By Tisaranee Gunasekara –
“It is the President who has unleashed this wave of terror, of course he knows its going on, even if he leaves the details to underlings and never gets his own hands soiled”. – Denias Dombo (An anti-Mugabe activist)[i]
Robert Mugabe’s landslide victory barely caused a stir, internationally. When the predictable happens, it is not quite Breaking-News. The world seems to have realised that Mugabe will never relinquish power, voluntarily. The usual Western condemnations did emanate, but they were almost token protests, lacking in vigour, purpose or direction.
As journalist Wilf Mbanga pointed out, “What happened…was a demonstration of what can be done by a small group of people who have everything to lose and who have spent more than 30 years cementing their grip on power and wealth”[ii].
In an editorial-comment on Zimbabwean elections, The Washington Post mentioned four methods used by Mr. Mugabe and others of his ilk to turn multiparty polls into electoral tragicomedies with predestined ends: “First take control of the state media and exclude your opponents well before the voting. Then seize control of the election machinery itself and make sure that your rigged triumph is plausible (in other words not 99 percent). Third avoid any signs of voter intimidation that can be recorded by a camera. Last declare that the people have spoken and never look back”[iii].
So elections become electoral coups. Smart autocrats no longer need to cancel elections or ban opposition parties. On the contrary, they can have veritable electoral-sprees, round after round of electoral-farces with pre-ordained outcomes, which, in turn, can be used to justify new anti-democratic policies and fresh repressive measures. Elections transformed, from a measure of democracy to a tool of despotism.
As in Sri Lanka.
The Rajapaksas are becoming experts at using elections to strengthen familial rule and ensure dynastic succession. Incessant and unseasonal regional/local elections (held on a staggered basis) are used to legitimise familial rule, debilitate the Opposition and accelerate the SLFP’s transformation from a Bandaranaike-party to a Rajapaksa-party.
The 18th Amendment, arguably the most anti-democratic constitutional measure of Rajapaksa provenance, so far, clipped the wings of the Elections Commissioner. The Commissioner no longer has the constitutional right to impede/stop unfair electoral practices of the regime. The Impeachment installed a Rajapaksa-crony at the helm of the judiciary; the Peiris Court will never uphold an election petition by the Opposition.
Whenever necessary, targeted violence is used to break the will of opposition activists and plunge opposition voters into despair.
Weliweriya massacre is a snug-fit into this picture. Had the people of Weliweriya succeeded in their water-battle, other wronged communities would have been emboldened into launching their own peaceful protests. This would have been a morale-booster for the opposition. The Rajapaksas applied maximum force in Weliweriya to demonstrate to the entire country that dissent, however democratic, peaceful or non-political, will not be tolerated.
Once the indignation evaporates and media-focus/public-attention shifts elsewhere, the people of Weliweriya will be left alone and bereft. The ‘independent investigations’ will exonerate the army; any report which is even marginally critical will be consigned to oblivion[iv]. The glove-factory, owned by the premier economic stooge of the Rajapaksas, will be pronounced not-guilty. (The Hayleys has already commenced its own brainwashing campaign with half-page newspaper ads hailing the controversial company for its ‘ethical practices’ and ‘national service’[v]). Hopefully, the people of Weliweriya will get the free pipe-borne water they asked for. Realistically, they are likely to end up with nothing other than a few water tanks and an abiding fear psychosis.
The Weliweriya syndrome is already being used elsewhere to discourage democratic dissent. In Batticaloa, the army reportedly invoked the Weliweriya massacre to prevent people from participating in a demonstration, successfully[vi]. Weliweriya can also be used to discourage oppositional activists and sap voter-determination in election times. For example, the army can be deployed near polling stations, to ‘ensure security’, instilling fear, especially in the North. In Zimbabwe, the deployment of soldiers around polling-booths acted as a deterrent on many voters[vii]: “The presence of soldiers in our area brought back memories of the 2008 era…”[viii]
The purpose of the Fourth Eelam War was not just to defeat the Tigers but also to teach the Tamils a lasting lesson in obedience. So civilians were attacked systematically. Similarly Weliweriya was not an accident, nor a benevolent law-and-order operation gone wrong; it was a deliberate act aimed at teaching the Sinhala-South the futility and lethality of disobedience. Its goal is the same as ‘Leadership Training’: the psychological regimentation of society, with the military as Tutor; follow orders or suffer consequences.
