By Sarath De Alwis –
Democracy will not come
Today, this year
Through compromise and fear.
I tire so of hearing people say,
Let things take their course.
Tomorrow is another day.
I do not need my freedom when I’m dead.
I cannot live on tomorrow’s bread.
‘Democracy’ Langston Hughes (1902 – 1967)
‘Actioning the Blueprint’ was the title of the presentation. The venue was the Shangri-La hotel in Colombo. The packed audience included everybody who was somebody in industry, commerce, and other professional disciplines.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa is a determined contender. He is well on his way to the presidency; a hazardous prospect that should send chills down the spines of those who cherish essential human freedoms, specifically the freedom from fear that interferes with the citizen’s right of democratic dissent.
The nation has reached a watershed moment- a matter that has escaped the comics whom we trusted and voted for in 2015 to abolish the aberration of the executive presidency.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa commands a sizeable constituency with a finely tuned political apparatus.
How has he arrived at that point? His unique selling proposition is that of a demonstrated doer- a proven performer. He claims that as secretary of defense, he ended a thirty-year war in three and half years.
Now that is not true. We would not have won the war if we failed to make those who claimed to be freedom fighters, unpersons who practiced mindless terror.
That achievement belongs to others- in particular, brave principled souls such as Neelan Thiruchelvam, Lakshman Kadirgamar under the dispensation of the presidency that preceded that of his ‘family’.
How and who won the war is another debate for another day. Let us return to the thrust and substance of this essay – the dazzle of Gotabaya’s vision and the authenticity of Gotabaya’s promise.
He is not the common place, customary politician. His politics is built around his persona. A fact Mahinda Rajapaksa and many others are yet to cotton on to.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa has a special advantage. He is not accountable and is blissfully comfortable with his beliefs. He is untroubled by contrary evidence. He has an overdose of opinions.
What was significant about the grand event is that it focused on the core constituency of GR; the best of the best, the crème de la crème of the oligarchs who have amassed enormous wealth in the four decades of the executive presidency and the open economy it spawned.
The erudite blowout at the Shangri-La was far removed from the mob mentality of his street fighter brigade advocating virulent Sinhala nationalism. Gotabaya Rajapaksa was happy to quote Parag Khanna advisor to US National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends 2030 program.
A fact that should gladden the hearts of all his acolytes including those pseudo Marxist relics Vasu, Vitharane and Dew. So, now we have a rough idea of where Candidate Gotabaya is headed to.
It served to demonstrate the efficient compartmentalization of his militarily managed multipronged effort to win the presidency.
This was an elite exercise for the middle class, the upper echelons of the parasite class, not to mention the wealth extractors masquerading as wealth creators at post budget fireside chats.
It covered a broad spectrum. However, the all-encompassing wizardry had its inherent flaws.
Gotabaya is an Achilles with plenty of defects in his heels. We shall deal with a few of them before addressing the subject of this essay – the death of truth in the hands of a Presidential aspirant.
The vision statement at the Shangri-La is ‘manufactured reality’. As Noam Chomsky has so kindly defined it, it is the whole point of good propaganda.
“You create a slogan that nobody’s going to be against, and everybody’s going to be for. Nobody knows what it means, because it doesn’t mean anything.”
We the average citizenry must pause and ask; when striped of the puffery, what is the truth of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s politics?
He has plans to develop our tourism industry. Tourism, he points out “has the space to grow to generate an income of at least USD 10 billion. ….“
His purpose was to create a prosperous nation of productive citizens, living in a disciplined society with content families.
He reminds us that the 21st century “is recognized as the knowledge centered era”. Our would-be President knows how tourism could contribute to development. He wants to create a prosperous people living in a disciplined society. He knows that modern technology has created a knowledge centric environment.
Now dear reader, please put candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa to the test. Use your cell phone and google the words Sri Lanka and Khuram Shaik. Wikipedia will tell of our track record in promoting tourism when Gotabaya was deciding the law and directing our social order.
“On the Christmas Day 2011 a Briton, Khuram Shaikh Zaman was murdered and his Russian girlfriend gang raped in a resort in Tangalle, Sri Lanka. The incident had a negative impact on the tourism industry in Sri Lanka and made the then ruling Mahinda Rajapaksa regime unpopular for interfering in the judicial process. “
At the Shangri-La soiree candidate Gotabaya was equally eloquent on sovereignty and the rule of law. So dear Reader, google the words Sri Lanka, Sovereignty and Khuram Shaik. You will find the link to a report in the respected Brutish newspaper- ‘The Guardian’ claiming Britain’s Prince Charles helping to get redress for a Brit killed in Sovereign Sri Lanka.
