“When I am president…human rights will be at the core of US foreign policy” – Joe Biden, The New York Times
In its first year the Gotabaya Rajapaksa Presidency has made avoidable strategic blunders, tracing a trajectory which when extrapolated, indicate that it will wind up a one-term wonder, like the otherwise widely-disparate administrations of the Trump Presidency (2016-2020), Yahapalana (2015-2019), and the Samagi Peramuna (1970-1977).
The Trump template should not be underestimated. Back in June, GR insider, author of the inaccurately titled Gota’s War (2012) and Sri Lanka’s new ambassador/PR to the UN-Geneva, dedicated his regular Sunday Politics sermon to a ferocious full-page assertion of why Trump will win and a rousing endorsement of that prospect. His article dated 19 June 2020 and entitled ‘Trump and Civil Unrest in America’ argued assuredly that polarisation around the ‘law and order’ vs. ‘anarchy’ issue guaranteed a white majoritarian tsunami for Trump.
In a fascinating coincidence, this was the core of the successful GR game-plan of 2019. Expect it to be remixed and recycled.
The psychological and ideological identification of the GR project with Trump and Trumpism is/was total but not exclusive – “we’ll always have Beijing” being the Gotabaya administration’s subconscious, entirely unintended salute to Bogart and Casablanca.
On the occasions of the first and second anniversaries of the Sirisena presidency, public seminars of evaluation were organised at which I was a speaker. On both occasions President Sirisena was in the audience and sat through the proceedings. Dr. Suren Raghavan and Prof. Rohan Samarajiva as fellow panellists at the first, and Ambassador Palihakkara, Dr Manikkalangam and Prof Uyangoda among the panellists at the second.
At both these seminars (which are on YouTube) I made the same point: the Government is heading rapidly in the wrong direction, which will prove unsustainable, result in unfavourable polarisation, and crash and burn unless there’s a drastic course-correction back to the moderate centre.
The political adherents of sticking dogmatically to the 2015 mandate or rather, their neoliberal-reformist spin on it, have ended up exiled from Parliament or reduced to a single-digit splinter, while Sirisena’s SLFP which tried belatedly to hit the brakes, has at least a double-digit presence in Parliament.
On the first anniversary of the Gotabaya Presidency, my diagnosis is the same: this won’t end well, but it will end sooner rather than later.
Obviously, the Gotabaya administration hasn’t (yet) had a bond scam type scandal on its watch, but the factor underlying that scandal is something that the GR Presidency has been greatly susceptible to: not appointing officials on the basis of the highest merit, of excellence. Ranil Wickremesinghe’s choice for the Central Bank chairpersonship was based on cronyism, not on his being the best available for the post. A correct choice was made far too late in the day at the insistence of President Sirisena and despite the obstructionism by Prime Minister Wickremesinghe. In President Gotabaya’s first year, the abandonment of meritocracy has become a rule rather than an exception. Does anyone believe, can anyone believe, that the finest available Sri Lankan talent, the best available brains, the human resources of the highest quality and achievement in the fields relevant to the COVID-19 virus, have been mobilised and are actually driving the national/State effort to rescue us from the pandemic?
Nothing is more symbolic and symptomatic of the first year of the Gotabaya Rajapaksa presidency than the complete absence in any capacity whatsoever, of the country’s senior-most virologist (and a party leader of the ruling coalition) Prof. Tissa Vitharana, from the anti-Corona Task Force or any Governmental structure devoted to fighting COVID-19 – and the complete lack of outreach to him. (The story spills out in Chamuditha Samarawickrema’s excellent CNB News Brief video-interview.)
The President’s appointments to/within the military have been fine, but the appointment of the serving and retired military to posts in which they have registered no expertise or experience, still less excellence, will prove at least as systemically damaging as the more obvious bond scam.
The retreat from the principle of merit – the basis of excellence – in post-Independence Sri Lanka began with the Sirimavo Bandaranaike Government’s twin measures (in the early 1970s) of the abolition of the independent public service and the introduction of district-wise and media-wise standardisation at university entrance.
The consequence was the displacement and debasement of the term ‘merit’ from that of objective criteria – relevant educational qualifications and success record – to subjective/normative criteria. Today, it is presupposed that ex-military appointments across the state system, and the annexation of civilian functions under the Defence Ministry headed by a retired General, accord with the criterion of merit, because the military/ex-military has the collective institutional ‘karmic merit’ for having performed the ultimate meritorious deed of saving the country from terrorism.
