Colombo, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance

A friend of the regime

The first Rajapakse I knew, closely related to the current President, was from over ten years ago, in a different country at a time when the Executive of the day had begun a war for peace campaign that was also sold as the only way in which peace could be achieved and soon.

We were both undergraduate students in the same University though in different colleges. He kept an immaculately clean apartment, tastefully furnished with a well appointed kitchen which always harboured the delicious promise of homemade Sinhalese food. We worked closely together on many projects. He was precise, sensible, quick witted and reflecting back on his nature, essentially a political animal in training. I realize now why I was then attracted to that which he embodied and represented. At its most basic was an effortless Southern hospitality that he exuded, the equivalent of xenia, the Greek concept loosely translated as hospitality, or generosity and courtesy shown by a host to those who visit. In him and through him was the comfort and attraction of kinship, of a strong and shared Southern Sinhala identity and a sense of belonging, of course rendered more immediate and real by the fact that we were both in a foreign land, far from home.

I look back now and find it ironical that my introduction to politics was through a Rajapakse though I realise that what I saw in and through my erstwhile friend were prescient markers of so much of what defines the essential relationship between the Southern voter and the incumbent President and his government. Fundamentally, the appeal of Mahinda Rajapakse is that his messages are simply powerful. The idiom of Sri Lankan politics today is a battle between patriots and pariahs, a lexicon exclusively defined and used extensively by the President and his brothers. Using a language of hate and harm and often in Sinhala, they promote a simple message – supporting their war on terror is patriotic and the right, sensible thing to do. Opposing it is to support the terrorists and terrorism, which should and will be dealt with extreme prejudice. Tamils are our friends, but they can’t really be trusted and must be held in check. Occasionally and not without a measure of some violence, they must be reminded that their fate lies in the hands of Sinhalese munificence.

Put up or shut up. And there’s the rub.

There’s no real debate or engagement possible with this visceral logic, because it is impregnable, exceedingly intolerant of critiques and as extreme as that which drives the damnable violence of the LTTE. Yet, it is also the fundamental appeal of this President who is now a mirror image of the bunkered Sun God in the North, which I find is particularly telling of the societies that gave rise to and legitimized them both. This appeal lies not only in the man’s personal charm, but in the idea he represents and articulates to a Southern constituency. It is a promise, never delivered yet always portrayed as imminent, of a return to peace and of a Sri Lanka harmonious and prosperous sans the LTTE. It is an existentialist argument of a return to stability and security, deeply resonant in an essentially anxious and fearful Southern polity and society. Tilling muddy fields in a hitched up sarong, stepping into Kfir cockpits, standing amidst the machinery of war after the liberation of the East, speaking in Sinhala at the UN, an audience with Shah Rukh Khan, television appearances simulcast on multiple channels where he expounds his Chintanaya and the ever present threat of terrorism that must, at all costs, be defeated – these and more are cumulatively a performance spectaculaire designed to appeal to the lowest common political imagination of the Southern constituency.

Thing is, it works and how!

I went into some detail about my memories of the only Rajapakse I have known personally because it helps one understand to a degree why who they are and what they say finds a receptive audience, at least for the moment, in the South – a constituency that will continue to support them and their self-styled war on terror. This war (that I have repeatedly said is not in my name) is waged with a vengeance because its ultimate objective, implicit in so much of what the President and his government does and says, is more than just the complete eradication of the LTTE – it is to establish a totalitarian Sinhala, Buddhist regime in the guise of a benevolent dictatorship which does not want to kill you, but will in an instant if you question it too much. It is essentially that which the JVP sought to establish, the JHU would love to see and the UNP today is powerless to prevent the establishment of. I was over a decade ago attracted to the rhetoric and image of a Rajapakse in precisely the same manner as many today are convinced their President holds the key to peace. It is an easy trap to fall into. Recently, I spoke with a leading and committed Sinhala civil rights activist who immediately after an audience with the President was so completely charmed that the person wanted me to tone down and delay the release of a rather strong statement I had drafted against the regime at the time. It was a stark reminder that dislodging this government from power is a formidable task. Further, that my own parents have always voted for the SLFP or JVP and are staunch supporters of this President is a valuable reference point. Though I have weaned myself away from the regressive and exclusive nationalism they believe and I grew up in, I find that I am as much a stranger to them as I am to the rest of polity and society in the South that today continue to support this regime despite the fact that nothing they can and will ever do will bring peace to Sri Lanka.

How really can one deal with this phenomenon of a reprehensible regime legitimised by a population that violently alienates those in opposition to it? This administration in two years has manipulated public opinion to such a degree that everything and everyone is part of an all consuming, omni-present war – from the garbage-man to the CEOs of our largest conglomerates, one is with it or against it. This is because Mahinda Rajapakse’s skill lies in the adept manipulation and stoking up of fringe Sinhala Buddhist radicalism fuelled by his own dynastic aspirations, completely overwhelming the growth of a tolerant, inclusive and progressive civic nationalism in the South. By doing so, this President has beguiled us into a sense of security and safety when in fact there is none to be found or gained through what he has done or proposes to do.

I note that there is often a clarion call for regime change from within or without in many articles by political commentators today. I fear that neither is forthcoming soon or in the near future. Our greater test is to endure what we have brought upon ourselves and for a few of us at least, to continue to write against not a war, but more importantly, an attitude and mindset that will not bring us closer to peace and also exacerbate the root causes that gave rise to the violence that bedevils our progress today. Jayadeva Uyangoda writing recently said that Sri Lanka’s ethnic war has now reached a point beyond redemption. It can only escalate, escalate and escalate. Some of us might not even be around to record and comment on the outcome of it. In my mind, what is more important than whether we are around or not to see the outcome of this current phase of Sri Lanka’s tryst with war is what we say, do and write here and now, that serve as a vital record for posterity. If we are silent, this regime would have won.

My erstwhile friend, himself of the Rajapakse clan, will understand. After all, it is he who taught me to believe in what I do and say and in spite of all odds, to persevere, because our time will come.

Published in the Daily Mirror, 24 November 2007.