Colombo, End of war special edition, Human Rights, Human Security, Identity, Jaffna, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Polls, Post-War

Dungeons are also peaceful: Enduring uncertainties in post-war Lanka

Is the world coming unhinged? In Spain a judge is on trial for a technicality relating to his attempts to go after war crimes committed by Franco’s fascist regime. The Sri Lankan government’s close buddy the Burmese guerilla dictatorship in preparation  for the election, Burmese style, has forced Suu Kyi’s NLD into dissolution. Panama’s ex-dictator Noriega having done 17 years in US prisons for drug trafficking has been extradited to France to face money laundering charges and possibly an additional prison term. Meanwhile prosecutors in Panama, where his most execrable crimes were perpetrated still await him – pity if the monster dies in a French prison. At home President Rajapakse assigned ministerial oversight of the media to Lanka’s equivalent of a Nazi storm trooper and then had to climb down. It is Jabawockery everywhere! Can you make sense of all this or is it, all round, “ineffable, effable, effanineffable, deep and inscrutable singular (shame)?

The war is over, you will say; there is peace, at least in the sense that armed conflict, air raids, artillery, suicide bombs, and state and LTTE terrorism have subsided. That’s good is it not? Yes that’s true – I will not touch on whether war crimes lie strewn along the way; I have already had my say. “Then what’s eating you?” you will ask. “I have little confidence in the future” I will respond. Or to be a little colourful: The government’s persistent assault on democracy is breeding the next generation of Prabaharans and Wijeweeras. Rousseau was more sensational: “There is peace in dungeons, but is that enough to make dungeons desirable?” Hang on, this is getting lurid; let’s start again at the cold-blooded analytical end.

What is war victory?

There are contradictory opinions in circulation re the significance of the end of the LTTE. Let me recount four.

a)     The Sinhala nationalist narrative: A terrorist monster that was devastating mother Lanka has been annihilated. Everything is ok now. Tamil problem! What Tamil problem? There is nothing left to worry about. Devolution, what devolution? The bloody Indians and the imperialist West, having failed to defeat our brave soldiers on the battlefield, are now planting political rot on the inside. Never! The people have spoken and given our great leader a huge mandate to do Chintenaya; he must not overstep one centimetre ‘Tamilwards’.

b)    The Left-Liberal interpretation: Historically the LTTE was born of unfairness to Tamils under the jackboot of the Sinhala State. It too then foolishly responded with war and terror and dug its own grave; in any case Thmil Eelam was fantasy. The destruction of the LTTE leaves the Tamils forlorn. The government will take no notice hereafter; Rajapakse ain’t gonna “give” them nothing, and there’s bugger all they can do about it. Meantime the regime exploits bigotry spurred by electoral and war victory to cement dictatorship.

c)     The lament of the Tamil separatists, mostly in the diaspora: The Sinhala State with Delhi’s backing subjected the Tamil people to genocide and consolidated the hegemony of Sinhala-Buddhism. The struggle for a separate state is not over; Eelam referenda in the diaspora, trans-national contraptions, and pressure on Western governments are ways of keeping the flag flying.

d)    Lankan McCarthyism: Senator McCarthy saw a red under every bed and hounded every radical voice in America. One arm of the Lankan regime, despite war victory, shrieks of perpetual terrorism and craves to hang “traitors” as a short cut to silencing dissenting voices

These and other intermediate hypotheses throw different light on the same reality in the perception of different actors. The Sinhala nationalist narrative is cosseted with state power hence hegemonic and will prevail for now. Hitler and Mussolini’s final step in the accession to power was facilitated by electoral victories and greeted by rapturous crowds. It was not internal dissent but external intervention, the incredible horrors of war, death and destruction that unseated that mandate. This is a chilling thought; in Lanka an electoral landslide on the heels of war victory is a continuum, a process, a pointer to the consolidation of dictatorship.