If you have ‘accumulated merit’ by serving in the most meritorious of professions, the military, in wartime, then – unless you happen to be war-winning Army Commander Sarath Fonseka, in which case you go to jail – by definition you are a part of a meritocracy, and have earned the ‘merit points’ to head the administration in any field, though you may have neither the relevant education nor experience to do so, while there may be many more who actually do.
The Gotabaya presidency’s model is not only the exact opposite of meritocracy, the principle in China, Vietnam and Russia – and the liberal democratic Asia-Pacific societies such as New Zealand and South Korea that the GR administration has clearly turned its back on. It is also the exact opposite of professionalism. Merely because you are a good professional in one profession, it is utterly illogical and irrational to assume that you are similarly proficient in any and all other professions for which you have not been trained and have no experience – let alone track record of success – in.
If Sarath Fonseka and Gotabaya Rajapaksa had not picked the most able officers with the best track record in the military – with the approval of President Mahinda Rajapaksa – and put them in the right places at the right time, we would have continued to lose the Long War instead of winning it in a fairly short time span. The underlying principle or criterion is of universal validity, most certainly in combatting COVID-19.
On many occasions since January, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has gone on public record, including to two international audiences – the SAARC leaders virtual summit and the UN 75th anniversary world leaders summit – respectively downplaying the danger and claiming success in containing Corona (in self-congratulatory detail). If the anti-coronavirus campaign had been fought by an elite Task Force of the finest trained and credentialed professionals in the field, the President would not have made such statements because he would have been far better briefed and advised. Instead he has set up an echo chamber. Sadly, he is imitating the practices not of the victorious last war – the nation’s and his elder brother Mahinda’s finest hour, and his own finest contribution – but of presidential predecessors who chaired the unsuccessful war effort for decades.
The next major crisis we shall face is the economic. This time too, it won’t matter to the suffering citizenry that there was a global pandemic, any more than it mattered to the voters who threw the Sirimavo Bandaranaike Government overboard in 1977 that the OPEC oil shock of 1973 affected a great many countries. The people just want to get out from under.
What helps is if you have assembled the nation’s finest minds in the relevant domain – in this case, economic policy – to counteract the effects of the crisis and to chart a path forward. As in the case of combatting Covid-19, this is not what the Gotabaya administration has done. Pushing Dr. Dushni Weerakoon, Executive Director of the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), out of the Monetary Board is hardly a sign which inspires confidence. Having obtained her PhD at age 27, she has risen to be perhaps our top professional economist, with a reputation for non-partisan, independent policy diagnosis and lucid prescription.
Irrationality vs. realism
The Ranil Wickremesinghe-led, UNP-dominated Yahapalana Government was doomed to a one-term existence by its adherence to an ideological model rather than to Realism. That Government felt it more important to drive through a set of reforms which stemmed from its obsolescent ideological model of the neoliberal glory days of the 1980s and 1990s.
The UNP Leader, Ministers and civil society ideologues were blissfully unaware that in the 21st century a social backlash had overthrown the model in favour of statist-nationalism in Russia and populist religio-nationalism in Eastern Europe. Even when the rebellion reached the West with Brexit, followed by the Trump victory of 2016, the UNP didn’t change course. These global trends apart, the reality of Sri Lankan society – made transparently clear at the Feb 2018 Local Authorities Election – made the Ranilist UNP model utterly untenable.
The UNP sought to turn us into a neoliberal neo-colony of the West. The GR model is designed to turn us into a military-occupied territory ‘liberated’ from liberal-democracy and inhabited by a regimented, controlled, drone-monitored citizenry. The Yahapalana and Gotabaya administrations share the assumption that their electoral victories were some kind of ‘revolution’ and a mandate for total transformation in accordance with their respective ideologies.
The first anniversary of the Gotabaya Presidency coincides with the victory of Joe Biden. President GR must learn the correct lessons of the defeat of President Trump, whose proudest boast of not being a ‘politician’ but a success in other fields, was the source of his biggest blunders, since as a political amateur he had no respect for the values, norms and ethos of democratic politics and governance.
GR and his fellow (Sinhala) long-time supporters of the California Republican Right must absorb the lessons of the two-thirds vote that the Democratic ticket obtained in California (possibly due to Kamala Harris). With or without Democrat control of the Senate, President Rajapaksa can surely figure out the implications of a Democratic administration. Space could open for generalised, permanent ‘lawfare’ under ‘universal jurisdiction’, which could go global.
