A New Commonsense For A New Era
By Tisaranee Gunasekara
“The heretic, the enemy of society, will always be there, so that he can be defeated and humiliated over again…. The espionage, the betrayals, the arrests, the tortures, the executions, the disappearances will never cease. It will be a world of terror as much as a world of triumph.” — Orwell (Nineteen Eighty-Four)
One year ago, Sarath Fonseka was the infallible hero, a Lankan version of the Nietzschean Superman; and any who dared to criticise him was a traitor. Today Sarath Fonseka is the arch traitor, a betrayer of the nation, a danger to society; and any who does not endorse the witch hunt against him is a traitor.
Once, Gotabaya Rajapaksa took some media personnel sternly to task, for implying that Army Commander Fonseka was involved in the abduction of senior journalist Keith Noyahr: “You are attacking (Lieutenant General) Sarath Fonseka who has committed his life for the past 18 years to waging a war. He had a narrow escape (following a suicide bomb attack). When we have committed our entire lives, you are attacking us… Tell me one thing you have done for this country compared to Lt. Gen. Fonseka?” (The Sunday Times – 1.6.2008).
Today the same Gotabaya Rajapaksa accuses former Army Commander Fonseka of a multitude of crimes including the killing of Lasantha Wickrematunge and disappearance of several media personnel: “Yes, of course. We know there was no other person…. Some of the media people harmed had never criticised any other person except him, or people close to him. Nothing happened to those who had been criticising me or the President….. He was definitely responsible for five or six cases of (disappearances) where media people were involved.” (The Hindu – 11.2.2010).
This sudden transformation of one man, from super patriot to arch traitor, is symbolic and symptomatic of the new commonsense of the Rajapaksa age. President Rajapaksa had repeatedly stated that post-war, the only division in Sri Lanka is the division between patriots and anti-patriots. And anti-patriots are the enemies of the nation, to be fought and defeated. The new commonsense, which enthroned Sarath Fonseka as a patriot par excellence when he was a faithful acolyte of the Rajapaksas and branded him as the ultimate anti-patriot when he joined the opposition, has set the criteria by which the rest of us too will be judged. It is therefore necessary to understand the politico-psychological landscape which made such a new commonsense possible. After all, it is the landscape we, Sri Lankans, will have to survive in, if the Rajapaksas manage to get their two thirds and usher in their designer constitution.
Conspiracies and anti-patriots
The new commonsense, which equates opposition to the Rajapaksas with treachery, came into being and evolved during the Fourth Eelam War. It began on a note many Sinhalese instinctively felt to be unexceptionable — the assumption of infallibility by the Lankan state vis-à-vis the LTTE. In consequent to this ‘Sri Lanka can do no wrong’ assumption, official lies became the truth (even when they went manifestly against logic and reason) and official crimes ceased being crimes. This provided the necessary ideological-moral underpinnings for the ‘Humanitarian Operation’, the war in which not a single non-Tiger was killed by the Lankan side, according to the Lankan side. This fantastic stance could be best expressed using Aristotelian syllogisms:
1) The humanitarian operation does not kill civilians.
X was killed in the humanitarian operation.
Therefore X is not a civilian.
2) The humanitarian operation kills only Tigers.
X was killed during the humanitarian operation.
Therefore X is a Tiger.
This logic was used to conjure civilian casualties of the war out of existence – except when the LTTE was the guilty party. However, this vanishing trick could not be performed satisfactorily, so long as some degree of independent reportage of the war existed. Therefore a total ban on independent media coverage of the war was introduced. The next step was to equate any criticism of the Humanitarian Offensive with treachery. This enabled the government to brand as traitors those who expressed concerns about the human rights of civilian Tamils.
A country cannot be deemed infallible without bestowing upon its leaders, who make decisions on its behalf, the cloak of infallibility. Gradually and insensibly, patriotism became equated not just with unquestioning support for the Lankan war effort, but also with unquestioning support for the ruling Rajapaksas. Equating any opposition to the Rajapaksas with treachery was the next inevitable step of this politico-ideological transformation. Sri Lanka can do no wrong became transliterated into the Rajapaksas can do no wrong, because everything they do is, by definition, for the protection of the nation from its enemies and the triumph of the nation over its enemies.
The monstrousness of this new commonsense was most evident in the phenomenon of welfare villages – that inexcusably unjust and immoral incarceration of more than 300,000 men, women and children, just because they were Tamils who lived in Tiger controlled areas. The glossing over/justification of this moral outrage by the Sinhala South helped entrench a climate of permissiveness and impunity. The fact the Sinhala South has not reacted with overwhelming anger to the incarceration of a man who, less than one year ago, was one of its primary heroes is a direct result of this new psychological climate which renders even rank injustice acceptable so long as it is depicted as a patriotic necessity.
Sarath Fonseka, as Army Commander, played no small role in creating and justifying this new commonsense. Sarath Fonseka, as an anti-Rajapaksa civilian, has become a victim of the thinking he helped sow and nurture.
