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Issues

September 2, 2007  Volume 14, Issue 11


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Editorial

           
Those Who Will Not See

As reviled as he is for his manifest racism, the French historian Alexis de Tocqueville is remembered largely by a single one of his many cynical observations of the developing societies of the 19th century: "In a democracy, people get the government they deserve." It takes but the briefest glance at Mahinda Rajapakse’s Sri Lanka to acknowledge that de Tocqueville never uttered a truer word.

It behoves us then, to ponder a while on why it is that each of us in this sunshine isle of ours deserves the government we have. And as is our custom, we at The Sunday Leader will be the first to rise up and offer a contrite mea culpa. Ever since our inception, in the middle of what historians will probably come to call "Mahinda Rajapakse’s Wilderness Years," we gave him our unstinted endorsement. In 1996, when his star had begun to fade in Chandrika Kumaratunga’s eyes, we wrote of him: "If there walks on this earth today a man whose heart beats as one with the workers of the world, that man is this man."

When in 2001, in the wake of Ranil Wickremesinghe’s victory Rajapakse became Leader of the Opposition, we welcomed his appointment with unmitigated glee. "It was Mahinda," we trilled, "Who in the darkest days of the SLFP, when its leadership was in tatters, almost single-handedly stood up to Ranasinghe Premadasa’s tyranny. The door of popular rebellion was ajar, and when Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake scuttled the ship from within, there was no hope left for the UNP. He alone flew the flag for a party many had consigned to the rubbish heap, what is more, during its darkest hour.

"Now at last, Mahinda’s day has come, and he is within striking distance of breaking the Bandaranaikes’ stranglehold of the SLFP’s leadership... His appointment (as Leader of the Opposition), though publicly welcomed, must also be disconcerting to Ranil Wickremesinghe. Unlike the prime minister, Mahinda is a maverick: a non-conformist who can strike deep into the psyche of the Sri Lankan people, rousing passions they never knew existed. This is a talent Mahinda may well put to use in curbing any success Wickremesinghe may wish to milk from the peace initiative he spearheads... Mahinda no doubt has his eye on the next presidential election, to the PA’s nomination, for which he is now poised to stake a credible claim... Strengthened by the effortless charm of his former beauty-queen wife, Shiranthi, this is a man who may soon take the capital by storm."

Prophetic, perhaps, but such showers of praise would today ring empty even if they were to come from the Daily News, now reduced to a publicity rag singing to the tune of Temple Trees. Ah, those were the days! Having fled his beloved motherland, Gotabaya was punching keys somewhere in Los Angeles, and Basil, not far away, applying grease to the old window-cleaning elbow. Velupillai Pirapaharan was yet to kiss Percy the Frog, filthy lucre having changed hands, and turn him, in the blink of an eye into a prince.

It was not only the Sri Lankan electorate — or at any rate, 50.9% of it — that was fooled by Rajapakse’s easygoing charm: we were, too, until we found him dipping his hand into the Helping Hambantota kitty. But within days of his victory on November 18, 2005, the Brothers had closed ranks, shorn of their whiskers and made it clear to everyone exactly who the boss was. So much so that even Champika Ranawaka has been leading a whispering campaign about how service commanders rise from their seats and spring to attention when Basil enters a room, something they do not do even for ministers — or at any rate, for Ranawaka.

And having accepted the reins of office, the brothers have gone to town. The economy is in a dreadful decline; corruption is hopelessly out of control with politicians and officials from the top down helping themselves to public funds as if money were going out of fashion; and perhaps worst of all, democracy and human rights subject to endless assault. We sure have the government we deserve.

Last week we highlighted the threats and harassment visited on Iqbal Athas, a brother journalist working for a ‘rival’ Sunday newspaper. On Monday, Athas’s house was besieged by a mob yelling abuse and telling him in threatening tones to desist from insulting the security forces. On the very day, a man had the audacity to call on the newspaper in person and inform them that Athas has days to flee the country if he wants to live. And all this mere hours after Mahinda and Gotabaya Rajapakse, and Minister and Secretary of Defence, respectively, decided to withdraw Athas’s security.

The sick cynicism of the Rajapakse Brothers does not stop there. A year after the murder of 17 employees of the French anti-hunger NGO, Action Contre la Faim (ACF) in Muttur in August 2006, no proper inquiry has yet been held. The army and the LTTE have been blaming each other for the slaughter. The government’s reluctance to allow a transparent inquiry certainly does not help exculpate the army. What is more, SCOPP Chief Rajiva Wijesinha, by claiming that ACF was at fault in the mass murder, for putting its employees in harm’s way, underlined the fact that he is not just an ass, but an exceedingly silly ass. As if Sri Lanka had not made enough of a fool of itself, Wijesinha’s trite belittling of this awful tragedy led the UN Secretary General’s Spokesperson, Michele Montas, to state openly that "We regret that the debate has led to the allegation that this event was caused by Action Contre La Faim. We are seriously concerned about that allegation." That’s about as serious an au contraire one is likely ever to get from the United Nations.

