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Extremism in Hard Times

| by Tisaranee Gunasekara

“….a society based on nothing but selfishness and greed is not a society at all, but a state of war of the strong against the weak”
Charles Simic (Bleak House – New York Review of Books - 16.10.2013)

( October 17, 2013, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Sri Lanka is becoming a hungrier place. According to the 2013 Global Hunger Index, Sri Lanka’s hunger-score is 15.6. This marks a worrying increase from the 2012 score of 14.4; it is also the highest hunger-score since 20071.

The Global Hunger Index is a composite of three computations critically important to the current and future wellbeing of a nation: Undernourishment2, Child Underweight3 and Child Mortality. For years, experts have been warning about unacceptably high rates of malnutrition in general and child-malnutrition in particular in Sri Lanka. Sadly these warnings were ignored by the regime.

The increase in Sri Lanka’s hunger-score is the direct outcome of this attitude of indifference - and a developmental strategy which ignores the interests/needs of the most vulnerable and powerless segments in society.

The leadership crisis of the UNP and the politico-ideological confusions within the JVP are preventing the opposition from attacking the government on its weakest flank – socio-economics. The increase in the hunger-score is a damning indictment of an administration which is planning to spend billions on an unproductive venture like the Commonwealth. Unfortunately the Opposition, with a few outstanding exceptions, seems unable to highlight such rice-and-curry issues, even in self-interest. The UNP is too busy tearing itself apart while the JVP is hugging its faded patriotic mantle and waiting, with myopic intensity, for another 1987.

The regime, putting its usual spin, dismissed child malnutrition as the result not of economic polices/political attitudes but lifestyle-choices: “Agricultural Minister Mahinda Yapa Abeywardana said according to a recent research finding, the most number of cases of malnutrition were reported from elite schools in Colombo, especially girls schools” 4. Clearly the Minister is unaware that the Child Underweight Index (which reflects wasting, stunted growth or both) is calculated using children under 5 years old and not school goers!

Juxtapose the Gotabhaya-mania for building exercise-walkways/jogging-tracks and the increase in the country’s hunger-score - and the Rajapaksa inability to grasp the actual, living Lankan reality becomes frighteningly obvious.

Governmental indifference and oppositional apathy is only a part of the problem. We, the society, too bear a burden of guilt. Child malnutrition has not become a national concern in Sri Lanka because the nation is not concerned about it.

Historian Tony Judt argues that ignoring the predicament of fellow citizens is not an ingrained habit but an acquired one: “This propensity to avoid moral considerations, to restrict ourselves to issues of profit and loss….is not an instinctive human condition. It is an acquired taste”5. The degree to which Lankans have succumbed to this execrable habit of unenlightened self-interest is obvious from our collective indifference not just to child malnutrition but to a host of equally deadly problems, from child rape/sexual abuse to environmental devastation.

Why was there was no outburst of public outrage in the Sinhala-South about the Weliweriya shooting? Fear alone cannot explain this lack of Sinhala indignation. Is it because the Fourth Eelam War had acclimatised us to the murder of unarmed people by ‘our’ soldiers?

Pastor Niemöller warned about the cascading effects of impunity. Is it applicable to the death of pity as well? Do we start off by not caring about Tamil children and end up by not caring about Sinhala children?

During the Final Eelam War, indifference to the suffering of others became transformed into a desirable moral quality, an indispensable mark of patriotism. A new politico-moral commonsense, which equated concern for civilian Tamils (including children) with treachery/pro-Tigerism, was injected into the Southern consciousness. Pity was criminalised, decency dismissed as weakness and conscience banished as unaffordable.

Today that unkind and immoral sensibility has transcended geographical and ethno-religious borders and is victimising Sinhala-Buddhists.

The Rajapaksas have imposed a militarised approach on matters economic. Development is seen as a series of battles waged by the patriotic government against economic enemies of the nation. In this ‘Humanitarian Operation’ too, there aren’t any civilian casualties. Those who claim to be victims – and those who claim that there are victims - are just ‘enemies of development’.

