Sri Lanka: A 'democracy' which equates opposition with treachery is an autocracy.

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Sri Lanka Guardian

“War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength.” - George Orwell (Nineteen Eighty-Four). Thus begins the Rajapakse era, with the arrest of Gen. Sarath Fonseka. I did not and do not consider Sarath Fonseka to be a hero, any more than I consider Mahinda Rajapakse and Gotabhaya Rajapakse to be heroes. Still I believe Fonseka’s arrest should be a matter of gravest and most intimate concern to all those who value democratic freedoms, because it symbolises the conclusive triumph of a new political commonsense which equates Mahinda Rajapakse (and his brothers) with the country and thus damns any opponent of Rajapakse rule as an enemy of the nation. A democracy which equates opposition to the powers that be with treachery to the nation is no longer a democracy but an autocracy.

Fonseka’s arrest must be opposed with vigour and determination not because he was or is a hero but because his fate presages the fate of all those who oppose Rajapakse rule, however peacefully and democratically.

The arrest of Gen. Fonseka, not by civilian authorities but by the military police, is a measure of the Ruling Family’s determination to perpetuate its rule via a new constitution. The UPFA has to win the upcoming parliamentary election with a two thirds majority (or something close) or its chances of constitution making will evaporate.

Without a new constitution, the Rajapakse Family Oligarchy will not be able to survive beyond the second term of President Rajapakse. A disunited and enfeebled opposition is a sine qua non for this purpose. The Fonseka candidacy gave the Rajapakses an unexpected scare during the Presidential election. With him in the picture, the possibility of a UNP-JVP alliance to contest the parliamentary election cannot be ruled out; even if the two parties contest separately, Fonseka could act as a bridge between them, to ensure that there is some element of cooperation between them during the parliamentary election campaign. And a UNP-JVP alliance or even a degree of cooperation between them is a development the regime seems to regard with particular misgiving, as its propaganda clearly indicates. A natural reaction since a united opposition has a better chance of impeding the forward march of the Rajapakse Juggernaut than a fractured opposition, at war with each other as much as with the government.

Then there is the need to make an example of Fonseka, to make sure none follows in his footsteps, to give a lesson in obedience to other potential dissenters, especially within the SLFP. After all, Fonseka was the man, who together with Mahinda and Gotabhaya Rajapakse, ensured the defeat of the LTTE. Less than one year ago, he was the third or fourth most powerful man in Sri Lanka, a man with the power of life and death over mere mortals. If such a man can be arrested like a common criminal, what cannot happen to lesser beings who dare to go against the Rajapakse project? That is a lesson which will not be lost on many, including those within the SLFP who are unhappy with the Rajapakse yoke.

With Fonseka gone, the opposition is likely to fall back faster into its customary mode of lethargy and disunity. It is likely to run a lacklustre campaign and achieve an indifferent result. The ruling coalition will abuse state resources with a vengeance, aided by the newly supine Election Commissioner. Given such a context, the UPFA will be able to achieve a two thirds win or something close; whatever gap there is, will be filled by engineering some crossovers from the UNP.

And the path to a Rajapakse Constitution, a Constitution sans democracy or devolution, will open.

Hate Campaign

Fonseka’s arrest was preceded by a state sponsored campaign of vilification which is straight out of the ‘Two Minute Hate’ in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. The aim of the campaign, which commenced with the Presidential election and reached its nadir after the resounding victory of Rajapakse, was to turn a man, who rather less than a year ago was a patriotic hero to the absolute majority of Sinhalese, into a villain and a traitor. He was accused of named and unnamed crimes and compared with such figures of dread as Adolf Hiter and Idi Amin. The purpose of this carefully orchestrated propaganda effort, which mixed a pinch of truth with an ocean of lies, was to create a ‘hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness’ in the pro-Rajapakse populace. In the last few days, demonstrations organised by the SLFP were held in a number of provincial towns to proclaim ‘public’ hate towards Fonseka and to demand his immediate arrest for the heinous crime of opposing Rajapakse.

The effort seemed to have paid off, at least to some extent. When the Tigers killed President Premadasa, some SLFPer lit crackers, the logical conclusion of a hate campaign (permeated with coded casteism) conducted by the SLFP (in which a younger Mahinda Rajapakse, together with Mangala Samaraweera and SB Dissanayake, played a key role). When the news of Gen. Fonseka’s arrest became known some SLFPers lit crackers.

Premadasa did more for the development of this country and the betterment of the common people than any other leader previously or since. Fonseka played a key role in defeating the LTTE. Both became victims of a hate campaigns by the SLFP which convinced a large segment of the populace that they were primal enemies whose removal was vital for the safety of the nation.

According to media reports Fonseka is to be tried by a military tribunal. This would enable the government to minimise media scrutiny, especially by the international media. It will also enable his prosecutors to substitute theories and suppositions, canards and charges in place of solid proof – an absolute necessity since solid proof cannot exist when the charge is made of whole cloth (a la the Naxalite plot of 1982 which was used by President Jayewardene to enfeeble the opposition and win the Referendum). In any case, it is hard to believe that the politicised military of today will give a verdict other than the one expected by the political leadership. The only question is whether Fonseka will receive a long jail sentence or a death sentence (a technical possibility since he is likely to be charged with treason). Since Minister of Justice Milinda Moragoda, thoughtfully, brought back the death penalty, the possibility of Fonseka having to pay with his life for the crime of lèse majesté cannot be ruled out.

The King and Us

According to the political commonsense of the Rajapakse era, Mahinda Rajapakse (and his brothers) embodies the nation. This transforms opposition to the Rajapakse rule into an act of treason. In monarchies, acting against the person of the ruler was tantamount to acting against the country. Today Sri Lanka seems to be retrogressing to that pre-democratic and anti-democratic times, as a function of Rajapakse rule.

The regime may act in a hurry, to prevent the opposition from gathering its strength and to preclude international pressure. Since it is willing to face Western sanctions (the cost of which will be borne by the masses and not the rulers, like in Burma, Iran or Zimbabwe), the pressure the West can exert on the regime would also be limited. A military tribunal will not be subjected to any of the delays that is part and parcel of a normal civilian court. The fate of Fonseka may be settled in a matter of weeks rather than months, perhaps in time to strike fear into opposition parties and activists and prevent them impeding the triumphant march of the Rajapakse Juggernaut.

Fonseka’s arrest comes as a part of a multi-pronged effort by the Rajapakses to intimidate the opposition. The arrest of Lanka editor Chandana Sirimalwatte, the failed attempt to seal the Lanka paper, the sealing of the office of Lanka e news website and the disappearance of journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda (who worked for the website), the continuation of low key post-election violence and the strange metamorphosis of the Elections Commissioner from a principled bureaucrat to a willing man are all pointers to the future that is awaiting us, if the Rajapakses manage to embed themselves via a new constitution.

When the ruler is a king, there are no citizens; only subjects. And subjects are bound to obey the king unquestionably since monarchical infallibility was a belief that premised absolute monarchies. If we permit Rajapakse to have his way with Fonseka, we will be undermining our own basic democratic rights to speak, write and do, to support and oppose, in accordance with our ideas and beliefs. If we remain inactive, in the face of the unjust persecution of Fonseka, we will be cooperating with the Rajapakses’ effort to turn us from citizens with rights into subjects with duties. At this juncture of our history, we cannot fail Fonseka without failing ourselves. And if we do fail, like Orwell’s Winston Smith, we will deliver ourselves into the mind-killing embrace of our High King.

(February 09, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian)

By Tisaranee Gunasekara