By Ravi Perera –
“You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time” – Abraham Lincoln
The half a century long political career of Mahinda Rajapaksa has ended in infamy, a fugitive hiding from a people sorely wronged by a political culture of which he was a most visible representation.
During these five decades, Mahinda has held nearly every position a people’s representative could hold: Member of Parliament, Cabinet Minister, President and Leader of Opposition. Generally, an extraordinarily lengthy public career, taken with the many positions occupied, including the Presidency of the country, would point to an exceptional personality. Not so in Sri Lanka apparently. It is his commonness which is celebrated, there is nothing distinguishing him. We look in vain for the exemplar, the visionary or the intellectual in Mahinda Rajapaksa.
What stands out in him is the opposite, the pedestrian, the commonplace, playing to the gallery and the blatant promotion of his own family. However, for those craving patronage, Mahinda provided a ready path. Positions, recognition, avenues to earn money and other trinkets he was generous with (at State expense). There were many who craved these baubles. He had no interest in the moral upliftment or the broad intellectual development of the people. An awakened nation would be to his disadvantage. Now in thrall of the politician, the people’s lowest common denominator was his playground. Mahinda knew what ticks in this society, what a more thoughtful person will find objectionable, he was at ease with. He climbed the greasy pole not on the strength of his character or skill: it was a career built on patience, cunning and posturing.
Even among a gang of thieves, the gang leader must possess some quality that elevates him. There must be an explanation for his emergence. The stamina to nurse his rural constituency for this length of time is perhaps one. Many other political veterans have chosen the easier path of the national list, which our constitution conveniently allows. Mahinda also had the good fortune to see his career peak at a time when the overall quality of leadership in the country was going down-hill.
A leader gets assessed relative to his immediate rivals. Gone were the Dudley Senanayakes, SWRD Bandaranaikes, JR Jayewardenes, NM Pereras and the Pieter Keunemans. Primarily, Mahinda gets compared to his contemporaries like Chandrika Kumaratunga, Ranil Wickremesinghe and Maithripala Sirisena. Chandrika is a two term president, while Ranil had been prime minister several times now. In most democratic countries, such reappointments would be uncommon, therefore admirable. Not in Sri Lanka, a few names have been appearing and reappearing in high positions from 1948. This recurrence of a handful of persons as leaders of the country only emphasises something everybody knows; an empty society, hopelessly diseased.
It is difficult to see history being kind to either Ranil or Chandrika, perhaps a foot note on what could have been. Given the opportunities continually offered to them both, their impact on this nation’s story is negligible. They may have meant well, but as commonly said, the path to hell is paved with good intentions. On the issue of the Northern terrorism, they both got things totally wrong, as events later proved.
The LTTE, formidable as well as ruthless, were terrorising the whole country, holding a substantial part of the land in an iron grip. To take the battle to them was a gamble, weak nations do not always have complete autonomy in such things. Neighbouring countries as well as powerful nations often interfere. A war effort can ruin the economy of a poor country. Once committed, Mahinda did not waver on his stance on the war on the terrorist group.
It was a gamble that paid dividends. In May 2009, after a tough battle, our armed forces triumphed over the implacable LTTE. The LTTE rhetoric was not mere bluster, many of them fought to the last, dying with the gun still in their hands. After nearly three decades of intermittent fighting, peace dawned, the rejoicing was spontaneous.
At long last, the country was united and peaceful. The economy was free to function.
This was the moment to repair a damaged land and the broken hearts. A great man was needed. Mahinda Rajapaksa is not a great man.
In our living memory there has been only one war. There are nations that have fought dozens of wars in the last hundred years, against other redoubtable nations, even world-wide wars. Winston Churchill did not claim that he won the war on his own, nor did Bernard Montgomery vie to become a Prime Minister. Nations with long experiences of wars understand them, are better equipped to view them in perspective, with more realism, and less bombast.
War efforts demand a national effort and the sacrifices of thousands. In our war, the heaviest burdens were carried by the common people, it was their children who were killed and maimed on both sides. No one man or one group can claim all the credit for a war victory. Only a philistine will do that.
With the war ended, before long, the true nature of the Mahinda Rajapaksa rule emerged. The era of unsolicited bids had begun. Now crowding the corridors of power were a new set of men, oddments and weirdos, with crude ways and sleazy methods. Governance was equated to patronage and skulduggery.
Airports were built to which no aeroplane flew, ports were made only to crumbled under the debt burden, while our existing national airline was haemorrhaging money, a second airline (named after the President!) was launched. Highways anywhere are expensive projects, apparently on the basis of construction cost per Kilometre, our highways are the most expensive in the world! The latest news is that an Australian health care company said to be involved in a hospital project in South Sri Lanka had paid a large sum of money to an offshore bank account linked to a Sri Lankan businessman with close connections to the centre of power in this country. The hospital is government owned.
Being related to the President’s family was qualification enough to hold any job. His relatives landed everywhere, especially in diplomatic postings. This anything goes culture, spurred adventurers and encouraged misadventures. A politically active accountant ended up in the chair of the Governor of the Central Bank, a crucial position with regard to the country’s economic wellbeing as well as its financial decorum. The sitting Chief Justice was removed in what was in all but name a constitutional lynching. The accuser was the ruling party and the hearing was dominated by them. Many an MP could barely conceal their glee at the anguish of the forlorn lady judge, battling odds she could never beat. After the ‘verdict’, fireworks were lit near the Parliament, while delirious supporters boiled ‘kiribath’ in front of the Chief Justice’s bungalow; a most ungracious act of further intimidation of the fallen judge.
