By Tisaranee Gunasekara –
Days after the presidential election of 2010, the Rajapaksa siblings gathered to enjoy an evening of musical extravaganza. Organised by the state-owned ITN, and titled Jaya Jayawe (Victory Victorious), the show was billed as a ‘Musical tribute to the Heroes of the Nation.’ The evening began with a lullaby about how ‘King Mihindu’ and his ‘Chief General Gotabaya’ saved Mother Lanka from demons. Song after saccharine song followed, hailing the wisdom and valour the ‘Heroes of the Nation,’ Mahinda Rajapaksa and – to a lesser extent – Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The evening ended with a tribute to the Rajapaksa sibling’s heaven-dwelling mother.
In May 2009, the ‘royal astrologer’ had predicted that “President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the Rajapaksas will rule this country for a long time.” Jaya Jayawe was a symbol of this ‘New Civilisation,’ veteran politician JRP Sooriyapperuma explained in his Guest Lecture. The message was clear. The Rajapaksas saved Sri Lanka. Therefore, like in the old folk and fairy tales, the country belonged to them. All Lankans owed them a sacred duty of obedience.
Monarchy, said Voltaire in A Philosophical Dictionary, is a system where a single individual exercises absolute power, accumulates all honours and tastes all pleasures, provided “he has plenty of money.” Kingdoms can be poor but kings can’t. The Rajapaksas faced this dilemma in 2006, when they came up with the plan to transform the family’s birthplace Hambantota from a sleepy backwater into a dazzling, bustling metropolis.
The first item on the agenda was the Hambantota Port. Neither India nor international lending agencies were willing to shell out the necessary funds. That was when China stepped in. The Rajapaksas needed a patron with deep pockets. China was looking for clients in South Asia. It was a match made in Tiãn (Chinese Heaven).
Sri Lanka’s gravitation towards China’s orbit accelerated with the advent of President Xi Jinping and his Belt-and-Road fantasy. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor was gathering steam. An artificial island on India’s doorstep, built and controlled by Beijing, fitted in with China’s aggressive moves to become the predominant power in South Asia, a prelude to its larger plans to replace the US as the new global hegemon.
Official Lankan propaganda claimed that the idea of an artificial island was birthed in President Mahinda’s brain. In reality, it was contained in an unsolicited proposal by the China Harbour Engineering Company. Going by Chamal Rajapaksa’s recent revelations, this was the time that plans were being made to construct two massive reservoirs in the Sinharaja Forest. Sri Lanka was being transformed into a politico-economic periphery of China. To ensure their place as Sri Lanka’s overlords, the Rajapaksas were becoming China’s satraps.
These best laid plans came unstuck in 2015 when Mahinda Rajapaksa lost the presidency. Had he won, Sri Lanka’s future as a Rajapaksa fiefdom and a Chinese client-state would have been set in stone. Though the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration violated many of its pledges – not least the one to put an end to the Port City project – it enabled Sri Lanka to be freer internally and more non-aligned externally.
So the country the Rajapaksas regained in November 2019 was not quite the country they lost in January 2015. In the intervening five years, people had lost their fear, and become accustomed to criticise and ridicule their leaders. The rule of law had been restored to some extent. A handful of Rajapaksas and Rajapaksa acolytes had been charged with crimes ranging from corruption to murder in courts of law. Sri Lanka, while vulnerable to Chinese inveiglements, had ceased being a Chinese satellite on the regional and world stage.
That semi-democratic interregnum has compelled the Gotabaya-Mahinda regime to start from square one. Familial rule has to be restored and dynastic succession assured. Sri Lankans have to be returned to the old habit of unquestioning obedience. Sri Lanka needs to be placed back in China’s orbit.
