Opinions

Swans, eagles, hammers, and sickles

 

By Thulasi Muttulingam

It’s that time of the year again – when major political parties pay particular attention to minority communities. Elections are around the corner – and our votes count. Time to dig up Wasim Thajudeen’s bones once again. As they already have.

Reminds me of a street theatre enactment I saw in Jaffna some five years ago.

“Oh, you have problems? We’ll solve it for you. Come to the mass graves. Dig up your loved ones’ bones.”

“Now bury them again.”

“Problem still not solved? We need your votes. Right, dig them up again.”

“Okay, now bury them again.”

“Those fellows were fooling you amma. We’ll solve it for you. Dig those bones up again.”

“Right, now our need for them is resolved. Bury them again.”

Who was it that came up with the adage, “you can fool some of the people all of the time, all the people some of the time, but not all of the people all of the time”?

Bury them too, along with that adage.

In Sri Lankan politics, all of the people are getting fooled all of the time – we have next to no choice but to wear the dunce cap, it would appear. The politicians dressed as court jesters are now performing somersaults for us. Of course they’ll reverse-flip right back to their original positions of performing an “up yours” to the common people, especially the minorities, once the elections are over. We know that too.

At the end, Vitharana told us that the Rajapaksas were going to sweep into power whether we wanted them to or not, so good luck to us. And then he stalked off in a seeming temper, because we hadn’t immediately bought into his narrative of how great the Rajapaksas would be again, for this country

So we, in the North, have been seeing some campaigns by the pro-Gotabaya camp on why we should vote for their candidate. It’s in our collective best interests it seems. Ha, sure.

Look – in terms of frying pans and fires, we minorities jumped out of the fire into the frying pan in the 2015 election. We have no choice but to hang on to that frying pan which burned us badly, as the alternative is worse still. Thank you very much.

LSSP stalwart in town

So Tissa Vitharana came to my neck of the woods – Jaffna – last week. He has apparently been coming regularly to campaign for the Rajapaksas, but this was the first time I attended one of his campaign events.

I had been led by media reports to think that the highly esteemed Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) stalwart was making sensible overtures to the Northern people using the seemingly benign moderation of the LSSP ticket that still holds good truck in Jaffna. I was dead wrong – rather, the media reports that I had been reading were dead wrong. He was abrasive and offensive – clearly, diplomacy is not one of his strong suits. With the kind of abrasive attitude he displayed, I don’t know how he hoped to convince any of us to vote for the mustachioed despot he was pushing on us as the antidote to American imperialism; the same despot who has just (as he claims) divested himself of American citizenship.

A case in point: Vitharana was going on and on and on about UNP atrocities against the minorities, and claimed it was the United National Party (UNP) and solely the UNP that was responsible for all such atrocities, including Black July in 1983.

I, therefore, asked about the unleashing of the likes of the Bodu Bala Sena without any seeming cause during the Rajapaksa premiership up to 2015 which had directly led to several anti-Muslim riots across various towns, with the main perpetrators never brought to book. Why, especially, was Gnanasara (I refuse to call him a monk or use the honorific “Ven.” in front of his name) never brought to book?

The professor’s answer was to pounce on me: “Have you ever called for a Hindu priest to be arrested?”

I tried to get a word in edgewise to explain that no Hindu priest I knew had behaved in any way similar to Gnanasara – and if any had, then yes, I would definitely call for their arrest too – but he just wouldn’t allow me to speak; he just kept snarling: “Answer my question. Did you ever call for a Hindu priest to be arrested?”

The answer was obviously, “no, I had never called for a Hindu priest to be arrested”.

“Ah, then don’t talk about why Mahinda Rajapaksa never arrested the monk Gnanasara. Buddhists venerate their monks the same way you Hindus venerate your priests.”

Just what kind of an answer is that? For the record, no, we Hindus do not venerate our priests to the extent that they can spearhead anti-ethnic pogroms and go unchallenged or unpunished. Most of his replies were in the same vein to the various Tamil people who had taken the time to attend his speech. He insisted on going off on long spiels, even in the question and answer session; monologues that didn’t answer our questions, making collective fools of us in the process; then, he also periodically accused us of slighting him by “interrupting” to tell him he was not addressing our questions.

At times, he even threatened to walk out of the building because we were slighting him with our continuous interruptions apparently. No one was rude to him though, in my estimation. They were just trying to point out, every time there was a lull in his long-winded monologues, that he was not addressing the questions asked of him and getting pounced on for their trouble.

I was actually surprised by how many people were taking a respectful stance with him, regardless. I was even more irritated when the meeting co-ordinator, the Manager of the Jaffna Managers’ Forum, told me at the end of one of my comments to the professor addressing some of his obfuscations, that I ought to remember to treat the esteemed professor with “respect” no matter what he said or did.

