By Kumar David –
It’s official! President Gotabaya Rajapaksa informed a visiting UN dignitary that the 20,000 so-called missing persons “are all dead”. Reports in the BBC, New York Times and Telegraph (UK) have not been contradicted by him or GoSL. The missing are nearly all Tamils and the President’s half-hearted attempt to pin the blame on the LTTE flopped. The LTTE killed 20,000 Tamils!! That’s as hilarious as Aesop’s Fables about talking rabbits. Sure, LTTE killers eliminated dozens of fellow Tamils, slew some three thousand service personnel in action, killed 600 policemen in cold blood and many civilians perished in its bomb blasts, but to destroy Tamils on a massive scale contradicts the LTTE’s raison d’être. Gota wants to conceal the involvement of the state in the evaporation of missing persons. Thousands were surrendered by their families to the military for ‘safe keeping’. Now this; it’s an awful betrayal!
Mothers are incensed and ordinary Tamils knew it all along. But now everybody will have to adjust to reality; they “are all dead”. Folks are easily side-tracked; the stupid debate in social circles is “The number is too high”, “It’s too low” and such drivel. Of course, Gota would have consulted his officials and this is an official estimate. I find it neither too low or too high and in future I will use it as the best available. Add battlefield losses on both sides and civilians killed deliberately or in cross fire and the total dead in the war is about 30,000. So that’s settled.
The critical question is not the numbers game; it is why Gota made this revelation. That’s what’s crucial. One possibility is that he blundered and blurted out what he and his officials may have estimated but he spoke without clearing it with his military and political consultants. I am inclined to rule this out. Then we must conclude that the President was aware of the consequences. If he sticks to his story the role of the military can no longer be concealed and a rift with chauvinists and fanatical monks is on the cards. Surely, he realises this; is he prepared for a faceoff? Somersaults are not unknown. Hitler smashed his Brown Shirts (Sturmabteilung or storm troopers) after using them to rise to power and Islamic extremists are used by political leaders who afterwards turn and crush them – Syria, Iraq and Egypt. Nevertheless, it’s hard to see Gota battling Sinhala-Buddhist extremism so as to stabilise a pragmatic regime.
An alternative thesis. He wants to put the past behind, admit the truth, grant amnesty to military personnel guilty of grievous misconduct and issue death certificates. I toyed with the thought that he was seeking closure with the Tamils and clearing the decks for a new dispensation, but proscription of the national anthem in Tamil on 4 February disabused my mind of that illusion and negated Gota’s 4 Feb homily on serving all nationalities. The symbol is the silenced soundbite, the message the missing music. His will be a government of the Sinhalese, by the Sinhalese, for the Sinhalese. Racism imitates a luscious queen of whom it was famously said: “Age cannot wither nor custom stale her infinite variety. Other women cloy the appetites they feed; she makes hungry where most she satisfies”.
Gota has no declared ideology and subscribes to no political philosophy; pragmatism is his yardstick. I am of the view that this analytical approach will provide a more reliable way to assess his presidency than attributing to him immovable ideological, dictatorial or racist predilections. Both Gota and we political analysts are in uncharted waters. He has no state-power game-plan and as a pragmatist he will play the cards as fate deals them out to him. Whether he will stumble into dictatorship will in part depend on how we the citizenry, the opposition, the minorities and the international community play their hands. Nothing is fixed in the stars. Hence, we the people can still call the shots.
Enough on that matter; I wish to move on. Though the presidency is far from an Archimedean Point a report card is useful. (An Archimedean Point is a vantage from which one can judge a totality). Three axes along which a report can be drafted are actions to date, policy statements and appointments. Whatever my personal inclinations a column such as this must seem balanced in the public eye. I intend to do just this along my three axes until such time as we arrive at an Archimedean Point. Today’s column will not find favour with those who demand unremitting hellfire against Gota, but my responsibility is to posterity; to write in measured tones and not to cross red-lines till it is legitimate to do so. At the same time we must not ignore the dismal fate of human and democratic rights in the Rajapaksa era. Those who ignore the lessons of history are fated to repeat its mistakes.
What then does the balance sheet look like? Gota has taken no action to date that can be called egregiously malicious though his Police and Attorney Generals Departments have not always conducted themselves in ways that inspire confidence. For example, will they charge Ampitiye Sumana? If not, it is quid pro quo for clerical support and we need not hesitate to allege that the president behaves as if he is beholden to chauvinist monks for past and pending electoral favours. In the case of Narendra Modi those of us who let our guard down too early regret not having remained cautious for longer; we mustn’t repeat that mistake with Gota.
