Musical chairs

The appointment of a new Army Chief of Staff. A fresh denial around the use of chemical weapons. The denunciation of a civil society protest against mainstream media supportive of the constitutional coup, not by members of the SLPP, but by those in the UNP and government. A photograph of a former President, the incumbent and the Prime Minister, comfortably seated next to each other, enjoying or at least at a musical show. Newspaper headlines and reports framing dire warnings by the former President, who true to form, relies on the capture of emotions over fact or principle. In just the second week of January, we are presented with the template for what the year ahead holds. It is not looking good, but despite the obvious anxiety, I continue to maintain, is counter-intuitively rather beneficial. The greatest contribution of the constitutional coup to conversations around the grasp of Sri Lanka’s democratic potential was to place in the open and very clearly, who stood for what and where. This endures.

The closest I’ve personally got to Shavendra Silva was on a journey back to Sri Lanka from New York, where as dratted luck would have it, I sat next to him on both legs of the journey. Both disgusted and disturbed by the coincidental placement, I made it a point to not engage in any conversation. Still, I had the luxury of ignoring Silva’s obnoxious proximity. Hundreds of Tamils did not. They suffered, in their hundreds if not thousands, because of who he was and what he did during the fag end of the war. A man barred from attending a UN committee on peacekeeping while serving as the Deputy Permanent Representative of the Sri Lankan Mission in New York, tainted by allegations of war crimes which continue to stick and stain, was nevertheless found entirely fit by the President to be appointed as the new Army Chief of Staff. For a while now, the proclivity of the President to pander to populism was evident, manifest in statements that held the Army beyond reproach. Surprising of late is the degree to which those in the UNP, in a race to the depths of impunity, also express sentiments aimed at a constituency they never got the votes from, or secured any popularity in. A case in point was UNP MP and the State Minister for Defence Ruwan Wijewardene’s tweets on the Army’s use of chemical weapons last week. “I denounce the accusations of using chemical weapons by Sri Lankan Armed Forces during the civil war” went the first tweet. Three minutes after, that was deleted and instead “I strongly denounce the use of chemical weapons by Sri Lankan Armed Forces during the civil war”. Perhaps realizing for himself or being sternly told exactly what the implications of this new formulation were, this too was deleted ten minutes after publication and replaced with “I strongly state that the Sri Lankan Armed Forces have not used chemical weapons during the civil war”. Clearly, an unprincipled vacillation around principle and oscillation between promises of accountability and the furtherance of impunity colour not just President, but all of government.

It was not so much what Mahinda Rajapaksa said that caught my attention, but how he framed it. Marketing’s rule of three is well-known and applied in advertising, but here we have Rajapaksa embracing it to produce and project abject fear, in a way guaranteed to maximise reaction, retention and recall. This statement prepped for release at the start of this year and lapped up by electronic, print and social media was clearly part of a larger, post-constitutional coup media strategy by those well-versed in political communications, geared towards the electoral realisation of an outcome attempted through different means late last year. But the substance also matters. Rajapaksa’s signature sensationalism isn’t ignorance or stupidity. It is informed, calculating and strategic dog-whistling. And while the currency and appeal of his brand, along with that of the SLPP, significantly diminished in statistically measurable terms and unprecedented ways from October to December, it would be folly to think it will remain as unpopular as the year progresses. Recalling what was noted last week in this column, the coup’s entrenchment already shows – through primary data gathering and topline analysis related to on-going research – signs of angering and re-casting as overwhelmingly apathetic those who supported the restoration of constitutionalism. Both truly ironic and telling then that last week, the one voice who in Parliament noted that there was a distinct lack of political will around accountability and investigations into violence against journalists – TNA MP M.A. Sumanthiran – is on the overwhelmingly racist social media constellations partial to or featuring content from the SLPP and Rajapaksas, promoted and projected as a terrorist. So in what may be the defining frames of 2019, it is terrorism to be partial to constitutionalism, seek accountability and justice, and somehow democratic to be partial to condoning war crimes, entertaining alleged war criminals and stoking up fear based on thinly veiled racism and violent communalism.

These are hard things to explain, and the fatigue around it is real. One recognises that agonising over these statements and their import is a privileged conversation, at certain strata. The existential realities of life and loss in the North are less well captured, but more concerning for residents, survivors, victims and citizens in the former war zones. And it is here that the photo of Mahinda Rajapaksa, Ranil Wickremesinghe and Maithripala Sirisena enjoyed a music concert together hurts the most. Change voted for by most in the North in 2015 was not to have the incumbent collude with the former President. Change that most stood up for, at a time when the denouement of the constitutional crisis wasn’t anywhere close to what ultimately transpired, wasn’t to have the incumbent Prime Minister sit both current and former President at music concerts. While some public, political events and circumstances render close physical proximity inevitable despite significant political differences and personal distaste, this was a concert – one that any one of the three could have easily declined participation in knowing full well who they would be seen and seated together with. That they did not reveal much more than the public pronouncements from any of them denouncing each other. Add to this the fact that the greatest defenders of the worst and most unprincipled, partisan media come from within government, and you have a situation where hope and faith in democratic governance and the delivery of justice, amongst other things, fades into risible insignificance. Save that for mothers of the disappeared, victims of the Rajapaksa regime’s violence, survivors of war now living under military surveillance and independent journalists, this is no laughing matter. The sceptre of violent pushback is now a new dawn away, if not through Executive fiat, then in what yet again seems entirely probable, through electoral outcomes.

It is this significant loss of choice and meaningful alternatives to those in power which defines our political landscape. The photo at the musical concert was in an unintended way, extremely apt. Musical chairs and the Sinhala adage around the band playing while the ship sinks are two metaphors that may define how history records what’s to come, and soon.

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Published in The Sunday Island, 13 January 2019.

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