By Tisaranee Gunasekara –
“I have only two groups, you know. That is people who want to fight terrorism and the terrorists. Two groups. Whether you are in terrorist (laughs) or a person who is fighting the terrorists.” ~ Gotabaya Rajapaksa (Interview with Chris Morris of the BBC)
In 2015, a majority of Lankans voted to give themselves a democratic government. Do we vote to keep that democratic space? Or do we become witting/unwitting participants in its murder?
During the Sirisena-Rajapaksa coup of 2018, Mahinda Rajapaksa advised Maithripala Sirisena to ignore unfavourable judicial verdicts and to go for an unlawful election, according to the Irida Divaina of December 2nd 2018. Mr. Sirisena opted to ignore that advice.
The Rajapaksas have no respect for democracy or rule of law. And no member of this tyrannical family is as tyrannical as Gotabaya Rajapaksa. If he emerges the winner on the 17th, he, his family and their party will move with ruthless speed to destroy the democratic space we gained in January 2015, and return Sri Lanka to the grip of tyranny.
If there was such a thing as a multi-party monarchy, where various royal families contest elections at regular intervals, the SLPP would have been a sure fit there.
The SLPP is the only political party in the history of Ceylon/Sri Lanka that was formed to serve as a vehicle for the political project of a single family. It is quintessentially a Rajapaksa party, with brothers, uncles, sons and nephews occupying the summit. Even the party’s colour is maroon, the hue of the trademark Rajapaksa shawl. The party’s reason for coming into being, its reason for existence is to enable the Rajapaksas to make Sri Lanka a familial fief again. In this imperium in imperio, the naked emperor would be none other than Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
The Presidential election campaign so far has been the most peaceful in the history of presidential election campaigns. Violence and violations are minimal. That is due to the democratic change we effected in January 2015, and saved in August 2015 (from Mahinda Sulanga) and in October-December 2018 (from the Sirisena-Rajapaksa coup).
If Gotabaya Rajapaksa wins the presidency, this will be the last bloodless election Sri Lanka would know for a long time to come.
The choice today is the same as it was in January 2015 – between flawed democracy and organised tyranny, between citizenship and subject-hood. The time to debate on the merits and demerits of the UNP’s candidate is done. The only way we can ensure the defeat of Gotabaya Rajapaksa in the first round is to vote for Sajith Premadasa. If we are serious about our democracy, there’s no other way to go.
Will extreme political purity pave the way for tyranny?
When the main oppositional formation, the government-in-waiting, is anti-democratic by nature, elections can bring about disaster. That is the plight of Sri Lanka today.
A democratic government alone cannot save democracy. To be complete and secure, a democracy requires a democratic opposition as well. It is only then that democratic elections can ensure an outcome which strengthens rather than subverts democracy.
The 2015 presidential election delivered a democratic government. But it couldn’t deliver a democratic opposition.
In 2019, we have a chance of ending that lacuna, and to commence the democratisation of the oppositional space.
If Gotabaya Rajapaksa is defeated, it will send the Rajapaksa project into a terminal crisis. The first faint signs of a war of brothers are already present. At SLPP rallies in Alawwa and Hasalka, some participants reportedly shouted interrupting Mahinda Rajapaksa’s speech. Mahinda Rajapaksa being heckled at a SLPP rally was unthinkable just a month ago. Today it is happening. If Gotabaya Rajapaksa is defeated the SLPP is likely to break into acrimonious factions.
The weakening of the Rajapaksa factor will free the oppositional space to an extent. This would give the SLFP, the JVP and independent figures like Mahesh Senanayake a chance to claim a bigger portion of the Southern electoral pie. They can then become a strong democratic opposition capable of holding the government to account.
With a democratic government, a democratic opposition, Lankan democracy has a chance to stabilise.
But everything depends on one condition. Gotabaya Rajapaksa must be defeated.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa entered the race with a lead. That lead has narrowed over the last few weeks. With Tamil and Muslim support coalescing around the only viable anti-Gotabaya candidate and Chandrika Bandaranaike returning to lead the anti-Rajapaksa faction of the SLFP, something of the victorious 2015 coalition has been recreated.
There is a great absence though. The JVP is contesting separately. The JVP’s presence or absence in the fray has played a crucial role in deciding the outcome of many of the previous presidential elections. For instance, in 2015, Maithripala Sirisena would not have won an outright victory, had the JVP contested separately. In 2005, Mahinda Rajapaksa would have lost the even with the Tiger-ordered boycott, had the JVP contested separately.
The outcome this time could depend entirely on whether or not the JVP asks its voters to cast a second preference to Sajith Premadasa. The JVP has already sent a signal, but that might not be enough. The JVP should make the request openly, making clear what is really at stake. It must explain to its voters why it is necessary vote not just for the compass but also for the swan.
Giving the second preference for Sajith Premadsasa is also a way of ensuring the JVP’s own survival and growth as a democratic party.
In 2014, an opinion piece under Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s name appeared in PRISM, the magazine of the Centre for Complex Operations (CCO) which is attached to US Department of Defense. In it, a list of threats to Sri Lanka’s national security was mentioned. Item No. 2 was The emergence of other extremist groups. The explanation that followed made clear that this meant the JVP.
“These are the remnants of the radical groups that were involved in previous insurgencies. Some…..are trying to…mobilize people to once again take up their extreme left wing causes. There is information that some of these groups have started to establish ties to LTTE-linked agents….. Some of their activities include radicalizing students and encouraging them to take to the streets in various protests.”
If the JVP fails to ask its voters to give the second preference to Sajith Premadasa, and thereby open a door to Gotabaya Rajapaksa victory, it might find itself hounded and driven underground as a threat to national security. Gotabaya Rajapaksa will win thanks indirectly to the JVP’s misguided sense of political purity, and pick his first victims from among the JVP. A strike, a demonstration or even a blistering speech by Anura Kumara Dissanayake would be all the excuse he needs.
