During the election the Elections Commissioner ordered the police to take down political hoardings (billboards). In the most public display of (illegal) defiance, Mahinda Rajapaksa erected a 60 foot high image of himself at the end of Horton Place. This image was later stripped, leaving a Mahinda shaped skeleton. That too was stripped, leaving only a vertical spine. It was this structure that a lone protestor climbed today. He was literally trying to get into Mahinda’s head. The man has sat there all day, in hot sun and now darkness. He is wearing a motorcycle helmet which permanently obscures his face. He has no visible source of food or drink. He has no shade. He must be tired, hot and hungry, but still he remains. His only demand is to meet the Mahinda. What on earth does this mean? What is going on?
It used to be that you had to kill people to get what you want. Then it became that you just had to make it look like you were killing people to scare people off. That was the great trick of terrorism but it’s a trick that, in Sri Lanka at least has worn off. In this way Sri Lanka is a microcosm for the rest of the world. What comes after terrorism? What we saw on top of the hoarding post today may actually be the future.
Terrorism is fundamentally a media phenomenon. 9/11’s major coup was not killing thousands of people but garnering years of media time and changing the course of American and international thought. To quote Captain Hammer, today it’s not enough to bash in skulls. You need to bash in minds. The desired quantity is not death but attention. Death is simply a way of getting attention. What if there’s another way of getting attention.
Sri Lanka, secured against terrorism, has seen a boom in quasi-legal public theatre, with a point. Wimal Weerawansa fasted unto saline in front of the UN office. This made international headlines. Mervyn Silva tied a government servant to a tree for not attending a dengue seminar. This brouhaha occupied ample column-space until Mahinda rammed his Constitutional amendments through. Mervyn was reinstated as Minister immediately after. This public theatre can work, it can deliver results.
So far, however, it has mainly worked for the powerful. The man on the post has climbed to a space usually reserved for political mugs and he is demanding something too. What I don’t know, probably something deeply personal and mundane. But in this authoritarian age, one may have to appeal to the highest authority. The sign written and hung below him reads:
Till the honorable President gives his special attention to me, calls me and talks to me about those responsible for this injustice and cruelty I will continue this peaceful protest. I’m wearing this helmet for the protection of my mother who is a widow and my two sisters
Fundamentally, this is what people have to resort to in order to get justice in this country. It’s not just a case of one man on a post. Mahinda has amended the Constitution to give himself authoritarian powers. He is now the authority that appoints all major commissions and even maneuvers the justice system into prosecuting his political enemies. Journalist Tissainayagam and former Opposition candidate General Sarath Fonseka have both been tried on trumped up charges, driven only by the President. The former was freed by the President’s decree. No one knows the fate of the latter. There’s no justice, there’s just us (Rajapaksas). It follows that a person with a serious grievance would appeal directly to the king, and in this day and age only this sort of stunt will get their attention.
Like the ancients had to appeal Hindu Gods to get powers, like they had to fast and sacrifice in order to get their attention, this is the example and the model we have set. There is a holy trinity which can do anything, beneath them scurry an array of lesser gods with lesser powers. Even these lesser gods fast and undergo penances to get special attention from above, and they do. The average mortal has no particular access to this world, but there is a Hindu story which may be relevant here.
There once was a king named Trishanku who wanted to go to heaven in his mortal body. He got the great Guru Vishwamithra to perform great rites, upon which his body began ascending into the skies. The god Indra blocked his ascent, knocking Trishanku upside down, but Vishwamithra refused to give up. Trishanku was stuck in the middle. Finally the Devas and Vishwamithra made a compromise. The great guru made a parallel heaven where Trishanku and only Trishanku could reside upside down. The phrase “Trishanku’s heaven” is now used in India to refer to many real situations.
Situations like this, should our masked man get his boon from the President. One man may appeal to the President and get an exception. One can obtain direct results like this. Indeed, the powerful and connected know this all too well. We do not, however, have the institutions to make democratic dispute resolution effective. Mahinda saw to that when he vested almost all authority in the Presidency and himself.
We live in a post-terrorist nation where people don’t blow themselves up in the streets anymore. This is very very good. Thank you Mahinda (and General Sarath Fonseka). We also live a post-democratic age where almost all authority is vested in one man and his family. So institutions became a bit pointless. If you want to get anything done you need to go to the top. Even if that means the top of a hoarding post.