By Tisaranee Gunasekara –
“If history is continuity and discontinuity, resolution and catastrophe, it is also surprise and unanimity; a total fascist state that in January 1933 was highly contested and rather improbable was widely accepted and broadly realised one hundred days later.” ~ Peter Fritzche (Hitler’s First Hundred Days: When Germans Embraced the Third Reich)
Think of it as the Rajapaksa fairy tale. Mother Lanka is captured by the messy and wobbly monster called Democracy. The Rajapaksa brothers and sons rescue her by slaying the Democracy monster with the magic sword called 20th Amendment.
Then they all live happily ever after.
If anyone is still confused about the why and what of the 20th Amendment, they should muse on the words of Namal Rajapaksa. Addressing a media conference on September 15th, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s eldest son said, “During the election season we said 19 will be removed. When 19 is removed, 18 automatically comes. So there is no need to discuss about it. It is according to that 20 was brought. If anyone has a problem about 20 they can go to the courts. There’s no bar to that. What has to be discussed now is not who wrote 20 or who brought it. What should be discussed is whether a stable government can be built in this country or not now. It is good look at it as a policy and decide” (Lanka News Web – 16.9.2020; emphasis mine).
The 18th Amendment was created for Mahinda Rajapaksa, to give him unlimited power and as many presidential terms as life permitted. The 20th Amendment is focused on the Rajapaksa family as a whole. It has something for every Rajapaksa and nothing for anyone else. It will create an omnipotent President Gotabaya and pave the way for an equally omnipotent President Basil (in 2029 or sooner) and President Namal (in 2039 or sooner). It will ensure the political future of Shashindra Rajapaksa, Nipuna Ranawaka and any other Rajapaksa son or nephew or cousin who chooses to enter politics.
In 2009, the then royal astrologer, Sumanadasa Abeygunawardane predicted that Sri Lanka is heading for a half-a-century of Rajapaksa rule: “President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the Rajapaksas will rule this country for a long time…. The Rajapaksas will become beloved leaders of this country… The next chapter in Sri Lanka is reserved for the Rajapaksas.” (Silumina – 7.6.2009).
In 2015, politics gave a different verdict. Thanks to the inanities, errors and crimes of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration, the twin victories of 2015 turned out to be a semi-colon rather than a full-stop to the pulverising Rajapaksa Yathra.
Now the Rajapaksas are back, with a near two-thirds majority. Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s first term is also the third Rajapaksa term. Unsurprisingly, the family’s first priority is to return Sri Lanka to where it was constitutionally and politically between September 2010 and in January 2015. This means eviscerating the democratic gains of the 19th Amendment.
How else can Sri Lanka be made safe again for familial rule and dynastic succession? And this time from brother to brother, from uncle to nephew, in true oriental style.
The great Sinhala poet Rapiel Tennakoon in Wavuluwa characterised King Dutugemunu’s war as ‘riding the Sasana to defeat Tamil power’ (Sasuna pita nega, Demala bala binda). The Rajapaksas are weaponising monks and military, race and religion, to establish familial rule and dynastic succession. Their ethno-religious racism is both real, and instrumental. The Rajapaksas will not hesitate to damn as a traitor any ‘patriotic warrior’ *lay or ordained) who seriously opposes the 20th Amendment.
The cavilling of the likes of Wimal Weerawansa and Medagoda Abeytissa thero shows how little they understand this reality. Some of the SLPP dissenters might have dreamt of premiership or even presidency, someday; others might have believed that President Gotabaya, as an outsider, will ‘drain the swamp’. The 20th Amendment, especially the dual-citizenship clause, should remind them that for the Rajapaksas, family comes first, always.
The SLFP as the deciding factor
In 1933, the German parliament approved the Law to Remedy the Distress of People and Reich, giving sweeping powers to chancellor Adolf Hitler for four years. This Enabling Law opened the door for the replacement of Weimer democracy with Nazi autocracy.
