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Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Sri Lanka’s dilemmas of the dead and our punching bags of politicians- Kishali Pinto Jayawadene

If ever 2021 had a ghastly leitmotif, it would be the dead. From Muslims not being allowed to cremate their dead disregarding the recommendations of experts, the Tamils not being allowed to remember their dead with even memorials being bulldozed by night, we have the highly avoidable covid-19 dead including hundreds of migrant workers abandoned by a Government which once seduced them for their vote.

Our present nightmares and useful parallels

On top of all that, we also have the ‘politically dead’ as it were, churning out vainglorious laments as to what Sri Lanka might have been if current political leaders were not in power. But there are obstinate truths that Sri Lanka – and Sri Lankans who moralize from hollow pinnacles of self-styled ‘liberal’ superiority – must understand. Indeed, the chaos in the United States after the mercifully outgoing President of the United States, now called a ‘domestic terrorist,’ incited right-wing mobs to invade the Capitol reminds us of our own nightmares.

And to be clear, this does not stop with (superficial) parallels that some may like to draw between cult followers of Donald Trump storming the floor of the United States Senate this week and the siege of the Speaker’s dais by chillie wielding Rajapaksa parliamentarians in 2018. As one gleeful ruffian put his feet up on the desk of Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi and mouthed gibberish about the desk belonging to him as a tax payer and seasoned American reporters sought for adjectives to describe the mayhem, the scenes were extraordinary.

But the point sought to be made here is far more than that. ‘Trumpism’ is indubitably a symptom of a possibly near-fatal disease that has inflicted American democracy rather than the cause. That affirmation goes beyond the simplistic reality that racism was always a part of the society and that the Trump era merely made it politically correct. As the free speech advocate and lawyer Glenn Greenwald has persuasively argued in several writings that run counter to the general narrative of ‘Trump equals evil and everything else equals good,’ the Trump administration is not a ‘radical aberration’ or a ‘dramatic break’ from American political practice.

The ‘redemption’ of the ‘unredeemable’

It may seem to be so as the ugliness is out in the open. But deep down, this is not some ‘new universe of savagery, lawlessness, or radicalism when compared to those who preceded him in power.’ Greenwald’s scathing remarks are made in the context of the Trumpian era giving a new lease of life to Republican as well as Democratic politicians with blood on their hands in the so-called War against Terror and journalists who cheered them on but who can now throw up their hands, aghast at the ‘evil dicator’ that Americans elected to power.

As he observes these architects of terror who ushered in ‘lawlessness, executive power transgressions and authoritarian’ leadership in the name of fighting terror in the pre-Trump years, also ‘claimed the right to violate Congressional statutes restricting how they could spy, detain, or even kill anyone, including American citizens, as long they justified it as helpful in the fight again terrorism.’ These forthright critiques and the usefully revisionist history that they refer to in the context of the crisis ridden United States is useful for us.

‘Rajapaksa-ism’ in Sri Lanka, now in its most frightening avatar under this Presidency, came about by the unhappy confluence of not only political but also a profound failure of intellectual and civil leadership in Sri Lanka, not limited to the Rajapaksas. It is very much a product of the ‘yahapalanaya’ times when the ‘opportunity for redemption’ that Greenwald speaks of, operated very much in the same manner here in relation to those who had driven the very deliberate violation of constitutional rights.

That toxic brand of crisis

Thus, state lawyers who, not long ago, presided over the subversion of the Udalagama Commission of Inquiry going so far as to coerce family members of the Mutur massacres into signing confessions that government troops were not responsible for the killings of their loved ones, chaired committees on anti-torture prevention as part of the Annual Human Rights Action Plan. And anti-corruption ‘crusaders’ metamorphosed into shameless defenders of the Government announcing that the ‘yahapalanaya’ corruption drive was going ‘just as it ought to’ when the contrary was the case. Now, criminal investigators who were pivotal in those efforts are in prison

Worse would have been in store. At the last minute, we were saved from a Counter Terrorism law which, if enacted into law, would have been more draconian than the Prevention of Terrorism Act in the hands of the current administration. So the Rajapaksas and their toxic brand of crisis which we are suffering now is very much a consequence of a citizenship failure, no more and no less. By this, I do not mean, the thousands of decent Sri Lankans who, in 2015, threw Mahinda Rajapaksa out of power, including as must be said, a percentage of the Sinhala electoral bloc.

Indeed and to digress, that despicably false approximation of the anti-Rajapaksa vote in 2015 to the minority vote (ie; the common complaint that Rajapaksa would not have been defeated if the Tamils and the Muslims had not combined to throw him out) has a familiar tone to it. Donald Trump’s lunatic supporters who rampaged through the Capitol said the same thing, ‘our President would be continuing in office if it was not for these blacks, browns etc, etc.’ The narrative of the right-wing is eerily familiar if only we bother to listen.

Powerful, independent engagement with citizenry needed

But in our case, that failure was culpably compounded by the stupidity of front men of Ranil Wickremesinghe’s alliance, the Tamil National Alliance, who indulged in the boast that they were the ‘king makers’ at Sri Lanka’s national elections. Unfortunately, unlike in America, as discussed in these column spaces last week, we lack the tri-formidable forces that stopped the Trumpist march in their tracks, namely grassroots activism of our Opposition politicians which in turn, activated the citizens, steadfast refusal by the military to get involved in politics and the determination of the judiciary in upholding its constitutional role to protect rights.

Instead, what we have is the familiar refrain of heaping blame for the ruinous state of our nation on the sins of one political family. This pattern of the Rajapaksas and their racist acolytes continuing as the favourite punching bag of righteous liberal wrath in Colombo must stop. A far more insightful narrative of our own flaws as rights interventionists and libertarian practitioners must emerge together with powerful, independent engagement with the people.

On their own part, independent analysts (or those professing to be such) must stop wobbling like jellies by engaging in painful equivocations on why this Government is doing this or justifying why it is doing that. That was bad during the ‘yahapalanaya’ times and is bad now, without exception. When critical oversight agencies are rudely dismantled, the truth stares you in the face.

The dilemmas of our dead

When the policy says ‘one law, one country’ but the reality is that the minorities are treated differently to the majority even where the dead is concerned and the majority itself is treated like cattle only to get to political power, that cannot be just shrugged off. The dilemmas of Sri Lanka’s dead need to be dealt with. Ghosts who cry for closure need to be laid to rest.

It is as simple as that.

( Sunday Times/10.01.21)

 

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