By Mohamed Harees –
The title ‘Gota’s War ’may be slightly misleading, as author C. A. Chandraprema only uses ‘Gota’ as a counterpoint and a parallel to the narrative in his book. The book purportedly tells the story of the war between the LTTE and the Government of Sri Lanka in the context of the wider political conflict which began in 1956, with the introduction of Sinhala as the official language of the island. Be it as it may, this was a divisive war which tore the integrity of the nation apart and aggravated the existing fault-lines between the majority and minorities, thanks to a racist political leadership. Even after the war, the wounded nation remained in such a sick state while the Rajapaksas used racism to gain and remained in power, until the historic Aragalaya in 2022, when the ‘fake’ laurel bubble earned by the Rajapaksas at the end of Gota’s War, eventually burst, as the nation rose up and waged the War against Gota ( and his corrupt family dynasty by extension).
In this context, the historic Mirihana protest in April and continuing protests in Galle Face and all over the country in May 2022 will be written in gold in post-independence historical annals of Sri Lanka, where the nation witnessed the much hoped for people’s awakening expressing itself powerfully. The Rajapaksas who were entangled in a mesh of self- glory failed to see the writing on the wall, with Mahinda merely seeing ghosts in the rebellion which arose against their family rule. Their family dynasty practically preferred to take shelter in a fool’s paradise. The entire 225 felt under siege for the first time. The renewed peoples uprising on the May 9th rebelling against government sponsored violence against the peaceful protesters saw the dismal end of a giant Appachi figure in recent politics. This is the most agonizing experience many Sri Lankans have gone through. Such moments can shape the political consciousness of people. This initial Colombo based Aragala uprising which took a national turn thus gave a renewed sense of optimism to a nation wounded by years of war and violence as well as decades of chronic political corruption and mismanagement. It gave an opportunity to change the course of history and establish a new political order and a cleaner political culture.
When Mahinda conspired with his top SLPP henchmen to bring hundreds of his supporters from all over Sri Lanka to Temple Trees on May 9th to attack the Aragalaya activists in Galle Face, he knew with conviction that he will be free from prosecution in a country where impunity reigns high and no one in top positions in the political hierarchy or those connected to them have been prosecuted or jailed on charges of corruption, crimes or instigating violence. Even if it happens, the Presidential pardon exonerated the culprits. Both public services and law enforcement were packed with inefficient goons and were corrupt. Rule of law was misused and abused. In fact, DIG Tennakoon, although a shady character himself, confessed before the HRCSL that his attempts to stop the attackers from entering the Gotagogama was checkmated by both IGP and Defence Secretary stating that they are Mahinda supporters.
Not just Mahinda, his entire Rajapaksa family clan had a firm grip over the nation’s destiny for many decades and no-one in the law enforcement dared to lift an accusing finger at them. With a Rajapaksa in the top presidential seat, armed with 20A, a servile parliament and a slavish electorate under their command, this Medamulana dynasty corrupt to the core, continued to milk the nation dry unhindered and left its dignity shattered to smithereens. Even now, Mahinda despite being just a MP flew in a helicopter to Colombo to attend Parliament. The revelations about the PM office budget in the few months in 2022 alone, shows his luxury lifestyle and indifference to public suffering. The severe economic crisis which gripped peoples’ lives and the historic Aragalaya led by the young which appear to have temporarily challenged their authority and grip.
The much talked about 69 lakhs themselves who voted Gota and SLPP to power on a massive mandate, idiomatically bearded these so-called lions in their own den. Today, Rajapaksas are the most despised, cursed and insulted in the public domain in the worse manner possible, with Mahinda and his family gone into hiding and Gota being holed up in a virtual bunker scared of confronting the public. An irony indeed! The predominantly active political class of Sinhalese Buddhists, who campaigned for and elected a Rajapaksa regime and once supported autocratic sentiments are now clearly questioning and challenging the regime’s behaviour. More importantly, the youth are now playing their role in political and social life. They are a new generation with a different understanding of society and with attitudes that were not possessed by past generations. A deeper consensus seems to emerge as to what people want to be and what kind of institutions their societies need. This augurs well for Sri Lanka!
But then, despite this unprecedented rebellion and public uprising outside, the unfortunate tragedy is that even with Mahinda being forced to resign, and other family members out of the cabinet except Gota, Rajapaksa Power-dom continues regardless, with Ranil, the sole national list MP of the UNP, another Rajapakse in a western suit being appointed as the PM. The main demand of the protesters being Go Home Gota still is widely ignored by the Rajapaksas. Judging by the voting patterns in the Parliament in the recent past, it is patently clear that Rajapakses still hold the power grip. Ranil’s 6th term as the PM, will only be a passing phase, and likely to be used as Karapincha (curry leaves) just to attract short term foreign assistance. MP Kaviratne who unsuccessfully contested for the post of Deputy Speaker this week correctly said,’ a black bird is controlling both the President and the PM, hinting that it is the much influential Basil of Kaputa fame who has been governing the country. It is imperative that a greater voice need to emerge from the greater sections of the electorate to the Rajapaksas and their dominion that their old ways of family governance will not be tolerated and will need to / should change. There should be peaceful non-violent regionalised ways in the spirit of the Aragalaya to pressurize the legislators towards ousting this toxic Rajapaksa dynasty rule and also bringing in a ‘people oriented’ rule as envisaged in the Constitution. Eventually, the solutions should come out of the Constitution in its amended form and also democratically.
