The Rajapakse Legacy : Tisaranee Gunasekara

Source : The Island Online

“…if crimes have been committed the evil is not that they should be made known but that they have been committed.”

Anatole France (Monsieur Bergeret in Paris)

The war is real. The war is unavoidable because it is the will of Vellupillai Pirapaharan. As long as Mr. Pirapaharan leads the LTTE the only possible peace is an appeasement-based ceasefire, the prelude to the next war.

The war is also the pretext. It provides an indispensable lifeline for a regime weighed down by gross incompetence, colossal inanity and unquenchable greed. The war is being used by the Rajapakse administration to excuse, to justify every crime and misdeed, every sin of omission and commission.

We are in the middle of the month of June; in schools across the land, term tests will begin in July. But many students are yet to receive their text books, books which should have been delivered to them at the beginning of the first term, in January. The war cannot be the cause for this shocking and unpardonable delay; it is a result of the irresponsibility and incompetence of the administration.

For the regime patriotism is both cloak and cudgel; cloak to hide its misdeeds and cudgel to bludgeon its enemies. In reality the administration cares as little for the plight and the future of the people of the South as it does for the plight and the future of the people of the North and the East. Callousness is not a quality that is alien to most governments. In the case of the Rajapakses callousness is reaching a dangerously grotesque extreme because it is harnessed to a near total absence of foresight and a fatal incomprehension of reality. The administration seems almost completely indifferent to the social devastation that is besetting Sri Lanka as a result of its neglect and inefficiency. Perhaps the Rajapakses and their coterie are so enamoured of their own excuses they really believe that all other problems will cease to exist (or at least become deescalated) the moment the Tigers are conclusively defeated.

Undermining the Future

When 13.5% of children below five years of age suffer from chronic malnutrition and at least 30% of children below five years of age suffer from anaemia, it signals a crisis far more devastating than the Tiger crisis. When 19.6% of school children suffer from chronic malnutrition and 21% suffer from anaemia, it can cause far greater damage to the Lankan people than even the Tigers can. When 33.3% of adolescents suffer from acute malnutrition and of this almost 23% suffer from anaemia as well, it can undermine the Lankan economy far more effectively than Tiger bombs and Tiger guns can. When over 30% of pregnant mothers suffer from anaemia, the danger it poses to the future of Sri Lanka is infinitely graver than the danger posed by the Tigers’ separatist project.

These latest figures by the Health Ministry need to be considered in conjunction with previous official figures on deteriorating nutritional levels in Sri Lanka. According to the Household Income and Expenditure Survey of 2006/7 only half of Sri Lanka’s population receive the minimum daily calorie intake of 2,030. Jean-Yves Lequime, the deputy head of WFP in Colombo has warned that “Sri Lanka has a significantly higher child underweight rate than would be expected on the basis of its [annual] per capita GDP [of US$1,599]… Indeed, Sri Lanka has a child underweight rate that may be three times as high as what would be expected from a country with Sri Lanka’s level of infant mortality.” According to the UNICEF 14 percent of children under five in Sri Lanka showed signs of wasting (acute underweight) and stunting (chronic underweight) while 29 percent of children younger than five were underweight for their age.

These are figures to alarm any sensible government concerned about the future of the country it governs. They warn that our stock of human resources, our most valuable asset, is being depleted at a rate that is unaffordable, economically, politically and socially. They warn that unless immediate remedial measures are taken, a third or more of the next generation of Sri Lankans will be weak and malnourished, less capable of educational and physical achievements, more vulnerable to sicknesses. This is a danger far more comprehensive and permanent to the future of Sri Lanka than even the threat of the Tiger. (Incidentally this health and nutritional crisis must be infinitely worse now, given this year’s stratospheric rise in cost of living). If this trend towards social devastation is to be impeded, immediate action is necessary.

The greatest, most lasting harm to the Tamils are being done not by the Lankan state, but by the LTTE. The Tigers’ intransigence, their maximalism has turned the North and the East into a socio-economic, educational and cultural wasteland. When children are taken forcibly or inveigled away from studies, the future of that nation is fatally undermined. Though military operations by Lankan forces are causing significant disruptions to the education of North-Eastern Tamil children, a more potent and intense harm is being caused by the child soldier policy of the LTTE. What the Tigers are doing to the Tamils in the name of liberation, the Rajapakses are on the verge of doing to Sinhalese in particular and Sri Lankans in general, under cover of patriotism.

