Kishali Pinto Jayawardene
As the spark lit by Sri Lanka’s youth flamed into incendiary nation-wide revolt on Saturday, this column is written even as citizens breach the gates of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s official residence in Fort, swarm within its premises and shout their now famous rallying cry, ‘Gota, go home’ from its rooftops where once, not long ago, snipers guarded points of entry.
A sea of troops and police using tear gas together with live ammunition could not stop thousands streaming to Colombo, packed in trains wrapped with protest flags, perched on roofs of the few buses still running with precious stocks of fuel. Those who could not find transport simply walked to the capital or protested in their own towns, Kandy, Chilaw and Galle including on the ramparts of the 2nd Test cricket match being played between Sri Lanka and Australia.
In Colombo, the Galle Face Green and the President’s residence in Fort quickly became the focal points of anger as the security forces scattered in the face of the massive public swell which rendered the capital’s main avenues close to invisible from the air. Preceding events had showcased the desperation of the President and his toadies placed at the heads of the state defence apparatus. Even when faced with a complete breakdown of the State at all levels as schools, offices shut down due to the lack of fuel, the President and his Government still did not hesitate to resort to failed measures of repression.
This included the imposition of an (illegal) curfew that was soon lifted as public defiance became emboldened. Indeed, those crude attempts went so far as to warn the public about possible terrorist attacks. This warning was both deadly and ironic given complicity of state intelligence agents of the Rajapaksa Security State in the strikes on churches and hotels by Islamist jihadistsin 2019 as the Catholic Church publicly denounced. This time around, all attempts by the President’s strutting henchmen failed to restrain or frighten the public on Saturday, spectacularly so.
The humiliation of the ‘Rajapaksa State’
The President’s statement on Friday, pleading for calm and promising the resumption of supplies of fuel and domestic gas did not work. Public patience had finally run its toll. As bare-bodied protestors gleefully frolicked in the President’s swimming pool and invaded his private rooms, this is far more than the unprecedented humiliation of a Sri Lankan Head of State. Saturday’s events also reflect the humiliation of the Rajapaksa Security State, the apparatus so carefully built up by the Rajapaksa family in the longest political project in the nation’s history.
That project and its security apparatus had the sole objective of making the country, the personal fiefdom of this family. Even as the apparatus demonised and killed Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese dissenters in the guise of protecting the ‘Sinhala Buddhist’ citizenry, its agents bought over those who resisted in the legal and judicial arena, the media and the corporates with a formidable mixture of coercion and threats.
The process specifically targeted the undermining of already fragile institutions of justice. Sycophants played their chosen roles, some in legal robes shamelessly parroting the law to justify the most horrendous abuse of the Rule of Law.
As the Constitution was changed to accommodate the ‘vision’ of a President-King who swore to cherish the ‘Sinhala-Buddhist’ heritage in front of the Ruvanveliseya (one of the most venerated religious sites in the country), his henchmen had already started dismantling governance institutions with ruthless intent.
From that point onwards, Sri Lanka resembled more a nation of idiots rather than one of the oldest democracies in South Asia, bootlickers and military men were catapulted into key state positions under the aegis of ‘efficient rule.’
Clueless misfits presiding over a nation’s bankruptcy
But the opposite took place, unsurprisingly so. On monetary and fiscal policy, on agriculture and food security policy, on energy, health and education policy et al, clueless misfits and fawning yesmen presided over the bankruptcy of the country. Before long, the monumental incompetence of a man chosen as a President by the Sinhalese populace in 2019 because he ‘won the war’ (as one servile account by a Rajapaksa media propagandist put it at the time) became clear. Equally incompetent were the grinning men and women whom he put to head state institutions.
A few days ago, the nation was grossly entertained by hearings at the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) where the voluble and publicity-hunting Chair of the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka (PUCSL) anxiously explained his ‘political suitability’ to hold that position.
This was in blissful ignorance of the fact that the PUCSL is an independent oversight body which might have averted Sri Lanka’s energy crisis to some extent at least if it had worked properly. The Chair expounded at length on the fact that he had worked since 2005 to bring Gotabhaya Rajapaksa to power and had ‘given out’ his rooms at the Trillium for the President to use.
Not content with that, he seemed to be inflicted with an astounding lack of knowledge as to how the PUCSL functioned, including as to who his own Chief Accounting Officer was. Manifest procedural irregularities of the appointments of staff to that body were highlighted. Were representatives of the Ministry of Finance, also present at the COPE hearings and gravely nodding perchance, not aware of the same all this time? Did the matter have to be brought before COPE for officials to be apprised of the same? Are these stories meant for sleepy children yawning before their bedtime?
Nation-state crumbling to serve a cabal
In sum, the PUCSL illustrates the fate of state institutions under the Gotabahaya Rajapaksa Presidency. Nincompoops marked only by their obsequious obedience to their ‘Master’s Voice’ were appointed to key positions. Corruption abounded, the recent (temporary) resignation of one Minister over a corruption scandal associated with a Japanese contract is just one of many. Who indeed can expect the world or global lending institutions to give Sri Lanka aid as its coffers run dry? So as the nation-state crumbled to serve the interests of a cabal, Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslims tumbled into poverty.
Once very much a part of that cabal who profited off the Rajapaksa victory, television media moguls who spearheaded venomous racism witch-hunting Sri Lanka’s minorities, turned somersaults to condemn the very Rajapaksa mouth that fed them. But as the Sinhalese populace bitterly repents and invades the Presidential House with their favorite fleeing, there are grim lessons from history. Saturday’s scenes bring forcibly to mind what happened in Iraq in 2003, soon after American forces invaded the country.
As the dictator Saddam Hussein’s numerous presidential palaces were overrun by Iraqi citizens, its contents looted, there was that same sense of awe on the part of men in rags entering ‘privileged places’ of the King. Nineteen years later, besieged by geo-political forces, the war of the Islamist State, many warring, corrupt and unstable governments with millions displaced, Iraq is still a country mired in eternal sectarian conflict. There is, of course, a singular distinction here. Sri Lanka is not Iraq, the revolt is by citizens against their President.
And this is one official residence, not a palace by any means, no looting seemed to have taken place. Even so, as the Centre implodes, the exhilaration of protestors rudely gesticulating to the man whom they despise from the rooftops of his official residence, must surely yield to sober recognition of what lies ahead. This is merely the start of a long and difficult road to recovery of governance in the country, if that is yet possible. That is the price that a nation pays for allowing dictatorial regimes to destroy its democratic systems.
As in the case of Iraq, we are caught up in that grimly inescapable vortex.