Benazir and bloody politics
As 2007 drew to a close and the country remembered its tsunami dead, came the shattering news from a neighbouring country -- the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, twice Prime Minister of Pakistan and a friend of Sri Lanka -- like all Pakistani leaders have been.
The charismatic Benazir was the first woman Premier of an Islamic country, and also the first woman statesperson in the world to have been assassinated after Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was gunned down by her Sikh bodyguards in 1984.
Benazir who returned to Pakistan so recently, probably banked on the thinking that fundamentalists or even those in the Establishment who may have been targeting her, wanting her eliminated from the political canvas, would be forced to restrain themselves on the basis that they would "suffer in hell" as it is said in certain Islamic writings, if they murdered a woman.
But those who were determined to see her dead before the January 8 elections would have dismissed such notions as the Devil quoting the Scriptures and not shown any scruples in taking her life.
But the loss of a moderate leader, despite all her failings and shortcomings, is clearly seen by the outside world as a regressive and unfortunate event for the long suffering people of Pakistan.
It was just last month that Sri Lanka was thrown into the eye of a mini-storm when the Foreign Minister bungled in expressing this country's position when a section of the Commonwealth made a determined bid to suspend Pakistan from that comity of nations. Pakistan is virtually shredded by divergent forces competing for control of that 60-year-old State born by a painful caesarean operation, and often ruled under conditions that are anathema to democratic rule. But fundamentally, it is a battle between religious extremism and moderation -- and Ms. Bhutto was passionately for the latter.
International analysts, especially those from the west argue that her death will only fuel further instability in a nation that is worryingly, a nuclear power in the region. But countries in South Asia also view the west's presence in Pakistan's internal affairs as the very antithesis of that stability.
Unfortunately, for Pakistan, the country's fortunes took a different path from Sri Lanka and India from 1947 onwards when the British Raj left these parts. Military coups and a concentration of political power in the hands of those in the uniformed services sent the country on a different course. And efforts to bring the country back to a democratic way of life, whatever its shortcomings, have been bombed out of existence.
Sri Lanka fortunately survived a military coup attempt way back in 1962, but life has not been a bed of roses for its people often subjected to tyrannical rule by the democratically elected powers-that-be. Since 1971, governance under emergency regulations has been the rule rather than the exception, and the country has had more than its own share of major civil commotions, insurgencies and a bloody and unfinished separatist struggle fraught with bloodshed, assassinations and killings.
As the New Year approaches, the usual optimism and hopes of a better tomorrow are tinged with uncertainty and foreboding, for many fear the year ahead is going to be a still more difficult one for all of Sri Lanka. The Government, unable to arrest the 'kitchen war' -- the soaring prices of every conceivable item -- has committed itself to ending the 'northern war', come what may. While an end to this curse is everybody's fervent wish, even though opinions on the means towards that end may differ, the inherent transgressions of democratic norms in the process are what people shudder to contemplate.
It is indeed a Catch-22 scenario; while the military is needed to end the 'northern war'; we can count our blessings that Sri Lanka has so far been spared military dictatorships. Governments are often tempted, and wont to exploit instability by using the military -- armed militia -- and political hooligans -- for their own political gains.
There is thus, a need for all right thinking citizens to be watchful, for the signs are all around us -- hints and traces of wannabe dictators using the big stick in the guise of fighting a deadly enemy, of society being sucked into a whirlpool of violent and corrupt politics and increasingly losing the fundamental respect for human rights and values that should be the hallmark.
While much rests in the hands of our elected leaders to guide our destinies with wisdom, vision and compassion, every Sri Lankan too can give his or her best for the greater good of their country; for the year ahead, in more ways than one, promises to be a watershed year for this country.