By Dayan Jayatilleka –
A key speech by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has been quoted at some fair length and in the Report of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet as evidence which corroborates the charge of majoritarian ethnocentrism. His elder brother Mahinda never got himself in that situation; not even in wartime.
I was in the room when he engaged across the board in Geneva in 2007 with everyone from High Commissioner Louise Arbour and UN High Commissioner for Refugees – currently the UN Secretary-General – Antonio Guterres, to Amnesty International Head Irene Khan. He leaned into it, leaving the impression of a leader who was familiar with and appreciative of the concept of human rights but who was struggling to balance contending considerations in the throes of a terrible war in which he was determined to prevail for the sake of the people.
He made a good impression. But then again he had been a human rights lawyer and it was hardly his first time in Geneva.
The implementation of President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s pledge and program for postwar Sri Lanka embedded in the Joint Statements with the Government of India and the United Nations Secretary-General would have enabled Sri Lanka to stay off the hook it is on in Geneva today. It was blocked by two elements.
The first source of obstruction was the same duo that is most influential in today’s decision-making, namely the security establishment headed by Secretary to the Ministry of Defense Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the politico-economic establishment head by Basil Rajapaksa. The latter wanted to extend economic development to the North and build-up the SLFP there before holding Provincial Council elections.
The second obstacle was the TNA, which wanted to go beyond the 13th Amendment. When Mahinda Rajapaksa finally pushed through the Northern Provincial Council election in 2013, the maximalism of Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran wrecked the functioning of the Council.
In 2015-2019, the sporadic headway the TNA made in moving towards a new Constitution minus the executive presidency as well as the unitary framework, undermined the existing Constitution in which the 13th amendment was embedded. The TNA and the Sinhala advocates of devolution beyond the unitary framework failed to grasp the simple point that if you dismantle the existing 1978 Jayewardene Constitution, you disintegrate the foundation upon which the 13th amendment rests, while you open the door to a referendum on a new Constitution at which the Sinhala voter is both capable and likely to opt for lesser devolution of power to the provinces and/or a smaller unit of devolution.
In fairness, Gotabaya Rajapaksa was by no means the earliest advocate within the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration of the reversion to the district as the unit of devolution. In 2006-7 he was very much on board with the 13th amendment as the necessary price to pay for India’s support in the war. He once told the National Security Council that the military could only go so far in solving the problem and the politicians would have to come up with the political component.
In 2007 it was his ‘moderate, pragmatic’ brother Basil Rajapaksa, either influenced by, in tandem with, or instrumentalizing Chief Justice Sarath N. Silva, who lobbied, including at a working dinner with President MR and key SLFP Ministers, for the reversion to the district as the unit of devolution. If President Mahinda Rajapaksa had not been otherwise persuaded of the dangers and announced the decision to hold elections to the Provincial Council when we liberated the East in 2007, we wouldn’t have secured India’s support as we did during the rest of the war, especially when we came under pressure from the West.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa understood the strategic need for Provincial devolution and the implementation of the 13th amendment in 2006-7, but became ultra-hawkish about the post-war order after converting to Netanyahu-ism on several visits to Tel Aviv in 2008-9. A firm opponent of the 13th amendment during MR’s second term, he successfully lobbied for the reversal of the presidential promise to India (and the TNA) to appoint a civilian (Sinhalese) Governor when Gen. Chandrasiri’s term ended.
Secretary/Defense Rajapaksa combined cordial personal relations with the constructively-intentioned South African High Commissioner Geoff Doidge, with a hardline on the tentative initiative to facilitate the political dialogue between President MR and the TNA launched by South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma, through the appointment of his special envoy Cyril Ramaphosa, currently the President of South Africa. Minister Basil Rajapaksa was cynically disparaging of ANC veteran, High Commissioner Doidge and the South African initiative. As Geneva rolls round, President Ramaphosa will doubtless recall the reports of his Foreign Ministry as to who blocked what.
During the successful Gotabaya candidacy drive, there were two phases, perhaps corresponding to the two faces of the two personalities that President GR announced to the nation in his Ampara speech of January 9th 2021. The first was a conventional, rational, conservative stance in which he was clearly convinced of the merits of district-based devolution while remaining open to Realist argument for retaining the existing provincial system. Even while he was in this latter mode, the Viyath Maga/Eliya group of ex-military, nationalist professionals and Buddhist clergy were already in a radical Right, ultranationalist mode not only of opposition to Provincial Councils but also of opposition to those who advocated the retention of the status-quo. These ultranationalists frankly advocated the abolition of the PC system. Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s second phase/face, somewhere in the second half of 2018, was the Alt-Right one and has remained so through his presidency.
