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The Plundering of Sri Lanka

Where the Dead Walk

by NILANTHA ILANGAMUWA

“History had a slow pulse; man counted in years, history in generations”

― Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon

Colombo, Sri Lanka.

It was another extrajudicial killing. And, it happened two days ago. This time the victim was cut into pieces and the pieces were strewn in a suburb of Colombo. Eyewitness to the incident told media that some people arrived in a vehicle, threw ‘something’ out, and set the same alight in the early hours of the day. Later, the villagers realized the pieces belonged to a human body.  Nobody knows who the victim is; the police are ‘busy’ conducting their ‘investigation.’

There have been dozens of mysterious killings in the highly militarized island nation in last couple of weeks. Are they part of an “international conspiracy”, as the government has always suspected? The conspiracy theory has become a political comedy – considered the best strategy to cover up the failures of the government, not only in Sri Lanka, but in many countries of the world. The fact is that, “to live and seethe in that world of conspiracy theories means rejecting any form of objective reality” (Editorial; International Heralds Tribune, October 11th 2012).

We have lost something but are unsure what exactly it is we have lost. It was my personal experience to see human beings not have the validity of even an animal, when confronted with a brutal war. As we define terrorism, we see that war also is a symptom of the same disease, and once one finishes the battle on the ground the true implications lay bare. In the Sri Lankan context, what we saw during and after the battle was that we had eliminated the LTTE but never really understood the true consequences of the underlying problems. Were we hiding the real problems for the time being to expand personal wealth? The nation became a pool to pirates and plundering state resources is still the daily experience.

We have lost the strength to fight against the unjust, and the dissidents lost the art of fighting against autocracy. We shouted loudly against one autocracy for the chance to take up another. One after another; we changed the heads but we never thought to change the system.

We used an “electoral system” to show others that we are civilized and we are implementing basic principles of freedom in a way that everyone can enjoy. But in reality we changed the appearance of power but didn’t scratch the soul; and perhaps we dressed up “racial nihilism” as a guardian of the nation.

B.R. Ambedkar’s comment that “it is very easy for anybody to become a Mahatma in India by merely changing his dress,” is applicable to the situation in Sri Lanka. “If you are wearing an ordinary dress and leading an ordinary life even if you perform extraordinary noble deeds, nobody takes, any notice of you. But a person who does not behave in normal manner and shows some peculiar trends and abnormalities in his character becomes a saint or a Mahatma;” he wrote.

If we no longer believe in our own infallibility; then it is obvious we will lose the battle. What we have to understand in this dire point in time is that we have given power to a tyrant. Only once we have fully understood the nature of this disaster, can we really find out how we can take it back. Let us therefore consider the changes that came about since the 1978 constitution from a different perspective.

Étienne de La Boétie, was a French judge, writer, anarchist, and “a founder of modern political philosophy in France. He wrote in his famous essay entitled, “Discours de la Servitude Volontaire” (The Politics of Obedience: the Discourse of Voluntary Servitude also known as Anti-One), which is one of the foundations of political dissent and the balance of power. As Roland Bleiker of Cambridge University described, “while Machiavelli’s The Prince helped to define sovereignty, state power and the ensuing international order, La Boetie’s Anti-One contributed to the emergence of forces that came to circumvent and undermine the spatial and political logic of this order.”  In his writing as a young student, Étienne de La Boétie expressed his objections against the authority and royal absolutions while spreading an idea of struggle for freedom and how to deal with radical oppression against absolute power. In the beginning of his Discours de la Servitude Volontaire, La Boétie, noted his main objective in dealing with the subject.

“It must be said that the domination of several could not be good for the power of one alone, as soon as he acquires the title of master, is harsh & unreasonable . . . it is extremely unfortunate to be subjected to one master, whose kindness one can never be assured of, since it is always in his power to be cruel whenever he desires; & as for having several masters, the more one has, the more extremely unfortunate it is.” La Boétie thus launched a fresh attack against royal absolutism.

The 1978 constitution in Sri Lanka was based on this critical issue, where we again opened our gates to royal absolutism, which had been annulled after a series of devilish struggles and colonialism. Unfortunately, we never critically analyzed this to create authentic dissent that can fight against this absolute power and a corrupted system. While we are taking Machiavelli into our home from the back door, we remained unconcerned as we wanted to find another side of Machiavellian politics in the western philosophical context.

Machiavelli and La Boétie are black and white if we compare a colour combination of their works. The writings by La Boétie were geared towards achieving personal liberty in ordinary citizen, as different from Machiavellian politics in the West. La Boétie always encouraged the citizen and discourses of volunteerism against the royal absolutism.

Even after the 18th Amendment to the Constitution in Sri Lanka, we are not moving any closer towards core notions of personal freedom (liberty) of citizens in the country. Instead, conducting narrow minded nihilistic actions have become a common phenomenon. Freedom seems to always be beyond reach in our society. What we have dragged up as freedom is not actual freedom. But how did we lose it? In other words, how did the regime become capable of creating a framework which limits freedom? How “tyrants get power and maintain it, it’s simple assumption is that real power always lies in the hands of the people and that they can free themselves from a despot by an act of will unaccompanied by any gesture of violence.”

The power of people is always exceptional and it can change the system. In China, a traditional saying goes: “Water can both sustain and sink a ship.”

Real ideology will never proclaim social reforms through violence. Thus La Boétie tried to explain that the tyrant is in power because of the people and only people can evaluate society to find the real meaning of freedom. What he explains is that tyrants are never true friends to his or her country but gaining and expanding absolute power is only the ultimate goal of the tyrant.

Today, Sri Lanka has become a sick society. There is an unimaginable level of destruction and the way in which her ordinary people live resembles a situation where the dead walk.

Nilantha Ilangamuwa is journalist and editor of the Sri Lanka Guardian, an online daily news paper based in Colombo Sri Lanka. He can be reached atilangamuwa@gmail.com or editor@srilankaguardian.org