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The Land Of The Blind

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Stuck for ideas as their administration becomes increasingly bankrupt, the Rajapakses have taken to asking the Sri Lankan people to dig deep into their collective bosom and come up with some patriotic fervour to help offset the spiralling cost of living, rising unemployment, ubiquitous corruption and that long-forgotten ideal we used to call human rights. The idea of whipping up patriotic passion when in dire straits is not new: it is as old as the hills, and certainly as old as Rome, as told by Julius Caesar himself :

"Beware of the leader," said Caesar, "who bangs the drums of war in order to whip the citizenry into patriotic fervor, for patriotism is indeed a double-edged sword. It both emboldens the blood, just as it narrows the mind. And when the drums of war have reached a fever pitch and the blood boils with hate and the mind has closed, the leader will have no need in seizing the rights of the citizenry who, infused with fear and blinded by patriotism, will offer up all of their rights unto the leader and gladly so. How will I know? For this I have done. And I am Julius Caesar."

Mahinda Rajapakse may not be the most erudite politician this country has known, but even his worst enemy would concede that he is not altogether witless. Despite the economy collapsing about him thanks to unprecedented ignorance, waste and corruption of the crassest kind, he has single-mindedly prosecuted a military campaign that he says will solve the Tamil Question. While that remains to be seen, there can be no doubt that for a section of Sri Lanka's Sinhala majority (the folks who turned the page), the idea of whipping Tamil ass - excuse the metaphor: Hollywood's influence is everywhere - has taken precedence over all else. The idea that capturing the territory of the north and east, and subjugating its people to the iron boot of the central government's remit, has become the cornerstone of the Rajapakse Doctrine.

But as Karuna himself has now come to admit, the east is far from secure. With the TMVP deeply divided, the LTTE has again infiltrated the region, spawning a fresh wave of terror. And without a package on the table, the government cannot muster the moral authority to stamp them out, as they must be. According to Rajapakse, the government will spend Rs 170 billion in the coming year to wipe out the remaining 5,000 LTTE cadres: that is Rs 34 million per militant. It is difficult to imagine that if that colossal sum were to be offered to develop the north and east, with a credible package of reforms on the table, the Tigers would find themselves isolated and without popular support. And a lot of young servicemen would live to see their children and families again.

For all Velupillai Pirapaharan's bravado, there can be no doubt that the Sri Lankan armed forces can capture the north if they set their minds to it. Capturing territory, after all, is simply a matter of bombs and bullets, and with Rs 500 million being spent every day of the year towards that end, sooner or later the government will be able truthfully to claim that the north has fallen. That much is written, and no serious observer has questioned the inevitability of such an outcome should the war be prosecuted indefinitely at its present intensity.

The question we beg to ask is, What happens afterwards? Just like in the east, the government will have no choice but to establish a network of (Sinhala) security-forces encampments so as to ensure that the local Tamil population doesn't try any hanky-panky. If they do, we shall have to incarcerate them or shoot them. When we do, it is most unlikely that the rest of them will be content with pursing their lips and muttering unsavoury epithets under their breath. They will fight. And then we're all back to quadratio unis or, if you didn't take Latin at school, Square One.

For the scenario Mahinda Rajapakse sees for Sri Lanka's north is, quite simply, the same one he sees for the east: an occupied territory governed by a Quisling Tamil government. Au contraire, say we: that is merely a recipe for a new phase of disenchantment and violence. Rajapakse talks glibly of bringing militants into the democratic mainstream. Has he wondered for a moment just what the Tamils were doing since representational government was introduced in 1833, until Independence in 1948? They were in the mainstream. And despite some of their ablest and most moderate leaders having been part of that mainstream, 1958 and 1983 happened. And it was right under their noses that the Sinhala-only 'reforms' of 1956 happened. All this under a Sinhala leadership that was infinitely more centrist than Mahinda Rajapakse, whose favourite bedfellow nowadays is Champika Ranawaka, a man whose political ideals are well known to be slightly to the right of Genghis Khan.

Drive around the byways of Colombo and see for yourself the number of half-constructed multi-storey buildings, standing ghostly and abandoned, as if some grim hand had liquidated their builders. See for yourself how the advertising supplements of Sunday newspapers have fattened over the past year, with people scrambling to sell off their land, their cars, their wealth, just to make ends meet. And yet, listen to the leaders of the chambers of commerce purr reassuringly that all is well, congratulate the government on the budget and talk of blue skies tomorrow. In whose pocket, you wonder, do they nestle? Perhaps you spare a thought for the other newspapers you might read today, obediently beating the war drums and groping for words to fit the Rajapakse tune. How, you wonder, could they be so out of touch? And then you remember nearly everyone in Sunny Sri Lanka has their price, whether a contract to print exercise books or to sell weapons.

