A big match between fire and fury

Wednesday, 7 March 2018 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

If you live in Sri Lanka and truly love it, what’s happening right now must hurt “real bad” (as the vulgar phrase goes). The hopes and aspirations of a peace-cherishing citizenry have gone up in smoke and flames, or so it seems this week. 

What really triggered the riot in Teldeniya or started the rot off in Ampara, even set the faggots alight in Gintota earlier in the year, is a moot point. There is sufficient warrant from past conflagrations for the finger of suspicion to point at resurgent nationalism fuelled by inflamed political leaders slavering for more power. Or, if you’re into the softer more tender-minded avatar of apportioning blame, to finger the unfathomable Fabian tactics of the craven powers that be. As far as the vulgar mob goes – and the farther the better – it is caviar to the general. And I don’t mean to be Fonny.

Hold back that hope

There are many other factors militating in favour (or is it disfavour?) of setting minority properties in a mixed ethnicity township alight. These are so diabolical as not to bear replanting in yet another column attempting to analyse causes for conflagration. 

With the Army and STF now out in force in the field despite Nero’s initial fiddling, we can only trust that the Muslims of Digana (to say nothing of their peaceable Sinhalese compatriots) will be spared further loss and agony. But in the blackened embers of the fires that the Cunctators (or Delayers, to cite a pre-Roman Empire republican army tactic favoured by those who hold back concerted political or military action to militate against opponents) you might find that the dream has died. 

There go – up, in flames and funereal smoke – the hopes and aspirations of a peace-loving citizenry who cherished the dream that the Sri Lanka we truly love can transform itself from a post-war society with bad dreams into a post-conflict nation with a growing good reputation. Still, some may feel it is not too late to save something out of the ashes. Hope? Dream? Reality?

Dream more realistically

Seems like my psyche is kicking against the pricks. (Pardon me, I don’t mean the arsonists.) Against better judgment, yours truly feels compelled to essay a triad of lamentable trends that may serve to highlight the stub of roots and reasons for the inferno this week. 

Last week I suggested that the beast (in ethno-nationalist chauvinism, with the face of a rampant or drunken lion but the heart of a rabid hyena) slouches towards Ampara, Battaramulla, Colombo, to be born again. That the powers that be take charge before matters spin out of control. And that inciters in disturbing the peace – to put it mildly – be locked up and the key thrown away. 

But it’s too little, too late, for the traumatised township of Teldeniyaand certain of its residents, and the increasing confidence of minority peoples in the panoply of law and order.The plethora of ugly things that crawled out from the social media exposés on the divisiveness of Digana prove that it will take a panacea stronger than curfew and commissions to restore the tatters of national security.Hope in the armed forces to do what the police couldn’t won’t cut it for a naively trusting citizenry now cut to the quick. 

No single demographic can be held accountable, or entirely innocent of thought-crime against their irritating neighbours. But no singular minority deserves the nightmares so cold, calculatingly heaped like burning coals on its head by a cynical chauvinism on steroids these days… And government needs to grow a pair – pronto.

Reality bites

So here goes, politicos. Put these in your peace-pipe and smoke ’em. They reflect the other side of the refractive mirror into which our nation has looked of late, in the aftermath of the pipe dream dying. It is not today’s trend, but a trajectory two to three years in the making. Dambulla, Dharga Town, Digana.

#1Firstly, the politicisation of the police force (if you will forgive the false sense of security of such an assumption). Fabian tactics of the incumbents aside, the police are notoriously proneto play Cunctator of their own accord. Delaying any concerted action and denying society law and order until presidential fiat or prime ministerial diktat rouses their office cadre to action. Feelings run high on both sides of the political divide. For today’s Minister of Law and Order may be tomorrow’s black sheep with a secret sorrow on its face… So senior coppers in their high chairs or lowly PCs scrabbling for cover in the field may well be forgiven for waiting until the last possible moment before risking the ire of a resurgent regime – the same rascals who might be inciting the crowd to boorish and brutal behaviour?It’s hardly the worst of times for a law enforcement department that faced a war on one or many fronts as well as insurgencies and insurrections islandwide. But it’s not the best of times by a burning faggot.

