Missing the basics

“Labuwau Nawa Wasara Samayen, Sathutin piri Wasarak Wewa/ I wish you a peaceful and a happy New Year. – President Mahinda Rajapaksa”

I detest spam, whether it is in the form of unsolicited mail posted home, emails that clog my Inbox or SMSs on my mobile. However, linked to the powerlessness to stop it or opt out and residual seasonal cheer, I was willing to countenance the President’s New Year greeting that millions of Sri Lankans received via SMS a week ago. Upon reading it however, I forwarded it to a few noting the prospects for reconciliation in Sri Lanka were as evident as the Tamil in his message. Clearly, it’s not Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa who typed this SMS. It was however in President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s name that this was sent out to around 17 million mobile subscribers. Even accounting for more than one SIM card owned by a subscriber, the math is simple. Millions of citizens speaking Tamil in Sri Lanka began their New Year with a message from a President who didn’t even care to represent their language. Someone, somewhere made a choice to not include Tamil. If in the rare chance this was a genuine oversight (though that is revealing too), the President’s Office could have easily followed up with another greeting, more representative of our country’s inherent multi-lingualism. It hasn’t to date. So what then of the more grandiose plans for post-war reconciliation if we can’t even get a simple SMS right?

And there’s the rub. There was no Western or NGO driven conspiracy here to tarnish the image of the President. No dollar funded racket to infiltrate telcos and tamper with this SMS. What was sent was what was meant. And what we read is what we must expect from government. Tamil, and Tamils, are easily forgotten, erased and marginalised. The absence of any correction or apology, much like the outrageous sentiments by senior government ministers over the singing of the Tamil version of the National Anthem, suggest a government and Executive serious only in the rhetoric of reconciliation. There are no minorities, said the President famously after the end of the war. His New Year SMS follows from this. There is Sinhala, and there are the Sinhalese. For those who are not Sinhala, or don’t speak Sinhalese, there is English. And that pretty much is it.

2012 couldn’t have started on a worse note.

Why does this matter? For most, going by the silence around the SMS, it clearly does not. Propped by the telegenics of mega-development projects – South Asia’s tallest TV tower and more shopping ‘precincts’ in Colombo, a botanical garden in Hambantota – this will not be an unpopular government over the course of the year. The shrill perorations on the political platforms against NGOs, the diatribes against Western governments on government media and in particular, the familiar diatribes of a deified Defence Secretary who will venomously decry any truth or reality other than what he believes in will certainly continue apace over 2012. With everyone making as much money as possible in the present construction and development boom – and this includes the same businesswomen and men who led public hand-holding and signature campaigns for a negotiated settlement with the LTTE during the CFA under the then UNF government – few critical voices will emerge to challenge the most obvious excesses of the regime. As a consequence, the regime’s chutzpah will grow.

Yet, the President’s New Year SMS signifies something seriously amiss. With the growing arrogance of government come attendant dangers of instability, not from conspiratorial agents from without, but actors within. And ironically, key loci of regime instability will be in the South. Signs of this already abound. Take just the more recent debacles. A YouTube video that went viral last week showed clips of Sri Lanka’s Minister of Higher Education who couldn’t differentiate between Plato and Galileo. It’s not particularly inspiring or convincing when this same individual goes on to proffer his opinion about the A/L marks fiasco. The destruction of sea-front hotel property at the height of the tourist season, and leaving debris just lying around on beaches frequented by thousands of foreigners, sends the message that elements in the Rajapaksa regime, with little forward or strategic planning and for any reason, will do as they see fit. Often, these actions will occur without direct sanction or knowledge of the high priests of government in Colombo. And yet, no matter how bizarre, downright silly, outrageous, violent or undemocratic, actors partial to and actions ostensibly in favour of the regime, will go on to enjoy it’s protection, no matter what. For example, what over 25 years of brutal war couldn’t do, inebriated and unbridled thugs in government managed overnight – the first-degree murder of a British male tourist in Tangalle and, according to the Asian Human Rights Commission, the serious injury and rape of his female companion. Marvellous, well timed publicity for a country that was just recently flagged by Conde Nast as a top tourist destination for 2012! Media reports note that the brother of the murdered tourist hoped justice would be meted out to the killers, and was assured this would be the case by our Criminal Investigations Department. The historical record of violence perpetrated by those close to the regime suggests quite another story. And we don’t even need to go into physical violence and the destruction of property. A recent video, again posted on YouTube, shows Sri Lanka’s Ambassador Jaliya Wickramsuriya denying reports that violence against women in Sri Lanka is on the rise. Seeing it renders one speechless, for the good Ambassador – in a high-profile international forum – goes on to categorically state that there no rape in Sri Lanka and no gender discrimination. A friend responded via email noting that,

“[The Ambassador’s] comments are truly appalling.  They may be indicative of more than an individual spokesperson’s boorishness or bluster.  I’ve heard that the regime’s discourse seems to be converging on the following sort of thesis: yes there is some violence against women, but this is a) inconsistent with our culture; b) an aberration at an individual level or of a fleeting social moment which can be overcome – thereby eschewing the need for structural or systematic approaches to the problem.”

I responded by saying that this also accurately captures the government’s stock response to allegations of war crimes. The murder of a tourist and the rape of another, the destruction of sea-front property, the debacle of the A/L marks, the Ambassador’s comments – none of these are sinister machinations of a foreign hand hell-bent on regime change. They aren’t part of the LTTE rump’s actions to get rid of the Rajapaksa regime. Yet, tellingly and tragically, these events and statements play right into precisely this desire. Instead of the usual venom against its few critics, the regime should be more worried about the optics of its own callous insensitivity and violence post-war. Perhaps what those partial to regime change only need is patience!

With each new transgression of decency and democracy, more effort will need to be taken to cover it all up. Tamil, and Tamils in post-war Sri Lanka can be ignored with little immediate consequence. They remain peripheral to what government sees as Sri Lanka’s future. On the other hand, erasing a record of internecine violence in the South and denying it isn’t going to be easy as that which happened on the banks of Nandikadal. The inability and unwillingness to address the systemic politics of violence is boomeranging on the very constituency that supports this government.

The basics of decency, dignity and democracy remain woefully weak post-war. Surely, if only out of enlightened self-interest by those who hold political voice in the South, is it not a supreme patriotic duty to call for accountability, restitution and reform?

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Published in The Nation, 8 January 2011

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