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A Nation's Last Hurrah

Winning the war? Then there must be elections around the corner. It is no secret that the war has become Mahinda Rajapakse's recipe for electoral success; but what surprises many is that he is able, time and time again, to persuade the Sri Lankan people - or at least his Sinhala-Buddhist constituency - that victory is but a gunshot away.

No one doubts that with an investment of nearly Rs. 200 billion per year, and the willingness to expend a few thousand lives and limbs, the government can in the course of 2009 credibly claim to have won not just Killinochchi, but all of the north. The Rs. 200 billion we plan to spend on bombing the life out of the LTTE's remaining 4,000 cadres, after all, should do the job. As for the lives, there's still plenty of space left on those stone tablets on the doormat of parliament for them. And as for limbs, where would Jaipur be if not for the steady stream of feet shipped to help keep the armed forces on the hop?

Granted that after 'winning' the war, just as is the case in the east, the north too, will be converted into an occupied territory. A matrix of army camps will dot the landscape, helping to keep errant Tamils from getting any funny ideas, and the Lion Ensign will flutter briskly in the katchan winds of the Wanni. It will not be the meek, but Douglas Devananda, who will inherit the earth. The meek, after all, will be arranged in neat little rows in their respective refugee camps, eating their lunch from the tinsel packs dispensed by the World Food Programme.

Now, with another election looming, military victories - and promises of regular conquests - are bound to come thick and fast. Leaving nothing to chance, Mahinda Rajapakse presented a gift-wrapped New Year's gift to the people last week, by way of what amounted to a mini-budget.

Despite a significant reduction in the price of LP gas, the government cut the price of diesel by Rs 10 per litre and that of petrol by a derisory Rs 2. By doing so, it was clearly thumbing its nose at the Supreme Court, in the face of an order that the price of petrol should be slashed by Rs 20.

Notwithstanding that, in a move harking back to the grimmest days of the 1970s, the cabinet decided to award coupons to three-wheelers, giving them a subsidy of Rs. 18 per litre up to a limit of 75 litres per month. This discriminatory price structure will, no doubt, be challenged before the courts in quick order, for owners of motor cars and motor cycles, though equal before the Constitution, will have to pay more. They too, after all, are citizens. All in all, the justices of the Supreme Court are in for a busy time this January.

What is perhaps most offensive about Rajapakse's attempts to manipulate the electorate in the face of an election is how much he takes for granted the fickleness of his Sinhala-Buddhist following. Nothing could better personify the "Sinhalaya modaya" stereotype than the President's disdain for his own people. And they love him for it. So long as a steady stream of Tamils are exterminated, there is little to impede Rajapakse's cruise to yet another victory.

Granted, the problem stems in large measure from the ineptitude and apathy of an opposition that has grown fat and lazy. While Karu Jayasuriya's crossover might have sparked a flame of defiance in the UNP, it was extremely short-lived. Having re-entered his old home, Jayasuriya seems to have avoided the limelight, steering clear of controversy in any guise.

Sadly for both Ranil Wickremesinghe and Karu Jayasuriya, they have failed to convey effectively to the country their concerns about the issues of our time. As a party, the UNP is yet to decide whether or not it supports the war and if so, whether it subscribes, for example, to the present practice of aerially bombarding Tamil villages labelled as LTTE hideouts in the north.

To say it opposes the war but nevertheless congratulate the army on capturing Paranthan or Killinochchi, however, is morally and intellectually dishonest. After all, the government would not dare bombing LTTE hideouts in the south - let us say in Wellawatte - for fear of collateral damage. Yet, in the remote townships of the Wanni, such bombardment has now become routine, with enormous cost to the civilian population.

While the UNP has cleverly promised to support any political solution mutually acceptable to the government and the Tamil parties, it does not seem any longer to entertain a vision of its own. As provocative as it may seem, the Greens would do well to articulate what they feel is a fair solution, if for no other reason, to check on public opinion. Even if the Rajapakses, swollen as they are with the pride of bloodthirsty euphoria, are unable to think beyond the destruction of the LTTE and its leadership, it behoves us to think of the day after tomorrow now. Should we fail meaningfully to address the aspirations of the Tamil people that survive this holocaust, we can be sure as night follows day that history will repeat itself, even though it may take a generation from now. All the bloodshed and all the sacrifice made to bring the war to a conclusion will have been in vain.

Something to Rajapakse's credit is that unlike the UNP, he has had the gumption to take the international community head on. No government in the history of Sri Lanka pandered to the international funding agencies - the World Bank, ADB and IMF - as the UNP did. And never did the Western diplomatic community in Colombo wield greater influence. Today the IMF has been sent packing, and the World Bank and ADB reps, anxious to keep their jobs in a declining world market, eat out of Basil Rajapakse's hand. Not just that, but the diplomatic kingmakers of the past, the Indian High Commissioner and the US Ambassador, have been shouted down into abject subservience, even as all NGOs irksome to the Brothers' administration have been given swift dispatch.

Who then survives to provide the public with a contrarian view? Much of the media has been bought, or cajoled and bullied into silence. Dozens of journalists are dead and others have been incarcerated without trial for months. The electronic media operate under the continuing threat of having their licenses revoked unless they toe the government's line. After all, it has happened that they have been summarily shut down. New licenses, in turn, are issued only to that section of the business community subscribing to the government's communal thinking, such as Nahil Wijesuriya, who was recently exposed as a willing accomplice in the attempted sale of his Continental Hotel to the government at a highly inflated price.

With the opposition curled up into a ball, the government's most formidable adversary has become the Supreme Court, whose justices (praise be to them!) have had the gumption to dispense justice regardless of the political consequences. In the wake of their order to reduce the price of petrol by Rs 20 a litre, the government claimed by innuendo that traitors were trying to sabotage the war effort. Amazingly now, the government itself has cut the prices of diesel and LPG in a manner that will result in an even larger loss of revenue to the state. Where then, does the treachery lie? Who are the traitors now?

For its part, the Rajapakse administration lies content in the knowledge that the Sinhalaya is indeed a modaya - so long as people vote like idiots, they have to live with the government they elect. There is no gainsaying that despite all the hardships the people face as a result of the maladministration and corruption the Rajapakse regime has ushered into government, so long as the bombardment of the north continues, the Sinhala-Buddhist majority will readily provide the President with the mandate he needs.

If further evidence were needed for the President's contempt for the mindset of his people, it is that under much public pressure he reduced the Rs 100,000 housing allowance given to his hundred-odd ministers to Rs 50,000. What might have been meaningful is the reduction of the number of ministers, most of whom are simply bloodsucking parasites on the public purse. Rajapakse went so far as to cut a measly 15% off his own Rs. 7 billion allocation, without mentioning for a moment that he at the outset voted himself a 500% increase on where Chandrika Kumaratunga left off in 2005. His extravagant globetrotting with entourages numbering in the hundreds has contributed in no small measure to this excess of Presidential ego, and it shows no sign of diminishing.

Thus it is that a President who has got his finger on the pulse of his people like none of his predecessors ever did has hit upon the one ingredient that wins to victory: the fact that his people are, apparently in his opinion, a bunch of dimwits. Truth be told, we sometimes wonder that out ourselves.


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