By Dushy Ranetunge –
Gotabaya Rajapaksa, GL Pieris and several other VIPs were at the Independence Square Arcade last week to watch the Symphony Orchestra of Sri Lanka perform to a large audience on a rainy evening. I took the opportunity to speak to some of their security escorts sitting inside their escort vehicles. I asked them the same question I had been asking since that fateful morning that I landed in Colombo, about 10 hours before Sirisena came out of his closet to declare his candidacy.
The question was, “whom will you be voting for?” They always hesitate to answer, fearful of compromising themselves. I then rephrase my question, “what is the opinion of your family, friends, colleagues etc?”
The answer has been a consistent “It’s good if there is a change”. I have had the same answer from air force officers at the airport, police officers in the streets and military escorts. There is a new boldness to the assertions by members of the security services and the police.
In the rural villages in Sabaragamuwa and even Kandy, especially amidst the most vulnerable and uneducated sections of Sinhala society, Rajapaksa may still command allegiance; but the ground is clearly shifting beneath him.
Supporters of the Rajapaksa’s are of the opinion that this rural factor will see them through. But unlike westernised Ranil Wickremesinghe, unsophisticated rural Sirisena has the potential to eat into Rajapaksa’s rural constituency.
Incidents of violence and intimidation will backfire on the Rajapaksas with significant sections of the electorate determined to see an end to the regime. We may see large numbers of Muslim women mobilised to vote at this election.
Rajapaksa’s strategy of exploiting the dogs of Bodu Bala Sena to herd the sheep of Sinhalabuddhism into his pen has come a cropper with Sirisena grabbing a chunk of that vote base, as the voters of Raja Rata aspire a God King of their own.
In many respects the Rajapaksas are victims of their own success. Often they have repeated that there can never be an Arab spring in Sri Lanka. But that’s exactly what they are facing. Just like in Egypt and Libya, the rural population support base has shifted away from the great leader. Increased economic prosperity has given them access to mobile phones and social media, which in turn has exposed them to alternative propaganda, aligning their thoughts in a direction different to that which the state hopes to bring about through Rupavahini and a subdued and self-censoring subjugated private media.
The Rajapaksas were clearly alerted to the dangers as they blocked websites such as the Colombo Telegraph and issued periodic threats to control Facebook, but these were never going to be effective strategies to maintain control. On the contrary, it provided free publicity to the Colombo Telegraph.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Sirisena is selling a dream of a utopian democracy, of liberté, égalité, fraternité, with accountability and good governance thrown in for good measure.
Sirisena clearly has the edge, with a more professional, focussed, well-researched campaign featuring social media and facebook propaganda in both Sinhalese and English. His speeches seem well written, while Rajapaksa struggles to deliver old wine in new bottles.
Crossovers have also weakened Rajapaksa’s front line team, leaving ministers of low quality and lacking integrity, whose delivery is ineffective and poor. Like rats abandoning a sinking ship, more crossovers will further erode Rajapaksa’s credibility before a wary electorate.
But what of Sirisena? Just as the population got carried away amidst the sound of rabanas in May 2009, some even calling for Rajapaksa the god king who could do no wrong to be President for life, today, Sirisena the dream-seller is viewed as the coming of the new saviour.
What is worrying is that everyone on Sirisena’s line up has a score to settle with the Rajapaksas. Sarath Fonseka and Hirunika lead the way with the forgiveness and humility of Gandhi and Mandela fading into the horizon.
As promised, it is a certainty that there will be no submission to an international war crimes investigation. But such international investigations will be marginalised in the face of robust, vigorous and harsh domestic prosecutions for corruption and war crimes which lie ahead, shattering perceptions of the faithful about Rajapaksa, the Thecia Thalaivar of the Sinhalese of May 2009. Ironically it is Rajapaksa’s files that will make the news in the coming years.
Even if Rajapaksa was to win by Diego Maradona’s “hand of god”, the wheels have come off the wagon, as the sun sets on the empire.
Winston Churchill won the war and lost the election in 1945, but in 1930 in his publication “My Early Life” he wrote “Those who can win a war well can rarely make a good peace, and those who could make a good peace would never have won the war.”
Perhaps Sirisena is that saviour who could deliver the peace that is long overdue and restore the greatness that Sri Lanka once had – greatness that was squandered by misplaced nationalism.
The broad coalition, which includes a wide spectrum of ethnic minorities and political parties, make the dream that Sirisena is selling attractive and appealing. It mobilises the silent majority and marginalises the racists who hang on to authoritarianism to enforce their greedy selfish madness.
The downside is that those who are manning Sirisena’s dream are the same old cabal, with the same old nationalist conditioning, complete with multiple gold rings, gold bracelets, gold sceptres, and a plethora of blessed religious strings of yellow, white and black covering six inches of their wrists to invoke the blessings of all those gods. Not very different to that old wine Rajapaksa is selling in new bottles, only better labelling.