We are at a similar inflection point today. In a letter sent to the Justice Minister, the Retired Judges Association sounds a powerful warning about how the 20th Amendment will impact on judicial independence and rule of law. Among the serious problem areas the RJA points out are “permitting the President to appoint ‘another person’ to act in the place of a judge of the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court when that judge is temporarily unable to perform that judicial function,” and the politicisation of the JSC, which handles the appointment, promotion, transfer, dismissal, and other disciplinary measures of judicial officials: “…the proposed amendment to Article 111 (D) deleting the requirement that the two senior-most judges of the Supreme Court constitute the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) with the Chief Justice as Chairman, along with the removal of the condition that a judge with judicial experience serving as a judge of a court of the first instance be part of the JSC” (The Sunday Times – 20.9.2020).
Juxtapose these warnings with State Minister of Defence Chamal Rajapaksa’s recent advice to the police: “We are not asking anyone not to hit. What you should do is to learn the way to hit” (Lanka News Web – 12.9.2020); and the shape of the future is clear. It is a future in which more Shani Abeysekaras and more Hejaaz Hisbullahs will be created, more suspects will drop dead from one cause of the other while in custody and judges will be subjected to the same limiting pressures as writers and government officials. It is a future in which the decimation of environment will happen in broad daylight with no culprits ever being caught. It is a future in which making a political statement will be turned into a crime – like Mangala Samaraweera being questioned by the Matara police for saying that Sri Lanka is not a Sinhala-Buddhist country.
The 20th Amendment will not only turn the legislature and the judiciary into presidential appendages. It will also turn the SLPP and its coalition partners into Rajapaksa serfs. If the amendment is passed, the only future any relatively young and ambitious non-Rajapaksa SLPP leader can hope for is to become a minister. The 20th Amendment will create an iron ceiling for all non-Rajapaksa politicians.
The SLPP’s (not-so) Young Turks know that. That is why they opposed the dual-citizenship clause. That resistance seemed to have collapsed already. Their proposals were not even taken up for discussion at the last cabinet meeting. As JVP’s Vijitha Herath said, the cabinet was bulldozed. That too is a telling indicator of the kind of servile existence the SLPP can expect under Rajapaksa rule.
Under Rajapaksa rule, no one else can have their way or even say.
This future is not inevitable. The 20th Amendment can still be defeated in parliament. The most obvious way is for a few of the SLFP parliamentarians (and there are 12 of them) to vote against the bill.
The post-Rajapaksa SLFP retains around 12% of the national vote, as the result of the 2018 LG election indicated. Gotabaya Rajapaksa won the presidency thanks to this SLFP vote. The SLPP won a near two-thirds parliamentary majority thanks to this SLFP vote.
The Wimal Weerawansas and the Udaya Gammanpilas have no real bargaining power because their party-lets cannot stand on their own. The SLFP is in a different, far stronger position, for now. The Rajapaksas need the SLFP’s backing to win the 20th Amendment and to push the new constitution through.
The SLFP should reflect on the way it was treated when ministerial spoils were divided. The party general secretary was humiliated with a joke of a ministry while the party leader wasn’t given even that. If this is how the SLFP is being treated when it retains some use value, imagine what its plight will be once the Rajapaksas have the constitution of their dreams. Once the constitutional battles are won, a key objective of the Rajapaksas would be to decimate the SLFP politically and organisationally. And they will go about that task with their customary ruthlessness.
Before the SLFP votes for the 20th Amendment, it should think of what coalition politics did to the old left and the JVP. If the party wants to retain its independence, if it wants to ensure its survival, opposing the 20th Amendment is where it must begin.
Rajapaksas, Modi, Trump, and the new Reactionary International
In his latest interview with the New Statesman, Noam Chomsky calls Donald Trump the ‘figurehead of a new reactionary international’ which includes Brazil’s Bolsonaro, the family dictatorships of the Middle East, and Narendra Modi. It is to this reactionary national-populist family of nations Rajapaksa Sri Lanka belongs.