“The high-profile case of Khuram Shaikh, a 32-year-old Red Cross worker from Rochdale who was killed in 2011, has cast a shadow over the Commonwealth heads of government meeting in Colombo next month, which is due to be chaired by Prince Charles and attended by David Cameron.
Shaikh, whose girlfriend was the victim of a serious assault in the same attack, was allegedly killed by a figure who is a close friend of the Sri Lankan president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, and a key political fixer for his Sri Lanka Freedom party in the country’s south.
Despite forensic evidence linking Rajapaksa’s ally to the crime, no charges have been brought, and this has prompted allegations of a coverup.”
Candidate Gotabaya told us that as President he will defend Sri Lanka’s sovereignty. Let us see his track record.
“It was in the basement of the Sri Lankan Criminal Investigation Department where I found out how my constituent Khuram Shaikh had died in a cowardly attack on Christmas Day, 2011.
Although it was midday, the windows were blacked out and we sat and listened as a group of senior police officers took us through the case.
My stomach churned as we learned of the sickening and horrific details of the completely unprovoked attack that Khuram and his partner had been subjected to.
“Politicians here get away with everything, they’re completely untouchable,” was a view I heard time and again. It was hard not to conclude they were out of control. In the 48 hours I spent there, another two British tourists were hospitalized by an attack from a politician. I heard shocking stories of tourists from all over the world being subject to sexual attacks, and a local newspaper ran a cartoon referring to hundreds of Sri Lankan families having lost loved ones to “violence unleashed by political goons”. When I told a journalist that back in the UK a cabinet minister had just been jailed for lying about speeding points, he burst out laughing and assumed I was joking.”
The reader must forgive me for reproducing these lengthy extracts. As I said earlier this is a watershed moment for our nation. If truth is dead, we must not rush to bury it. We must learn how truth perished.
Candidate Gotabaya is committed to the ‘rule of law’. He says that there can only be one law in a country and that law must be equal to all. His declared democratic credentials seem consistent with great enlightened thinkers such as Thomas Paine. Gotabaya now thinks that in our free republic the law was ‘king’.
Let us examine his track record, his respect for the rule of law, and his desire to preserve, protect judicial institutions.
On 11th January 2013, the Speaker of Parliament Chamal Rajapaksa announced the vote on the impeachment of Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake. The then defense secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa was on hand to celebrate the event. This is how the Daily FT reported the event.
“On Friday, 11 January moments after Speaker of Parliament Chamal Rajapaksa announced the results of a vote on the impeachment motion against Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake, fireworks lit the night sky outside the Parliamentary Complex on the banks of the Diyawanna Oya where history had been made.
The beautiful Geoffery Bawa designed building comprises several balconies, terraces and foyers, with stunning water views across the lake. On a foyer of the second floor, a group of men in suits, stood in a semi-circle watching the fireworks display across the water that had been arranged by the Sri Lanka Navy unit at Parliament.
In the centre of the circle, stood Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, flanked by several officials and Ministry secretaries and Director of the Media Centre for National Security, Lakshman Hulugalle. The Defence Secretary had arrived in Parliament at about 4 p.m. a few hours before the vote on the impeachment was to be taken”
Now, dear reader you must know why it was necessary for us to recall how Gotabaya got the Navy to put up a fireworks display when his brother the Speaker announced the vote for the impeachment of a chief justice who happened to be an inconvenient obstacles for his other brother – the President of the Republic.
Our Candidate Gotabaya tell us why when he is President he will insulate “Government officials who discharge their duties in good faith and with utmost integrity” from “ being subject to politically motivated witch hunting.“
The naval ratings lighting fireworks in the Diyawanna lake were of course performing their legitimate duties in good faith.
Our budding Mussolini seeking to be the il Duce under the Lotus bud has his own definitions of the legitimate duties of government officials. May be, celebrating the impeachment of a chief justice with fireworks is Gotabaya’s idea of a well-functioning democracy. Afterall we are a nut country, aren’t we?
Earlier in the week the Candidate made a lengthy statement on Democracy, Justice and the Rule of Law at the Lawyers Forum of the Podujana Permuna held at the Kingsbury hotel.
