By Tisaranee Gunasekara –
“The Bad Lands and the sinister direction?” – Auden (The Crossroads)
Imagine a Sri Lanka without the 18th Amendment.
There would have been repression and corruption, illegality and impunity, but not too far in excess of the normal Lankan template. The final term of President Rajapaksa would be drawing to a close. Any attempt to perpetuate Familial Rule by nominating Basil, Chamal or Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the UPFA presidential candidate would have been robustly resisted by the SLFP. Since the 17th Amendment would still exist, the Elections Commissioner, the police and the judiciary might be less subservient, especially with the Rajapaksa years drawing to a close.
Mr. Wigneswaran was right, when he identified the 18th Amendment as a ‘national calamity’. The 18th Amendment removed the most effective safeguard against absolutism in the 1978 Constitution; and it negated one of the most democratic laws ever enacted in Sri Lanka. It “fundamentally transformed Sri Lanka’s political system… Now the hegemonic executive president has been made a juggernaut…”[i]
Until that moment we had a res publica. The 18th Amendment was the ‘Enabling Law’ of Rajapaksa dynastic rule – and of the many egregious policies and deeds which flow from it.
Such as the appointment of an unknown Rajapaksa-acolyte to the Supreme Court.
Caligula may or may not have made his favourite horse Incitatus a senator. Whatever its historical status, the story has an abiding value as an allegorical tale about despotism. The exaltation of favourites and the degradation of revered institutions are staples of absolutist rule and a better illustration of this than the tale of Caligula and Incitatus is hard to find. Rajapaksa Sri Lanka is no exception to this near universal truth. Priyantha Jayawardene is supremely suited to join the Rajapaksa Supreme Court.
After the impeachment travesty and the appointment of Mohan Pieris, what else did we expect?
The Rajapaksas did not want a democratic and just Sri Lanka. That was not why they made the necessary extra effort to defeat the LTTE. In most fairy tales, the hero braves the monster because he had been promised a kingdom. That was the implicit bargain the Rajapaksas made with the Sinhala South – familial rule and dynastic succession in return for defeating the Tiger. It was no accident that the first song to hail Mahinda Rajapaksa as High King officially debuted days after Nandikadal[ii]. It was embarrassingly archaic; and iconic of the emerging times. It marked Sri Lanka’s transition from the Age of the Sun God to the Age of the High King (& Siblings).
‘Conquerors Keepers’ was Vellupillai Pirapaharan’s worldview long before the Rajapaksas came to power. The separate state the LTTE tried so hard to bring about was not Tamil Eelam but Tiger Eelam, under Mr. Pirapaharan’s sole suzerainty. That was why the LTTE accorded utmost priority to the task of exterminating Tamil competition and Tamil dissent. The Tigers were more wholeheartedly committed to Eelam than any other Tamil group/party, but that new state was to be their sole property, in which Tamils could exist only on condition of total obedience. Many of the Tiger crimes and errors stemmed not from the needs of Tamil nationalism or even Tamil separatism but from the needs of Tiger absolutism.
The goal of becoming the ‘Sole Representative’ of the ‘Nation’ once belonged to the JVP.
Now it is the Rajapaksa goal.
In his May Day Speech, President Rajapaksa implicitly endorsed Hambantota attack, again: “The President said that the UNP members visited the Mattala Airport and the Hambantota harbour recently to close them down. ‘The Secretary of that party had told that he Mattala Airport would be made a museum by them while the Hambantota harbour would be turned into a swimming pool’, he said.”[iii]
There is no real danger of the Rajapaksa airport or Rajapaksa port being anything other than protected White-Woolly Mammoths so long as the Rajapaksas rule. The UNP’s real crime was a dash of activism and a pinch of irreverence. The Rajapaksas fear one and loathe the other. The Hambantota attack could have been arranged without the Mayor playing such a prominent role, just as the demonstration in Weliweriya could have been dispersed minus lethal force. But attacks happened the way they did because they had a national message: Beware.
The Lakbima carried a picture of Mrs. Gotabaya Rajapaksa and a funny caption. It was inoffensive, and yet it offended. Within a month, Saman Wagaarachchi was forced to resign from the post of editor. The alleged role of Sajith Premadasa in this disgraceful affair is indicative of the reach and the potency of the Rajapaksa virus.
Sans Pity, Sans Law
Impunity is a sign of Rajapaksa-favour; greater the impunity, greater the connection and greater the favour.
Last week there was an attempt to abduct an elephant-calf from the Udawalave National Park. A cavalcade consisting of a tractor, a lorry and two luxury vehicles turned up for the purpose. Fortunately the people of Dikyaya, an adjacent village, intervened. They called wildlife officials, police and the media.
The criminals were caught red handed – and allowed to escape – by the police. The attempt by the would-be abductors to abduct the Sirasa area correspondent was foiled not by the police but by the villagers.
The police spokesman admitted that the police ignored the protests of the wildlife officials and allowed the criminals to get away[iv]. The criminals are still at large. According to some media reports, the ring leaders claimed that they were Presidential Nephews[v]. Perhaps that is why.
A wildlife official said, on conditions of anonymity, “We believe that this calf’s mother was killed. That would have been necessary to get the elephant-calf out of the jungle…. If the mother was shot it would have happened inside the park…. They would have killed the elephant mother about a month and a half ago. Their plan would have been to separate the baby from the herd and take her away.”[vi]
The largest chunk of the national budget is still spent on national defence. And yet, Sri Lanka is becoming a nation in which everyone other than the Rajapaksas are unsafe – including policemen.
The month of May is just one week old, but it is already replete with singular happenings. Such as the attack on two policemen, while on duty at a checkpoint in Kurunegala. They were reportedly abducted in a white van; their abductors stripped them down and tried to kill them. One escaped; the naked corpse of the other was discovered later. The police are investigating[vii].
It should surreal, but is real in Rajapaksa Sri Lanka
The elephant-calf was abandoned by the abductors and found by wildlife officials. The BBC report carries a picture of her. She looks gaunt and lost. It’s an image sufficient to melt the stoniest heart, if there is a heart to melt.
Five years ago we danced in the streets, as hundreds of thousands of Tamils were being illegally incarcerated by our state. Only an Eelamist could have considered them foreigners, and yet we were too intoxicated to spare them a thought.
Perhaps our transformation into a senseless, lawless and a pitiless land started in that moment.