During the second term of Mahinda Rajapaksa, but having little or nothing to do with him, the Defense Establishment headed by the then Secretary/Defense and present President held one of its famous international conferences. I think it was in 2011. David Kilcullen, the hardnosed advisor of the more famous US Gen David Petraeus, advised the Sri Lankan defense authorities that they had a good case if only they made a truthful case about the real battlefield context and conditions, instead of trying to airbrush everything under the ‘humanitarian operation/zero-civilian casualties policy’ which lacked credibility. He was met with stony silence.
It is not that this reaction was devoid of precedent. A similar conference was held, under the same auspices, during the war. One of the speakers was Gerard Chaliand, world-renowned expert on guerrilla warfare and national liberation struggles throughout the Third World. Drawing from his comparative studies based on his vast field experience he argued that the Tamil challenge, once militarily defeated, imperatively required an autonomy-based political solution, or else the issue would resurface in different forms. He got the same icy treatment that Kilcullen was to receive a few years later.
The PM’s fairly recent effort to restart the Provincial Councils, would have constituted something which could have been given to Indian External Affairs Minister Jaishankar to take back to Prime Minister Modi– instead of the Eastern Terminal—and secure India’s backing in Geneva. It was shot-down by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s inner ring of ex-military men should have learned from the Jaffna university monument issue that the basic assumptions underlying its approach are wrong. Tamil ethnic identity will not be given up for or supplanted by economic inducements; the Tamils on the island and beyond its shores will not remain unresisting while being rolled over by superior numerical and material force; and Tamil moral resistance can be effective. The razing of the Mullaivaikkal monument caused more problems for the Government than leaving the status-quo undisturbed would have done. That will be truer still for the 13th amendment.
President GR should ask his Far-Right Ministers and ex-military inner-circle three questions:
1. Are there any Tamil takers at all, any Tamil leaders even on the government side such as Douglas Devananda, Karuna and Pillaiyan, who would accept either the abolition of the PC system, or its truncation or provincial re-demarcation?
2. If not, Colombo run a restive North with no Tamil allies or while undermining them?
3. In the face of available evidence, is India convinced by the case for abolition, truncation or provincial re-demarcation, and if not, should Sri Lanka ignore India’s stand and press on regardless with unilateral abolition or down-sizing?
In terms of US Republican politics that he was steeped in, Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s tragedy was that he could have been a John McCain—or what a President John McCain would have been– but felt more comfortable instead, going the Tea Party-Sarah Palin-Donald Trump route. Senator John McCain introduced and piloted through the bill outlawing the form of torture known as ‘waterboarding’. As Cindy McCain made amply clear, John McCain’s politics and perspective were opposed to those of the Alt-Right which Trump represented.
Having run on the Far-Right, President Trump should have governed from the McCain-type center, but instead he chose to govern from still further to the Right. He didn’t get this because he didn’t get politics and governance, only business—just as Gotabaya Rajapaksa understands military matters and has no political experience. You can’t understand politics, national and international, by stuffing everything with what you do understand– the military you served in—and/or vacuuming everything into the belly of what you once headed—the Defense Ministry.
The decisive shift or degeneration from a John McCain option to a Trump-Bolsonaro option was signaled by the ‘Hitler episode’, when on his birthday in 2018 a ranking Buddhist monk ranted “be a Hitler” and GR stridently defended the monk against his critics. John McCain would have given hell to any supporter who invoked Hitler. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa appointed the monk to his Buddhist Advisory Council which he confers with each month.
The Gotabaya tragedy is that he has elevated his ex-military brothers-in-arms, who cannot be blamed for their ignorance of politics, national and international, while downgrading by means of the 20th amendment his brothers Mahinda and Chamal who are vastly experienced in politics. The latter know that politics is about building a sufficient degree of consensus, while the ex-military element knows only top-down command and control which is profoundly counter-productive in political and social matters. President GR has built a model which is very familiar to students of Latin America and East Asia in decades past: a fusion of the military and the speculative financial oligarchy. It is a model of the pre-digital Age. It will take down the President and self-destruct or be overthrown (internally and externally), while the President will take the rest of the Rajapaksas down with him.