By Tisaranee Gunasekara –
“All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned….” – Marx and Engles (Manifesto of the Communist Party)
‘Strong Women of Sri Lanka’ is the title of a booklet published by Child Development and Women’s Affairs Ministry and given free to students visiting the recent Dayata Kirula exhibition. The book reportedly contains 144 names, the crème de la crème of Lankan womanhood, in Rajapaksa reckoning. According to UNP Parliamentarian Ajith Perera, this list has two notable absentees – Sri Lanka’s only woman head-of-state and sole female chief justice[i].
Imagine a list of outstanding Indian women which excludes Indira Gandhi or a list of outstanding British women which drops Margaret Thatcher. Not even the BJP at its most anti-Congress or the Labour at its most anti-Conservative would commit such an inane solecism.
According to Parliamentarian Perera, this list of top women-achievers, while excluding Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and Shirani Bandaranayake, has included actress-turned-parliamentarian, Upeksha Swarnamali, alias Pabha,.
Juxtapose the exclusion and the inclusion and the reason for this political faux pas becomes clear. Sri Lanka’s only woman president and sole female CJ are excluded because they are anathema to the Rajapaksas. Ms. Swarnamali is included because she is a Rajapaksa acolyte.
That is how Rajapaksa Sri Lanka works: a Rajapaksa acolyte cannot do wrong; a Rajapaksa opponent cannot get it right.
Take the case of WD Rodrigo, former principal of the Law College. In 2011, he achieved notoriety for allegedly allowing Namal Rajapaksa to sit for an exam in a room apart, with internet facilities[ii]. In 2012, Mr. Rodrigo became the locus of another scandal; it was alleged that he favoured his own son in a similar manner[iii]. Eventually he was compelled to depart due to accusations of ‘examination irregularities’[iv].
Within weeks, in a quintessentially Rajapaksa move, the disgraced former Law College principal was appointed the Legal Director of the Presidential Secretariat. “As you are aware I am a President’s Counsel and the most educated lawyer in the country, having completed my Doctorate in law from the University of Queensland. I have been appointed by his Excellency the President to handle all his legal affairs”[v], an understandably jubilant Mr. Rodrigo crowed.
The triumphant resurrection of Mr. Rodrigo and the eternal damnation of Shirani Bandaranayake, in confluence, demonstrate that the most essential ingredient to a brilliant career in Rajapaksa Sri Lanka is not intelligence, ability or integrity but obedience to the Rajapaksas.
And this blatant favouritism, which is a founding principle of the Rajapaksa state, has compromised the integrity of another vital institution, the Law College.
In ‘Why Nations Fail’, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson argue that countries which are “ruled by a narrow elite that have organised society for their own benefit at the expense of the vast mass of people”[vi] fail to escape poverty/underdevelopment. Using a wealth of historical examples, they conclude that ‘extractive elites’, greedy leaders who monopolise political and economic power, create weak institutions which impede economic progress. The solution is an inclusive-elite capable of producing inclusive institutions.
Sri Lanka, under Rajapaksa rule, is moving in the opposite direction. The country did have a handful of institutions which remained untouched by the depredations of even her worst rulers. This helped Sri Lanka to avoid Fourth World status, even with a three-decade war and two insurgencies.
The first premise of any monotheistic creed is the belief that there is no god but (that particular) god. In Rajapaksa Sri Lanka, the first precept, the primary commandment of life (even outside politics) is the acceptance of Rajapaksa rule.
Sri Lanka is suffering from the deliberate erasure of every line of demarcation between the state and the Ruling Family. Today Lankan state is geared towards fulfilling the needs/whims of the Rajapaksas and their kith and kin. Previously autonomous/independent institutions are being corrupted and occupied, one by one. From the Central Bank to the Department of Census and Statistics, from the military[vii] to the upper judiciary, from the Securities and Exchanges Commission to the Bribery Commission, institutions which were above partisan politics have become blatant Rajapaksa tools. Soldiers labouring to facilitate Colombo Night Races, a private venture, and senior civil servant Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s face staring from a thousand UPFA-election posters are symptoms of this national malaise.
The practice of making and implementing laws for the benefit of the Rajapaksas and their kith and kin is not limited to the strictly political. Take the cabinet decision to remove the licence-requirement for timber transportation. This has encouraged illegal timber rackets while having a punitive effect on furniture-makers who use legally obtained raw materials. As Ven. Beruwela Ananda Thero, who is campaigning on behalf of the affected Moratuwa carpenters, explained, “What happens now is these illegal dealers go into the conservation and reserved forest areas, fell the trees and make what they call manufactured furniture while they are in the forest….. (Then) it is impossible to trace the source of the timber. Since they get the timber almost free of charge they can sell the furniture cheaply to shops…”[viii] Ordinary and law-abiding carpenters lose their livelihoods; politically connected racketeers benefit; forests are denuded and environment is destroyed.
Imagine the effect of innumerable such misbegotten policies, repeated over decades.
Indecent, Immoral, Inane
A Presidential cameraman was caught stealing a camera in Dubai and Presidential Media Director was accused of stealing bed-linen in Minsk, while on official presidential tours. The former lost is job while the latter didn’t[ix]. Neither was prosecuted nationally.
Namal Rajapaksa, when he forwarded an obscene tweet, was violating ordinary common or garden decency. (Had he received a tweet half as gross about any of his family members, would he have laughed ‘light-heartedly’ and forwarded it?) With his attempts to justify this crudity as a ‘light-hearted joke’[x], he is effectively attempting an upending of what is socially acceptable and what is not. Social media is a public – and not a private – space. Sharing such an uncivilised tweet would be the equivalent of making public the contents of a nasty anonymous letter. But then, that is precisely what a Rajapaksa acolyte did in parliament, during the impeachment witch-trial. Young Mr. Rajapaksa, when he pioneers a new moral-ethical commonsense which is crass, unkind and indecent, is following in the footsteps of his father’s ministers.
Is this oafish-vulgarity our miraculous future?
Had South Asia’s other political-scions, Rahul Gandhi or Bilawal Bhutto, acted in a similarly loutish manner, they would have been severely criticised not only by political opponents but also by leaders of their own parties and society in general. The fact that Namal Rajapaksa can act so coarsely, with politico-societal impunity, is indicative of how far we have fallen as a society.
Sri Lanka, under Rajapaksa rule is afflicted not just by institutional erosion but also from a severe morality-deficit, intelligence-deficit and decency-deficit.
The new JVP leader, parliamentarian Anura Kumara Dissanayake recently stated that like Vellupillai Pirapaharan, the Rajapaksas cannot afford to lose power[xi]. He is quite right.
And Sri Lanka cannot afford to let the Rajapaksas rule with impunity for long, because they are destroying the best institutions of this country and the best qualities of her people.
[vi] Power, Prosperity and Poverty: Why Nations Fail – Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson
[vii] Though the police was heavily politicized, the military was not, until Mahinda and Gotabhaya Rajapaksa came along.
[viii] Sunday Times – 15.12.2013
According to Mr. Rajapaksa, the obscene meme ‘makes him laugh’; that says it all.