By Shyamon Jayasinghe –
The author is a 22-year-old young writer called Thisuri Wanniarachchi. Her essay is a masterpiece in a way as the penetrative insight she evinces is impressive for a young writer of this age and experience. Her political observation is something that has developed only over a few years – maybe 5 years – since most of the years of Mahinda Rajapaksa that are referred to covers a period where she had been a kid or young adult at school.
Thisuri writes: “I first met President Rajapaksa when I was 11 years old. I had won a national short story competition and the Ministry of Cultural Affairs had taken me and several other winners to Temple Trees to see the President. He was a rare and skilled politician. He knew the game and he played it very well. He had a clever way of making people feel comfortable around him. He patted our heads spoke to us for a long time; asked us about school and home. We were infatuated. He had us hooked. The other kids and I would go home and tell our friends and family what a great man he was. He was simple, loving, almost god-like”. ‘He’s like a father, not a President,’ the kid from Mahiyangana who was the winner of the Sinhala short story category said on our way out. Little did we know, that was all politics.” Thisuri follows up: “I met him again when I was sixteen, when I won the State Award for the Best Novel of the year. By then I had read many books on democracy and governance, and I was starting to realize what Rajapaksa was up to. He was playing us. He was satisfying his electorates in every way he could, and ignoring the rest of his duties. By 2012 at least 30% of the people had noticed this, with the way he treated General Fonseka and his supporters and by 2013 40% of the people were talking about the growing nepotism. By 2014, he had resorted to creating internal conflict within religious communities to distract the people from the economic menace that the country was in due to mishandling of state resources; bad move on his part, and his opposition grew to 50-55%. His propaganda was no longer effective and come 2015 elections, he is defeated.”
Jailing Sarath Fonseka
Thisuri pinpoints the memorable and defining episode of Mahinda jailing the Army Commander. At the killing of Prabhakaran and the military defeat of the Tamil Tiger terrorists, Mahinda, at a rare honest moment in his life, applauded Fonseka as “the greatest army commander in the world.” Mahinda saw around him banners hailing Fonseka put up by a grateful public. Probably, Mahinda had been advised by his spin doctors not to do that and to have the banners removed. The spin doctors saw the unbelievable potential of taking Fonseka’s share away from the latter and cheating the whole victory for Mahinda.
That had been quickly done and achieved and it did not take many months for SF to be dragged away, indicted by a controversial military court and jailed as a criminal in the way Prabhakaran had been in the eyes of the law.
For three years Fonseka languished in jail. That was Fonseka’s most heroic period, which he spoiled later and now in becoming cheaply political.
This episode “defines” Mahinda Rajapaksa as I have said above. In management theory we learn of an employee’s true character and fibre by analysing a critical incident in his workplace where he was involved. This is called the ‘Critical Incidence Technique.’ The treatment of Fonseka was Mahinda’s earliest critical incident as a ruling politician; it showed him up to the world except for gullible patriots unable to extricate themselves from the deception.
As a matter of fact, that incident put me off Mahinda Rajapaksa forever as it dawned on me that he was nothing but a selfish man and nothing but an unscrupulous man who by virtue of a deep ethical anomie is unfit to rule Sri Lanka.
Mahinda Lost a ‘Kalinga Moment’
If anyone thought that Sri Lanka is about to witness a dawn or renaissance into a bright future this incident would have been adequate to dispel such a dream. Socrates said that a virtuous man can be expected to behave in a virtuous way in any given field and that all society needed was to create such virtuous persons. Plato extended this insight into he concept of a philosopher king who is both virtuous and learned in the discipline of governing. Mahinda Rajapaksa sorely lacks virtuosity and an ability to move out of his ego. The golden rings around his fingers showed the values Mahinda stood for and the superstition clouding his mental capacity.
