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Democracy and Dynasty –Part 02



II – Going the Tiger Way

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

“This might happen any day
So be careful what you say
Or do”.
WH Auden (The Two)
- Link to Part One

(January 26, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Yet another senior journalist has come under attack, just two weeks after the killing of Lasantha Wickramatunga. Early Friday morning, Upali Tennekoon, editor of the Sinhala weekly Rivira, was waylaid while on his way to work and assaulted by four men on two motorcycles. The President ordered an investigation, once again. Tennakoon is not a critic of the government or a figure of controversy; consequently the attack on him has immeasurably strengthened the feeling that no journalist is safe. This incident will worsen the climate of fear in the media, prompting increased self-censorship and greater restraint. This heightened sense of caution is already in evidence, with even Sirasa/MTV toning down its criticism of the regime drastically.

Democracy would be rendered meaningless without a media free to write about topical issues and public concerns, from the war to corruption, from cost of living to abuse of power. In Sri Lanka there is a growing sense that it is not safe to write on certain topics and comment on certain people. Creating a fear psychosis within the media community is a far more effective way of impeding free flow of information to the public; that way the media can be rendered toothless without recourse to formal laws and orders. The recalcitrant few can then be dealt with in a manner that serves as an example to others. The shell of democracy is kept intact, sans any real rights or freedoms, perhaps the most effective way of transmogrifying a flawed democracy into a familial oligarchy.

This tendency was evident in the now notorious interview given by Presidential sibling and Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse to the ITN; in it he blatantly threatened to imprison a senior media manager who had irked him: “I saw on the CNN news that someone from the Sirasa organisation said there was a claymore mine; that this (attack) was done by the state; (he asked) if Killinochchi can be captured why cannot the investigations succeed. I know the person who spoke. He is a terrorist. He is a person with terrorist connections… At this moment Sirasa is the Voice of Tigers…. As we are winning now they have become desperate. Now the Tigers are losing the war, they are seeking public sympathy… And they want to claim insurance…. That is why they set fire to Sirasa…. Once the investigations have proven (this) I will put in jail this person who spoke to the CNN” (Interview with the ITN – 16.1.2009). The Defence Secretary’s ‘off with their heads’ (the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland) type of outburst makes a mockery of the regime’s professed commitment to media freedom; it is both symbolic and symptomatic of the degree of intolerance permeating this administration.

Moral slides do not happen in a flash. They are gradual and almost always begin with abnormalities which seem insignificant in the general order of things and therefore easily excusable, explainable or forgettable. Initially when such abnormalities happen, their very abnormal nature is reassuring; if these are the exceptions to the rule then the rule, by definition, must be their diametrical opposite. But exceptions to the rule, when they pile up beyond a certain point, cease being exceptions and become the new rule – the same way quantity turns into quality. Moral slides need to be arrested in their infancy, before they progress from mere snowballs into elemental avalanches.

The Psychology of Intolerance

Intolerance was in the Tigers’ blood. For the LTTE, the right and the wrong have been crystal clear – its way is the right way, always, every time; and any departure from that right way is wrong. Any Tamil who did not agree with the LTTE completely, wholeheartedly, is nothing but a traitor and would be treated as such. Initially this credo was implemented sparingly, on an individual basis, because the LTTE was not powerful enough to impose its will on Tamil polity and society. Before it could have its way, it had to prove itself, as the most effective of the many armed groups, thereby gaining a measure of hegemony within Tamil society. As the 1980’s wended its way, the Tigers did gain in strength, steadily building up a reputation for military prowess. And as it demonstrated its ability to take on the external enemy (i.e. the Lankan Forces) the LTTE also felt more able to deal with the internal enemy, the enemy within, the non-Tiger Tamil groups and non-Tiger Tamils.

For the LTTE, Eelam is non-negotiable, the only possible ‘solution’ (The Tigers have no objections to helpful ceasefires and useless negotiations but they were never serious about a political solution to the ethnic problem as that would have rendered the Eelam goal superficial). In the eyes of the LTTE it was the only real liberation movement, since no other groups considered the Eelam goal to be non-negotiable. It believed that the other groups would be willing to make a deal with either the Lankan or the Indian state, to settle for something less than Eelam. Given their total commitment to Eelam, the equation of Tigers with Tamils seemed axiomatic, at least to the Tigers. By the same token, any criticism of the LTTE was a criticism of the Tamil cause; any opposition to the LTTE was opposition to the Tamil cause. Consequently all other groups were traitors (past, present or future), making any action taken against them (including murder) justifiable, in the Tiger ethos.