Rathupaswala 2013 was a preview of the future that could be ours post-November 16th 2019. A factory ignored environmental laws and poisoned groundwater. The people demonstrated demanding clean drinking water. They did not protest against the government. Water and not politics was their concern. But the factory was owned by a Rajapaksa-acolyte. The Siblings perceived the protest as a political threat. The army was sent, armed to the teeth, led by a brigadier no less. Three people died and scores were injured.
If he is elected president, one of the first tasks of Gotabaya Rajapaksa would be to destroy the democratic space that came into being in 2015. He, his family and the SLPP will labour tirelessly to ensure that the 2020 parliamentary election is held under conditions that are as non-democratic as possible. The UNP, the JVP and those SLFPers who refuse to kowtow to the Rajapaksas will be particularly targeted. Constitution will be ignored and laws violated. By the time the parliamentary election is held, the voters will effectively have only one choice, irrespective of how many party symbols figure on the ballot papers.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa believes he is Sri Lanka. “If you harm me, it’s the country you harm,” he said, when he was just the Defence Secretary. He thinks the country is yearning for a tough grip. His. He is surrounded by retired generals and admirals and active businessmen who dream of reducing dissenting citizens to obedient subjects and employees with rights to wage-slaves. In Gotabaya Rajapaksa they have a leader who is willing to lead them to that heaven, even at cost of a new uprising.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa is even more impatient of limitations than his brothers. In his eyes, every contradiction is an inimical one. He doesn’t like questions or protests. Violence is his first response to any sign of discontent. His extremism can give rise to a cycle of violence and counter-violence undermining political stability and retarding economic growth. Those who are willing to trade in their freedom for security or profit may end up with neither.
A democracy that wants to survive must democratically defeat and peacefully marginalise such cankers. The upcoming presidential election gives us that chance.
Gotabaya, Myth and Reality
Gotabaya Rajapaksa obviously knows something about military operations. Given his experience beautifying Colombo, he should be able to start a prime exterior and interior decorating business.
Governing a country requires a different skill-set.
His lack of knowledge about seminal issues of governance is why he avoids even friendly debates. It also has dangerous implications for Sri Lanka’s economic future. At his first – and so far only – media conference, he was asked how he would deal with the debt crisis. He ducked the question. He clearly knows nothing of the debt crisis and cares even less. He was even more clueless about how he was going to find money to finance his promises. Just as he believes he can violate the law and the constitution with impunity, he also believes he can spend money he doesn’t have, with impunity.
That approach fits with his record. A man who takes over a profit-making institution and turns it into a loss-making one is not a good manager. Until Gotabaya Rajapaksa grabbed the UDA for himself, that institution never made a loss. After it came under Mr. Rajapaksa’s capable and iron control, it never made a profit. According to the Auditor General’s report, the UDA’s accumulated losses for the period of 2006-2011 alone amounted to over Rs. 1,230 million (1.23 billion rupees).
The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration mishandled the debt crisis, thereby worsening it. But it was not their creation. It was a Rajapaksa legacy, the result of a flurry of high-interest borrowings from 2009 to 2014 to finance a slew of vanity projects. The end result was a threefold increase in the government debt and a doubling of external debt. The Rajapaksas also “utilized state-owned enterprises to take out additional loans on its behalf. While the full extent of this extracurricular lending seems unknown, current estimates peg it at a minimum of $9.5 billion — which is all off the books of the finance ministry” (Forbes – 30.9.2016). 2013 marked the apogee of this crazy borrowing spree, when the Brothers Inc. obtained loans totalling $750 million from international markets at an interest rate of 8.9% when the global benchmark rate was 1.3%. A President Gotabaya is likely to take this approach to its illogical end. Once we are on the brink of bankruptcy, there’s always Beijing to step in.
To deal with political opposition and popular discontent, new laws will be introduced, including ones the Rajapaksas tried to enact and failed during their last tenure.
Let us remember the Sacred Areas Act which would have empowered the Minister of Buddha Sasana to takeover ‘any area of land’ in ‘any municipal area, an urban development area or any trunk road development area’ or any land defined as a ‘Protection area’, a ‘Conservation area’, an ‘Architectural’ area or a ‘Historic Area’, or a ‘Sacred Area’. Let us remember the code of ethics for the media the Rajapaksas tried to enact in 2013. Amongst the 13 subjects it sought to criminalise were publications that affect foreign relations, promote anti-national attitudes, or damage the integrity of the Executive, Judiciary and Legislative.
The fundamental rights of citizens will be replaced by the fundamental right of the state to do whatever it wished to the said citizens.
In 2015, a majority of electorate understood what was at stake. That clarity is absent today, thanks to the idiocies of the government. The sense of hope and enthusiasm that was obvious in 2015 has been replaced by disillusion and lethargy.
The mindset of indifference and despair is understandable but unaffordable. If we give into it, we will facilitate the replacement of a bad present with an infinitely worse future.
Joseph Roth, in his essay, Going for a walk, asked, “Strolling around on a May morning, what do I care about the vast issues of world history as expressed in newspaper editorials?”(What I saw – Reports from Berlin – 1920-1933). That was written in 1921. Roth would soon see that the ‘truly microscopic, the diminutive of parts’ that he celebrates in his early essays were impacted on and irrevocably changed by the vast issues he wanted to ignore, particularly the growing Nazi menace.
However much we may dislike politics (and politicians), we can never escape its effects. If we make the wrong choice on the 16th, it will affect even the microscopic and diminutive parts of our lives. That is why not voting for Gotabaya Rajapaksa is not enough. On the 16th, we must vote against him.