Since there are no economic victims, pity and consideration become unnecessary – and even illegal. The Rajapaksa Chief Justice has given a legal-cover for his political bosses’ rapacious economics by proclaiming that “no one should obstruct ongoing development programmes in Colombo…”6

Igniting Divisions

Benjamin Disraeli said that the laissez faire stage of British Capitalism created “two nations between who there is no intercourse and no sympathy….”7 That observation seems apposite for the Lankan condition as well. The Rajapaksa development is causing the under-development of a large – and a growing – segment of the populace. In order to mask this reality, the regime is stirring the cauldron of primordial identities.

If Lankan politics become distorted by ethno-religious overdetermination, again, public discontent over living conditions can be diverted away from the regime into to safer (and useful) channels.

Rajapaksa rule is thus fragmenting the country along class lines and ethno-religious lines.

According to media reports, the BBS is planning to re-launch the ‘anti-Halal war’ with a vehicle parade from its Colombo Headquarters to Kandy8. Will the regime, which has effectively blocked all peaceful protests in Weliweriya, permit this hate-mongering march to go ahead, inciting fear and venom along the way?

The government’s plan for tourism-promotion includes a drive to attract 100,000 Saudi tourists to Sri Lanka9. Will a single Saudi tourist come to Sri Lanka if the government bans halal products? The BBS cannot be too inane to understand this. If the ‘Halal war’ is reignited, it will be a diabolically hypocritical enterprise aimed at hoodwinking the Sinhala public into venting their anger on fellow Muslim citizens rather than on the Rajapaksas.

Decades ago, Abraham Kovoor warned that “in a democracy where the majority of people are blind believers in religions…hoaxers can carry on their trade of cheating with impunity”10. So can political leaders….

In August 2006, a rumour exploded, of halos emanating from Buddha statues. Life in the Sinhala-South came to a standstill as innumerable Sinhala-Buddhists converged on wherever a Buddha statue was to be found. Roads were clogged, flights delayed, radio and television began live coverage and newspaper headlines screamed, as the faithful waited expectantly to share in this miracle.

Rational voices were drowned out by a piercing superstitious cacophony.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa was reportedly ecstatic that the first halo was sighted in a temple in his very own Hambantota. Sinhala Buddhist hardliners hailed it as a divine signal presaging a victorious war against the LTTE.

Whether this three day ‘miracle’ was a spontaneous outbreak of mass-hysteria or a plot, engineered and implemented by the Siblings remains to be discovered. Whatever its provenance, the Rajapaksas exploited it to the maximum.

Religious extremism/superstition is an integral component of the Rajapaksa modus operandi. The Siblings will not hesitate to excite and incite the faithful, in order to strengthen their hold on power - even at the risk of creating new and deadlier faultlines in the already frayed fabric of Lankan society.

1 2011 -14; 2010 - 14.5; 2009 - 13.7; 2008 – 15 Source – Global Hunger Index
2 ‘The proportion of undernourished people as a percentage of the population’ - http://www.ifpri.org/sites/default/files/publications/ghi13.pdf
3 In Sri Lanka, the percentage of under-fives suffering from Stunting is 17, Wasting is 15 and Underweight 21 for the period of 2007-2011; by contrast the percentage of overweight children is just 1. http://www.unicef.org/media/files/nutrition_report_2013.pdf
4 http://www.dailynews.lk/local/malnutrition-abounds-elite-schools
5 London Review of Books – 17.12.2009
6 https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/no-mercy-for-shanty-dwellers-challenging-uda-from-de-facto-cj/
7 Sybil
8 http://www.srilankamirror.lk/news/11159-halal-war-in-a-new-phase
9 http://www.hirunews.lk/67121
10 Begone Godmen! Encounters with Spiritual Frauds