“We were on the Titanic and everyone knew it was hitting the iceberg”
– Eric Hobsbawm (Interesting Times)
In a few months, we, the Lankan voters, will be asked to make a choice that history may well term tragic. The UNP, the SLFP, the SLPP and the JVP have all expressed an interest in entering the presidential race. President Sirisena, if he is insensible enough to contest, will find himself in the ignominious position of vying with the JVP for the third place. At the next presidential election, the real battle will be between the nominees of the UNP and the SLPP.
A Rajapaksa victory will return Sri Lanka to the authoritarian path. Familial rule will be restored, alongside Rajapaksa-led militarisation of civil spaces. The freedoms gained in the last four years will either be rolled back (19th Amendment) or retained only as facades (the Right to Information Act). Extremism will become the norm (monk Galaboda-Atte Gnanasara will be as free as a bird) and violence the preferred solution to most problems (starting with dissent). Civil liberties will be undermined in the name of restoring discipline while Rajapaksa acolytes run riot with total impunity. It is instructive to remember that during the previous Rajapaksa rule, the monitoring MP of defence and his cohorts gunned down a presidential adviser in broad daylight; and a hand-picked head of a local council and his cohorts gang-raped a Russian tourist and murdered her British fiancé. That was how the haven of discipline worked in reality.
The main choice at the next presidential election will be straightforward – does Sri Lanka return to Rajapaksa rule or not. And it will be presented so by the two main contending formations – the SLPP as a promise and the UNP as a threat. The SLPP will use the ‘Mahinda magic’ to enthuse true believers into voting for a candidate who is not Mahinda Rajapaksa. The UNP will use the ‘Rajapaksa threat’ to recreate the moment and the mood of January 2015. The way the political landscape is today, the SLPP’s chances of success are substantially greater than that of the UNP.
Many an anti-Rajapaksa Lankan would find it next to impossible to summon any enthusiasm for the alternative. The UNP’s four years in office have been a time of unintelligent governance. Max Weber defined politics as “a strong and slow boring of hard boards,” and opined that being a politician requires passion and perspective.i The UNP lacks both. it’s public image is a disastrous combination of venality, inertia, and tedium. Its actions and inactions have made a mockery of the hopes of 2015 and given good governance a bad name. The UNP’s unique capacity to simultaneously kindle teeth-grinding irritation and jaw-aching boredom could keep a sizeable segment of the anti-Rajapaksa voters away from the polling booth. Unfortunately for Lankan democracy, such non-voting would be a form of voting. It could ensure a Rajapaksa victory, as happened at the local government election of 2018.
Discipline for us; freedom for them
In 2012, the Rajapaksa regime instituted impeachment proceedings against Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake. One of the many charges lobbed against Dr. Bandaranayake was culpability in the Golden Key debacle. The charge was given much publicity in the official media; and short-changed depositors were encouraged the government to protest outside the CJ’s official residence.
Ironically, the evidence given before the Parliamentary Select Committee handling the impeachment indicated that the real culprit in the Golden Key debacle was not the CJ but the then Governor of the Central Bank. In her witness testimony, Supreme Court Justice Shiranee Thilakawardana revealed that the Special Investigation Unit of the Central Bank commenced an investigation into Golden Key accounts when Sunil Mendis was the Governor of Central Bank. The investigation was launched in response to a number of public petitions. In July 2006, President Mahinda Rajapaksa appointed Ajith Nivard Cabraal as the new Governor. Soon afterwards, the investigation into Golden Key accounts was stopped. Justice Thilakawardane backed up her statement with the relevant minute: ‘…..the Monetary Board is informed of the above and is invited to approve a discontinuance of the examination commenced in respect of the Golden Key Credit Card Company under Section 11 of the Finance Companies Act.”ii She pointed out that had the investigation continued, the Golden Key disaster could have been minimised. Most damningly, she opined that the discontinuance “might have happened after a meeting between Lalith Kotelawala, the Chairman of Ceylinco Conglomerate, and the Central Bank.”iii
Justice Thilakawardane’s statement should have been followed by a media blitz, and a series of investigations leading to some kind of judicial proceeding. But nothing happened. Nothing happened because there was no freedom for anything to happen. Ajith Nivard Cabraal was a Rajapaksa favourite. Investigating or prosecuting him was impossible in a political landscape characterised by impunity for Rajapaksa acolytes.
The suspects of the 2015 bond scam couldn’t get away with it, because there was freedom to report and to protest. But under Rajapaksa rule no such freedom was present. The lack of freedom did not bring about discipline or honesty; it merely encouraged abuse and criminality on the part of the powerful.
When actual or would-be autocrats proclaim that there can be no freedom without discipline (as Gotabhaya Rajapaksa did in a recent interview), what they mean is iron political discipline must be imposed on ordinary citizenry, so that the leaders can have the total freedom to do what they want.
Illusion is a corollary of power; greater the power, the more outrageous the illusions. Perhaps the most egregious of these is the illusion of infallibility most power-wielders succumb to. Believing themselves to be inerrant, they seek to place themselves above the law. So you have the doctrines of sovereign immunity/crown immunity and papal infallibility, laws against insulting kings and the crime of blasphemy, the tradition that some people and some institutions should be above law and criticism. If no one is permitted to point out that the emperor is naked, emperors of all sorts can thrive in the delusion of their perfect dress-sense.
