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The monk and the temple are the strongest political bond the Rajapaksas have forged. Will that be more powerful than the power of a two-thirds majority?

By Gamini Weerakoon

(Gamini Weerakoon is a former editor of The Sunday Island, The Island and Consulting Editor of the Sunday Leader)

The constitutional power vested in a two-thirds majority in parliament of declaring a man to be a woman and vice-versa emanated around the heady days of 1972 when the United Front government of Sirima Bandaranaike and Marxist parties commenced drawing up the second constitution for this country, having scored a two-thirds majority in the 1970 General Election.

The fire breathing socialist, anti-imperialist members of the Front triumphantly proclaimed that the umbilical cord connecting Lanka with imperialists for over 450 years had been finally severed by them and Sri Lanka ceasing to be a Dominion in the Commonwealth under the Queen of Great Britain. This country had become a truly free sovereign and independent republic. True, in a legal context we were free, sovereign and independent. But in reality, how ‘free’ did we become? Forty-eight years after those heady days, how free are we today?

Legal declarations can proclaim a man to be a woman or not but transition from one gender to the other can only be performed by specialists in the medical profession in very rare circumstances. That the ordinary citizen knew and when ‘The Law’ attempted to make a man a woman, ‘The Law’ became an ass, in the eyes of the public.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa now has the power he longed for the implementation of his manifesto: ‘Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour’ but can he take off to a flying start immediately? As much as he may wish, he can’t. He has no money.

Lanka’s external debt by the beginning of 2020 was around $ 55.9 billion and there has been no significant improvement since he took over the presidency nine months ago.

In times of economic recession governments have attempted internal generation of the economy such as through agricultural campaigns. These attempts have not resulted in not much significant economic development but have been more or less propaganda campaigns to keep the spirit of the ruling party going.

The Rajapaksa family dominated Pohottuwa party’s successful propaganda to bring down the ruling Yahapalana government now appears to be boomeranging on themselves. It is better expressed in pithy Sinhala political lingo: ‘Ape arraku dhang apita gahanawa’ (the arrack we consumed is now hitting us back). Pohottuwa supporters interpreted any foreign investments that were permitted by the Yahapalana government was tantamount to selling off the ‘national treasures’ of the country. Any profit made by foreign investors was sheer robbery of the national wealth of the country in collaboration with traitors in the ruling party. They did not consider why any foreign investor—private or a national government—should invest in Lanka if they can’t make a profit as agreed to with the government.

This brazen cockeyed logic was applied to the million-dollar projects in Hambantota to immortalise themselves that turned out to be White Elephants.

When the yahapalana government attempted to give out land in the region on a 99- year lease to China to settle debts of the Rajapaksa government, all hell broke loose and cries were raised saying Hambantota was being sold to China!

Meanwhile a Nelsonian Eye has been turned on the issue of valuable properties being given for a song such as the three-acres of prime land in Colombo—for sale or lease—to the Hong Kong-based Shangrila Hotel company.

The strike of Colombo Port workers on the eve of the General Election in protest against the sale of the ECT—Eastern Container Terminal—to a foreign conglomerate comprising India, Japan and a Lankan company could be the harbinger of boomeranging to the sale of ‘national treasures’ by the new government. The strike was settled even before election day. Shadows of the power of the two-thirds majority?

Whatever the ‘neutral’ foreign policy of new president Gotabaya Rajapaksa may mean, the global scene is far from conducive to him, partly because of the domestic policies of the Pohottuwa party in opposition.

The presidential election of the United States is scheduled for mid-November and although the Democratic Party challenger Joe Biden is far ahead in opinion polls, pollsters are still not writing off incumbent Donald Trump.

The United States with either a Republican or Democratic president will want Sri Lanka to sign two defence agreements – the Acquisition and Cross Service Agreement (ACSA) and the Status of Forces Agreement, both of which were strongly opposed by the Rajapaksa party while in the opposition

. The dilly-dallying by President Rajapaksa on these agreements even after eight months in office may be that there is re-thinking on the issue. The US is Sri Lanka’s largest export market and any hiccups there could result in disasters in Colombo.

There is also the issue of violation of human rights by the Rajapaksa government during the last phases of the terrorist war. Even though the Trump administration pulled out of the UNHCR in Oct 2017, the US representative Nikki Haley calling it a ‘cesspool of political bias’, US has not relaxed in its call for investigations into alleged violations of human rights.

A Democratic administration which will be subject to Eelamist lobbies through Evangelical organisations too is unlikely to relax on the implementation of the joint resolution sponsored along with Sri Lanka to promote accountability on violations of human rights and creation of judicial mechanisms to probe alleged violation of human rights.

Such investigations have been vehemently opposed by Rajapaksa governments and today some of its frontline military men holding top civilian posts are specifically named offenders.

With India as America’s South Asian proxy vis-à-vis China, American interests in Lanka are likely to surface through India.

But both the United States and India are right now not blessed with enough financial largesse to offer countries in need such as Lanka. India is offering economic assistance but this is peanuts to Lanka’s economic resurrection.

China has the financial clout and needs Sri Lanka’s cooperation on its Belt-and-Road Initiative through land and sea, particularly on the use of Lanka’s seaports. But XI-Jinping is not Santa Claus to throw away presents in gay abandon. China gives loans on its terms, great part of this country’s massive debt being repayments of Chinese loans along with mounting interest.

Thus, President Rajapaksa’s position is unenviable. In the previous four to five decades even though the country’s finances were barely at manageable limits, it was not critical as today and past leaders could swing to the geopolitical winds buffeting Lanka and claim to be Non-Aligned. Today, does Rajapaksa enjoy that freedom to do so?

Rajapaksa can sign the US defence and other agreements he may be presented with, ward off Chinese pressure with US assistance, provided he is assured of the required economic and financial assistance. Or he can agree to Chinese proposals for massive investments here and permit them to use this island for strategic purposes of China.

But how would such decisions go with the massive political forces that backed him for his victory at the presidential election and that of his brother Mahinda in the General Election? The Colombo port strike before the election saw a few but leading agitators in saffron robes supporting strikers and demanding that the government can’t go back on its pledge of not selling the nation’s property to foreigners.

The foreign policy options Rajapaksa has to overcome his economic conundrum is likely to clash head on with the Pohottuwa propagandists. How would he tackle this issue?

The strength of the Rajapaksa party is its imperceptible merger with more than half the Sinhala Buddhist community than any other political party. The Rajapaksas, the third ruling political family after independence, are unlike the landowning, capitalist-aristocratic Senanayakes or the Bandaranaikes, the elitist family of Maha Mudliyars that were the trusted employees of the British.

Their claim is to the leadership of the Girawapattu Korale and now to the entire Ruhuna. They speak the same lingo of the Sinhala-Buddhist masses and have forged a very intimate and resilient bond with monks which other party leaders have failed to do. Most UNP leaders are Buddhists with links to Buddhist temples but not to the extent of the Rajapaksas.

After their defeat in January 2010 Mahinda Rajapaksa had more ‘political interviews’ and ‘press conferences’ in temples on TV after meeting head priests and receiving their blessings.

Even after the recent sweeping victory, both brothers are seen at many leading temples, falling at the feet of monks, of course with TV crews trailing behind.

The monk and the temple are the strongest political bond the Rajapaksas have forged. Will that be more powerful than the power of a two-thirds majority?

Courtesy:Sunday Times