Party and Army
Robert Mugabe’s political longevity, despite Zimbabwe’s appalling socio-economic and political conditions, is due, in the main, to his control over the ruling party, his dominance of the military and the support he enjoys from regional leaders[ix].
The Rajapaksas use carrot-and-stick methods to subjugate the SLFP/UPFA and control the military. Loyalists are rewarded; invertebrates tolerated; those who try to maintain even a vestige of autonomy are punished.
L’affaire Nawalapitiya was a superb exposition of this Rajapaksa method. During the 2010 parliamentary election, Nawalapitiya became awash with violence and malpractices, allegedly committed by Rajapaksa-pet Mahindananda Aluthgamage against the not-so-servile Sarath Amunugama. The Elections Commissioner annulled polling in 37 centres (this was before the Commissioner was turned into a Presidential-cipher, constitutionally). Once denial of the internecine electoral war became impossible, the Rajapaksas started their countermoves. Through a series of media ‘leaks’ the SLFP and the public were convinced that President Rajapaksa was appalled by the crimes of his henchman and will ensure that justice is done. An investigative panel was appointed. Once public-interest/media-attention waned, the Panel delivered its report. It decreed that no misdeed has happened and thus none was guilty[x]. The triumphantly exonerated Mr. Aluthgamage was made a Deputy Minister; Mr. Amunugama was punished with a humiliating demotion for crossing a Rajapaksa-pet.
And a potent lesson in mindless-servility was taught to the entire SLFP (a lesson Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra ignored, at the cost of his life).
Similar tactics were used to break the military to the Rajapaksa-bridle, the incarceration of General Fonseka and the elevation of Shavendra Silva being excellent cases in point. The military was turned into a Rajapaksa-tool. This subjugated military is now being used to overrun civil spaces. Lankan militarization is not a military-project; it is a Rajapaksa project.
A non-Rajapaksaised military would protect its own and might baulk at shooting unarmed Sinhala-Buddhists. A Rajapaksaised military will tolerate any injustice (including towards its own) and rampage against anyone (including unarmed Sinhala-Buddhists).
This was demonstrated when Gen. Fonseka was persecuted and when unarmed protestors in Weliweriya were mowed down.
The Rajapaksas do not have the same solid regional support enjoyed by Robert Mugabe. Whether the backing of Pakistan and China can balance Delhi’s confused hot-and-cold Lankan policy, in the medium/long term, remains to be seen.
Presidents, like lesser citizens, are mortal. Zimbabweans can look forward to a post-Mugabe future, because the Mugabe-project is non-dynastic. Unfortunately the Rajapaksa Project is both familial and dynastic. Barring an implosive battle between Presidential Sibling/s and Son/s over succession, our Rajapaksa-winter might not end with the demise of its progenitor.
[i] Quoted in ‘The Fear: The Last Days of Robert Mugabe’ – Peter Godwin
[iv] In the company of the report on the murder of Roshain Chanaka, the FTZ worker killed while protesting against the fraudulent private sector pension scheme.
[vii] In the 2008 election, Robert Mugabe won less votes than the Opposition, led by Morgan Tsvangirai. But the army, which, in reality, is more a Mugabe force than a national/Zimbabwean force, continued to back Mr. Mugabe while his regional allies led by South Africa hastened to broker a deal. The opposition became a part of the faux national government and Robert Mugabe was able to regain the political initiative and strengthen his power.
[ix] When Mr. Mugabe called early presidential and parliamentary elections this year, the Opposition decided to boycott the polls knowing very well they will be neither free nor fair. The South African Development Community (SADC) leaders ‘persuaded’ Mr. Mugabe to requestZimbabwe’sConstitutional Court (stacked with Mugabe-appointees) to extend the election deadline by two weeks. In a show of compromise, Mr. Mugabe agreed. The SADC leaders then persuaded the Opposition to take part in the election. Once the opposition caved in, the Mugabe-appointees choking theConstitutional Court refused to extend the deadline. Neither the Opposition nor the SADC had any countermoves. Mr. Mugabe was able to have his election and win it.