Speaking of which, what price the opposition, or what is left of it? At no time of national crisis could an opposition be more at odds with itself as ours is. So long has it been sitting on the fence that it is in imminent danger of developing haemorrhoids. The UNP is yet to decide whether or not it supports the government's military adventure. If it does, and its platform is identical to the Rajapakse-Ranawaka platform, its remaining 43 MPs may as well join the government and be done with it. If it does not, it had better be telling the people why. As it is, we see the UNP, in the guise of its spokesman, Tissa Attanayake, sending mixed and meaningless signals to its constituency. On the one hand it claims that there is no military solution, on the other, whenever the government announces a military success, it is out there congratulating the victorious, heroic armed forces. Somewhere along the way it lost the plot.

Thankfully, Mangala Samaraweera retains his fiercely independent fighting spirit. But for the looks of mute admiration and envy from his bedfellows in the UNP, however, his is a lone voice of reason in the wilderness. Samaraweera has taken to calling the bluff of the Rajapakse regime and the steady stream of fairytales it invents to assuage the concerns of the people. Listen to the Rajapakses, and the LTTE has been destroyed many times over. By amazing happenstance, the army captures key strategic targets to coincide with the army commander's extension, the President's birthday, the budget readings, and so on. Yet the UNP, like Mary's little lamb, follows mutely, clicking its heels and saluting at intervals. It is not for nothing that diplomats now refer to the UNP as Mangala's Dumb Chums. As for Samaraweera, he is coming to discover that in the UNP's land of the blind the one-eyed man is roundly disliked.

The UNP could well take a page from the book of Barack Obama who, having decided that the US presence in Iraq was wrong, made no bones about it. He ran a high risk but was able to swing the American voters to his side. The UNP, however, has opted for a 'wait and see' strategy, the hallmark of the coward. There is no moral justification for prosecuting this war in the absence of a credible response to the grievances and aspirations of Sri Lanka's minorities. And that response should come in the form of a package of constitutional reforms that will assuage the concerns minorities have that they are being excluded from the mainstream. Perhaps the most telling symptom of this ailment is the polarization of political parties by race.

Whichever way one chooses to slice Mahinda Rajapakse's attitude toward the ethnic strife that bedevils Sri Lanka, one saws through to a hard lump of bigotry at the core of the loaf. There is no novelty in that, for all presidents since J. R. Jayewardene have fallen into much the same error.

In 1983, even as his government presided over a breathtaking economic recovery, so acute was Jayewardene's myopia that he stood idly by as the island's Sinhala majority unleashed a pogrom of biblical proportions on the Tamil citizenry to avenge the deaths of 13 servicemen at the hands of the LTTE. It dawned only slowly on Jayewardene that by doing so he had shot himself in the foot. Ever since the pogrom of 1958, the Tamil community had been wary of its Sinhala brethren. Then, just 25 years later, Jayewardene made it abundantly clear that no lessons had been learnt; indeed, this time the violence was even more brutal.

Since then, 18 servicemen (give or take a few) have, on average, died at the hands of the LTTE every week. The Sinhalese have grown accustomed to this unrelenting attrition and no longer does a fallen soldier stir untoward emotion in the Aryan breast. As for the Tamils, in the name of reining in the LTTE, they have fallen victim to death by a thousand cuts. Those who could flee have fled; those who have money have bought or bribed their way to security; and those with neither - the preponderant majority - find themselves wedged between a rock and an exceedingly hard place.

Mahinda Rajapakse does not tire of telling the world that he and his Sinhala brethren have nothing against the Tamils. Indeed, it is a constant refrain that it was he who was first to address the UN General Assembly in Tamil. This, however, is about as empty as Chandrika Kumaratunga asking how her government could be accused of racism when her Foreign Minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar, was himself a Tamil. To be fair, the LTTE have not made it easy for Rajapakse. To start with, they have systematically decimated not only Sri Lanka's Tamil political leadership, but also the elite Sinhala leaders. With the A-team safely dead on both sides, it is the B-teams that now confront each other across the aisle of parliament. No surprise then, that there is a dearth of political imagination.

Rajapakse simply fails to see that his equation of the cause of Tamil liberation with the elimination of the LTTE simply will not wash. Indeed, it is no different from Sirimavo Bandaranaike equating the case for southern emancipation with the military elimination of the JVP in 1971. The causes of militancy need to be separated from the militants themselves. Sadly for Sri Lanka, this subtle but important distinction eludes Mahinda Rajapakse.

Today, Sri Lanka's Tamil community finds itself increasingly under suspicion. Tamil journalists are arrested and incarcerated on the flimsiest of pretexts. Tamil citizens must carry national identity cards in Tamil, immediately causing them to be singled out and harassed at security checkpoints. And the indignities are often even more pervasive. For example, when the security forces fought their way into Pooneryn last week, the government made this out to be an event comparable with the conquest of another country. It demanded that the country endorse its hysterical euphoria by displaying the national flag, sending a clear message to the Tamil citizenry that Sinhala troops had conquered the Tamil homeland. In many cases, Tamil's too, had to adorn their homes and businesses with the lion flag - now reduced to little more than a symbol of Sinhala supremacy - in order to avoid ostracism. But despite endless television appeals, the paucity of homes and offices that followed Rajapakse's dictates must have sent a message to the Brothers that at least some people in this country are alive to their bluff.

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