A similar fate can befall anyone who displeases or opposes the Rajapaksas. Because, though the war is over, the conspiracy is not. According to Sinhala supremacist thinking (which the Rajapaksas share) neither the war nor the LTTE was an outcome of the ethnic problem. There is no ethnic problem. The war and the LTTE were progenies of a vast, hydra like, everlasting, internationally orchestrated conspiracy to subjugate this sole refuge of the Sinhalese and of pure, pristine Buddhism. The defeat of the Tigers was but a temporary setback to this conspiracy; it is now trying to spread its tentacles via more insidious albeit peaceful means.
As Gotabaya Rajapaksa phrased it with customary forthrightness, “The International has brought various ideas into our society. There is a tendency of going behind these without us realising it… At times media freedom is used to forget what should is necessary for the country, what should be done for society. They act only on the basis of media freedom. Similarly if we do not get the support of the courts we cannot do this. Every institution must realise this…. ‘Human Rights’, ‘Media Freedom’, various ideas such as these are given to us by the International to control our society. We are drifting towards these without realising it.” (Interview with ITN – 24.2.2010)
So, dictates the new commonsense, though Eelam War is over, our enemies remain legion and their menace undiminished. Therefore we must be vigilant, taking care not to be blinded by such snares as ‘human rights’ and ‘media freedom’. For instance, though the Tigers have been conclusively defeated, the Emergency and the PTA must continue. As Prime Minister Wickremanayake said during the Emergency debate, the Emergency is needed because there are international forces and local elements ‘that wish to destabilise the government and arrest the country’s rapid economic drive’; and that the ‘intelligence units have information of the sinister moves against the country and the government’ (The Daily News – 10.3.2010).
In a related move the government issued a Gazette notification some weeks ago, setting up eight new detention centres, including in the Army and the Navy Headquarters. Opposition candidates are being grilled by the TID about their support for Gen. Fonseka. The tempo of repression will reach a crescendo, post-polls (especially if the Rajapaksas get their two thirds). As the incessant search for enemies continues, any Lankan who commits lèse majesté can be deemed an anti-patriot, an agent of the diabolical international conspiracy against Sri Lanka, and treated accordingly. If it can happen to the man hailed as the “best army commander in the world” just a few months ago by the Rajapaksas and their acolytes, who can consider himself safe?
The sinless war and its consequences
The Christian Just War theory originated with St. Augustine of Hippo. Bikkhu Mahanama, the author of Mahavamsa, came up with the concept of ‘Sinless War’. The story of King Dutugemunu’s conscience was a morality tale establishing the permissibility of certain crimes (including murder) so long as they are committed not for personal gain but for the protection and advancement of the Faith. The first of the five precepts in Buddhism is an undertaking not to kill, not just humans, but any living being. King Dutugemunu, as a devout Buddhist, was trying to square his religious beliefs with the war he had just concluded.
The concept of ‘sinless war’ was created to resolve this impossible contradiction by equating non-Buddhists with non-humans: “From this deed arises no hindrance in thy way to heaven. Only one and a half human beings have been slain here by thee, O lord of men. The one had come unto the (three) refuges, the other had taken on himself the give precepts. Unbelievers and men of evil life were the rest, not more to be esteemed than beasts” (Mahavamsa). This belief in a sinless war (indeed a meritorious war) against unbelievers is further strengthened by the assertion in Mahawamsa that King Dutugemunu was reborn in the highest of heavens and will be the first disciple of the next Buddha.
The Rajapaksas’ Humanitarian Offensive too was a sinless war, in which one side did not commit any sins because its pure intentions rendered such misdeeds impossible. A sinless war creates its own version of patriotism, based on the belief of a sinless country which is incapable of being in the wrong because the correctness of everything it does is an axiomatic fact. It is a patriotism based on blind faith, which permits no doubts let alone criticisms. To doubt is a sign of a patriotic deficit while to criticise is nothing less than treachery.
This patriotism demands the abandonment of independent thinking and critical perception, of logic and reason; it demands total obedience — unquestioning, mindless and conscienceless. This patriotism absolves its adherents from normal moral compulsions, from restraints imposed by religion and custom. Patriotism everywhere anytime has both a Jekyll version and a Hyde version. If the negative potential of patriotism is denied, the Hyde side can gradually take over.
Wars emotionally warp and contaminate the survivors, both soldiers and civilians. That is why survivors need psychological help, to deal with their internal demons. The myth of a sinless/meritorious war can retard this healing process by denying the existence of psychological wounds. The end result can be soldiers and civilians with festering psychological wounds of war. This can be particularly deadly given that a majority Sinhala army will continue to have a visible, dominant presence in the north and the east, inhabited largely by Tamil survivors of the war. Since the new commonsense denies the very existence of an ethnic problem (thus ruling out the possibility of a just political solution), a new vicious circle rather than reconciliation awaits a Rajapaksa Sri Lanka.