Therefore it is no accident that one of the rapidest eroding freedoms in a time of generalised erosion of liberties is the freedom to criticize repositories of power. According to the latest Media Freedom Index, the climate of hatred towards the media has grown not only in authoritarian countries but also in democracies.
“More and more democratically elected leaders no longer see the media as part of democracy’s essential underpinning but as an adversary to which they openly display their aversion.”iv The reason for such intolerance, such hostility is understandable. Impunity can be successful only where minds are shackled, mouths silenced and hands paralysed.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa violated two court orders and impeached a chief justice, and got away with it. Minister Mangala Samaraweera’s ill-meant attempt to remove a highly respected career official as the Director General of Customs and replace her with a retired military officer failed. Minister Samaraweera backed down not because he wanted to, but because he had to, thanks to a storm of negative publicity, and trade union action. The different outcomes were sourced in the differences in the political landscape, then and now. Then there was no safe space to criticise or protest. Now there is. So Arjun Mahendran is on the run, and Arjun Aloysious is on bail, after spending almost a year in custody, while Ajith Nivard Cabraal holds forth on corruption and probity. The difference might be much smaller than we hoped for in 2015, but it is real nonetheless.
When power-wielders believe that they are inerrant, there is no room for democratic dissent. That was the way things were under Rajapaksa rule, and that is the way things will be, if the Rajapaksas return. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa (who is tussling with older brother Chamal for presidential candidacy) once claimed that “If they harm me, it is the country they harm.”v The principle encapsulated in that bald statement applies to his family as well. When Lakbima carried a funny caption about Gotabhya Rajapaksa’s wife, the editor was hauled before the CID and questioned for three hours.vi When men, who believe themselves to be supermen, assume power, even common or garden laughter can become a crime against the state, the nation and the people.
That is the future awaiting us thanks to Maithripala Sirisena’s greed, the UNP’s cupidity and our own paralysing hopelessness.
Bad is not worse
Maithripala Sirisena epitomises, in his person and conduct, the transformative capacity of power. The man who swore to be a one-term president is now willing to do anything to win a second term. His current hope is to be anointed as the common candidate of a SLFP-SLPP alliance. With that goal in mind, he is trying to make himself acceptable to Mahinda Rajapaksa voters. As a result, we are treated to the unedifying spectacle of Mr. Sirisena trying to recast himself as Mr. Patriot, Mr. Law and Order and Mr. Pious.
These days, Mr. Sirisena wants to hang drug offenders to prove he is tough on crime. He tries to trade on patriotism. He praises tradition and family values. He dreams of rolling back the democratic reforms he himself pioneered. For instance, his remarks indicate that the independent commissions he now wants are the same sort of independent commissions Mahinda Rajapaksa created via the 18th Amendment – commissions which exist to approve whatever the president wants, and are independent only where slavery is freedom, truth are lies and war is peace.
Thanks to the anti-constitutional coup of October 26th, Sri Lanka gained a special mention in the latest Freedom of the World Report. “In Sri Lanka President Maithripala Sirisena’s unilateral dismissal of the prime minister threatened recent democratic gains. Sirisena attempted to disband the parliament when legislators rejected the move, but in a decision reflecting the judiciary’s independence, the Supreme Court declared the dissolution unconstitutional and the prime minister was restored to office.”vii It was a story with a kind of a happy ending, unlike many of the other countries showcased in the report.
An independent judiciary saved Lankan democracy. But the independence of the judiciary would have availed Lankan democracy nothing, had the president decided to ignore the ruling. Maithripala Sirisena betrayed and continues to betray the hopes of 2015. Yet that is a line he hasn’t crossed. For all that he tries to don the Rajapaksa mantle, he is not as undemocratic and as abusive as the Rajapaksas, and might never be.
The Rajapaksas responded to judicial independence not with complaints or criticism, but with a hatchet. Judges were threatened, and even physically attacked. What does Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, have to say about Justice Manjula Thilakaratne being pistol-whipped on a Sunday morning in Mt. Lavinia? While the impeachment of the CJ was proceeding its illegal way, President Rajapaksa proclaimed that “all powers regarding leave matters pertaining to Supreme Court judges and their foreign visits etc. and the approval thereof will now by default be vested with him as the Executive.”viii These acts of violent and non-violent coercion sent a clear signal to the judiciary – the Rajapaksas have zero-tolerance towards any judge who tries to be independent.
The gradations, the difference between bad, worse and worst are important, given where we are. In a contest between bad and bad or worse and worse, non-involvement is possible. One can still say, “A plague on both your houses,” and not be guilty of acting in bad faith. But that is not the kind of election we will have to face in a few months. It is an election between a bad president who will try to weaken democracy if given half a chance, and a president whose starting point will be the destruction of democracy. It might not seem much now, when we are free to harangue and protest. We will realise its true import, only when it is gone. Like many things in life, by then it will be too late.