May 2010 is not just the first anniversary of war victory; it is also the first month of consolidation of that victory in massive electoral mandates affirming that victory. I must repeat; war and the electoral mandate form a continuum, a single process. The mandate rejects an equal relationship with the minorities and reflects the will of the Sinhala people; let’s face it, let’s not be ostriches. Democratic and civil society spaces have suffered a crushing contraction. I do not use the term civil society in the petty NGO sense; I use it as in eighteenth and nineteenth century enlightenment political discourse; civil society is the wide public space, distinct from the state on one side, and the private space of the family on the other.

Girding up for the long road

The Left-Liberal voice is the cry of a moral and rational interlocutor, but for now a muted voice; for how long I cannot tell. If dictatorship consolidates whether it can be reversed by internal (national) processes alone is moot, but what needs to be done by homo-democraticus in the present conjuncture is unambiguous.  The watchwords are patience, consciousness building and public education. In the old days it used to be called educating the masses, sounds patronising but it is true.

Tens of thousands of people are involved in networks of patronage and corruption; willing partners, their mind-set limited. Millions more have grown indifferent, prefer ignorance or benefit from crumbs. Social ethics are in decline, moral apathy is customary, and Lankan society exists in a condition of anomie. This is not an injustice inflicted on a good people by corrupt and power hungry politicians and venal and inefficient bureaucrats. No, that is not the whole picture. The people are themselves involved in the game; partners willingly inducted into an ambiance of corruption, power abuse and patronage.

Political practices need appropriate terms to denominate them. Caciquism though not a common word is a timely acquisition in our political lexicon. It is a system of rule by local political bosses mainly government party MPs, and other hangers on. Previously I have compared our regime, within a Marxist reading, to Marcos type authoritarianism, crony capitalism, and patron-client relationships. These are valid but miss what is distinctive about the Lankan case; we are moving in the direction of a populist elected dictatorship flourishing in symbiosis with a network of regional claques who have made politics a business, a business to reap profits and usurp civilian power. Politics has become the most lucrative business in town; caciques soak sleaze like moose in rut wallow in pheromone laden urine pits. The cacique stabilises a local power base, delivers votes, plasters walls, battles covetous competitors and leads the masses in hosannas.

Challenged by uncertain outcomes in the aftermath of triumph in a race war, a landslide mandate for elected dictatorship and a packed rubber stamp parliament the patient long term project of the Left and Liberal alternative has to be patient pluripotent mobilisation; I have borrowed the word from modern genetics. Every mammal starts as a single cell which multiplies into a small group of embryonic stem cells, pluripotent cells with the potency to develop into livers, kidneys, muscles – even the evil brains of fascists. The pluripotent re-education and conscience building tasks facing the independent left and democratic liberals needs patience; they must hang in for the long haul. It has to be pluripotent in that there will be a variety of challenges not now foreseeable and response must be imaginative and flexible.

An organisation calling itself the Coffee Party movement has appeared in the USA in opposition to the wacky Tea Party movement. It is an interesting group had has already gathered a following of 200,000 fed up with the nutters, racists and reactionary dinosaurs who characterise the American far right. What is interesting is that the Coffee Party is a de novo example of pluripotent political consciousness building and grass roots mobilisation. Not aggressive mobilisation in the sense of street warfare but rather raising people’s awareness, and encouraging the concerned and the willing to intervene. The keywords of the Coffee Party are “coming together of concerned, intelligent citizens who are tired of angry rhetoric” and “all political persuasions joining in a spirit of equanimity to discuss the nation’s problems” (Newsweek 3 May 2010).

Of course an America based model cannot be copied for Lanka but in a very broad way there is something to think about; how to take a step back and understand caciquism, how to take a long view to pluripotent cooperation of concerned citizens of all persuasions. I am convinced that the time has come to discard dated ideological garments and spurn obsolete organisational mantras that we have been slaves to for half a century; time to think afresh, time to think lateral.

End of War Special Edition