OPINION BY TREVOR GRANT: It was during the 1920s and 1930s, as fascism swept across Europe, that propaganda became a finely-honed art, and an indispensable ally of government.
One of its pioneers was the Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini, who studied its advantages closely, once explaining publicly how it should work.
“The crowd doesn’t have to know. It must believe,” he said. “If only we can give them faith that mountains can be moved they will accept the illusion that mountains are moveable and thus an illusion may become a reality…”
Mussolini may have ended up hung from a light pole in Milan by 1945. But his ideas have never died. Indeed, they have been propagated by governments of all persuasions ever since.
The new Sri Lankan president, for example, has shown in his first year of office that he is a devout believer in the power of propaganda; a man who is convinced that illusions can become reality, as long as he can keep the crowd from knowing the truth.
Since ousting his former ally, Mahinda Rajapaksa, in a palace coup last year, Maithripala Sirisena has built a reputation as a reformer on words alone. His manifesto for change, issued immediately he was elected, oozed with words of hope, of recognition of past failures, of guarantees of a new order.
Yet, just one year later, the mist has lifted and we are confronted with the stark reality; a monumental deception that is slowly but surely being revealed in its true light. Gradually we are seeing through the man who would move a mountain.
A torrent of promises has become a trickle of token gestures as Sirisena refuses point blank to address the issue that continues to define Sri Lanka as a country of government-sanctioned violence, where torture, murder, disappearance and rape are unremarkable occurrences.
It has been so since the British left in 1948, and the Sinhalese, who make up 75 per cent of the population, took control of the country, beginning a reign of terror over the Tamils in the north and east, who had lived separately, with their own language and culture, for centuries until the colonial power unified the island in 1833.
The unification, which was done for administrative purposes, was always going to render any minority vulnerable to the Sinhalese chauvinists who, once free of the British, openly declared that the island belonged only to them, and used a succession of historical falsehoods to support this claim.
Thus began the genocide against the Tamils, which resulted in a 27-year war. It ended in May, 2009 but not before an apocalyptic climax which brought the deaths of an estimated 70,000 innocent Tamil civilians and the Sri Lankan government facing credible accusations of multiple war crimes.
The guns have been silent now for almost seven years but the war against the Tamils goes on. Indeed, Sirisena, who bragged to his Sinhalese electorate in the election lead-up that he had been acting defence minister when the army was raining bombs on civilians sheltering in schools, hospitals and temples, has shown himself to be as dismissive of Tamil rights as his former cabinet ally and friend, Mahinda Rajapaksa.
This became obvious last week when Sirisena, during a BBC interview, reverted to type and issued a denial that could have come from the mouth of Rajapaksa. Asked about the most recent, and most damning, of three UN reports detailing significant war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the Sri Lankan government, Sirisena said: “It was important to determine whether such crimes actually took place,” he said.
This rebuttal is significant because it reveals the ugly truth behind the Sirisena charade of the past 12 months; that he is no more than an off-shoot of the previous brutal regime attempting a more subtle form of cover-up. Indeed, he has so much in common with Rajapaksa, including the need to deny the brutal massacre of 70,000 Tamil civilians because he, too, knows he would be facing a war crimes tribunal.
His words are more tempered, and he presents a more benign public face than the bullying, arrogant president he defeated at the January polls. He’s released a handful of the hundreds of imprisoned political prisoners and offered sympathy during a visit to Tamils living in desperate circumstances in the north. However, he remains a fervent supporter of the military occupation of the majority Tamil north and east regions as well as the draconian, Prevention of Terrorism Act, which imprisons people for 18 months, and more, without access to justice.
So, given that nothing has been done to lift these two major tools of Tamil oppression, it’s also not surprising to learn that nothing has changed when it comes to the military’s culture of violence and impunity.
Who could express surprise when the International Truth and Justice Project (ITJP) reported this month that it had sworn statements from 15 Tamil men and five women who had been recently tortured by the military? Some of these people still had fresh wounds when they were interviewed. Most revealing was the fact that fifteen of them were tortured after Sirisena came to power in January last year, five cases happened after August and one as late as last month.
Many were abducted in exactly the same way as thousands of Tamils under the 10-year Rajapaksa regime. Soldiers or police, almost always driving a white van, would descend upon a village, tie the hands of suspects, put them in the back of the van and cart them off to a military base or police station. Often they would never be seen again. And those that did emerge, usually after families paid bribes, would be human wrecks, having been violated by everything from bottles and barbed wire inserted into the anus to hot iron rods slammed across the back.
Sirisena, as a senior member of Rajapaksa’s cabinet for 10 years, was an avid supporter of this carefully-planned regime of torture, rape and murder. Naturally, once he assumed the presidency, he attempted to distance himself from it.
Yes, conceded one of his senior ministers, Mahinda Samarasinghe, this week, abductions and disappearances had taken place under Rajapaksa but they were a thing of the past and those in the new government, including him, had no idea of how it had been allowed to happen. Strange this, for he was also a senior cabinet ally of the former president.
The truth cannot be a consideration for these people who know they are suspected war criminals with the blood of 70,000 Tamils on their hands and who one day will most likely pay for their butchery of innocents. So, in its place, is the unending propaganda campaign, promoting the Sirisena government as a shiny new beacon of democracy and human rights for all.
As we’ve seen this week, though, they can’t hide behind this charade of lies for very long, because they are unable to suppress the inherent racism that is at the heart of their genocidal intent towards the Tamils. The torture, the rape, the murder, must go on if they are to achieve their objective. So who’s surprised when yet another new, shocking report emerges detailing the same violent practices carried out by Sinhalese governments for generations?
“Sadly Sri Lanka’s notorious ‘white vans’ are still operating; it’s very much business as usual,” the ITJP executive director, Yasmin Sooka, said in her report which was released last week.
Business as usual also means outright denial, together with some faux indignation, which Sirisena and his ministers have dutifully produced.
The theatrics are always impressive. Clearly they’ve all had a lot of practice at it over the years. Indeed, no truth is too obvious for them to deny, or no promise too blatant for them to ignore.
The extent of Sirisena’s duplicity knows no bounds, as we saw this week when, after casting doubt that any crimes took place at the end of the war when Sri Lankan Army bombs rained down on 300,000 trapped civilians, he also declared that he would “never allow international involvement” in any war crimes tribunal.
On its own, this statement may sound like another routine reaction but when you add the fact that Sri Lanka co-sponsored a UN resolution last year aimed at setting up a war crimes tribunal, with international representation, you begin to appreciate the Sirisena government’s brazen disregard for honesty and decency.
Despite all the lofty words about governing for all and righting the wrongs of the past, the degradation of the Tami continues in the north and east of the island, through a military occupation, mass incarceration and disappearance, brutal sexual abuse and rape, torture, permanent seizure of land and denial of job opportunities.
So, as with his predecessors who were committed to genocide, Sirisena has no choice but to govern by deception and try to turn illusion into reality.