Chavakachcheri Suicide Bombing kit ignites political firecrackers in Colombo



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by Rajan Philips


The Prime Minister was on his case again – mocking GL Peiris if he had ever lit a firecracker in life to warrant his newfound enthusiasm about explosives. The former minister, who found a cabinet chair in every government of every hue from 1994 to 2014, is now the Joint Opposition’s one-stop spokesperson in spite of his not finding a national-list seat in parliament. He has written and spoken on half a dozen topics in as many days, but hardly leaving any mark on anyone’s mind. Running out of topics, he grasped at the news last Wednesday about the accidental discovery of a suicide bombing kit and explosives in Chavakachcheri (Chava) and went to town lighting political firecrackers. Hence the Prime Minister’s mocking: has Peiris ever lit a firecracker as a boy? Peiris was not the only one spreading the alarm. Even the former President called on the Prime Minister to impress upon the current government that it should take national security seriously in light of the Chava discovery. In return, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe has suggested that the former President, who is also a current MP, should make a statement in parliament to facilitate a national discussion on security.


Ambidextrous commentators have taken both the government and the opposition to task, for the over-the-top reaction of the latter and the seeming flippancy on the part of the government. The government might get away with flippancy if everything else is going right for it. That hardly being the case, with the government becoming vulnerable to blunder and blame on every matter that it steps on, the Chava (the English place-name abbreviation associated with good toddy among Tamil UNP types of old) discovery must have sent jitters up the spines of government leaders. Not so much because of any serious security threat, but because of their fear of the bombs found in Chava becoming yet another political grenade for the Rajapaksa opposition. And more so in the wake of the political fireworks show the Rajapaksa crowd put up at Hyde Park the previous week.


In terms of crowd size and cheers the UNP rally the day before could not match the Rajapaksa rally that came the day after. That is the assessment of political observers who have spent a lifetime monitoring crowd sizes and decibels and losing the purpose of dissecting the content behind the cheers. Even technically learned observers saw Rajapaksa power looming large at the Hyde Park corner. Crowd comparisons are the new norm of political analysis. 2016 is bigger than 2015 Nugegoda (that led to nowhere), bigger than the 1970 United Front throne speech throng (that did not prevent the Left being wiped out of the legislature seven years later), and bigger than the 1964 United Left Front May Day rally (that unravelled before even six months were over). Larger rally sizes should not be surprising given the population increases since 1964 and 1970. Now the pundits are in anticipation of the upcoming May Day showdowns.


There is some comeuppance in all this for the government, because it is the Prime Minister, no less, who threw down the gauntlet in parliament to have a political crowd-competition in Colombo. You mobilize a thousand people, he said – to paraphrase, we can bring 10,000 (or, did he say 100,000?) from the hinterland to the capital. Well, the UNP came up short in crowd-count, too short for comfort, according to seasoned crowd experts. The President reportedly found some comfort at the last cabinet meeting from the real count of the Rajapaksa rally at Hyde Park. 450 buses were used with some political beneficiary of the last government still left with enough balance to pay for buses, to transport 11,000 people. Not a big deal to discomfort the government, but the President was more concerned about the not so subtle warnings to the judiciary that were apparently let loose at the Hyde Park rally. The concern is about the alleged attempt to put the judiciary on notice in anticipation of upcoming court cases involving the bigwigs of the previous government and their families.


The government’s answer to such warnings should not be by organizing counter-rallies but by doing the job of work that the government was elected to do, and which the President and the Prime Minister promised to do when they successfully campaigned to defeat the former President’s third term bid. President Sirisena has been reminded by many people many times that he was elected to serve as the President of Sri Lanka and not to be pre-occupied being the president of the SLFP. Unless and until he realizes the difference and refocuses his attention to what he promised to do when he left the Rajapaksa cabinet in November 2014, his administration will only keep slipping and sliding towards its one-term inevitability with nothing worthwhile to show in the end. Equally, the Prime Minister must show some capability to dilute his experiential hubris with enlightened humility. The singular fount of the government’s follies and failures is the over-sized and non-performing cabinet. The answer is not in the Prime Minister bringing every ministry under his wing, but restarting with a leaner cabinet comprising better people. Even Lee Kuan Yew did not do all by himself but relied on a strong cabinet of dedicated performers.


Coconut breaking and Suicide


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There is a new fancy terminology that is being threaded into political discussion. The breaking of coconuts at temples is being touted as a cultural form of protest – apparently against the rapaciously western UNP-led government. This interpreta1tion is a disservice to the concept of Brechtian protest that marginalized people resort to vent their anger without losing their only means to livelihood. Sri Lankan parliamentarians, whether in government or opposition, are a pampered lot and not a marginalized population. The breaking of coconuts in temples by MPs is not a form of protest, but an abuse of privilege and destruction of a resource that marginalized Sri Lankans have to pay for dearly to make their daily food.


But breaking coconuts as a cultural form of political protest could have greater relevance in the cultural context of Jaffna. The point of my argument is neither inappropriate nor light-hearted in light of the Chava discovery. The point is also quite obvious to need much elaboration. But given their natural, rather cultural, frugality and practicality, not to mention religiosity, the people of Jaffna may not readily take to breaking coconuts as a form of political protest. In the history of Tamil politics, there was as much a practical dimension, as there was a moral dimension, to choosing parliamentary and non-violent forms of political protest over 30 years of disaffection with the Sri Lankan state. Both dimensions were sacrificed when political violence hijacked both the Tamil society and its politics. Suicide bombing became both the symbol and the scourge of the breakdown of Tamil society. It should have no place in the rebuilding of the society, even as accidental manifestations of misguided lone-wolves.


The irony of bi-nationalist politics in a single country is that one side by itself cannot control or contain its politics. By any and all defensible definitions, the political nationalism of the Sri Lankan Tamils is a derived and defensive nationalism that has no reason for its being independent of the Sri Lankan state. The Prime Minister got his intentions right when he said "Terrorism should not be allowed to re-emerge but steps should be taken to stop communalism." The challenge is how, what and when the government will do in the performance of these twin-tasks. The onus is in fact more on the government than the Tamils to speed up the rebuilding of Tamil society, and reassure the people that the government means what it is saying and that there are better ways to deal with their problems without being hijacked again by political violence.


 


 


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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