The President's Vatican Pilgrimage – 1

The Essay below, entitled "The Descent" (into what?) by Tisaranee Gunasekara starts with the visit of the President of Sri Lanka Mahinda Rajapakse to Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican. There have been few comments on this important visit by those claiming to be "Patriots" so it is interesting to consider Tisaranee's comments which as usual contain more negative than positive points. She has also raised the issue of 'who is a "patriot"?' and this should certainly be of interest to this forum where many regard themselves as 'patriots'.

According to Tisaranee the Pope has stumped the President by deflecting his talk about "terrorism and liberation" to "human rights and peace". It is difficult to see if the President even spoke about 'terrorism' given his failure to ban the terrorist LTTE or about 'liberation' given that Sri Lanka has not liberated itself from foreign powers who are allowed to meddle in the country's affairs (e.g. through the SLMM created by the CFA which has been in force for over 5 years). On 'human rights' or 'peace' the Pope is perhaps the last person qualified to speak. The Catholic church has been one of the main engines of oppression of humanity in the name of God, a record going back nearly two millennia. Even in recent years they have supported most Catholic dictators in Europe, Latin America and even in Vietnam (Diem) or the Philippines (Marcos). As far as 'peace' is concerned the Pope seems to preach this only to the SL President but not to the LTTE leader. He does not preach it to the US in its so-called War on Terror either. Besides the credentials of the Papacy to speak on peace is completely blemished. In the days that the Popes exercised temporal power they were notorious war mongers, even organizing the Crusades. So the Pope has best keep silent on 'human rights' and on 'peace' but Popes are notorious for not having such contrition even though Catholic priests have the gall to exonerate the "sins" of their flock when they confess.

Tisaranee then sounds off on the "civilian casualties" of the war, even though there are no wars without some civilian casualties. Certainly the civilian casualties in Sri Lanka's 'War on Terror" are miniscule when compared to the civilian victims of America's 'War on Terror'. So this part of Tisaranee's lament has to be put down to her own prejudices. The real blame for casualties in the Sri Lankan conflict has to be laid on those who started the war. Here there is little dispute that it was the LTTE that started the military conflict. But they have been aided by several others. Of these the Catholic Church has taken a leading role. The Bishops of Jaffna, Mannar and Batticaloa have hardly been impartial actors.  In the highly structured Catholic Church all lines of authority go right to the Pope. It is a moot question whether the President raised this with the Pope. So the Pope must also be held responsible, if only indirectly, for the bloody conflict in Sri Lanka, and his advocacy of a particular course of action in Sri Lanka cannot be taken as advice from a disinterested person.

It has been reported that the Pope has urged negotiations and a stop to the limited military action that GOSL has taken so far. This is completely beyond the Pope's brief. We wonder if the President reminded the Pope of this. But there is a lot of other issues that the President could have raised with the Pope. Some of these come down from previous Popes but Popes of late have been issuing apologies for their misdeeds of the past, even though half-hearted and qualified ones.  Thus some of the wrongs inflicted on thinkers like Galileo have been acknowledged. But so far no apology has been received for the crimes committed in Sri Lanka. These range from the actions of the Church when they were acting in collusion with the Portuguese. In fact the Portuguese aggression against Sri Lanka was authorized by a Papal treaty in 1492 when the world was divided between Spain and Portugal with the region in which SL is located given over to Portugal. So Portuguese crimes in SL can be directly attributed to the Papacy. Mahinda Rajapkse should have demanded an apology for these crimes. It must be remembered that according to the Catholic Church the Tooth Relic was ceremonially burnt by the Catholic archbishop of Goa with the full blessings of the Church. So there is a great deal of things for which the President could have demanded an apology for. Tisaranee is of course completely silent on all this.

Tisaranee quotes media reports to the effect that "the President's Vatican visit was partly aimed at wining over the influential Catholic Church, especially in the light of the ongoing operation in Madhu and the need to wrest Mannar from Tiger control". This raises the question whether the military actions of the SL government require the approval of the Pope at all. The Catholic Church should have no say at all in operational military matters. If the President is going to run his "War on Terror" in a manner to please the Pope there will never be an outcome because the terrorists have always had tacit support from the Catholic hierarchy. There is a reference to the 'disappearance' of a Father Jim Brown with the innuendo that GOSL was somehow responsible for it.  In the lawless situation in the country too many people "disappear" but they cannot be blamed willy-nilly on the Government. In a situation where too many terrorists are allowed to operate unchecked many crimes are committed of which 'disappearances' may not be the worst. Besides who is this Jim Brown? Is he a Sri Lanka or a Vatican agent? Clearly if the purpose of the visit was for the President to get the support of the Pope for his military operations this must sure fail'.