#Secondly, the militarisation of the mob. Social media have brought before our scandalised eyes searing images of how boorish and brutal the vulgar mob can be. The closest it comes to this level of hooliganism (save faggots and fire; and maybe even those) is the spectrum of behaviours more common to a big match among grown-up boys playing silly buggers. But there is no customary bonhomie and camaraderie among rival factions in verbally abusive tents. Rather,a violent hostility of the Big Match kind that the late little lamented Richard de Zoysa wrote about (alas, unreckoned or unheeded!) what often feels like a lifetime ago.

#Last but by no means least, the emasculation of the executive. One might be tempted to let this pass sans comment or elucidation, for dint of being blatantly self-explanatory. After all, the body politic takes its cue from leaders who like to take the credit for socio-political successes. If the head lacks cojones, the corpus lacks testicular fortitude. But it is evident that the obvious lacks common acceptance. Thus suffice it to say that far from the issue being the absence of a Law and Order Minister with adequate vim, vigour and vitality to hold back the barbarian hordes, the more pressing problem pertinent to the abysmal reaction time – or the early lack of it – may reflect on the fear that the supposedly civilised leaders of a democratic-republican order have of the Hun at the Gate. The alternative – that government deliberately delayed – doesn’t bear countenancing. Such a Holocaust happened once before. And we must forcefullysay, “Never again!”

Else, howbeit these Fabian tactics – except, perhaps, fear of what the rising tide of resurgent nationalism may do once it is back in power in some way? Is the lack of concerted action – a denouncement of the hate crime ahead or stripping political leaders culpable of inciting ethno-chauvinistic violence among their rank and file – a reflection that the liberals fear the fury of the Goth? Or that they owe the very Vandals who desecrated law and order an unthinkable favour?

To this litany of woes as fuel to the flames, add the latent chauvinism that many – so many, far too many – of our citizens can’t seem to shake off, as causes for the conflagration. No doubt the inflamed mob has a vulgar appeal to political voyeurs on the periphery egging the rioters on with religious epithets and spurious histories. Who pour petrol on the tyres of rubbery racism, while outraged liberals at the centre of power watch in stunned silence or paralysed horror, tweeting instructions to the police to take action. But the repeated clarions of civil society for the police force – or lack of it – to act without fear or favour, and if at all without waiting for instructions from the power they hold dear – has fallen on deaf ears. 

Pity also that the long arm of the law couldn’t stiffen its sinews against the likes of helmeted women pelting stones at the police station. There is a cohort of jackal-like voices in the heart of civil society, perhaps not unsurprisingly calling for the likes of a former general turned politicking field marshal to wield his baton or thrust the jackboot against the fundaments of such hooliganishjackanapery. Hollow feeling in the heart at how short our memory is! Or that the sound of Rathupaswela’s cannonade does not ring in citizen’s ears any more… much less our tear-gassed eyes see far back into the past as Aluthgama’sapocalypse.

The Acid Tests

(Take the paper. Do not set it on fire – do not set ANYTHING on fire. And let’s sit down and talk it over like any civilised human beings with a long history of religious tradition, if only you’d put down that petrol can, put away those stones to sling, and let go the hand of those dirty rabble-rousing politicos who’re cynically exploiting the chauvinistic chink in your pathetic psyche. FAIL.)

A. Essays (for Civil Society)

A Colombo liberal shocked by the virulence or a Kandy conservative equally surprised by the vehemence of their compatriots can no longer sit by idly. So what can civil society, citizenry, et al do in the face of the failure of coalitions, constitutions, and cabinets to safeguard national security? For law and order alone cannot vouchsafe peace and quiet much less minority rights and protection. Time for thinking out of the box, isn’t it? (Don’t be so traditional as to suggest appointing yet another hamstrung commission to investigate anything. Marks will be deducted from sanguine candidates who trespass on the goodwill and credulity of the slightly more than half the country who voted for you.)