Last week three notoriously independent bodies — the Law & Society Trust, the Civil Monitoring Commission and the Free Media Movement — in a joint report gave a chilling tally of the civilians killed in government controlled areas this year: a staggering 547. Not one of these murders has led to a prosecution and conviction. What is more, 396 people were abducted and the fate of most of them remains unknown and gives rise to the liveliest apprehensions. Even as the government and the LTTE trade charges as to which is responsible, the tragic fact remains that 70% of those killed, and 65% of those abducted, are Tamil. Add to this that Tamils represent a mere 16% of the population, and you can do the arithmetic for yourself: it is not safe to be a Tamil in Sri Lanka. Say that aloud and chances are Jeyaraj Fernandopulle will call you a terrorist.

Now, with barely a week to go before the European Union begins dissecting our pathetic human rights record, the Rajapakse Bros. have swung into action, announcing in the Daily News of a fresh investigation into the abduction of children. Offers of such inquiries are now as commonplace as they are routine: the moment the UN or some other international agency voices concern, an inquiry, investigation or commission is promised, and the matter then promptly dropped. The Rajapakse Bros. have learned a lot from Robert Mugabe.

When Allan Rock, United Nations Ambassador on children and armed conflict last year found "strong and credible evidence that certain elements of the government security forces are supporting and sometimes participating in the abductions and forced recruitment," the Rajapakse administration roundly condemned the messenger while —you guessed — promising a full inquiry. Predictably, there was none. Now, in the wake of the visit of UN Humanitarian Coordinator Sir John Holmes ("a terrorist" in the eyes of the Sri Lankan government), yet another inquiry is promised.

The Rajapakse Bros., never masters of the art of diplomacy, have failed to grasp the fact that there is a distinction between their government and the LTTE; maybe they know something we don’t. They routinely blame the media and human rights watchdogs for condemning government violence while not condemning LTTE violence. Yes, duh, but the LTTE are terrorists: governments aren’t — at least they are not supposed to be. We leave it to readers to judge whether or not governments that bombard their own citizenry with MiG bombers, or those who drive hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians from their homes, are terrorists. Think about it: Saddam Hussein was hanged for less.

The tragedy for the victims of the Rajapakse Bros. excesses (and yes, the LTTE’s too, but they are not the government) is that the world has not matched word with deed. Despite mutterings of discontent from the UN and a handful of countries that take human rights seriously, the Brothers have up to now got away with impunity. No one doubts that having tasted blood, their belief that they are yet above the law — and above international scrutiny — will persist. Only the strongest rebuke from the free nations of the world, matched with stinging sanctions on the Brothers, can help stem this dismal tide. One day posterity will judge the international response to Sri Lanka’s human rights crisis, and when it does, it will judge it harshly. Hundreds perish as the world vacillates, and even as the Brothers toy with the UN and EU as Hitler toyed with Chamberlain.

What of the response of Sri Lanka’s own political parties to this tragedy? True, a few Tamil MPs and the UNP in its currently emasculated form, have been doing what they can. Clearly, there is overwhelming public support for their cause, as evidenced by the large crowds their meetings attract. But an apparently overwhelming majority of parliamentarians are more obsessed with garnering top dollar for their vehicle permits and doing odd deals to keep themselves in the life style to which they have become accustomed, than with sincerely representing their electors. Sadly, this includes also the JVP, which is now at its hypocritical best, propping up the Brothers with one hand, while pasting posters with the other. Most laughable is the JVP’s current poster campaign demanding that the cost of living be brought down: since when have posters succeeded in managing an economy? And there has been not a whisper from them about human rights, media freedom or democracy.

We at The Sunday Leader freely admit it when we are wrong, and were wrong in judging the character of Mahinda Rajapakse. Not for one moment did we imagine that in his breast was a heart so black as to usurp money intended for tsunami victims or unleash terror on his own citizens. Yet, it is now in a regime of terror that we live, as poor Iqbal Athas is fast discovering. Our values are fast vanishing into the abyss as each one of us seeks to look after only our own wellbeing and not that of society at large. The Jews in the concentration camps of Poland experienced much the same phenomenon. They were gassed, almost to the last one. Sri Lanka is not quite there yet, but we are certainly headed in the same direction. We have a duty to bring the plight of this nation to the attention of the world. We the people of Sri Lanka cannot ignore the tragedy that surrounds us for it is a tragedy of our own making. Truly is it said that there are none so blind as those who will not see.

 

 


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