The political economy of accusation, guilt and punishment
Whenever predictions are made about repercussions from the international community for things said or left unsaid or else things done or left undone, I am reminded of Libya. Muammar Gaddafi was for decades the bad boy. He decided at one point to try being the good boy. We all know how he was rewarded by those who saw him as an enemy and who he later thought were friends.
That’s how the international community operates. The international community as in the movers and shakers who can and do move and shake on account of bucks and guns (to put it mildly). It’s all about playing ball. It’s all about conviction beyond any shadow of doubt that ball will be played. In other words, there are no brownie points for good behavior. There has to be an unblemished record of servility. One black mark and trust is compromised forever. An unblemished ball player is thereafter backed, groomed and even brought to power. If there’s no such entity, then they go for the lesser evil option. Maithripala Sirisena for example.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa made a statement in jest in Ampara last week and it got a lot of play. That is not a statement one expects from someone who refused to badmouth his political opponents. It was careless. It was crass. However, as often happens word was extracted from context, tone and flavor. We saw inflation. We saw extrapolation. His detractors warned that it will strengthen moves against Sri Lanka in the upcoming UNHRC sessions in Geneva. This, on top of ‘concerns’ over the cremation of Muslims who have died of Covid-19. They will no doubt add the demolition of a memorial erected for LTTE cadres who perished during the 30 year long conflict.
A word on the last is warranted. First and foremost students do not have any right to put up buildings or memorials on state university property unless so sanctioned by the relevant authorities. Whoever allowed that memorial to be put up needs to explain his or her actions. Secondly, having allowed it to remain and thereby providing consent by default, arbitrary demolition is questionable. Thirdly, some students have issued statements claiming that they are not interested in warring ‘with the Sinhala government.’ The wording indicates that they do not see themselves as part of this country. The Vice Chancellor’s claim that the monument was an affront to reconciliation and peace therefore does have some merit. His decision to lay the foundation stone for a replacement monument is therefore confusing.
Another word on the matter is warranted. It is not illegal for anyone to believe he/she does not belong to Sri Lanka. Theoretically, a monument to soldiers could be seen by some as a celebration of ‘wrongdoers and wrongdoing’ although not legally, at least ethically or just in terms of perceptions. A monument to JVP cadres could similarly be seen by UNPers as a celebration of terrorists and terrorism. The Jaffna University students are celebrating people who fought for a ruthless terrorist organization. We could play that back and forth and remain where we are, i.e. fighting a war along the alleyways of memory.
A third word. The President can be open about these things, speak with these students and ask them if they want to remain in the past or move to a different future. He could say, for example, that the only grief that is indubitably genuine is that which is felt by the near and dear of the dead, regardless of what the dead believed, fought for, killed and were killed for. The temperature of the tears shed for all the dead, combatants and civilians are approximately the same. The President could request the Jaffna University students to design a monument where everyone can grieve for what eventually proved to be a conflagration that produced nothing of substance but only delivered death, destruction, dismemberment and displacement.
Now whether the President moves in the above manner or in some other way that pleases the students and the Tamil community, he will not be applauded by those who want to bring him and his government down, here and abroad. It just doesn’t work that way.
There is a political economy of punishment and reward, censure and ‘let be’. ‘A threat is often more powerful than its execution’ is a quote attributed to several top chess grandmasters and frequently used by chess coaches. That’s how it works.
We get a string of accusations, a string of recommendations and a spoken or left hanging ending, ‘…or else!’
This brings me to the most critical issue of the day. The East Terminal of the Colombo Port. India wants it. We are told that Sri Lanka will have a 51% stake. Operations, if the deal is done, would be controlled by an Indian company. It is reported that the frontrunner-investor is the Adani Group of India. The very same group is building a port in Kerala. A competitor port in every sense of the word. Forget Adani. It will be an Indian company that would ‘run’ operations even as an Indian company is busy building a port that is designed to draw transshipment business away from Sri Lanka.
Giving the green light to such a move is suicidal. It would reduce the Sri Lankan transshipment footprint in the Indian Ocean. The JVP, FSP and others including trade unions of all political parties have objected. Groups that backed Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the SLPP have objected. The political fallout is not difficult to calculate.
In such circumstances why would a government accede to India’s not so veiled demand for the East Terminal? Is there some subtle, ‘diplomatic’ arm-twisting happening? Is a give-and-take being negotiated? If it’s a deal then obviously the costs and benefits are not contained by ‘port development.’ It has to do with sweeteners. The Covid-19 vaccine? ‘Support’ in Geneva? What?
So, in essence, there’s no clean, neat, integrity-driven logic. The ‘international community’ will accuse and treat accusation as proven guilt. The ‘international community’ will say things that end with ‘or else….!’ The ‘international community’ will want to punish and will create guilt to do so. That’s politics. That’s economics. That’s political economy.
Any government that does not play ball is in a lose-lose situation. And such governments (and we are not staying that this government is one of them) have one option. Side with the people. Trust their judgment. ‘People’ as in general sentiments and not those that come percolated through political interests or structured by possible benefits to individuals or specific groups.
By Malinda Senewiratne