“Whatever was required to be done, the Circumlocution Office was beforehand with all the public departments in the art of perceiving – HOW NOT TO DO IT.”
— Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit
The response of civil society, the harbingers of political radicalism, was telling. It took days for the activists (and I don’t mean the Friday Forum, English-speaking, Colombo ones) to get up on stage and condemn what happened. We expected outrage, and pleas for a permanent peace, from the speakers.
But instead we got Deepani Silva, calm as a cucumber, calling the terrorists honda ugath daruwo. The narrative she invoked there was that of children from educated backgrounds being led wayward, and compelled by circumstances beyond their choosing to unleash rivers of blood.
To begin with the ISIS recruits were not being led wayward: they knew what they were doing, they were not engaged with a secular just objective, and the cause for which they were fighting had been drilled into their heads from early on. Jason Burke in The Guardian suggests that when it comes to Islamic extremism, one cannot tell when radicalisation occurs, since there have been cases of drunkards and nightclub dwellers who were later recruited. They may have come from any background; but predominantly perhaps, the ugath background that Silva alludes to.
The case of one of the first ISIS recruits from Sri Lanka is a case in point: when asked to describe Sharhaz Nilam, who had served as a karate instructor and principal of an international school, some said he was “liked by everyone” and others that his only drawback was that “he reported to work late every day.” These were people you and I would meet and chat with everyday. It’s still hard to separate the radicals from the moderates, but what we do know now, from all the attacks we’ve seen so far, is that they calculated their moves; they were not, in other words, “compelled” to do what they did, because they completely subscribed to their cause. It’s not the kind of ideological brainwashing one saw in, say, the LTTE project.
The response of the likes of Deepani Silva, and more than them the Colombo-centric liberalwaadeen, thus lacks the relevance and the empathy towards the victims that it should entail. The ISIS is not waging a war against a hateful, bigoted State, and if it were, I am yet to hear from the leader of that organisation admitting that they were. As things stand, it is no less than a civilisational clash, a new extremism (new to us) which does not deserve the political dichotomisations that the Civil War merited.
"ISIS does not want a Marxist-Leninist State, nor does it want to eradicate a Sinhala Buddhist leadership. It wants an extremist Salafist Caliphate "
The solution to the problem, in other words, is to eradicate the problem. Just why this is so hard to understand, or come to terms with, I do not know.
Roughly the same argument could have been made of the LTTE itself, despite it coming from different circumstances: it waged a war against a fascist State, but when it turned fascist and obliterated the possibility for dissent later on, there was no other option: between an elected State and an aggressive terrorist outfit, the scales weighed in favour of the former. What we have here, now, is an altogether worse enemy: more ruthless, more unpredictable, and not limited to a specific terrain.
In the absence of a reason for the existence of this terrorist outfit, a military solution, with the necessary caveats of proportionate action, must therefore precede a political solution. One must contrast this with the LTTE, which was born in part from Sinhala and Tamil chauvinism: in the J.R. years, which gave us 1983, there was a compelling reason to side with the terrorists, even if you were not Tamil.
The State tried to show it as an anti-government outfit; Jayewardene himself claimed that all it wanted was a Marxist State (which caused many on the Left to gloss over its excesses). In contrast, ISIS does not want a Marxist-Leninist State, nor does it want to eradicate a Sinhala Buddhist leadership. It wants an extremist Salafist Caliphate. It did not arise because of a racist State; it arose because of a weakened State.
As pointed out last week, consequently, it wasn’t the PRESIDENTIAL system that led us to this mess. Quite the contrary: it was the SKEWING of that system.
That is why it still boggles me when, while calling for solidarity with all Muslims and non-Muslims (which is what should happen), the liberalwadeen give off warnings about the imminent rise of rightwing authoritarian strongmen. The reference of course is to Gotabaya Rajapaksa, though the logic of the reference confounds me.
Here are some unpalatable truths. The State security apparatus got weakened because we did not listen to experts such as the much respected, much downplayed, Professor Rohan Gunaratne, though their credentials were impeccable and free from the sort of prejudices one would expect from the Rajapaksas. We did not listen to them because we were pussyfooting on terrorism, and dismantling anti-terrorism legislation in the name of international commitment. As if this weren’t enough, we went on to humiliate ourselves to meet those commitments; we were hence not the kind of self-respecting sovereign republic the situation demanded.
Which brings us to the most obvious conclusion: it was antipathy to the Rajapaksas that led to a reversal of the security policies they had enacted. And when vital policy considerations like this are thrown away in the interests of shifting political loyalties, one can only expect a disaster, if not a carnage.
That is why it is ironic, to say the least, that those who watched from the sidelines and facilitated the weakening of the State are now requesting us to be cautious about the return of the Rajapaksas. To be sure, one has to agree that the timing of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s announcement of his candidacy was telling: he chose the right moment, though not the most amenable circumstances, to announce his campaign. But then a sugar high does not last; in contrast to the hype surrounding his announcement, his interview with Derana, in which he outlined an action plan to eradicate radicalism upon his coming to power, was surprisingly glum.
As with civil society and those opposed to the Rajapaksas, the narrative we got from the former Defence Secretary there was self-serving: a refutation of the allegations levelled against him by the present regime that he’d overlooked the rise of radicalism in his time. Then again, the way he announced his candidacy was suspicious: it was the man, and not the party, who made the announcement. Does it indicate a rift between the Rajapaksa brothers? If not an unwillingness on the part of the likes of Vasudeva Nanayakkara to accommodate him? If not controversy over his citizenship?
"The State security apparatus got weakened because we did not listen to experts such as the much respected, much downplayed, Prof. Rohan Gunaratne, though their credentials were impeccable and free from the sort of prejudices one would expect from the Rajapaksas. We did not listen to them because we were pussyfooting on terrorism, and dismantling anti-terrorism legislation in the name of int’l commitment"
We don’t know, and in any case, we don’t care. The country wants a strong State. The country wants the politicians, all 225 of them, out. This is not the time to indulge in what-might-have-beens and this is not the time to talk about what-could-have-beens. There is a need for a broad national consensus. That includes everyone, from Ranil to Maithripala to Mahinda to Gotabaya to Fonseka.
Still, what’s ironic with all this is that those who saw in the likes of Sirisena and Wickremesinghe the only hope the country had are now claiming that “all politics is bad,” showing their disdain both for the men they propped up and those who oppose them. It comes to no surprise, also, that those levelling allegations against Mahinda for having been informed of the Easter attacks are conspicuous by their former kapuwath kola support for the Maithri-Ranil regime. Their antipathy to political ideology reveals their dismay at the betrayal of the illusion by the reality of what is supposed to have transpired after 2015; I shall return to this in a later column.
The Easter Sunday bombings showed us just where we went wrong: we hedged our bets on the wrong guys, and tried to find solace in alternative political outfits: the JVP, the SLPP and so forth. Neither the JVP nor the SLPP has mobilised and galvanised a proper front against the problem. But I doubt people want such a front anyway. What they want is action. Fast. And civil society, by turning it into a series of hand-holding anti-Rajapaksa theatrics, is simply not helping.