Little wonder the family is in a hurry. To quote the immortal Khayyam, “the Bird of Time has but a little way to fly…”
The House of Rajapaksa
In Little Dorrit, Charles Dickens introduces the reader to the Circumlocution Office. This unique institution has a finger in “the largest public pie, and in the smallest public tart,” and is peerless in perceiving ‘how not to do things.’ From the economy to pandemic-control, from environment to corruption, the performance of the Gotabaya-Mahinda regime resembles this Dickens’ invention. But when it comes to protecting core Rajapaksa interests, the Siblings move with a speed and a focus that leave their opponents scrambling to understand let along respond adequately.
The Rajapaksas have also mastered the art of timing. Lasantha Wickremetunga was murdered one week after the taking of Killinochchi and one day before the fall of Elephant Pass. Shani Abeysekara was arrested four days before the 2020 parliamentary election. Hejaaz Hisbullah was arrested on the day before the Sinhala and Tamil New Year in 2020.
This New Year season was an extra busy time for the government. On April 13th, civil society activist Asela Samptha was arrested for poking fun at tuition master-turned-economic guru Bandula Gunawardane’s ‘relief package.’ Minister Sarath Weerasekara used the holidays to announce government plans to amend the penal code to punish those who disseminate ‘fake news’ or engage in ‘extremist propaganda’ on the internet.
On April 9th, Premier Mahinda tabled a resolution in parliament which aims to free Rajapaksa siblings, sons, nephews, cousins, and acolytes from all legal entanglements. Never mind that this amounts to a gross violation of the doctrine of separation of powers, as the BASL points out. The only separation of powers the Family is willing to tolerate is the one within the Family. The UNHCR Resolution 46/1 is spot on. Under Rajapaksa rule, all doors to justice and accountability will remain closed and bolted.
The Rajapaksas also used the festival season to unveil another seminal piece of legislation, the Colombo Port City Bill. The Bill turns the Port City into a Chinese enclave. Unsurprisingly. Why else would China pump money into creating an artificial island off Sri Lanka, but to create its own exclave? The raison d’être for Colombo Port City is to give China a secure foothold on India’s doorstep. The Rajapaksas ignoring this danger was understandable. They were doing a deal, Chinese patronage for Lankan fealty. The rest of us have no right to be surprised or outraged. The Colombo Port City was never going to be anything but a Chinese city. If we didn’t see it, it was because we opted not to.
The world seems to be on the verge of a new cold war, with Asia as its main theatre of conflict. This week, top US intelligence officials provided the American Senate with their assessment of threats facing US interests globally. China tops the list. Avril Haines, director of national intelligence, described China as “a near-peer competitor challenging the United States in multiple arenas, while pushing to revise global norms in ways that favor the authoritarian Chinese system.” President Joe Biden’s first virtual engagement was with the leaders of the QUAD countries, a loose formation grouping US with India, Australia, and Japan, aimed mainly at containing China. Mr. Biden’s first in-person meeting was with the Japanese prime minister, with China being the number one item on the agenda.
When big powers are lining up against each other, the best place for small countries like ours is the sidelines, aligned with none and opposed to none. If ever there was a time to stick to a non-aligned position vis-a-vis both the US and China, that is now. But thanks to Rajapaksas’ power hunger, Sri Lanka is placing herself right in the middle of the battle zone.
Two back-to-back happenings this week serve as a warning of the pitfalls of our new dependent status. On April 13th it was reported that the Chinese Defence Minister will visit Sri Lanka later in the month. On April 14th an Indian navy destroyer made a sudden visit to Sri Lanka for a two day visit.
The future of the House of Rajapaksa cannot be secured without Chinese patronage. The price of that deal is likely to be Sri Lanka’s disastrous entanglement in the coming cold war. When big powers want to prick each other, the chosen method is slashing the other’s proxies. So it was in the last cold war. So it will be in the coming one.
A revolt in the Rajapaksa temple?
At his one and only media conference as presidential candidate, Gotabaya Rajapaksa admonished the journalists for asking questions about his past. “You are talking all the time on the past, no. Ask the future. I’m trying to become the president of the future Sri Lanka. If you concentrate on the future, I think it is better,” he said, interspersing his words with his signature laughter.
