by Tisaranee Gunasekara
“Suspended over the abyss, the life of Octavia’s inhabitants is less uncertain than in other cities. They know the net will last only so long.”
Italo Calvino (Invisible Cities)
The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration’s failure to abolish the executive presidency has brought Sri Lanka to this impasse.
Replacing the executive presidency with a more democratic alternative was the founding promise of the uniquely disparate alliance that successfully challenged the Rajapaksa behemoth in 2015. The failure to honour that promise has placed in jeopardy every single achievement of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration, notably the partial advances made in democratic restoration and establishment of the rule of law. These advances are significant, but fragile. They require space to take root and time to grow. Thanks to current administration’s failure to abolish the executive presidency and its shameless violation of every tenet of good governance, Sri Lanka is unlikely to have that space and time.
The government’s other signature failure was its inability to reform the prevailing political culture by limiting corruption, repression and abuse. Had the government achieved some success in redefining political culture, the bar for potential candidates for the presidency could have been set at a higher level. Thanks to the duplicity, venality, cowardice and inefficiency of the current administration, any two bit character, from politicians to retired military men, from entrepreneurs to tuition masters, can present himself as a presidential candidate. The government’s many failures are being equated with failures of democracy. The myth of the strong leader is regaining political traction. Saviours emerge from behind every bush, and under every rock offering salvation to an electorate that is too disenchanted or angry to be rational.
Dinesh Amaratunga, the math tuition master whose defender-riding ‘VIP security’ attacked a van driver in Kalagedihena two weeks ago, has been touting himself as a putative presidential candidate. Another dreamer of the presidency, businessman Dhammika Perera, seems to have been caught causing severe environmental damage in search of a quick buck. Hayleys Free Zone, the company at the centre of the garbage importation scandal, is a subsidiary of the Hayleys Group of which Mr. Perera is the majority shareholder and joint (non-executive) chairman. In 2013, another Hayleys subsidiary, Dipped Products PLC, was at the centre of the Rathupaswala tragedy. The company was reportedly responsible for the contamination of ground water in 28 grama niladhari divisions. When the affected residents protested peacefully, the Rajapaksa administration responded by sending the army. Three people died and many were injured when the army shot at the protestors.
In 2011, President Rajapaksa appointed businessman Dhammika Perera as the Secretary to the Ministry of Transport. Mr. Perera was holding that position when President Rajapaksa signed the Extraordinary Gazette 1818-30 in July 2013. That gazette permitted the import of used goods to Sri Lanka tax-free, under the facade of re-export. That gazette could be signed with no fuss (just as the SOFA could be renewed by American-Lankan dual citizen Gotabhaya Rajapaksa with no fuss), because that was a time when transparency was unknown, and dissent a crime.
When politicians, businessmen, retired military-men, and religious leaders sing the song of the strong leader, their aim is to return the country to a time when rulers could break every law and norm, and yet don the mantle of infallibility.
Sir Gotabhaya and his Shining Armour
When Marianne David, Senior Editor of the Financial Times, complained about the harassment women are subject to in public places, the denizens of Gotabhaya-land went into twitter-hysterics. Viyathmaga accused Ms. David of shaming Sri Lanka in the eyes of the world and impeding the recovery of tourism. Retired admiral Mohan Wijewickrama, a Gotabhaya-acolyte, told Ms. David, “Please leave this country. You do not belong here.” (Economy Next – 11.7.2019).
Mr. Wijewickrama’s Trumpian rant brings to mind an even more dangerous statement made by another Gotabhaya-acolyte, retired general Kamal Gunaratne. Speaking at a Viyath Maga seminar in October 2017, Mr. Gunaratne branded as traitors anyone supporting a new constitution. He went on to claim that these traitors deserve death, and must be denied normal funeral rites, as the JVP notoriously did during the Second Insurgency.
These two incidents clearly forewarn what Sri Lanka could become under a Gotabhaya Rajapaksa presidency, a place of absolute and violent intolerance. Anyone incurring the ire of the saviour-president and his acolytes will be silenced, one way or the other. If Sri Lanka escapes this fate, it will be due to that curious decision made by super-patriot Gotabhaya Rajapaksa – abandoning his military career and his land of birth when Sri Lanka was caught in the fires of the Second Eelam War.
Why did this man, who has painted himself in the colours of lion, take early retirement from the army (probably on a full pension)? Why did he abandon Mother Lanka for Uncle Sam?
Twenty two years later, in June 2013, Mr. Rajapaksa provided an explanation for these curious choices. The man of courage blamed his wife. All he wanted to was to cleave to his battalion. She made him leave the army and go to America. The title of the article made the point: Ayoma wins the day. The Island article of June 30th 2013, based on an interview with Mr. Rajapaksa, goes to painful lengths to tell the reader how everyone, from the army commander to the defence minister, tried to keep Lt. Col. Rajapaksa in the army. Minister Ranjan Wijeratne reportedly flew to Weli Oya to persuade the Lt. Colonel to change his mind, offering as an incentive a transfer away from operation duties. The offer was rejected. The Lt. Colonel just wanted “to serve with his battalion, wherever it was deployed.”