The annihilating assault on the TELO on the May Day of 1985 symbolised a new stage in the Tamil liberation struggle. From then on the LTTE would move inexorably to eradicate the space between anti-Tiger and anti-Tamil, treating all opponents of the LTTE as traitors to the Tamil cause. The LTTE imposed a new axiom: all real Tamils are Tigers and only Tigers are real Tamils. The national community thus became progressive narrowed and monolithised. From now on there could be only one representative for Tamils and that sole representative was the LTTE. The will of the people became reborn as the will of a single group and then the will of the Leader. Liberation of a nation became subsumed in the deification of one man.

It was no accident that one of the first victims of the LTTE’s intolerant creed was the popular principal of St. John’s College, Jaffna, Chelliah Anandaraja. He was shot by the Tigers for organising a cricket match between Jaffna schools and the Lankan Army during the Thimpu ceasefire. This was enough to make him a traitor deserving of death in the LTTE’ eye, despite the role he played as a member of the Jaffna Citizens Committee in protecting Tamil civilians from the Lankan state. Nor did the Tigers care about resultant loss of public support. They knew that such losses were only temporary; a few successful ambushes targeting the Lankan Forces and the lost public support could be regained. The risk was thus worth it, because it removed an independent activist from the scene, someone who had his own ideas and used his own judgements rather than adhering brainlessly to Tiger ideas and dictats.

The as yet raw memory of Black July was what made such gambles possible and indeed viable. Those memories were reinforced by the regular targeting of civilian Tamils by Lankan Forces during the First Eelam War. Most Tamils had either experienced these horrors first hand or knew someone who has done so. The anger was such even the targeting of Sinhala civilians was excused or approved. raw. The overarching aim was to win as many battles against the Lankan Forces. And in this the Tigers were ahead of other groups. This made many Tamils support the Tigers and excuse their crimes and excesses, both against fellow Tamils and civilian Sinhalese. The willingness on the part of Tamils to tolerate the intolerable increased significantly with the successful conclusion of the LTTE war against the IPKF. They did not realise the nature of the quid pro quo the Tigers were imposing on them. The LTTE would take on the Lankan Forces; in return the Tamils were expected to consent to a downgrading – from second class citizens to servile subjects. Their loyalty, their patriotism will be measured by the extent and level of their servility. Unquestioning obedience was the new norm. The understandable desire for revenge made almost an entire community blind to the nature of the horror it was fostering within itself.

The Myth of the Infallible Leader

The transformation of the relationship between Tigers and Tamils was accompanied by an equally critical transformation within the LTTE – the metamorphosis of Vellupillai Pirapaharan from first among equals to undisputed leader to Sun God; from Thambi to Annai to Suriya Thevan. Indian Journalist Anita Pratap in her book Island of Blood comments on the camaraderie that existed between Pirapaharan and other senior Tigers in the early years (“they would giggle and whisper among themselves like schoolboys in a locker room”). But when she visited the Tiger chieftain during the Second Eelam War, he was no longer Thambi, not even to Anton Balasingham; “everybody now referred to him as Annai… Associates did not banter with him, they spoke only when spoken to…. Nobody giggled anymore” (ibid).

In the first years there was some room at the top level of the LTTE for diverse opinions. But this steadily eroded, as the myth of Pirapaharan’s infallibility gained ground. The fate of Mahattiya (Gopalasamy Mahendraraja) was portentous was in this regard. Mahattiya was Pirapaharan’s trusted lieutenant, his handpicked second-in-command. He headed the Tiger delegation which took part in the first ‘peace process’ with the Premadasa administration. Mahattiya had been impressed by Premadasa’s commitment to a peacefully negotiated settlement. Consequently he was unhappy about Pirapaharan’s decision to break off the ceasefire and commence the Second Eelam War. Mahattiya was arrested; he was tortured and killed some months after Premadasa was assassinated by a Black Tiger. No schism, no internal rebellion resulted from the way Mahattiya was treated. Even Mahattiya did not put up a fight but succumbed to the will of Pirapaharan. Mahattiya’s blood consecrated Pirapaharan as the God-Leader; from that point loyalty to Eelam was measured by not by loyalty to the LTTE but by loyalty to Pirapaharan.

An infallible organisation led by an infallible leader cannot engage in any soul searching or self criticism. Nor can it tolerate any criticism or dissent from without. Such criticism is wrong by definition and if the critics do not see the error of their ways and cease their opposition, they become enemies, to be dealt with accordingly. The Rajapakse administration is moving in the same direction. It has been more successful in the war against the LTTE than any previous administration. This is partly due to extraneous reasons such as the Karuna rebellion; but it is also because of the regime’s single-mindedness, its willingness to go beyond certain parameters, unlike its predecessors. Like the Tigers, the Rajapakse administration is ready to do anything to win. And like the LTTE it is imposing a quid-pro-quo on the country – democracy for victory. The assassination of Lasantha Wickramatunga is a significant milestone in this process of subverting and dismantling the democratic system from within.

To be continued.
- Sri Lanka Guardian

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