The past Gotabaya Rajapaksa wanted us to forget is haunting two men who laboured more than most to make him president. Wijeyadasa Rajapakhse, by his own admission, used his authority and influence as justice minister to keep Gotabaya and other Rajapaksas out of jail. Muruttetuwe Ananda Threo turned his temple into the Rajapaksa political headquarters, when the electorate ousted the Brothers from power. This week, these two Rajapaksa acolytes reportedly had a taste of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s ire.
President Gotabaya’s alleged conduct towards Mr. Rajapakshe and Muruttetuwe Thero bears a striking resemblance to Defence Secretary Gotabaya’s reported conduct towards the then Sunday Leader editor, Frederica Jansz. In July 2012, Ms. Jansz called Mr. Rajapaksa over a Swiss puppy. An enraged Mr. Rajapaksa reportedly called Ms. Jansz a ‘shit eating pig’ and threatened her. In less than three months, a Rajapaksa cipher purchased the Sunday Leader. Out of a job and fearful for her life, Ms. Jansz fled the country.
Threatening critics is in the Rajapaksa blood. On November 25, 2007, the Sunday Leader reported the details of an alleged conversation between President Mahinda Rajapaksa and editor Lasantha Wickremetunge. “I will show you what it is to be scared,” the President allegedly told the Editor. “I will rest only once I have destroyed you.”
In some places, the past is the present and the future.
“I am not reconciled to a world in which a gesture or a word misunderstood can cost a life”, wrote Heinrich Böll in Billiards at Half Past Nine. Thanks in part to men like Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe and Muruttetuwe Thero, Sri Lanka is back in that world where words can have lethal consequences. There might be a shade of poetic justice in what is happening to them. Still, so long as they remain victims of Rajapaksa vengeance (they might shift to a song of obedience soon, as they did during the 20th Amendment drama), they deserve the solidarity of those who value their own freedom.
The spat, irrespective of its final outcome, is important because it demonstrates that the Rajapaksa project rests on just one lynchpin, Premier Mahinda. He is the only Rajapaksa who is capable of hegemony. If his siblings and sons were to stay in power, after him, their rule will be based primarily, even exclusively, on dominance. Only Mahinda Rajapaksa can hold the disparate coalition together, only he can prevent the base from cracking.
The art of gaining the consent of allies with the optimum mix of persuasion and coercion, a Mahinda Rajapaksa forte, is clearly beyond the capacity of President Gotabaya. The image of him as a hegemonic figure was an artificial construct, an illusion that has not worn well. President Gotabaya is Defence Secretary Gotabaya in a bush shirt. If anything is restraining him – and the family as a whole – it is probably the Magnitsky Act which became global only in 2016. That piece of legislation is used by the United States and several other Western nations to identify (some) human rights offenders, and impose travel bans and asset freezes on them. Not a prospect the Rajapaksas can take lightly, given their familial connections with the US.
The essence of Gotabaya-Mahinda rule is restorationist. The Rajapaksas fought to regain power not to enthrone their loyal acolytes (lay or ordained) but to enthrone themselves. The purpose of every controversial deed of the last 17 months was to set the House of Rajapaksa on a solid foundation. That those very deeds are exacerbating the divisions within the government is a result of the changed politico-psychological landscape the reincarnated Rajapaksa project is compelled to navigate.
The House of Rajapaksa came into being with Mahinda Rajapaksa. Can it survive sans him? What role will the military play in a Gotabaya-Basil-Namal (or a Basil-Namal) government? What will Beijing do to ensure its political, economic and security interests are not undermined by its client’s internal political developments? Will we find ourselves in the same unenviable condition countries like Guatemala, Chile, Grenada et al found themselves during the Cold War, subject to coups and conspiracies, paying the penalty of being a super-power’s dependent?
“Mahinda Rajapaksa is our king…. King Rajapaksa’s name will be written in history in letters of gold…” a boy barely older than a toddler lisped at the 2010 musical extravaganza. Will those gold letters be in mandarin?