Nishanantha Silva, CID Gang Robberies Branch, who was handling sensitive investigations such as the assassinations of Lasantha Wickrematunga and Prageeth Ekneligoda and the abduction and assault of Keith Noyar has fled the country fearing the regime’s retribution. Silva also oversaw the explosive abduction and murder in custody of 11 Tamil youth. The allegations implicated chief of defence Ravindra Wijeguneratne and former commander Wasantha Karannagoda. Silva has raised a bright red flag but Gota to his credit has not, as far as I know, interfered with the prosecution.
We need to watch the Champika, Rajitha and Ramanayake cases; so far in these cases one cannot accuse the regime of interference with the police or the justice system though Speaker Karu sounded an ominous warning. My caution is not to allege that indiscretions have been committed but to underline the need to remain alert. It is unfair to blame a regime for what it has not done, but may do; no intelligent discourse is possible on that presumption. UNP MP Rahman alleged that resumption of probes into the hit and run accident involving Champika Ranawaka, Rajitha Senaratne for matters involving white-van drivers and the investigation of scandalous phone calls by Ranjan Ramanayake are politically motivated. He also claimed that Viyath Maga is seeking to secure SLPP nominations at the parliamentary poll. Those close to Gotabaya are being promoted as candidates, Rahman said.
Homes, chambers and vehicles of senior magistrates have been bugged by military intelligence.
There is a crackdown on public servants who have shown a sense of independence before Gota’s election. In summary signs of heavy-handed authoritarianism are building up but not yet (sic!) full blown.
“The stimulus package put in place is not sustainable; the extra layer of spending adds to already perilous public finances. The budget and current account deficits required an IMF bailout. IMF conditions are being broken; a crisis is in the works. Tax concessions reduce revenue; economic problems will stop Lanka from getting out of the rut” says economist Razeeen Sally. “The welfare measures may be election gimmickry but reversing them will be difficult” Sally added. Furthermore, PM Mahinda all but declared bankruptcy.
On the upside Ameer Ali in “Gota’s Vision and Gautama’s Villains” in the Colombo Telegraph of 1 January says: “Some of the measures Gota undertook, such as minimising traditional pomposity and durbar attached to office, a leaner cabinet, reducing tax burdens on producers, middlemen and consumers, removing political interference in public appointments and economising on public expenses, certainly won kudos even from his sceptics”. Ali overstates, but hhas a point according to even my grudging UNP friends. To continue with Ali: “The most controversial aspect of his vision is belief in solving national reconciliation through economic development rather than devolution. In a plural society prosperity instead of promoting acquiescence accentuates agitation for inclusion which becomes irresistible”.
Regarding appointments, Tissa Vitrana and Mrs. P S M Charles have been sworn in as governors; good choices compared to the riff-raff that pig-headed Sirisena was flaunting. We can be confident these two will be balanced in decisions and financially honourable. Indrajit Coomaraswamy quit as governor of the Central Bank more than two years before the end of his term, but the choice of Professor Laxman as his replacement is also a good choice.
Other appointments are awful. His personal travel agent Upul Dharmadasa from Los Angeles has been made Chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority, Namal’s father-in-law Thilak Weerasinghe and Rohitha’s mother-in-law Diedre De Livera a director of Airport & Aviation Services, the latter two probably Mahinda’s picks. Gota’s buddy Malraj de Silva and Mahinda’s buddy ex-judge Eva have been nominated as ambassadors. The nomination of Abdul Nawaz, who has been charge-sheeted by the Bribery Commission to president of the Court of Appeal and the promotion of Yasantha Kodagoda to the Supreme Court have both sent shocked legal circles. A presidential commission to investigate political revenge during yahapalana includes allegedly corrupt officials. The nadir is C.A. Chandraprema, ambassador designate to Switzerland, accused of a slew of nefarious activities. What’s going on? What on earth is Gota up to! On appointments, with the exception of Vitarana, Charles and Laxman, Gota’s report card reads Fail! He is surrounding himself with froth, not the burnished promises that Viyathmaga proffered at Sahgri-La. He is making extraordinarily bad appointments.