The main cause for many of Sri Lanka’s ills is not the war as such. We have survived the war for more than two decades, without doing too much harm to either our economy or our democracy. The main problem is the unintelligent governance of the Rajapakses. The war is being used to cover up acts of wastage and extravagance endemic to this administration. Admittedly defence expenditure is higher today than it has been in the previous years. Still a government which prioritises the future well being of Sri Lanka will not de-prioritise key areas such as health and education. A sensible government will do what it takes to ensure that health and well being of nation’s children are adequately taken care of.

Some months ago there were media reports of a severe dearth in a vitally necessary drug at the Maharagama Cancer Hospital. This was because the relevant Health Ministry officials failed to order the drug in time. This story, like that of the absent text books, is symptomatic of what ails Sri Lanka today. Here, as in the case of the absent text books, the culprit is not the war but the incompetence of the politicians and top officials. Similarly neglect and not war is why an increasing percentage of Lankan children are becoming sick and malnourished. The government just does not care enough. In the regime’s list of priorities, the health and the wellbeing of the country’s next generation count for far less than the perks and privileges of the political elite or the ‘Petit Trianons’ of Sri Lanka’s Marie Antoinettes.

Mahinda Chinthanaya promised to give a bag of nutrition (poshana malla) to pregnant and lactating mothers. This promise seemed to have gone the way of many other Mahinda Chinthana promises – an extravagant commencement ceremony (usually in Hambantota district) with much fanfare followed by neglect and abandonment. If asked, the government is likely to say the war intervened and it is not possible to fund such projects anymore, because of high levels of defence expenditure.

Mahinda Chinthanaya also promised a budget airline. A brand new airline was formed, named after the President and headed by a Presidential favourite. The war did not intervene with the extravagant progress of Mihin Air. Despite escalating defence expenditure money was always available for Mihin Air, for exorbitant salaries and for expensive advertising and promotional campaigns. In the end, the bill for this Presidential fancy surpassed Rs.3.2 billion. A right-thinking government, an intelligent government, a truly patriotic government would have spent this money on improving health and nutritional levels of the nation’s children and mothers or on providing housing and other basic facilities to injured soldiers and to families of soldiers who died in combat. The financial Odyssey of Mihin Air is not yet over. Currently Mihin Air has billions of unpaid debt to state banks, a host of highly paid employees, a lot of expensive ground handling equipment and no air crafts. It has asked for a loan of US$800,000 (Rs. 80 million) from the Treasury and for a change in air traffic rules so that it can lease and fly two over-age aircrafts. Mihin Air is likely to get its wish list yet again, because not even the sky is the limit when it comes to indulging the Rajapakses and their friends and relatives.

Discrediting Ourselves Internationally

Sri Lanka’s international problems, like many of her internal problems, stem primarily from the Rajapakses’ unintelligent governance rather than from the war. For example given the socio-economic and financial crisis Sri Lanka is ailing from, she badly needs the GSP+ facility. Without it, many of the garment factories may have to close and thousands would become unemployed; this in turn will worsen the health and nutritional crisis of the country’s young, especially in the rural areas. Therefore it is incumbent upon the government not to do anything that will jeopardise our chances of regaining this vital concession. The regime’s blatant attempts to weaken and destabilise the Udalagama commission makes no sense in this context. The Defence Secretary’s unseemly battle with the media will seriously undermine Sri Lanka’s stock with the EU. Is the government insensible of the risk it is running or is it a case of not giving a damn?

Even with these errors, if the President empowers the Constitutional Council much will be forgiven us by the international community. The war is not the reason this necessary and desirable step is being avoided; the President is refusing to empower the Constitutional Council because he wants to concentrate more and more power in his hands. If the Constitutional Council is up and running, Mr. Rajapakse will not be able to appoint his stooges to vital positions in the state structure. This will impede his capacity to use the state to protect and promote the interests of the Governing Family. This is the main reason the President is refusing to empower the Constitutional Council, despite the damage done by this delay to the real national interests of Sri Lanka. Under the patriotic and populist Babel currently passing off as political discourse, discernible is a trend of thought identifying national interests with those of the Rajapakses. Its inevitable corollary will be the damning of all opponents of the Rajapakses as traitors to the nation. We may see this trend at work in the two upcoming provincial council elections, with state power used to intimidate the political opponents of the Rajapakses, under the guise of saving the nation.

Speaking at the recent Ranaviru celebrations, the President once again pledged not to leave the LTTE problem to the next generation. It is a worthy determination and a necessary undertaking. Given the disturbing social, economic and political trends, a question however is in order. Even if the President succeeds in the task he has set himself – which is far from a foregone conclusion – in what shape would Sri Lanka be at the end of the Rajapakse tenure? Will a debased democracy, a weak economy and a sick populace be the Rajapakses’ most enduring legacy to Sri Lanka?

Source : The Island Online

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