Elections, IDPs and Refugees, Media and Communications, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Post-War

Breaking the Piper’s charm

“Of all the pleasant sights they see, which the Piper also promised me. For he led us, he said, to a joyous land, joining the town and just at hand, where waters gushed and fruit-trees grew, and flowers put forth a fairer hue, and everything was strange and new.

– The Pied Piper by Robert Browning

Political commentators seem to have run out of superlatives when attempting to describe the leadership of President Mahinda Rajapakse.

Academics have joined the fray, falling over themselves to award him honorary degrees while Business Schools have attempted to analyse the crucial elements of his leadership style.

All are in agreement that his leadership is unprecedented in history and has no parallel elsewhere.

Even for keen observers of history it is difficult to identify a suitable mould from which, it may be assumed, the President may have been cast. It is only if we delve into the realm of fable that we find a parallel – that of the Pied Piper of Hamelin.

The essential elements of the story are the same – a plague of vermin, a desperate people, willing to try anything to rid themselves of the menace, a solution from a magician who later demands a price too high to pay and finally robs the townsmen of their future – their children – as the final price.

For many decades, Sri Lanka grappled with the plague of separatist violence. Through the years, there have been numerous vacillating attempts to resolve the conflict either by way of military solution or negotiated settlement. But until incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa decided to put all his eggs in one basket and go for a military victory there did not appear to be a political leadership genuinely resolute about a method to eradicate the LTTE once and for all. A desperate people worn out by years of conflict may have been willing to give this option a chance, not entirely unaware of the cost involved, to themselves and to the country.

And the Rajapaksa regime, master in the dark art of propaganda, crafted a story every bit as compelling as that of the brothers Grimm.

Building a case for a ‘just war’ was achieved by the simple measure of controlling information. As Nazi Propaganda Minister Dr. Goebbels once remarked: ‘He who runs the information, runs the show’.

First, access to the war zone was controlled. Very few journalists were allowed in, and the few that were, were limited to guided tours under the close supervision of the government. Any others who might spread information – aid workers, diplomats, politicians and the others were given similar treatment.

Aid workers had to make the ugly choice between serving the civilian population in the conflict zone under the strictures imposed by the government or abandoning them to their fate.  All those who took the risk and spoke out against alleged atrocities in the war zone, were promptly labeled Tamil Tiger Propagandists, had their visas revoked and faced deportation.

With these primary sources of information largely cut off, the regime then set about controlling what was published. A series of attacks on journalists took place, some were killed, others fled the country and many were silenced. Media houses were purchased outright by government affiliates. Television studios and presses were torched in extremely successful attempts to intimidate media outfits into submission.

To date, each of these attacks against scribes and media organizations remains unsolved. In some cases, government officials even spoke in favour of the attackers. One by one, independent journalists fell silent; dissenting voices were subdued and the media fell in line.

Thus a single consistent message emerged – the one which the state wished to convey.

The only discordant voices were the foreign media, diplomats and a few international agencies.

Playing to fears of neo-colonialism, a disingenuous interpretation of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and sinister international conspiracies, these could easily be dismissed on the basis that they were either biased, misled, or the manipulated by the Tamil Diaspora. Even as respected a figure as Bishop Desmond Tutu was all but called a terrorist in Sri Lanka’s local media when he called on the UN to protect civilians trapped in the conflict.

Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth, and so it did.

People wanted to rid themselves of the menace and were willing to believe that the methods used were just and necessary. With little to the contrary appearing, and that which did, demonised, the magician was able to weave a spell of intoxicating sound that cocooned the population from reality.

The masses became blind to what was going on and as to the price that was being extracted, slowly but steadily. A nation that was founded and nurtured by the teachings of the Buddha was willing to look the other way at the tremendous human cost of war. The state-controlled media, once scorned by a politically astute citizenry because of its intense political prejudice, became the primary source of public information on all matters of governance and war. The Pied Piper had them all mesmerised, glued to their televisions sets, day in and out, watching the‘humanitarian operation’ to ‘liberate’ an oppressed people and unify the country unfold in gory detail.

If all had gone according to plan, by the time the people would awaken from the spell cast over them, it would have been far too late. Indeed it would have been quite ironic if they found themselves consumed by the very thing – terrorism, albeit this time at the hands of the state – that their supposed saviour had delivered them from.

But fortuitously, the people of Sri Lanka may not yet have met their doom by the hypnosis of the Pied Piper.

The split in the triumvirate that led the Sri Lankan troops to victory over terrorism is now exposing parts of the truth. The government in response has pushed its propaganda machine into overdrive, while those who lent an intellectual framework to the government’s policies – columnists from Dayan Jayatillaka to Malinda Seneviratne have conspicuously ignored the real issues raised, but have focused instead on finding new arguments to support the incumbent. This is probably born of necessity, for it is inconceivable that they were completely ignorant of what went on-and in the event of the truth emerging would find their credibility greatly damaged.

Given the enormous advantage enjoyed by the incumbent and the inexperience of the challenger, it is by no means certain that the Piper will find himself ousted but while the spell is not yet broken, its power is clearly diminished. With two weeks to go before Sri Lanka goes to the polls, the opposition presidential challenger, chief architect of the government’s military victory, has made phenomenal inroads into the incumbent base, an unimaginable prospect a mere seven months ago.

In the meantime, the hills are alive with the sound of music as the beleaguered Piper plays the cadenza of his life.