For the moment the biggest political advantage that President Gotabaya enjoys is the fog of intellectual and psychological confusion in the democratic resistance space. In the USA, the democratic intelligentsia (most indelibly Noam Chomsky), the media and the politicians (most notably Barack Obama) sounded the clarion call that the main existential danger was a second term for President Trump – Chomsky called it a threat to humanity – and that the indubitably overriding objective must be to prevent it. In the midst of the primaries, the Democratic field suddenly cleared for the candidate who had the best chance of winning back the blue-collar white voters and breaking through to the American heartland. The left, progressives, women, and the Black community rallied around him, submerged differences to attain the objective of stopping a second Trump term, perceived as the portal to Fascism of some variety and form.
By contrast, the Lankan democratic intelligentsia remains ‘The Gang That Couldn’t Think Straight’. Recently, an emeritus political science academic urged the democratic Opposition to model itself on that led by Sirimavo Bandaranaike – who it must be noted, never proceeded to lead her country after she lost the General Election in 1977 and was beaten to the presidency by populist Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1988.
As he embarks upon his second year, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa must seek the Middle Path, occupy the moderate political centre, not the extreme, and return to the mainstream democratic political culture and tradition of his family, the Rajapaksas. I know a bit more about it than the Viyath Maga-Eliya hawks may assume, not only because I supported and interacted with Mahinda Rajapaksa for almost 20 years, in and out of office, but also because of a fact that he disclosed in his appreciation of my late father, Mervyn de Silva, in the Daily News of 3 July 1999: “Being only a student of politics, I remained a passive participant at the meetings Mr. de Silva had with my cousins, Lakshman and George [Rajapaksa], gathering valuable points.” (https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/the-uncrowned-media-king-of-sri-lanka/)
When an extremist ideological network-cum-pressure group (self-professedly pro-China) – the Janavegaya – arose within the ruling family and Coalition Government and spread through the State apparatus, George and Mahinda Rajapaksa stood against it. The Rajapaksa political culture was light years away from a ‘Military First’ or ‘Make the Army Great Again’ (the local MAGA) perspective in peacetime. It was civilian, parliamentary, democratic, centre-left progressive, moderate nationalist, undogmatic, pragmatic, flexible, open, reasonable and consensual.
The MR decade wasn’t about reshaping the country according to some ideology or model. He was determined to achieve a decisive end, operating within the democratic Constitution, to the existential danger that confronted the nation: Prabhakaran and his LTTE. By doing so MR achieved the most historic transformation of all. Like his elders, he was very comfortable with the country’s democratic character and civic way of being, in which he swam like a big fish in the sea.
Whole new ball-game
The ongoing transformation of our system from a fairly level democratic playing field to a centralised party-state model of ‘governance’; the de-facto military junta in command of the state apparatuses and their public functions; de-facto Martial Law over the citizenry’s everyday life; the resort to tighter pre-emptive repression than Trump was constitutionally capable of, including capacity for real-time overview of disgruntled or protesting citizenry (as the Israelis have of the Palestinians); the Jojo Rabbit nationalist ‘jugend’ training programs; and the spin by the local Fox News outlets which cannot succeed where Mrs. Bandaranaike’s quasi-monopoly of the mass media failed, offer no solution. They dig the hole deeper.
Having a drone-camera overview of your citizens helps little when far bigger military constellations have you under a microscope, as do personalities respected by far more important players. Denouncing Trump on behalf of The Elders (founded by Mandela), ex-President of Ireland Mary Robinson referred to “undemocratic situations in Kenya, Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe”. In his reply, the Director, International Media and Research at the Presidential Secretariat in Colombo speculated on the possibility that “‘The Elders’ has (sic) become senile…” Classy.
Scorning Prime Minister Modi’s reiteration of the implementation of the 13th Amendment as essential, Team GR hopes to constrict the Sri Lankan Tamils into something smaller and tighter, although the ‘global Tamil brand’ has got a turbo-boost and every ethnic Tamil everywhere has experienced a quantum leap in self-esteem, political optimism and emotional energy with the victory of Kamala Harris (and by extension, her ‘wingwoman’, Rohini Kosoglu nee Ravindran).
Meanwhile, constitutional proposals drafted by a subcommittee including anti-13A hawks Dr. Palitha Kohona and Manohara de Silva PC, were presented by the All Ceylon Buddhist Congress to the PM. With a Biden Presidency and the coming global re-set, it is the worst time for Sri Lanka to be less rather than more liberal-democratic, and more rather than less supremacist-autocratic; the worst moment to pivot from this island’s 90-year-old ‘Western’ democratic political tradition to a ‘Chinese’ centralist governance model.