Five areas of interest which the Aragalaya (struggle/public activism) should particularly focus on and bring in much needed changes pertains to public accountability, freedom of expression/ liberty, rule of law, social justice, and inclusivity among many others. Let the Aragalaya bring a new politics.
Sadly, in modern Sri Lanka, loyalty and obeisance to a saviour-leader are demonstrated through sycophantic actions, and symbiotic deals. The state is thereby merged with the individual politician and the individual becomes the state. In the instance of Sri Lanka, Rajapaksa family became the centre around which the state revolves. It is in this sense Aragalaya is a boon to an otherwise gloomy society.
Firstly, public accountability There should be checks and balances and the parliament should ensure that public finances should be closely monitored. Sovereignty vests in the people and all organs of the State should reflect this important constitutional principle. Public Service/ Police/Election Commissions should be depoliticised while appointments to public/diplomatic offices should be based on merit and not on political loyalties. In Sri Lanka local governance institutions have become less open to public scrutiny and therefore, corruption at all levels has greatly increased. It is to be hoped that the local mechanisms of accountability will in tandem with greater probity at the national level improve the degree of honesty at all levels.
Sri Lanka also continues to treat calls for accountability as an existential threat to the state. Sri Lanka has proven itself to be inadequate in establishing transitional justice. In doing so, it threatens the survival of the nation since it refuses closure to the victims, allowing for faith in the state to dwindle. In addition, it strengthens the nationalists’ stranglehold on the nation and, perhaps more importantly, it perpetuates cycles of violence because those responsible are allowed to continue unchecked.
Secondly, one of the worst damage done by the self-conceited Rajapaksas was on the freedom of expression and liberty of the people. Basic human rights and liberal democracy are dismissed by the autocratic leadership in Sri Lanka. Such circumstances suppress the public from exercising their democratic rights on a daily basis. While liberal democracy has been suppressed by subsequent Rajapaksa regimes, the present dysfunctionality in Sri Lanka’s political-economic environment is no surprise. The economic situation has ‘graduated from a crisis to a total catastrophe now’, a free fall of the economy as experts say, while corrupt politics has made the people doubt even the merits of democracy they were preached about in all fora. After all, it was democratic elections which brought these corrupt dictators to power. During the Rajapaksa regime, journalists perceived to be critical of the war effort or the Rajapaksa government found themselves the targets of harassment and violence. Although the government denied playing a role in the abductions, assaults, and killings of journalists, many attacks were traced back to government security forces under Gotabaya’s Ministry of Defence.Cold blooded murder of Lasantha and abduction of Ekneligoda were clear examples. This too is one important area to focus on as a freedom of expression should only be subject to restrictions allowed in law such as hate speech for example.
Thirdly, Sri Lanka has a serious impunity and rule of law crisis. It particularly since the end of war has been known to be a Kleptocracy. It. The word means literally, rule by thieves, and describes the specific corruption that occurs when state leaders, generally from poorer countries, routinely loot millions or even billions of dollars from their national treasuries. All too often, the money is spent or stashed in rich countries. Kleptocratic rulers often treat their country’s treasury as a source of personal wealth, spending funds on luxury goods and extravagances as they see fit. This lack of oversight can be caused or exacerbated by the ability of the kleptocratic officials to control both the supply of public funds and the means of disbursal for those funds. The best lines of defence against kleptocracy however are usually found within the countries where it originates. Kleptocracy thrives not just because the legal and political systems in the countries of origin are debased but also because of a weakened public activism.
Under Rajapaksas’ Watch, Rule of Law suffers the onslaught of politics which has given rise to entrenched and institutionalised impunity..Impunity has over the years become institutionalized and systematized. Blatant disregard for the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary has crippled the justice system, leaving victims with little or no prospect of remedies or reparations for serious human rights violations. In Sri Lanka: Impunity, Criminal Justice and Human Rights, Basil Fernando describes the current situation in Sri Lanka as one of “abysmal lawlessness”. Sri Lanka does not lack for a constitution, a court system, and other formal mechanisms for legal redress; however, none of these institutions have much more depth or substance to them than a Hollywood film set. In other writing, Fernando has invoked the medical metaphor of the phantom limb to evocatively convey this chasm between appearance and reality with respect to the institutions of Sri Lanka’s legal system.
Fourthly, there is a need to ensure social and economic justice to the people. Inequality gap is ever widening. Sri Lanka’s present economic crisis is not the result of the Easter bomb attacks of April 2019 and the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in early February 2020 as conveniently claimed by the country’s political leadership. The present acute crisis is not sudden, but the culmination of a gradual deterioration that Sri Lanka began to experience since around 2012. That was driven by an inappropriate economic strategy adopted by Sri Lanka after about 2005. Fifthly, there is an imperative need to promote a sense of inclusivity and Lankan-ness and to repair the enormous damage done to the social fabric by the war and the racist tactics of the Post-war governments specially the Rajapaksa regimes. National reconciliation is the foundation for national progress. Fortunately, Aragalaya is bringing together all communities to fight for social justice and to ensure all become partners in progress. Showing solidarity is an act of countering the violence of the state.
In the end, for Sri Lankans, the present Aragalaya represents an opportunity to break free from post-colonial shackles of communal division and finally contend with the real Struggle that people have been facing all along, the battle that begins to close the widening economic gaps that our long-ignored class struggle has finally brought to the surface and to change and clean up the political culture. The people should be alert to ruling class manoeuvres to break the spirit and checkmate the Aragalaya.