On the question as to 'who is a patriot' Tisaranee asks whether he or she is one who has unquestioning faith in the President and does not ask awkward questions such as "questioning how the Tiger planes could come, bomb and get away safely". Clearly these are questions that patriots do not ask. They are more likely to minimize this episode by speaking of a "Tiger Air Farce". She then refers to alleged attacks on Press freedom. But while such attacks, if they do occur, have to be condemned, the question should also be asked if the Press is conducting itself in an objective way. In many situations they are in the pay of foreign NGOs and other alien forces.

It is said that MahindaR had been accompanied by large entourage at a time when prices have been rising and rupee falling in value. Must of this entourage would have consisted of Catholics who might have been given a pilgrimage to the Vatican at public expense. Finally the question could be asked whose 'descent' or 'downfall' this extraordinary encounter between President and Pope would have been. It is highly unlikely that the Pope would have "fallen", but the same cannot be said of the President.

The Descent

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

Asian Tribune : 2007-04-22

"And you are an alarmist. You are saying that this must lead to this, and you can't prove it. These are the beginnings, yes; but how do you know for sure when you don't know the end, and how do you know, or even surmise, the end?"Milton Mayer (They Thought They Were Free – The Germans – 1933-1945)

The President wanted to talk to the Pope about terrorism and liberation. The Pope talked to the President about human rights and peace. And our reaction to the Papal response would be predictable – it usually is. We will accuse Benedict X of being a Tiger lover and a closet Nazi. We will castigate a whole array of persons and organisations, from Bishop Rayappu Joseph to the Human Rights Watch, for 'misleading' the Pope. We may even gain some satisfaction from our intemperate ranting (we usually do) but at the end of the day nothing would have changed. A deteriorating human rights record, overt militarism and lack of sensitivity to minority concerns have ensured that Sri Lanka is more isolated internationally than she has been since the dark days of the mid to late 1980's. The Vatican stance is merely a symptom of this general malaise.

The Pope took up the issue of human rights with President Rajapakse; nothing else was possible given incidents such as the disappearance of Father Jim Brown and the June 2006 attack on St Mary's Church in Pesalai which caused the death of several civilians seeking refuge there. The indifference with which we reacted to these incidents only made matters worse. As a young Tamil victim of the Pesalai attack succinctly put it, comparing the gulf that separated the official reactions to the Kebithigollawa massacre and the Pesalai attack: "The president went to the scene of the bombing to survey the damage. The government paid for the funerals of the victims. Nobody has come here" (AP – 18.6.2006; emphasis mine).

That was no isolated incident but the commencement of a pattern. Throughout the undeclared Fourth Eelam War our conduct has been characterised by impunity and denial. When we cause civilian casualties – be it intentionally or unintentionally – we react by covering up the crime and denying relief to the victims rather than bringing the perpetrators to justice and helping the affected.

Consequently over the last one year our credibility has worn rather thin. The media management by the regime can conceal this unpalatable truth from the masses but it is no secret to the international community. It has now become routine for the government to lie about almost anything, and to be completely unfazed when either the international media or some country/institution exposes these lies. At this rate, the day may not be far away when we have even less credibility than the LTTE.

What are Patriots made of?

What is unpatriotic – questioning how the Tiger planes could come, bomb and get away safely or permitting the Tiger planes to come, bomb and get away safely (even after a pre-warning)? What is unpatriotic – becoming aware of the threat posed by Air Tigers or ignoring that danger? Must one suspend all one's critical faculties and intelligence in order to be considered a patriot? Are inanity, gullibility and thinly veiled racism the necessary ingredients in the making of a patriot?

According to international media reports the President's Vatican visit was partly aimed at wining over the influential Catholic Church, especially in the light of the ongoing operation in Madu and the need to wrest Mannar from Tiger control. The regime's comprehension of the need to gain the support of Tamil Catholics in the war against the Tigers is somewhat belated but still welcome.

In this context, before undertaking the journey to the Vatican, the President should have taken some steps to address the concerns of Tamil Catholics and the North-Eastern Churches. Foremost among them should have been an official inquiry into the disappearance of Father Jim Brown. It may be too late to save Father Brown's life but it is never too late to find the culprits and punish them. Such a step – at least the institution of legal proceedings – would have gone a long way in persuading the Vatican to consider our case favourably. We could have also used the Easter season to make a gesture of reconciliation to Tamil Catholics – perhaps a unilateral decision not to undertake any operations during the three days between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Unfortunately no such measure was taken. Therefore it was plain stupid to expect a favourable response from the Vatican, simply because President Rajapakse turns up with his oversized entourage, his incredible explanations and unbelievable assurances. Our inability to understand this reality, our belief in our capacity to charm and dissemble demonstrates the inanity that is becoming a trademark of many of our utterances and actions.