Minister Wijeratne probably knew his man. Soon afterwards, he appointed Lt. Col. Rajapaksa as the Deputy Commandant of the Kotalawala Defence Academy. The Lt. Colonel was in this safe enclave (where his battalion was, the article doesn’t tell), when Minister Wijeratne was killed by the LTTE in the heart of Colombo. As the article says, “Shortly after Minister Wijeratne’s assassination, Lt. Col Rajapaksa sent in his retirement papers.”
The article also mentions the names of several superiors of Lt. Col. Rajapaksa who played supporting roles in this saga. Most of them were killed by the LTTE when Gotabhaya Rajapaksa was treading the path to American citizenship in the truly safe enclave of California.
These days, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s supporters are busy creating their own myths about their man. For example, Viyath Maga came up with an internet-poster, carrying a picture of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and a kaviya, written in the style of S Mahinda Thero. “When the merit-laden Motherland wants (me), why do I need the citizenship of another country?” the kaviya asks rhetorically. “I will abandon all honours and will return Mother, to (undertake) the endeavour of protecting you.”
The target audience is expected to believe that their hero is making a great sacrifice willingly to serve Sri Lanka. The facts are cleverly hidden. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa received no honours in the US; he was just an ordinary immigrant who worked hard and made good, like millions of others. The only reason he is giving up that hard-earned citizenship, rather unwillingly, is because he must.
The beautification of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa by his acolytes is as superficial as the beautification of Colombo by Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. In both cases, the focus is on optics; just splash the paint and spread the glitter. The end result is easier on the eye, though underneath the shine, the beast is the same.
The Elephant’s Dilemma
Ranil Wickremesinghe violated the solemn promise to abolish the executive presidency because he wanted to be the next executive president. He encouraged corruption and tolerated racism and extremism for the same reason. For those unforgivable political crimes, he is being pursued by the fates, in the form of Sajith Premadasa. A battle royal is brewing up between the two men, a contest which might fracture the UNP when the party needs its unity most.
Politics of entitlement and familial politics were anathema to Ranasinghe Premadasa. His son’s preferences seem antipodal. “I have been ready and working to take the country’s leadership from the day of birth,” Sajith Premadasa is quoted saying, after highly symbolic meetings with the chief prelates of Asgiriya and Malwatte (Lankadeepa – 23.7.2019). He also refused to comment on the issue of UNP candidacy, saying that the presidential election is not on his mind. According to him, his mind is focused on how to build 1,123 chaithyas (ibid).
Sajith Premadasa clearly believes that the masses are asses. Why else would he say that he is not thinking of the presidential election? Moreover, if he believes that building 1,123 chaithyas is the need of the hour, he knows nothing of the state of Sri Lanka and the problems of her people. If Sri Lanka has a surfeit of anything other than corrupt and ignorant politicians, it is religious edifices.
Mr. Premadasa’s statement reveals that he intends to use the religious card to gain the UNP’s candidacy and to win the presidency. Pandering to religion as a strategy would be both unprincipled and unintelligent. It will worsen the country’s ethno-religious divide; it will also help rather than hinder a Rajapaksa victory. When it comes to ethno-religious politics Rajapaksas are peerless and unbeatable. It is their preserve, and anyone battling them on that field cannot but lose.
Commenting on the new American reality, former president Obama said, “…by the time I take office, what you increasingly have is a media environment in which if you are a FOX NEWS viewer, you have an entirely different reality than if you are a New York Times reader.” (CNN – 29.11.2018)
This is true of Sri Lanka as well. We too live in a divided land, divided along pro and anti Rajapaksa lines. The strength of the pro-Rajapaksa camp is that they have leaders who represent the values and interests of their core-supporters. The weakness of the anti-Rajapaksa camp is that it has no leaders fighting for the values and interests of its core-supporters.
Where was the UNP when the chief prelate of the Asgiriya chapter indirectly supported the stoning of all Lankan Muslims? Why is the UNP allowing the ACJU to scuttle MMDA reforms, again? Why is the UNP silent about the unjust incarceration of the young Sinhala-Buddhist writer, Shakthika Sathkumara, for writing a short story critical of a fictional Buddhist monk? Does the UNP think that by pandering to extremists, it can win electoral salvation? Doesn’t it understand that failing to stand up for the values of its core-supporters amounts to a radical loss of intelligent self-interest, a path not to victory but to self-inflicted defeat?
The stance on Mahinda Rajapaksa and the Rajapaksa family was the main line of demarcation in Lankan politics in 2010 and 2015; it remains so today. The SLPP is not just a family affair. It is also Sinhala-Buddhist supremacist. It sees the minorities not as equal citizens of Sri Lanka, but as outsiders with no inalienable rights. It is socially conservative and politically illiberal. It is anti-democratic and regards authoritarianism as a precondition for rapid development. These values are common both to the leadership and the base, creating a strong bond between them.
This racist, authoritarian-minded and illiberal cohort makes up close to half of the Lankan electorate (around 45%). And thanks to the gross mistakes and misdeeds of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration, this cohort stands an excellent chance of returning to power, at the heels of the Rajapaksas. They can still be stopped, but only by a candidate at the head of a broad coalition willing to stand up for and represent the values and interests of the non/anti-Rajapaksa half of the electorate. The way things are now, the chances of such a coalition emerging are rather slim. In the absence of that critical development, the choice will be between bad and the worst. And the SLPP will win, if not outright, then in the second round.