Sri Lanka: A country to die in

Repressive practices are likely to increase during the lockdown period. 

by Tisaranee Gunasekara

“When the merit-laden Motherland wants (me), why do I need the citizenship of another country? 

I will abandon all honours and will return Mother, to (undertake) the endeavour of protecting you.”

An internet poster by Viyath Maga, hailing Gotabaya Rajapaksa candidacy – September 2019

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa addressed the nation on the day Sri Lanka became South Asia’s first in average Covid-19 deaths. 195 people died on that day, according to official figures, driving the total count distressingly close to 7000. 

The president expressed no word of regret about these deaths, no word of sympathy for the bereaved families. He had nothing reassuring or compassionate to say to the people beset by pandemic fears and economic uncertainties. Instead he praised himself and groused about those who urged a lockdown on him. He also seemed to trivialise Covid-19 deaths by stating that most victims were over 60, had co-morbidities and were unvaccinated. 

The lack of empathy, even common or garden civility, and the victim-blaming should not be surprising, for they are Rajapaksa trademarks. For the Rajapaksas, a tragedy is a Tragedy only if it can be exploited for their political good. Victims of unusable tragedies are are not true victims deserving of compassion but criminals or malcontents responsible for their own plight. 

The Vallipunam bombing, which happened fifteen years ago, provided the clearest forewarning of this Rajapaksa characteristic. 

In August 2006, the LTTE compelled more than scores of school girls to attend a compulsory training camp. Whether the training was in first aid only or in weapon-usage as well was uncertain. What was indisputable was that the participants were not child soldiers but school girls, thus civilians. 

The Lankan air force bombed the camp, killing 61 of these school girls. Subsequent information indicated that the bombing may have resulted from the mistaken belief that Vellupillai Pirapaharan was present in the camp. Whatever the motive, the fact that the victims were school children made the attack morally deplorable, a tragedy and a crime. 

The government could have acknowledged its mistake and apologised. Any government that cared an iota for its own people, especially children, would have done so. Instead, the still new Rajapaksa regime went on propaganda offensive, falsely claiming the dead children to be child soldiers.

 The Vallipunam bombing was a forerunner of what became standard Rajapaksa practice during the war – never admit to mistakes and never count the human cost of military actions (In this, the Rajapaksas were unconsciously emulating the LTTE). So every Tamil war-dead was turned into a Tiger by definition, even babies. The Sinhala South accepted this false equation, some because they never saw a difference between Tamils and Tigers (thus the Black July) and others because the myth of Humanitarian Offensive with zero-civilian casualties provided welcome blinkers through which they could view the ongoing carnage. 

In his first speech as presidential candidate, Gotabaya Rajapaksa said of himself, “When given a responsibility, I always tried to fulfil it without being constrained by limits and by going beyond norms” (this translation from the original Sinhala is mine). That self-definition should have alarmed any reasonably intelligent person for Candidate Gotabaya was essentially claiming to be someone able and willing to violate limits and norms, a proud extremist. But most Sinhala-Buddhists were reassured rather than alarmed by that statement. They saw it as a guarantee of peace and prosperity, of a strong government that would keep the majority community safe by subduing the minority communities. 

“It is foolish to think that the country can be awakened by the inanity of ignorant minds,” Tagore warned an Indian comrade in 1929 (Rabindranath Tagore – The myriad-minded man – Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson). In the aftermath of the Easter Sunday massacre, the Sinhala South wanted safety at any cost. Fear and hate dictated their actions. 

The Rajapaksas returned to power promising Sinhala-Buddhists a country to live in. Less than two years later, Sri Lanka has been turned into a country to die in. Since the transformation is mainly Rajapaksa work, asking for life is a crime, even for Sinhala-Buddhists. The only patriotic thing to do is to let die and die uncomplainingly.   

Danse Macabre from Kabul to Colombo

At the 2019 Presidential election, pluralist Sri Lanka, the common homeland of Sinhalese, Tamils, and Muslims, lost. Sinhala-Buddhist Lanka, the sacred preserve of Sinhalese-Buddhists won. This victory was reaffirmed and reinforced in the 2020 parliamentary election. 

Now we are living through the tragic consequences of those atavistic choices. When politics and religion waltz, their dance is death.

Afghanistan is famed as the graveyard of empires. But it has also been the graveyard of its own people. The continuing tragedy of Afghanistan can be traced back to the transformation of the Afghan opposition into a religious – rather than a secular – force in the late 1970’s and America’s decision to play godfather to the Mujahideen. 

The governments of Nur Mohammad Taraki, Hafizullah Amin and Babrak Karmal were anti-democratic and repressive. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was plain wrong. But the Mujahideen took up arms against the Kabul government long before Soviet tanks crossed the border. Their first casus belli was the progressive social reforms undertaken by the Taraki government. These included making female education compulsory, banning child marriages and outlawing the barbaric practice of buying and selling women and barter marriages. The Mujahideen were particularly opposed to the literacy programmes which brought education to rural areas and to females. The Mujahideen burnt down girls schools and banned women from workplaces long before Taliban did. . 

When the Soviet invasion happened, Americans decided to use Jihad and Jihadists against its Cold War enemy. They were overjoyed at finding a force that could battle the Soviet invader to annihilation. The fact that the Mujahideen’s collective mind was stuck forever in the seventh century seemed a trivia, a political irrelevance. The CIA acted as a recruiter for Jihad; the Saudis provided the funding. As Eqbal Ahmed wrote in Terrorism: Theirs and Ours, “In 1985, President Reagan received a group of ferocious-looking turban-wearing men who looked like they came from another century… After receiving them at the White House, Regan spoke to the press, referring to his foreign guests as ‘freedom fighters’. These were the Afghan Mujahideen. They were at the time guns in hand battling the ‘evil empire.’” Less than 20 years later, the Taliban, born of those men in turbans, would take down the Twin Towers and attack Pentagon.