Had Mahinda Rajapaksa been the right leader he would have utilised the Great War victory to usher in a kind of Kalinga era that we have seen happened under Emperor Ashoka in medieval India. Ashoka won the war with Kalngas and unified India. He experienced a self-revulsion over the unseemly bloodshed that had occurred. He was self converted from ‘Chandashoka’ (violent) to Dharmashoka (just) thereafter and he set up one of the most peaceful and beneficent welfare regimes the world has seen. HG Wells described Ashoka in his History of the World: “In the tens and thousands of columns of world history the name of Ashoka stands, and stands alone – a star.”
On the other hand Mahinda did not become a guiding star like that. What an unimaginable political clout Mahinda had after the war! He could have turned the country around. That was not to be. He could have set up a Lee Kuan Yew style administration manning his government with good and competent men and women. No.
Mahinda’s designs and his vision was far too limited for such a noble goal. On the other hand, Mahinda brought in all the riff-raff into parliament-thugs, murderers, gold- necklace snatchers, drug dealers and so on. As Thusiri points out Mahinda had been intent on family nepotism from day one.
Even today, we see a convicted murderer comfortably ensconced in a parliamentary seat. Duminda Silva, a convicted murderer has been pardoned. Mahinda picked thugs and deceptors who could win parliamentary elections by frightening villagers into submission.
Tsunami Funds Episode
Thusiri also mentions the Tsunami funds episode. We had a former Chief Justice admitting that he could have put Mahinda a behind bars for his dubious role in handling Tsunami donations through a privately set up account.
Thusiri says of this: “The deadly tsunami of 2004 hit Sri Lanka during Rajapaksa’s time as the Minister of Highways and Prime Minister. There are many strong allegations of tsunami aid embezzlement by the Rajapaksas, allegations which would very well explain Rajapaksa’s very expensive political campaign (and alleged rigging deal with the LTTE) in the following year. The Golden Wave by Michele Gamburd speaks very descriptively of the debate of the Rs. 83 Million of Tsunami aid that Rajapaksa transferred to three private bank accounts of his.”
Soon after, Mahinda Rajapaksa ran for Presidency and won it by a mere 50.2% vote against Ranil Wickremesinghe. Says Thusiri: “Rajapaksa came to power in 2005 in an inhumanly rigged in election. An alleged political deal with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam, (also known as LTTE, the separatist terrorist group that led the 30 year civil war in Sri Lanka) stopped the war-struck citizens of Northern Sri Lanka from voting.”
To ordinary Sri Lankans the political deal with the LTTE and Mahinda had been obvious because the UNP candidate Ranil Wickremesinghe found Tamil voters avoiding the elections as a block. For Wickremesinghe to have reached near victory point even after the boycott of Tamil voters was commendable and also is the answer to his entrenched critics who chant that Ranil cannot win.
Adds Thusiri:”On Election Day, bombs were set off at polling stations. LTTE motorcades roamed the streets, watching out. Vehicles that attempted to transport voters were set on fire. The few who were rebellious enough to still go to the polling stations were assaulted, sometimes killed. In Jaffna, the heart of the North, a youth activist was beaten to death in the Hindu College grounds. One man who voted had his inked finger cut off, clarifying the message to the others.”
Thusiri writes a lot more like implying Mahinda’s tacit acceptance of the assassination of journalists like Lasantha Wickrematunge etc.
Competitive Authoritarian Politics
Thisuri refers to the system prevailing in Sri Lanka as being one of ‘competitive authoritarian politics.’ Elites try to win competitive edge by buying over the system or pressurising the system to work for them. If these attempts are not sufficient, elites will move over to a new system that they can tune into without encumbrance or impediments. The current attempt to bring in a new constitution without public participation is a major step in this strategy.
When People Can be Manipulated
We shall conclude with a very pertinent statement by this 22-year-old writer: “What we can learn from the story of Rajapaksa is that when nations are vulnerable due to many reasons ranging from conflict to low standards of education, it is easy for its people to be manipulated by political propaganda.’
To conflicts and low standards of education, I would add inequality and corruption. In an unequal society it is easy for the rich to induce corruption. Media can be bought; voters can be bought; officials can be bought.
*The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org