“He can’t do that. He was the commander. That’s a treason. We will hang him if he does that….. How can he betray the country? He is a liar, liar, liar…”
– Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, when told that Gen. Sarath Fonseka had implicated him in the white flag incident (BBC Hard Talk – June 2010).
A week before his younger brother was anointed the SLPP’s presidential candidate, Mahinda Rajapaksa made a portentous statement to the Virakesari. The newspaper had questioned Mr. Rajapaksa about minority angst concerning a Gotabhaya presidency. He responded with a standard denial thus: “In reality, further to the (19th) constitutional amendment, the Prime Minister has more powers. I’m the Prime Ministerial candidate. So we have to work together” (The Hindu – 10.8.2019 – emphasis mine).
Mr. Rajapaksa’s statement is a declaration of intent on what kind of prime minister he plans to be. It is also a warning of the power struggles that will rule the Lankan state under a Gotabhaya Presidency.
Mahinda Rajapaksa, though not the oldest of the Rajapaksa siblings, inherited DA Rajapaksa’s political mantle. For decades he had been the political paterfamilias of the entire Rajapaksa clan, the sun around which siblings and offspring, nephews, nieces, and cousins revolved. His statement to The Virakesari indicates that he has no intention of relinquishing that pre-eminence to his younger brother.
In June 2019, Nihal Jayawickrama wrote a piece tellingly titled, The Presidential Hopefuls – Have they not read Article 43? Explaining the downgrading of presidential powers via the 19th Amendment, Dr. Jayawickrama argued that the next president would be more akin to William Gopallawa than JR Jayewardene in terms of constitutional powers.
The article gave rise to a lively discussion, the popular counter-position being that the new president, though unable to hold any ministerial posts, would still retain sufficient executive powers to control the direction of the government, and therefore the country.
That debate foreshadows the far from polite contestation that will break out between a President Gotabhaya and a Prime Minister Mahinda.
If Gotabhaya Rajapaksa wins the presidency and Mahinda Rajapaksa becomes the Prime Minister (both outcomes seem likely at this moment), there will be a full scale political civil war between the two brothers for every scrap of power and every inch of ground. In this politico-familial conflict, they will be ably assisted by their loyalists.
Some of Gotabhaya-loyalists have already begun to publicly criticise Mahinda Rajapakasa. Nalin de Silva, who was a prominent attendee at last Sunday’s Gotabhaya investiture ceremony, launched a broadside against the former president just two weeks ago. “Mahinda has no vision. He is merely engaged in popular politics. Mahinda has a backbone. But he is being manipulated by Basil and others… Even President Sirisena might be manipulating him” (Kalaya – 27.7.2019).
So the battle lines are drawn, brother against brother. In that sense, a Gotabhaya Presidency will indeed take us back to our glorious past when power struggles within royal families was a fact of everyday life. Of the 58 Sinhala kings covered by the Mahawamsa of Bhikku Mahanama, only 17 reigned for more than 10 years (two presidential terms by current reckoning). Many kings with short reigns were deposed by their closest kith and kin. Our monarchic past was not exactly the haven of stability we think it was.
Maithripala Sirisena and Mahinda Rajapaksa both knew that the 19th Amendment deprived the president of the power to dissolve the parliament at will. Yet they ignored that constitutional provision and joined hands to launch the anti-constitutional coup of October 26th. When the issue of dissolution went before the courts, the difference between the two leaders became evident. Several Sinhala language newspapers, especially Irida Divaina, reported that Mahinda Rajapaksa advised Maithripala Sirisena to ignore unfavourable judicial verdicts and plough ahead towards an unlawful election. Had Mr. Sirisena listened to that advice, the country would be in the throes of a political civil war by now.
Mahinda Rajapaksa, as president, paid scant regard to judicial rulings. The best case in point was when he illegally impeached Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake in gross violation of rulings by the Supreme Court and the Appeal Court. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa is likely to have even less respect for the judiciary, rule of law or due process. The country would not be able to depend on the judiciary to settle any future turf war between the Rajapaksa brothers since neither would abide by an unfavourable ruling. With no institution capable of acting as an arbiter, the Brothers’ War is likely to escalate, turning the state into a battleground, and compelling politicians and public officials to take sides.
Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s maiden speech was a masterpiece in banality, littered with the kind of platitudes beloved by politicians of all stripes everywhere: people-centric development, developing human resources, more jobs, more infrastructure, e government, middle class housing, war heroes, patriotism, national sovereignty…
What was sui generis about the speech were not the words used, but the words carefully left out – omissions not of forgetfulness but of memory, since the candidate was reading off a teleprompter. The speech made no mention of democracy, basic rights and freedoms, justice or rule of law. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s conscious decision not to mention those particular commonplaces in a speech choking with commonplaces gives a clear indication of what his presidency would be about – the rule of one man and his coterie, according not to laws or due processes but their wants, needs, whims and fancies.
Since Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s name doesn’t appear on the final list of those who renounced US citizenship in the second quarter of 2019, the authenticity of the Certificate of Renunciation issued by his team to a newspaper is in doubt. Does it mean that the man who’s raring to be the next Lankan President forged a document? If so, what does it say about the kind of president he will make?
Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s speech was even more significant in what it didn’t say about Mahinda Rajapaksa. It made no mention of Mahinda Chinthana. It didn’t say that a President Gotabhaya will tread the path of President Mahinda. Using strategic silences, the speech made clear that a President Gotabhaya is his own man who intends to go his own way. Mahinda Rajapaksa, a savvy political operator, would have heard the unspoken message. No wonder he barely smiled during the entire ceremony.