“noble concepts of democracy and the rule of law must be safeguarded at all times to ensure the wellbeing and the advancement of the people… “
“Whilst citizens must always abide by the law, there was a problem if they fear the institutions and persons who uphold it. We must always keep in mind that the institutions and individuals entrusted with upholding the rule of law are also subject to it.”
That was really sweet of the man to concede that the law must equally apply to those who exercise the coercive powers of the state mechanism.
Do we take him at his word? Not me, for sure.
Habits die hard. In a retrospective assessment of Gotabaya’s performance as Defense Secretary and Czar of state intelligence there is a little screaming cry that covers the ten years when we feared the state as ordinary people.
When a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one way to go. It becomes a source of terror to all citizens.
The following anecdotal recall of events is warranted in the context of candidate Gotabaya’s declared respect for due process and the rule of law.
According to Lal Wickremetunge, brother of slain Lasantha, when Gotabaya sued the Sunday Leader and its editor, he requested court to allow him to give evidence via a video link from his office in the Ministry of Defense. The court agreed despite protests of respondents. It was appealed against and the Court of Appeal held with the respondents compelling Gotabaya to appear in person.
He did so in customary style. That was after Lasantha was no more. On the day the then powerful Defense Secretary appeared in court he did so accompanied by the three service commanders.
“The courthouse was cleared and emptied. Lawyers were not allowed to park their cars in the premises. The street was lined up with armed troops. When Court proceedings commenced Lal Wickremesinghe found that he had no lawyers to represent the paper. After the curious dispatch of the editor, the lawyers he had retained, refused to appear for the beleaguered broadsheet.
Publisher Lal Wickrematunge requested court for time to retain new counsel. Thereafter he managed to retain Lawyer M.A. Sumanthiran who was not in parliament at the time. Senior lawyer Upul Jayasuriya together with a group of lawyers appeared to lend some sense of solidarity with the respondents who were being subjected to what the Americans called ‘Shock and Awe’ tactic by the might of state machinery.
The Defense Ministry website carried the pictures of the lawyers alleging that ‘Black Coated Terrorists’ appeared for a terrorist organization.
The World Bar Association frowned on the unfair accusation and the Defense Ministry website responded with an élan characteristic of the strong man then on horseback. The Defense Ministry website gleefully glowered “Frightened Black Coats run to their Nanny to complain.”
The ownership of the paper under siege changed. So did the presidency in 2015. The new owner fired the lawyers and reached a settlement by agreeing to publish an apology.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa is a good man. Only problem with him is that he doesn’t like the idea of mounting the witness stand. He is a competent manager of men and matters.
When he says that he is committed to the rule of law, he is dead sincere. It is what he perceives to be the law and what he decides as the applicable law.
Politics is public debate of shared values. When an authoritarian leader – a control freak takes over, normal politics must necessary collapse. It happened then and it will happen again.
Candidate Gotabaya says that we must marry the virtues of democratic inclusiveness with the effectiveness of technocratic management. Indeed, we have heard it before.
This is the military mind delinking decision making by the state from public opinion and civil society. It is done by bludgeoning public opinion and the people’s will. Ordinary people do not know what is good for them. Technocrats know better.
Candidate Gotabaya says that in a country with a well-functioning democracy, people are provided with the opportunity to express their opinion of their Government through timely elections.
Aha! It is that plain and simple. Opinions of the people must be confined to election time.
So, the people at Rathupaswala were wrong. They should have waited until the next election to demand for potable water. Moral of the story: People of Gampaha should have remained content with the piddle pissed out by Gotabaya’s technocrats handling urban planning until the election of 2015. Not that it made a difference!
Authoritarianism is the systematic suppression of public debate. It makes criticism of the government a criminal act. What happens then? A fabricated reality based on the leader’s vision is accepted by well-intentioned citizens. This is how democracies are turned in to authoritarian carnivals in free elections.
Once in saddle, the regime takes over the public debate. It constructs a false narrative about “reality as perceived.” They have the willing collaboration of a conservative religious order that complains of erosion of religious values in a decadent society.
So, with a tray of ‘Jasmines’ held atop his head, the future President moves from one pocket of bigotry to another covering the length and breadth of the land.
Undisturbed, he constructs his own narrative of a society that must be protected from its own basic freedoms.
Let us not fool ourselves. The candidate has an excellent team assembled for the task.