Colombo Telegraph

Politics – And Life – In A Familiocracy

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

“What is the source of our first suffering? It lies in the fact that we hesitated to speak”. –Seamus Heaney[i]

What happens when arrogance weds ignorance?

Last week the CT reproduced two entries from the Twitter account of Namal Rajapaksa. The First Son talks about electioneering in the North, in the company of brother Yoshitha.

As a junior naval officer, Yoshitha Rajapaksa is barred from engaging in politics. Is Namal Rajapaksa ignorant of this? Or is it arrogance, because he knows that laws are irrelevant to him and his kind?

On a scale of things, Yoshitha Rajapaksa’s electioneering amounts to nothing much. During the Presidential election, several top uniformed military officers appeared on state-TV to praise his father and vilify his father’s main rival. Under his father’s rule, diplomats and university vice chancellors wallow in electoral politics. Breaching the boundaries regulating the conduct of public officials has become a habit with his Uncle Gotabhaya. When the Buddhist Temporalities Ordnance became a bar to his first cousin Shasheendra Rajapaksa (the Basnayake Nilame of the Kataragama Devalaya) becoming the Chief Minister of Uva[ii], his father made the obstacle vanish by issuing a gazette[iii].

In Sri Lanka, Nepotistic Governance has become the norm. The members of the Ruling Family have developed a sense of entitlement, a feeling that they are super-humans who operate on a different plane. This perception has percolated into Rajapaksa acolytes as well, as is evident from the execrable conduct of the Governor of the Northern Province. The unthinking arrogance which laces his reaction to the charge of electioneering is indicative of the true nature of the political caste which is coming into being under Rajapaksa Rule. This political-caste predominates in the polity and the civil, judicial and military services; they are branching-out into the private-sector economy and society. They derive their actual power from the Ruling Family and consider themselves bound solely by Rajapaksa dictats. Their primary loyalty is not to the Lankan state, the government or even the ruling party, but to the Rajapaksas (and themselves).

Egyptian sociologist Saad Eddine Ibrahim combined the Arabic word for republic (gumhuriya) and kingdom (mamlaka) and came up with a new term: ‘gumlukiya’ – a hybrid-state which is half republic, half monarchy.

‘Presidents-for-life’ with dynastic ambitions are not just an Arab phenomenon. Sri Lankais experiencing her own transition from res public into res familiaris. The Lankan state is already a family affair. And through trusted stooges, the Rajapaksas are extending their tentacles into the economy and the society. The meteoric rise of tycoon Dhammika Perera in the business-world and his appointment as a Permanent Secretary, under Rajapaksa Rule, is symbolic of this emerging reality.

“Our eight years shows (sic) more than sixty since Independence”[iv]
boasted President Rajapaksa. He was right, though not quite in the way he intended.

Presidents-for-Life and their Politico-biological legacies

Humour has ever been a key weapon of the oppressed. Watching the dynastic-melodramas of their rulers, members of the Arab Streetcoined the phrase, ‘sexually transmitted leadership’. In his book, ‘The Rise and the Fall of Arab Presidents for Life’ Roger Owen opined that the phenomenon of lifetime-presidents “began as a result for a necessary drive for sovereignty and independence”; it became institutionalised into “something best described as a ‘mirror state’ in which its presidents were encouraged not only to see what they wanted to see but also imagine themselves as omnipotent, indispensable and well loved by a grateful people in whose name they professed to govern”.

In order to succeed, monarchic-republicans must change laws, practices and institutions. They also need to transform the thinking of their people. If the populace is not resigned to subjecthood, presidents-for-life will have to resort to generalised rather than targeted repression, a costly option, both financially and politically.

The Rajapaksas know that. In under 8 years, they have managed to change not just constitutional provisions, laws and institutions but also dominant thinking in the Sinhala South. The most portentous of the Rajapaksa achievements is located precisely in the politico-psychological plane, in their capacity to enthrone a radically new commonsense.