Mahinda Rajapaksa has almost a childish love for over-the-top accolades (‘the Lion in the Lion Flag’, ‘Father of the Nation’ and the ‘Wonder of the World and the Universe’). He clearly enjoys seeing his own face staring at him from a thousand billboards and a million posters. He liked being called Maharajaneni (high king). He is likely to do his best to get his brother elected president, because therein lies his path to premiership. But that unity would be tactical, and is unlikely to last beyond election night. Being eclipsed by his younger brother is unlikely to be the future Mahinda Rajapaksa intends for himself. He’d be able to tolerate a President Gotabhaya only if the presidency is pared down to a ceremonial role. And he will try to attain that goal using the 19th Amendment as his suit of armour and his Excalibur.
Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, who believes in being his own king and has developed his own coterie consisting of retired military men and active businessmen, is unlikely to succumb to his older brother’s demands. The resultant struggle of interpretation and implementation between the two brothers, their nuclear and extended families, their black-coated or saffron-robed advisers, and their armies of supporters might be what posterity most vividly remembers about a Gotabhaya Presidency.
To recreate this past?
In his maiden speech as presidential candidate, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa promised to make Sri Lanka one of the safest and most peaceful countries in the world, once again.
So what was Sri Lanka like when it was ‘one of the safest and most peaceful countries in the world,’ in Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s reckoning?
On 24th November 2011, making the keynote speech at the inaugural National Conference on Reconciliation, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa proclaimed Sri Lanka to be “one of the most secure and stable countries…in the entire world.”
Exactly a month later, on the Christmas Eve of 2011, Khuram Shaikh, a British tourist, was hacked to death and his Russian companion gang raped in the Rajapaksa bastion of Tangalle. The culprits were Sampath Chandrapushpa Vidanapathirana, a Rajapaksa acolyte and the handpicked head of the Tangalle Pradesheeya Sabha, and his fellow thugs. Since the victim was a British national, the politico had to be arrested. He was released on bail within months, and reinstated as the chairman of Tangalle PS.
Khuram Shaikh’s murder couldn’t be denied. But the government did its best to deny the rape of Victoria Tkacheva. On 11th July 2013, Dinesh Gunawardane informed the parliament that Ms. Tkacheva was neither raped nor sexually abused. Challenged about this horrendous lie, his response was, “I am presenting the answer given to me by the Ministry of Defence, based on police records submitted to them.” Mahinda Rajapaksa was the Defence Minister and Gotabhaya Rajapaksa was the all powerful Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Defence. The order to deny the gang rape would have come from one or the other.
One month and sixteen days before Gotabhaya Rajapaksa proclaimed Sri Lanka to be a haven of stability, on October 8th, 2011, a gunfight a la Mafia turf-battles or Hollywood Westerns happened in Kolonnawa, a suburb of Colombo. Duminda Silva, the monitoring MP of Defence Ministry and his entourage attacked the entourage of Presidential advisor Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra. Mr. Premachandra and several others were shot dead.
In 2016, Duminda Silva was convicted of murder by the Colombo High Court. The conviction was unanimously upheld by a five judge bench of the Supreme Court in October 2018. In his ruling, the then Chief Justice, Priyasath Dep said this: “Starting from the time the polling commenced and till the time it was drawing to an end, the 11th Accused (Duminda Silva) spent his day, marauding between polling stations with weapons, defying officials discharging their duties, and assaulting and victimizing people associated with Solangaarachchi (a rival candidate)… The only time they were not seen intimidating people were when the group was having lunch.”
The court agreed that the murder weapon was a gun stolen from the Elephant Pass camp when it was overrun by the LTTE in 2000. Amongst Duminda Silva’s gang was Dematagoda Chaminda, a notorious underworld boss. At the time of the crime Duminda Silva was a monitoring MP of the Defence Ministry and a close acolyte of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. When the Supreme Court gave its verdict, Duminda Silva’s supporters shouted, “We will bring back Gotabhaya Sir to get him out, ” according to The Colombo Telegraph.
Of the many vignettes from that past, just one more. 2010 saw British and Canadian High Commissions being besieged by government-sanctioned mobs. The mob against UN was led by Minister Wimal Weerawansa, another Gotabhay-acolyte. The police looked on as the mob forcibly entered the UN compound and some of its staff hostage. When the police tried to ensure the safety of the captive staff, the mob erupted in anger. “After police intervened Weerawansa made a call on his mobile phone…. The call was to Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa…Weerawansa spokesman Mohammed Mussamil said. Weerawansa passed the phone to the commanding officer who answered, ‘The Inspector General of Police ordered me to do this, sir’. Moments later he ordered his men back and the demonstrators erupted in cheers” (Reuters – 6.7.2010). That was what law and order meant under Rajapaksa rule. Incidentally, no mob besieged the American Embassy.
A Gotabhaya Presidency can bring about political stability and societal safety only if, as Thucydides said in the History of Peloponnesian War, we give those terms new meanings. “What used to be described as a thoughtless act of aggression was now regarded as the courage…; any idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one’s unmanly character… Fanatical enthusiasm was the mark of a real man…” Talking about fanaticism, it is important to remember that in his maiden speech, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa condemned extremist terrorism, but was tellingly silent about extremism.
In his masterly book, Mussolini’s Italy, RJP Bosworth reminds us that Fascist Italy was “a deadly enemy of what is best or most humane about humankind.” That is true of every tyranny, and will be particularly applicable to any of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s making. The man has already decided to form a paramilitary force consisting of volunteers and headed by retired military officers, to ensure his own safety. History offers a parallel: Sturmabteilung; the SA; aka the Brown Shirts.