By Rasika Jayakody –
Social media was flooded this week with the photograph of Salah Bin Jamal Khashoggi, son of the slain journalist Jamal Khashoggi, meeting with Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, de facto ruler of Saudi and the man considered responsible for the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The emotions of Salah, a captive in his own country, are chilling to contemplate. As a young man banned from leaving his own country, Salah had little choice over the finely choreographed meeting with the Saudi ruler: sea of emotions was understandably suppressed on his blank face.
The brutal murder of Khashoggi has unmasked Prince Salman, who has attempted to create a public image as a ruler open to democratic reforms in a state that has little regard for human rights and free speech. He was the blue-eyed boy of US President Donald Trump and was considered the lynchpin of the US foreign policy in the Middle East. The 33-year-old ruler also launched a major investment drive to attract movers and shakers in the global business sphere to his oil-rich country. A few months before Khashoggi’s murder, MBS seemed to be a man destined for greatness. It took seven minutes – the time it took for the Saudi hit squad to kill Khashoggi and dismember his body – to reverse the Prince’s fortune and put him in the centre of an inescapable political and diplomatic crisis.
The photograph of the Saudi Prince’s meeting with Khashoggi’s son eerily reminded many Sri Lankans of a widely published photograph taken in 2013 by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s official photographer. It was the photograph of the meeting between former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the family members of the victims killed by the Army at a protest in Rathupaswala. Although there is no evidence to say that Rajapaksa personally overlooked the ‘military operation’ in Rathupaswala that resulted in the killings of victims who demanded nothing but clean water, it strains credulity to believe that the former President was not aware of the deployment of the Army to disperse a civilian protest.
The aggrieved family members of the Rathupaswala incident too were made to pose for photographs with their President, knowing that those who ordered the military operation that resulted in the deaths of their loved ones would escape the arm of the law. They knew they were being used as pawns of a well-crafted PR operation aimed squarely at distancing Rajapaksa from the bloodbath that shocked the nation. And they also knew the consequences, had they collectively boycotted the photo-op with the President, would have been unthinkable.
Their plight was no different to that of Jamal Khashoggi’s son who is in no position to openly demand justice for his father.
What is interesting, is that Khashoggi’s murder occurred at a time when many Sri Lankans are considering bringing back a strong, MBS-style administration to drive economic development in Sri Lanka and bail the country out of the current morass – considerations triggered by the incompetence of the current government.On the political front, the government has miserably fallen short of delivering the promised reforms and their main election pledge – the abolition of the Executive Presidency – has vanished into the thin air. The government’s failure to make tough decisions and operate within a strong policy framework has destabilized the economy, and it is against this backdrop that many – including a sizable proportion of the educated urban middle class – have begun to entertain the notion of a “benevolent dictator” – and who better to suit the profile than former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
The murder of Khashoggi and the Saudi Prince’s apparent involvement in the well-planned operation make a strong case for why the word “benevolence” cannot be juxtaposed with the word “dictator”. Dictators are never benevolent and they can never be. While sometimes dictators wear gilded cloaks of “progressiveness” and “modernisation”, it is only to conceal the repression lying at the core of their systems of governance.
It is a dangerous gamble to trade economic prosperity and rapid development with democratic rights and freedom of expression. That is why society must strongly dismiss calls for a “Benevolent Dictators” but demand a competent and stable government that also upholds the democratic rights of its citizens instead. As a result of the constant debacles within the current government, the public is now unable to make a distinction between good governance and the lack of governance. It is a woeful lack of governance that the current government has often demonstrated, starkly different from the fundamentals of good governance – a concept firmly rooted in greater transparency, integrity and financial discipline.
Jamal Khashoggi’s murder is a timely reminder to many Sri Lankans of the massive risks involved in the “benevolent dictatorship” model. There is still space our political arena for a leader who can strike a balance between an efficient and results-oriented system of governance and upholding the democratic rights of the citizens. We must strive to seek a leader capable of filling this space, without embarking on a gamble whose massive risks outweigh any potential benefit.
*The writer is the former Editor of Daily News and the former Editor-in-Chief of Asian Mirror. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org