What was once beyond the pale has become normal and vice versa; ideas and entities confined to the margins of polity and society are now reigning centre-stage[v]. We are becoming accustomed to relentless abuse of power by the rulers. The unrestrained and objectionable conduct of Presidential kin is sourced in the knowledge of being safe both from the law and public disapprobation. We have accepted the equation of Rajapaksa interests with national interests; we are unmoved by the blatant creation of a ‘Familiocracy’; we are becoming accustomed to the idea of President Rajapaksa ruling for life and being succeeded by a brother/son[vi]. We do not laugh at the official promotion of the ‘Cult of the Family’[vii]. We are tolerant of the militarization of Sri Lanka by a Rajapaksaised military, even after Weliweriya. We are ever willing to believe apocryphal tales of spectral Tigers/international conspirators. If the NPC election is postponed via a legal-shenanigan[viii] or a TNA-led council is dissolved using the Tiger argument (post-Commonwealth), we will accept that, with conviction, indifference or resignation.

We lost our ability to be angered by the unjust and the inhumane when we accepted the twin-myths of zero-civilian casualties and ‘Welfare Villages’.

The habit of apathy endures.

The distinguishing-feature of the latest round of polls is the extent to which disregard for the law has become embedded in the election process. Violating laws has become an election-norm, as is evident from the abduction of Dayasiri Jayasekara’s main financier[ix] to the conduct of the NP Governor. The public response to these serial-outrages indicates a sense of weariness, a growing belief that elections are just an expensive and inconvenient show.

The conduct of the Elections Commissioner is symbolic and symbiotic of the irreverence with which the power-wielders regard elections. Instead of making a ruling on the NPC Governor’s electioneering-antics, he passed the buck to the Human Rights Commission, even though the violation of election laws is the business of the Elections Commissioner. But then, thanks to the 18th Amendment, the Elections Commissioner (like the Human Rights Commission) is just a presidential cipher. He has no real powers. So why bother? Plus even if a case is filed, the Rajapaksa Chief Justice will ensure that the ruling is in Rajapaksa favour. With distorted laws and perverted institutions, is it any wonder that many ordinary voters feel disenfranchised, even with elections galore?

In ‘Why Nations Fail’, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson argue that when a clique of people monopolises a state, the economy is turned into ‘an extractive backwater’ and nations fail.

A state which is enslaved to a family is incapable of acting in the best interests of the country or people. Such a state would give precedence to the partisan political interests of the rulers over and above issues which are vital to the people. When their own base protests democratically against this injustice, the rulers will label it a conspiracy and unleash the military, guns blazing. Or divert the attention of people by inciting fear/hate of ethno-religious minorities, even at the risk of a general conflagration.


[ii] According to the Buddhist Temporalities Ordnance, a person holding public office is cannot serve in any religious institution coming under the Ordnance, without a special permission from the Pubic Trustee.

[iii] Gazette Extraordinary No.1614/30 exempted the Kataragama Devalaya from the relevant section of the Ordnance, enabling Shasheendra Rajapaksa to wear both the religious and the temporal hats!


[v] Thus the acceptance of naked ethno-religious racism and the role played by the likes of Galagoda-Atte Gnanasara Thero.

[vi] The Egyptians had another popular joke: when President Mubarak was told by his advisors not to follow in the footsteps of his brother autocrats, he responded, “Egypt’s traditions are thoroughly democratic; I will let the people chose between my sons”.

[vii] In January 2010, the state-owned television channel, Independent Television Network (ITN), held a musical show titled ‘Jaya Jayawe’ (Victory! Victory!). The guest-lecturer of the evening, a prominent Rajapaksa ideologue (who was nominated by the President to the parliament a few months later) defined the show as a symbol of the emerging ‘New (Rajapaksa) Civilisation’. It was a revealing remark, because the show was a long panegyric to Mahinda, Gotabhaya and their mother. The show opened with a lullaby retelling the ‘heroic saga’ of ‘King Mihindu’ and ‘Chief General Gotabhaya’ who defeated the ‘demons’ threatening the motherland; it ended with a musical tribute to the siblings’ mother. “Mother, are your watching from heaven, as the Son, who the gods and the Brahmas sent to your womb from golden palaces, is protecting the Nation”, sang the songstress, as a giant image of the late Ms. Rajapaksa adorned the screen.

[viii] Sinhala Jathika Peramuna has filed a case in theAppeal Court asking for a postponement of the NPC election until de-mining is complete and all Sinhalese and Muslims are resettled.


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