Sri Lankan’s woke up one morning to learn that their country had invested a large sum of foreign currency in a thing called “Greek Bonds”. It was all Greek to them! Then, they learnt that Sri Lanka had ‘contracted” a known ‘hustler’ to lobby the American government. Making friends and influencing people in America aside, this so called ‘lobbyist’ is now in jail in that country!
The people were not blind. In 2015, Maithripala Sirisena , a senior member of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s own party broke ranks to contest him at the Presidential elections. Sirisena won narrowly. His own words, that he would have been ‘six feet under’ had he lost to his former leader, says it all about the nature of Mahinda’s regime.
Then came the tragicomedy which called itself Yahapalanaya government (good governance). Even before the ink could dry on their letters of appointment, the Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was embroiled in a scandal concerning the sale of sovereign bonds by the Central Bank. Disregarding the objections of many, he had appointed a close associate as Governor of the Central Bank. This Governor had a son in law who was a primary dealer in sovereign bonds. From then on, the son in law seemed to have bought a major portion of the issued bonds, making a windfall profit. The resulting outrage doomed the Yahapalanaya government. Within four years Mahinda’s brother Gotabaya was elected President with a huge margin (Mahinda could not contest the presidency due to a constitutional amendment brought by the Yahapalanaya government), while his political party the People’s Alliance swept into power gaining nearly two thirds of the seats in parliament. The UNP of Ranil Wickremesinghe failed to win a single seat.
Mahinda had not learnt anything from his defeat of 2015. His extended family, now further extended by the marriages of his three sons, became very visible again. The same hoary public servants, Brahmins creating a mystique out of their pen-pushing, these men who had stood and watched uncomprehendingly the gradual but inevitable fall of this nation; masters in the art of toadying, experts at self-promotion, were on stage again. Massive projects and unsolicited bids were back in fashion.
There is a limit to the amount of abuse any country can withstand. Sri Lanka appears to have reached its threshold in 2022.
Our youth, helpless victims of the tomfoolery of their older generations, are now out at Galle Face in protest. They burn in the pitiless sun, soak in the pouring rain, demanding an end to their agony. There is no electricity, there is no petrol and there is no cooking gas. Inflation is raging, what was Rupees 100 yesterday, is 200 today.
Then came the 09th of May, when a large group of thugs emerged out of Temple Trees, the Prime Minister’s official residence, to attack a group of young protestors camped outside his residence(Maina-go-gama). The time was about mid-day. Having destroyed that site of protest, they began marching towards ‘Gota-go-gama’ the main site of the protestors. When they reached Gota-go-gama it was about 12.45.
It is inconceivable that the Prime Minister was not informed of the attack on MainaGoGama, going on right in front of his official residence. Between that attack and the attack on GotaGoGama there was a gap of a good half an hour. There was enough time to intervene and stop it from happening. While the goons wreaked havoc at the two sites (with a lengthy gap between the two attacks), there was only a deafening silence from Temple Trees.
The political establishment and their goons miscalculated very badly. Through the years, goons acting on behalf of the governing party could violate with impunity, the police looked the other way. These thugs are not brave; it is with the assurance that there will be no counter action that they launch themselves on helpless victims. As they represent the powers that be, the law is often effete. Things went very different this day; outraged by the insolence of the thugs who had come out of the official residence of the Prime Minister, the people of this country reacted in a manner that will earn them a grateful salute from history, a long subdued nation, regained itself.
In the events of 9th of May there is a sense of an ending, a turning of a page, Sri Lanka will not be the same again. There has always been an undercurrent of violence in our politics. Invariably, the perpetrators are the victorious (after elections) or the governing party. However, on the 9th the marauders went too far, the sheer injustice of the violence let loose on the Galle Face protestors provoked a nation already suffering incredible hardships, to retaliate in kind. In a rage, the people attacked the attackers, abused the abusers and violated the violators.
Never before have the properties of an incumbent Prime Minister and other government ministers been destroyed in this manner. Never did an entire government go into hiding like this, cowering in fear. At Temple Trees, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa assured his cheering supporters that he was not a man to run away from challenges. His hurried exit that evening belied his swagger
Unlike in democracies of a true sense, for seventy odd years this country of twenty-three million people has been ruled by only a few individuals, many of them several times over. The number narrows down even further if you consider family connections. In the so called political parties, the reality is even worse, three or four families have controlled them from the inception.
Mahinda Rajapaksa boasts a fifty-year political career.
The sum result of all these political careers since independence is a bankrupt country. Models of governance which have delivered so well for other countries, have failed utterly in this country. Hallowed concepts of democracy, good governance, parliaments and other vital institutions have lost credibility in the clammy hands of our politicians. The entire system is in crisis, poorly run and delivering little.
In the eyes of the people, no institution has meaning, no politician has any standing.
To talk of long political careers in a country where the people today are suffering untold misery, is an admission of guilt.