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Public Anger in Regard to an Incompetent ‘Yahapalanaya’ Leadership Must not Trap us into Exchanging what was Incompetent for the Infinitely Worse.


Kishali Pinto Jayawardene

Pohottuwa campaigners visiting predominantly Catholic belt neighbourhoods with flyers containing images of blood stained altars of the Katuwapitiya and Kochchikade churches while soliciting the vote for former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa must be reminded that the blame for allowing jihadists to flourish unchecked in Sri Lanka is multi-faceted.

Responsibility for intelligence failures is multi-faceted

Today, as the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) leadership inks electoral pacts with the Rajapaksa-led Pohottuwa, their joint battle cry is that national security is in peril. That is the mainstay of the Rajapaksa campaign. Yet the failings of the United National Party (UNP) is a poor second to the primary leadership failure of President Sirisena as Minister of Defence or the responsibility of the Rajapaksas themselves for nurturing fanatics in the East to act as intelligence spies in their networks who then monstrously evolved to carry out the Easter Sunday attacks. That cannot be just wished away by scapegoating ‘a few’ subordinates. This is to grossly insult the intelligence of the Sri Lankan people.

Indeed, President Maithripala Sirisena’s claim this week that the Easter Sunday jihadist attacks on churches and hotels could have been averted if a ‘few’ defence and security officials had acted diligently will probably qualify as the most shameful if not distasteful statement made by a national leader in recent years. This preposterous claim, made without blinking a Presidential eyebrow as it were, while opening the new Defence Headquarters at Akuregoda, completely bypassed President Sirisena’s own responsibilities as Minister of Defence and abysmal failure as the Head of State at several levels.

To put it mildly, it was the President’s chronic inability to select individuals properly suited to their positions which resulted in now disgraced Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando occupying a post for which he had as little qualifications as your commonplace or garden-variety plumber. In fact, the plumber may have had more commonsense than to have blurted out as Fernando did, in the wake of those hideous homegrown jihadist strikes that they were not expecting such a massive attack and that security could not be provided to all hotels and churches. The fault cannot be laid only at Fernando’s door but at the feet of the Head of State who selected and appointed him. Having done that, the man cannot be just offered as a bleating sacrificial lamb to wash the stain of culpability from Presidential hands.

Laying of heavy burdens on ‘a few’ subordinates

Even worse are the claims by some disreputable character that there was an attempt on the President’s life in late 2018 at the same time as former President Mahinda Rajapaksa was attempted to be installed unconstitutionally as Prime Minister. For a while the ‘tamed’ electronic media was awash with images of this ugly mug trotting out fantastic allegations which then faded away following the defeat of the coup. This lent credence to the allegation that this was a transparently concocted story to lend credibility to the ‘coup.’ In the aftermath of that fiasco, the President’s responsibilities to regularly summon security council meetings were frittered away. Are these heavy burdens all to be laid on the shoulders of a ‘few’ subordinates (an Inspector General of Police and a Defence Secretary)?

And, why this selective treatment in blaming some but not others? Where is the punishment for the head of the intelligence services whose culpability is as much, if not more than others? Certainly the spectacle of two high ranking officials being paraded in handcuffs before and after court hearings for the curious public to gawk at, is a disgraceful sight. It was clearly evidenced much earlier that the IGP was not suited to hold that office. Yet, no action followed. For that the UNP is to blame as much as its erstwhile coalition partner, the Sirisena led Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP).

But the truth of the matter is that all these hands are (metaphorically) stained with blood, be this of the Easter Sunday innocents whose agony is being shamelessly ‘politicked’ by Pohottuwa politicians or of countless Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim victims caught up in state conflict. Now the time has surely come for a fresh start, for political leaders who are not part of this tainted history and who do not have to carry the gruesome burdens of the past. And there is a crucial difference between 2015 and 2019 in that Rajapaksa authoritarianism (which, as bad as it was, remained subject to democratic checks and balances) has to be differentiated from the potential militaristic adventurism that faces the country today. The Rajapaksa notion of the country as its exclusive family domain was (then) cloaked in democratic doublespeak but has emerged unapologetically into the open now.

Turning of the tide of democratic politics

This becomes even more clearer as the SLFP is dissolved into the Pohottuwa despite plucky resistance from SLFP old-timers who are alive to the dangers that this represents. Indeed, when SLFP frontliners get hooted at and jeered by Pohottuwa loyalists, more is at stake here than the near-death of one of Sri Lanka’s oldest political parties. This is a shift from traditional party politics to buccaneering, military styled upmanship.

If this is the case now while electioneering, it does not need much effort to envision what it will be like if state power is handed over. Those who crowd the Pohottuwa stage are, by far, unabashedly majoritarian, xenophobic and racist. Its party lawyers do not even pay lip service to the notion of rights, majority or minority. Instead, the message is darker and infinitely more menacing. Muslims are told that if they do not vote for the Pohottuwa, they can blame themselves when they are ‘hammered.’

Catholic and Christians indulging in needless bigotry following the Easter Sunday killings in respect of their Muslim neighbors may note that this same warning will be apt for all religious minorities. In the politics of the absurd, a persecuted minority today may easily be replaced by another tomorrow. Voters must therefore disregard politically biased religious leaders and listen to their own conscience, as must Sinhala Buddhists who reject the political use of religion to instill fear in the population.

Wise exercise of the vote needed

Next Saturday’s vote will determine if we have understood and recognised this danger. Public anger in regard to an incompetent ‘yahapalanaya’ leadership enmeshed in the toils of corporate white collar scoundrels, including successively corrupt and then grandstanding Finance Ministers, must not trap us into exchanging what was incompetent for the infinitely worse. Citizens traipsing to the polling booths cannot, like President Sirisena sought to do this week, wash their hands of culpability for precipitating Sri Lanka into the raging floods of the unknown, the uncharted and the undefined. The right to vote must be exercised consciously and with full knowledge that this election has consequences which are not limited in terms of one democratic alternative against another.

That fact must be recognised in all its terrible gravity.

Courtesy: Sunday Times