with alleged abuses by media personnel. If these multiple efforts succeed, the outcome would be nothing less than the hollowing out of the Lankan democratic system.
The regime’s decision to expand the army despite the end of the war is indicative of not only a strategy of virtual occupation vis-à-vis the North and the Tamil majority areas of the East; it also denotes the continuation of the choice of guns over rice, a matter of no small importance to a South hopefully awaiting the rapid delivery of the peace dividend. The IMF loan is unlikely to materialise and Chinese and Japanese aid alone cannot financially sustain a country burdened by an unprecedented revenue deficit (the revenue deficit for the first quarter of 2009 was an unprecedented Rs. 91 billion which surpasses the revenue deficit for the entire year of 2008 of 88.4 billion - Lankan Business Online – 16.6.2009). What will happen when increased hardships are imposed on the masses, without even the excuse of a costly war?
That the government is immensely popular amongst an absolute majority of the Sinhalese is indubitable. (However its capacity to win over minority voters, especially Tamils, in a free and fair election is rather doubtful). But if there is no real improvement in Southern living standards, this backing will gradually erode. Thus there may come a time, when the government’s expectations of eternal gratitude and the Rajapaksas’ dynastic project come into confrontation with public disappointment about insufficient economic improvements. The current legal and extra-legal efforts to nullify basic democratic freedoms are aimed at buttressing the regime in such an eventuality. Those who deem political autarky to be a virtue today, and accuse anyone opposed to it of treachery, may sing a different tune then. In a country where impunity rages and democracy is a dead letter, international pressure may become the only constraint on abusive rulers and the sole recourse available to any dissenter.