Educating women and girls is touted as the main achievement of 20 years of US/NATO occupation. But these goals could have been achieved at a lesser cost – including to America, the West and rest of the world – had the US never played godfather to the Afghan Mujahideen. Soviet invasion could have been opposed politically and diplomatically, with economic sanctions and other rational means, without aligning with a force that was the very antithesis of everything good in Western liberal values. Similarly, whatever one’s opinion about the US/NATO invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, there’s nothing to celebrate in the Taliban’s victory. The worst defeating the bad is not a good outcome.

Mixing religion and politics creates a deadly brew that addles minds and kills enlightened self-interest. The SLPP election campaigns in 2019 and 2020 inundated the Sinhala South with this brew. Intoxicated with these supremacist promises, the majority community gave a blank cheque to the Rajapaksas in the name of Sinhala-Buddhism, just as the Americans gave a blank cheque to the Mujahideen in the name of anti-Communism. 

When the Rajapaksas began to mishandle the response to the pandemic, their mistakes were defended, excused and glossed over. The mishandling was conceptual, organisational and attitudinal. The Rajapaksas equated fighting the pandemic with fighting a human/organisational enemy like the LTTE. Doctors were marginalised and generals put in charge. The victims of the virus were seen as enemy-agents, human carriers, deserving not sympathy but suspicion and hostility. Patients were not diagnosed but ‘apprehended’ and quarantine was turned into incarceration. Consistent attempts were made, including by the army commander, politicians, and media, to depict Muslims as deliberate virus-spreaders. Even in the midst of the pandemic, the Muslims remained the enemy.

Instead of ordering vaccines early, the regime promoted efforts to find a native panacea. Eliyantha White’s Kundalini power water pots were succeeded by Kali and Ritigala concoctions. Scarce resources were wasted researching a concoction made by a construction worker according to a recipe given to him by a goddess in a dream. 

No other government could have piled up so many errors with such little cost. The Rajapaksas could because of their mastery in weaponising religion. Their Sinhala-Buddhist supremacist rhetoric constituted a Teflon cover, concealing and protecting their familial agenda. Until the Delta variant plowed a deadly path across the length and breadth of Sri Lanka, the majority community ignored reality and believed in their promises. 

Now death’s knock is too loud to miss, too regular to ignore. The Rajapaksa promise of a Sinhala-Buddhist homeland has turned the island into a graveyard for all its people.

To bring back fear and hate

“If those who asked for a lockdown understood Gota’s ‘boxing of the ear’ they won’t ask for a lockdown again,” Mahinda Pathirana, a prominent regime-supporter, was reported exulting on social media. He was right. The presidential speech is a ‘You’ll soon be eating your own demand’ type diatribe against all those who advocated a lockdown, from medical experts and frontline health workers to chief prelates, traders and ordinary people. 

By August 20th, 79 towns had gone into self-lockdown. That process marked a watershed moment. It was organised not by the opposition but by traders associations and local people, buyers and sellers, vendors and consumers, acting as citizens, in self-defence. Most of these lockdowns happened not in opposition strongholds, not in minority areas, but in Rajapaksa bastions where Sinhala-Buddhists predominate and the SLPP control local government bodies. The government used the economy to oppose lockdown demands from medical experts and health workers. The local marketplaces responded by locking themselves down one by one. 

Other discordant notes are coming from even more unexpected quarters. Ajith Nivard Cabral was a Rajapaksa acolyte of the most slavish variety. But even he seemed to have reached a semi-breaking point. In the recent cabinet reshuffle, several institutions under his already truncated ministry were given to Namal Rajapaksa, leaving him with only one. He had reportedly written to the Rajapaksas suggesting that his last remaining institution too be given to young Namal. 

Dissent without and dissent within. Little wonder the president sounded so ill-used.

‘Dictator Inflation’ is a phrase coined by Hungarian economist and psychologist Péter Kréko to describe an old habit of tyrants – trying to create the impression that they are more powerful than they actually are. As the Rajapaksas move to re-impose their authority on a fracturing government and a dissenting electorate, this could be the path they opt for – recreating illusions of omnipotence and omnipresence, powerful enough to protect the faithful and take down dissenters.   

One tactic would be selective repression, picking on vulnerable targets and targets of opportunity. This could include Tamils and Muslims as well as social-media activists of all ethnicities and religions. The process has already begun. This month saw a failed attempt to abduct R Sivaraja, the editor of Thamilan newspaper and the arrest of journalist Keerthi Ratnayake of Lanka e news over a story he had written. Najith Indika, a young doctor working with Covid-19 patients in Awissawella was visited by the CID over a social media post he had written about people dying like flies. The CCD is reported to have paid a call on social media activist Tushara Hettiarachchi as well. 

These repressive practices are likely to increase during the lockdown period. Ananda Palitha, a UNP trade union leader was arrested on Saturday over a statement he made about a possible fuel shortage. Other arrests are likely to follow since the lockdown renders protests against such repressive measures difficult if not impossible. 

Another, more dangerous tactic would be to recreate an enemy. The regime needs to divert Sinhala-Buddhist attention from pandemic fears and growing economic misery. The likeliest candidate would be Muslims, though an attempt to resurrect the ‘Undead Tiger’ cannot be ruled out. A powerful and protective government that can stand between a deadly enemy and the threatened Sinhalese – it is a narrative that had served the Rajapaksas well in the past. But will it work again? Will the Sinhala-Buddhists allow the Rajapaksas to promise them life and deliver death one more time? 

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