Subscribing to and fostering such delusions, is that patriotism?

The Tigers consider any criticism of their conduct as treachery; any Tamil who is critical of the LTTE is a traitor, even if he/she is loyal to the idea of Eelam in word and deed. It is the old feudal maxim 'the King can do no wrong' – Mr. Pirapaharan is always right and any Tamil who doubts his infallibility is an enemy of the nation who deserves condemnation and death. And whatever the leader decides to do in the pursuit of Eelam is good and just and needs to be supported unquestioningly – even when it is a measure that is beyond the pale, such as child conscription and the targeting of unarmed civilians. Have we appropriated this Tiger notion of patriotism for our own? Is it a sign of patriotism to consider the President and his brothers above criticism? Is it a mark of the patriot to believe the President and his brothers implicitly?

For a majority of the populace the festive season ended on a not so festive note, with the announcement of a steep hike in fuel prices. Given the escalating defence expenditure a certain degree of economic hardship would be unavoidable. What is avoidable is the regime's practice of imposing a disproportionate share of the economic costs on the general populace even as scarce public funds are expended liberally to cushion the ruling caste from economic shocks. This gross violation of the principle of just (and justifiable) distribution of the costs of war is both unseemly and unsustainable. A country that cossets its rulers and burdens its people cannot but head towards a state of discontent and instability.

When the economic burdens become unbearable and the people, the only ones compelled to shoulder those burdens, criticise and protest would they be deemed traitors?

Since war is unavoidable and will not be over soon, the government cannot avoid grappling with the issue of political and financial sustainability of our war effort. The capital intensive military strategy favoured by the powers that be is something that is hard to sustain for a country like ours, except in the very short term. Already money printing, inflation and foreign borrowing are at an unacceptably, dangerously high level. Concurrently the proliferation of human rights violations and the absence of a political solution are undermining some of our income sources, especially foreign aid. What we are heading towards is a financial scissors crisis, with escalating expenditure and declining revenue forming its two axes. Hyperbole in such a context is not only inane; it is a crime. Those leaders who claim that we will undergo any suffering for the sake of war would expect the general populace to exclusively undergo every suffering. Such a manifestly unfair policy can only have one end – the triumphant return of appeasement under the guise of peace at the next national election.

Enabling such an outcome through folly and hubris, excess and intolerance – how can that be patriotism?

The Turn of the Daily Mirror

There is a place in Sri Lanka where the leader is considered infallible and his actions are above scrutiny and beyond criticism. And that is the Tiger territory of the North-East. There is an entity in Sri Lanka which equates unquestioned loyalty to itself with patriotism. That is the LTTE. There are people in Sri Lanka who are deprived of every freedom except the freedom to hail the wisdom of the leader and to follow his orders to death. Those are the Tamil people living under the yoke of the Tigers. Sri Lanka is a democratic country and its citizens are free people with constitutionally guaranteed rights. That is what makes the really existing Sri Lanka (with all her faults and flaws) superior to the nascent Tiger Eelam. We need to safeguard that distinction not only because of its inherent value in making this place liveable even in spite of the war but also because it is a necessary precondition for the eventual defeat of the LTTE.

The warning of Pastor Martin Niemoeler is not inapposite here; Intolerance can never be appeased; indifference or acquiescence merely makes it more rapacious, more emboldened to seek the next victim and the next and the next.... Mawbima and the Sunday Standard have been silenced; now it is the turn of the Daily Mirror. According to media reports the editor of the Daily Mirror, Champika Liyanarachchi, has been threatened by the Defence Secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapakse, for the crime of lese-majeste towards Col. Karuna. Predictably the regime has denied all charges. Not content with that it has also resorted to uttering silly lies which have been found out. The British High Commissioner visited the Daily Mirror when the story about the threat to Ms. Liyanarachchi surfaced. The government as usual overreacted and Mr. Chilcott was summoned by the Defence Secretary for a 'chat'. Initially the High Commission remained tight lipped about the meeting because of a gentlemen's agreement not to reveal any details to the media. But the regime tried to be too clever as usual and claimed that the High Commissioner had been misled by journalists; the High Commission was compelled to issue a denial the next day: "The High Commissioner would like to make it clear that he did not make any statement to that effect at his meeting with the Defence Secretary".

When will we learn not to utter such silly and unnecessary lies? When will we realise that every time we target civilians, try to silence the media or persecute political opponents we undermine ourselves and help the Tigers? When will we realise that credibility is an important condition, which once lost, cannot be regained easily? When will we learn that by making ourselves more and more like the LTTE in our indifference to the safety of civilians and in our treatment of dissent we help none but the enemy? When will we realise that the path we are on currently, despite beguiling superficialities, is a path downhill that can only lead to the abyss?