I had not yelled at him. I had not been disrespectful in any way. I had just addressed some of my concerns which weren’t enough to be warned off as being “disrespectful”.

The fact that they are Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists shouldn’t deter us as it’s not the same thing as racism, it’s patriotism apparently, the same way “you all are Tamil nationalists here”.

He made that statement repeatedly, which I found particularly offensive. No, we all are not Tamil nationalists here. I certainly am not one. And I take exception to being lumped in with that lot.

Nor is either Sinhala or Tamil nationalism as manifested here, patriotism. It’s racism, plain and simple.

Anyway, since he was going on and on a la Chomsky on the evils of neoliberalism and American imperialism which the UNP was in bed with and that therefore our only saviours were the SLFP in general and the Rajapaksas in particular, I put to him my personal position on this.

I told him that while I had nothing but contempt for the Maithripala Sirisena-Ranil Wickremesinghe stewardship of the current Government, I at least could criticise them in my writings and still live to tell the tale. No white vans currently shadow me.

I had been a journalist for five years under the previous regime where we journalists ourselves second-guessed every word we wrote – if we cared to live. I don’t care to live like that again, always assuming I get to live at all.

He obfuscated on that as well. “Oh, I don’t have the time to explain to you who were running the white vans. If you only knew…anyway, it had nothing to do with the Rajapaksas.”

Really? Just how large a dunce cap does the esteemed professor think we wear? We are used to politicians placing dunce caps at us, but this one threw down a huge cone that swallowed us whole.

It’s almost insulting how stupid he appeared to think we were.

Oh, and the Bodu Bala Sena brought up earlier had been Norway’s doing alone – the Rajapaksas again had nothing to do with them, although of course as good Sinhala-Buddhists, they wouldn’t even think of arresting the esteemed Gnanasara. How dare I even ask when I wouldn’t think to do the same to a Hindu priest?

At the end, he told us that the Rajapaksas were going to sweep into power whether we wanted them to or not, so good luck to us. And then he stalked off in a seeming temper, because we hadn’t immediately bought into his narrative of how great the Rajapaksas would be again, for this country.

Building on fears

He could have sold it better. There are Tamils here too who share his anti-American imperialist views as well as pro-economic efficiency, which, whatever said and done, the Rajapaksas did do better than this current ramshackle Government. But he chose to negate or obfuscate our every raised point of concern – valid concerns for our own wellbeing and safety as Tamils and minorities – and he did it incredibly undiplomatically. And so, I for one as a voter will still be hanging on to that frying pan, thank you very much.

The fires of hell are raging down, and I need to stay within the pan for what it’s worth.

Vitharana chose to negate or obfuscate our every raised point of concern – valid concerns for our own wellbeing and safety as Tamils and minorities – and he did it incredibly undiplomatically. And so, I for one as a voter will still be hanging on to that frying pan, thank you very much

What’s galling to admit though is that he’s probably right regarding the Rajapaksas sweeping into power. Not just the Sinhala-Buddhist majority, but even sizable segments of the minorities are thoroughly fed up with the current Government and ready to vote for the Rajapaksas.

Even in 2015, I knew Tamils who had voted for them simply because they shared the LSSP’s concerns of American imperialism – although why Chinese imperialism should not then be feared is up for debate. I still recall often with amusement, a conversation I overheard in Jaffna soon after the 2015 election. Mahinda Rajapaksa campaigned under the symbol of the betel leaf and Maithripala Sirisena under the symbol of the swan. I still remember that overheard conversation because it was poignantly rich in symbolism:

“Which did you vote for? The betel or the swan?”

“The betel.”

“What?”

“What?”

“Here, did no one ever tell you the betel is cancerous? Why on earth would you go and vote for something so hazardous to our collective wellbeing?”

“Well, the betel is after all considered the symbol of goodness, prosperity, and beauty; the symbol of the Goddess Lakshmi, over here.”

“That was in the olden days. Then, people found out it causes cancer. Don’t ever trust the betel.

Now, the swan; that’s a celestial being, still venerated in our culture. A swan from heaven – endorsed by the gods for us – all that’s celestial and beautiful. How could you have been blind to the claim of the swan?”

“That’s not a swan from heaven, that’s the eagle from America fronting as a swan. Why did you fall for that?”

Oh, well.

If we are still talking symbolism – the communist symbols, used by both China and the LSSP – the hammer and sickle are useful tools, but it remains to be seen what they are going to be used for on the Sri Lankan public, especially with the Rajapaksas wielding them.

It is clear the swan and the eagle are on their way out in favour of the hammer and the sickle. Yet, while Tissa Vitharana spun a tale of economic development using socialist policies, he failed to convince Jaffna’s public that those same tools would be used for economic development alone and not to invoke bloodshed upon us. As he said, even if in a huff as he left, good luck to us.

(The writer is a freelance journalist based in Jaffna. All views expressed are her own and not of any organisations affiliated to her)