B. Short Answers (for the vulgar mob and their vile sponsors)

i. What makes you think you’re such a good host? In fact, what gives you the right to play householder anyway? Did you learn the wrong history lessons in school – if in fact you did attend?

ii. Can you think of no better way for a hospitable people to treat their guests, if even for a moment we’re willing to subscribe to your arrogant assumptions?

C.Multiple Choice Questions (free for all)

1. A resurgent nationalism means:

a. A holocaust

b. Big matches are not cricket once again. Boo!

c. Chinks in the citizenry’s armour are cynically exploited by chauvinistic politicos

2. By the time the Fabians get their act together…

a. A town on fire left unattended too long could have set our country ablaze – again

b. Boys will be boys, and the boorish and brutal behaviour of some will see them back in the Big Tent at Battaramulla with bells on and an axe to grind

c. Conflict resolution and national reconciliation will be harder to achieve because valuable ground has been lost, not least by Prez and PM squabbling like schoolboys

3. How can we prevent another holocaust?

a. Appoint a tough SOB as M of L and O

b. Sob,maybe it’s too late

c. Charge chauvinistic politicos and the pseudo-religious under the ICCPR act, strip rabble-rousers of civic rights, etc.

4. Fill In The Blank(if you dare, dears)

i. I think, therefore I ___ (am/do/not sure/not a thing/delay)

ii. We need a tough M of L and O like ___ (SF/our ex Goth/sorry, it’s a non-starter)

iii. The ___ (best/worst) lack all conviction, while the ___ (worst/best) are filled with passionate intensity

iv. Adds fuel to fire… ___ (shameful politics/scurrilous pseudo-religiosity/sorry sense of host-guest fallacies/all of this above)

5. True(T)/False(F) – go for it, good folks!

1. A cynical conspiracy is afoot to set fire to the credibility of the coalition administration. (T/F)

2. If the Fabians are shown up as bumbling fools, China and India will lose confidence to continue investing in our land. (T/F) 

3. The bottom line of any political showmanship is always economic – money is power, FDI is king, GDP is god. (F/T).

4. Fuel to socio-political flames is added by scurrilous pseudo-religious elements, so forget about coalition mismatches, let’s divorce dirty politics from shameful religiosity. (T/F)

5. It is evident that the government fears the Goth. Or obvious that it owes some Vandals a favour.(T/T)

One more thing

There has been a spectrum of responses ranging from head-shaking and hand-wringing to vigorous appeals that Field Marshall Sarath Fonseka, MP, be made the Minister of Law and Order. However we would all do well to remember that the tactical violence of the jackboot is no permanent and satisfactory solution to the traditional vileness of jackanapes. Therefore let those considering truly just and strategically effective solutions to Sri Lanka’s chronic chauvinism not simply douse the fire, but also seek to pre-empt the arsonist party-starters in the political pantheon from promulgating their incendiary brand of nationalism under the influence of an electoral spasm.

One last thing

The traditional cricketing Big Match between friendly rivals takes place this week. I hope the cunctators among the powers that be can spare themselves a few moments away from being grown-up boys, to attend to the other traditional ‘big matches’ of a darker and more insidious ilk, which is hardly cricket – if not, cunctator is close to the epithet that the effete and epicene among the executive will receive, and deserve.

Take charge even now! Stay on top of the un-gentlemanly game! Strip those thuggish politico-hooligans of their civic rights! Reality must bite from behind prison bars for loudmouthed braggarts in public who would dare to whisper diabolical half-truths about their neighbours in private to the detriment of all and sundry.

(A senior journalist, the writer is Editor-at-large of LMD.He is giving the traditional big match a break this year, in the fervent hope that the powers that be will take time off to flag down the other traditional big matches that are threatening to break our nation in two or three – again.)