Overdosed With Nationalism

"According to US officials, Bin Laden was accorded Islamic final-rites, and buried at sea. This disposal attempts to balance two critical considerations: not inciting Islamic ire unnecessarily and preventing the grave from becoming a shrine. The Rajapaksas felt only the second compulsion and not the first, because for them, Tamil opinion does not matter."
by Tisaranee Gunasekara

“The poison is everywhere….nobody is immune to its effects”.
— Victor Klemperer (The Language Of The Third Reich)

(May 08, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) According to a CNN poll, the majority of Americans want the post-mortem photographs of Osama bin Laden to be made public. Yet President Obama decided against it. “We don’t trot out this stuff as trophies”, he told CBS; “This is not who we are”.

When Velupillai Pirapaharan was killed, the Rajapaksa administration released his post-mortem pictures/video-footage. Pirapaharan’s body was ‘discovered’ fully clad in the Tiger-uniform and that was how it was ‘displayed’ initially. But in subsequent photos the corpse was bare, except for a loin-cloth. Obviously some of our servicemen had stripped the dead Tiger leader. And the regime saw nothing wrong either in this viciously vengeful act or in making the results public.
This is who we are?

Our ‘reason’ for releasing the post-mortem photographs/videos was to convince the world that Pirapaharan is indeed dead. The same compulsions are present in Bin Laden’s case. Yet, President Obama decided not to release any pictures, because, besides the ethics of it, doing so could become ‘an incitement to additional (anti-American) violence’. Republican House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers put it better: “Imagine how the American people would react if Al Qaeda killed one of our troops or military leaders and put photos of the body on the internet”, (CBS News – 4.5.2011).

There are American politicians who think it is permissible (even patriotic) to gloat over gory post-mortem photos of Bin Laden. Such as Sarah Palin who tweeted, “show photos as warning to others seeking American destruction. No pussy-footing…” (ibid). Fortunately for the US, at this defining moment, the Oval Office is occupied not by a Palin-type but by Obama, who, soon after the 9/11 attack, wrote, “The essence of this tragedy….derives from a fundamental absence of empathy on the part of the attackers: an inability to imagine or connect with the humanity and the suffering of others. Such a failure of empathy…is not…unique to a particular culture, religion or ethnicity” (quoted in The New Yorker – 2.5.2011).
Obama knew that he and his nation are fallible. The Rajapaksas think they are infallible and that the nation can do no wrong so long as it obeys them.
According to US officials, Bin Laden was accorded Islamic final-rites, and buried at sea. This disposal attempts to balance two critical considerations: not inciting Islamic ire unnecessarily and preventing the grave from becoming a shrine. The Rajapaksas felt only the second compulsion and not the first, because for them, Tamil opinion does not matter.

Pirapaharan (like Bin Laden) treated his enemies, dead or alive, atrociously. But we are not supposed to be like him. His death gave us an excellent opportunity to demonstrate this difference – as Obama did – and we did the opposite. Is it surprising that two years after his demise, we, as a country, seem to be imitating many of his insalubrious ways?

Many Americans publicly celebrated Bin Laden’s death. But President Obama did not join the partying-crowds. Barring an economic disaster, Obama will win a second presidential-term. But he will not incarcerate his army commander (even if the latter is the Republican presidential candidate) nor seek to amend the constitution to enable a third term (and more). He will retire with honour and dignity intact, and without risking his country’s future to ensure his own.


Nationalism is a potent drug which needs to be imbibed in moderation. Velupillai Pirapaharan was a Tamil nationalist of the immoderate sort. His fall was caused not by a paucity of nationalism but by a surfeit of it.

Pirapaharan’s brand of nationalism was premised on an ‘us vs. them’, ‘if you are not with us unconditionally, we are against you unequivocally’ worldview — a mindset which turned friends into un-sympathisers and created enemies where none existed. His insistence on subjugating every consideration to the Eelam-cause and his absolute intolerance of other varieties of Tamil nationalisms depredated the ranks of friends and multiplied the ranks of enemies. Equating Eelam with himself, he caused it to share his demise.

The Rajapaksa-engineered outburst of patriotic-hysteria over the Darusman Report reached a new ‘high’ (i.e. overdose) on International Workers Day (degraded into another Rajapaksa Day). The UPFA demonstration showed that in Rajapaksa eyes, Sri Lanka’s enemies are legion, from the US President and the UN Secretary General downwards. Our gallery of friends include Muammar Gaddafi, who treated Libya as a family-fief for 40 years, and is immersing his people in a vortex of blood to gain a few extra days in power.

Excess seems to be in the very air we breathe. At the Royal College Prize Giving, President Rajapaksa introduced this contagion into the arts by proclaiming that “songs disgracing the country could help those who want to divide the motherland” (Daily Mirror – 3.5.2011). Will there be patriotic and anti-patriotic songs, books, movies and dramas, the former to be fostered and the latter to be ‘discouraged’? Will self-censorship become the norm in the arts as it is in the media?
Pirapaharan took Lankan Tamils into that joyless, vapid and uniform purgatory, in the name of nationalism/Eelam.

The cacophony against the Darusman Report is drowning out the death throes of Lankan democracy. The soon-to-be-retired Chief Justice Asoka de Silva told the BBC that Sri Lanka needs a system in which one person does not have the ‘discretionary powers’ to make top judicial appointments. The 17th Amendment removed this ‘discretionary power’ but it was “re-established by the 18th Amendment”, he admitted. Talk about trying to close the stable door, having helped the wild horse to escape!

The pernicious effects of the 18th Amendment is evident, for instance, in the near-vegetative state of the Bribery Commission. An independent Bribery Commission was one of the democratising institutions included in the 17th Amendment. The 18th Amendment turned the Bribery Commission too into a Presidential-appendage. Today, the Bribery Commission “is unable to begin any new investigation into complaints that had been filed as the three-member Commission had not been appointed…” (Daily Mirror – 3.5.2011).

In 2010, government debt went up by 10.3% while non-concessional debt-stock increased by 55% (due to a spike in commercial loans). Post-war, defence costs are high and will remain so, given the regime’s determination to garrison the North and the South. According to the Army Commander, “the government would import more pre-fabricated buildings to set up permanent bases in the Northern and Eastern Provinces and in other parts of the country….. So far 984 pre-fabricated buildings had been put up and a further 1542 pre-fabricated buildings would be installed soon” (The Island – 12.4.2011). In the meantime, the regime will disqualify any university entrant refusing to attend ‘leadership training’ by the military in army camps.

Ultimately for Velupillai Pirapaharan, Tamil nationalism was the means to an end, that of Tiger Eelam under his sole-rule. For the Rajapaksas too, the war was a means to an end: Familial Rule and Dynastic Succession. After all, if this is really about nationalism/patriotism, why cannot the President include Gen. Fonseka among the prisoners he will be pardoning to commemorate the 2,600th Buddha Jayanthi?

Tell a Friend