Less than ten days after the presidential victory of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Dr. Steve Turley, a pro-Trump conservative radio talk show host, celebrated Sri Lanka’s entry to this ‘International’ with great glee: “An increasing number of populations are turning away from globalism and re-embracing nation, culture, custom and tradition as the basis for a vibrant political and cultural renewal. Just so another nation embraced the nationalist right. Sri Lanka recently held its presidential election and as a result we can add another nation to the growing number of nationalist populist governments throughout the world” (Sri Lanka Turns to the Nationalist Right!!! – YouTube).
President Donald Trump might be hard pressed to point out Sri Lanka accurately on a world map. But when it comes to politics, he is certainly borrowing from the Rajapaksa copybook. In a rally in Nevada, he suggested that he will negotiate a third term once he wins the upcoming presidential election. In his Republican National Party Convention speech, Mr. Trump expressed his backing for a female president and indicated that his daughter Ivanka might be the woman for the job. A senior advisor to the Trump re-election campaign, Brad Parscale, drew a stark word-picture of this future (unknowingly echoing Sumanadasa Abeygunawardane): “The Trumps will be a dynasty that will last for decades propelling the Republican Party into a new party… I think they are all amazing people…with amazing capabilities… I think you see that from Don Jr. I think you see that from Ivanka. You see it from Jared. You see it from all” ( The Trump Family: A Political Dynasty For Decades To Come? – YouTube).
There is much that unites the Trumps, the Modis, the Bolsonaros and the Rajapakas of today’s world, apart from their visceral opposition to pluralist democracy. They all dream of bringing back an ideal past where the (racial/religious) majority ruled and the minorities knew their place, abided by it and were violently punished whenever they tried to overstep it. Patriotic posturing of the flag-kissing, ‘my country right or wrong’ type is a cornerstone of this new ideology. President Trump, like the Hindutva ideologues of India and Sinhala-Buddhist extremists of Sri Lanka, backs ‘patriotic education’ and equated anti-racist teaching with child abuse.
An anti-sustainable development strategy – and a resultant willingness to decimate the environment in the name of growth – is another shared quality. They embrace a slash and burn approach to governance, which spares nothing, not democracy, not the rule of law, not basic rights, not environment, not common, ordinary decency. They want to bring majority religion and state together, and share antediluvian notions on issues such as gender and sexual orientation.
This favourable global context is a blessing for the Rajapaksas. For example, the siblings are likely to use the excuse of the new constitution to disembowel provincial devolution. Provincial Councils will remain, with vastly reduced powers falling into the decentralisation rather than devolution category. Given Narendra Modi’s politics (especially his non-dependence on Tamil Nadu) India is likely to look the other way, so long as some appearances are maintained. A President Trump won’t even notice.
The new ‘reactionary international’ will be rendered headless if Donald Trump loses the American presidential election. A Biden-Harris victory will make it a tad harder for the Rajapaksas to ride roughshod over everyone and everything. But eventually, the Rajapaksas will fall for the same reason they fell the last time – economics.
The ongoing wave of national populism is driven by politicians and parties who oppose spending that can narrow the knowledge gap and the wage gap while exploiting the discontents resulting from those inequalities. They try to win over the poor and the have-nots in the majority community by using racism, and turning this or that minority into the enemy/threat. But patriotic tittle-tattle cannot substitute for a liveable life indefinitely. Someday the breaking point will come. The 20th Amendment is in part a defence against that eventuality.
The point cannot be made strongly enough. The Rajapaksas gained their near two-thirds victory not because their votes increased between 2019 and 2020 but because a substantial chunk of UNP supporters, disgusted by the infantile antics of Ranil Wickremesinghe and Sajith Premadasa, boycotted the election. And without the SLFP’s backing, the Rajapaksas won’t even have a simple majority, electorally.
The 20th Amendment is expected to bridge these lacunae by making free politics, fair elections and non-partisan justice impossible. That is why it must be resisted, with every democratic and peaceful means at our disposal. If the Rajapaksas are allowed to win this battle uncontested, their happily ever after will last longer than it needs to.