By Tisaranee Gunasekara –
“Did this ever happen?” –Homer (The Iliad)
Some reports may be exaggerated; others not. From ‘imported’ dogs, birds and horses, sharks and elephant-calves allegedly found in the official residences of Mahinda and Gotabaya Rajapaksa[i] to the discovery of several private-armouries, many recent revelations indicate the unimaginable extent to which the Rajapaksas treated the state as their private preserve.
What they wanted they got; what they willed they did.
A singularity created by a combination of disparate developments brought about their downfall. Now the task is to undo the harm they did to state and society – and create structural constraints to prevent future rulers from treading the same ruinous path.
Politicians have always abused power and always will. But with the Rajapaksas, the abusing of power happened on a scale previously undreamt of. From very early on, the Rajapaksas made a conscious effort to efface and destroy the lines of demarcation between the state and themselves. They set out to create a terrain in which anything (they wanted to do) was permissible.
Familial interests became coterminous with national interests. Policies were made arbitrarily. Whims became policies. The distinction between legal and illegal vanished. Abuse was the norm.
Take, for instance, the curious trajectory of the policy of dual-citizenship. Gotabaya Rajapaksa (and his brother Basil) had been a beneficiary of this system. But a couple of years ago, Mr. Rajapaksa put an end to this practice, citing national interests. No explanation was given as to why suddenly dual-citizenship became a threat to the nation. Then, during the recent president election campaign, Mr. Rajapaksa took another 180 degree turn and restored the practice of dual-citizenship, in a faster, easier form. Once again the country was not told why the practice of granting dual-citizenship ceased to be a threat to the nation.
This story demonstrates the extent to which Rajapaksa whims and self-interest dictated policies in the last ten years.
The Rajapaksa practice of destroying the lines of demarcation between themselves and the state has created multiple structural crises. The most embarrassing of these is the ongoing controversy over the Chief Justice. After they got rid of Shirani Bandaranayake via an illegal impeachment, the Rajapaksas appointed a politico-legal crony to that position. The new ‘Chief Justice’ continued to act like an acolyte of the ruling family, openly. For instance, he visited the private residence of President Mahinda Rajapaksa in Medamulana to celebrate the 2014 Sinhala and Tamil New Year, rubbing shoulders with politicians and other hangers-on[ii]. Now he refuses to resign honourably and is reportedly demanding a key diplomatic post in lieu. This is what Familial Rule has done to the Lankan state.
Rajapaksa needs and interests guided economic policy as well. Taxation became a tool of extraction, a means of taking money away from ordinary people to sustain the lavish lifestyle of the ruling clan. State resources were used to reward favoured business-acolytes and friendly countries. The reported selling of the extremely valuable Milco land in Narahenpita to Softlogic[iii] at bargain-basement prices and the extravagant concessions granted to Chinese companies demonstrate how ‘familial economics’ operated in practice. The result was a curious phenomenon – a state which was at once obese and lean – obese to accommodate the growing cupidity of the Rajapaksas and their kith and kin; lean vis-à-vis the needs of ordinary Lankans.
The blurring and vanishing of the boundaries between the state and the ruling clan created situations which ranged from merely preposterous to downright dangerous. The alleged conduct of the Carlton Pre-school is an example of the former while the deeds of Avant Garde security service epitomise the latter. According to The Sunday Times, there are allegations that the Carlton Pre-school “drew students on the assurance that they could be placed in a Colombo school of their choice when the pre-school course was completed. This has allegedly been done by issuing letters to such leading schools where principals have been advised to give effect to those letters. It is claimed that they obliged out of fear of reprisals.”[iv] Avant Garde was so favoured that the armouries it operated in the Galle Navy Camp were out of bounds for both naval and police personnel. According to The Sunday Times, “…though the armoury was inside the Navy camp….neither those in the armed forces nor the Police had any control. They could not even check on the armoury. They were not provided details of what had been stored…. Even the rooms in the Seva Vanitha building in the Navy camp in Galle were given for storage of weapons and ammunition. Here again, the Navy had no access to these rooms.”[v]
Militarization under Rajapaksa rule was thus sui generis; it empowered not the military but the ruling family and its acolytes. Under Rajapaksa militarization, a retired major with the right connections to civilian rulers could become more powerful than army or navy commanders, even within military installations!
The Right and the Willingness to Know
Some years ago, Gunter Grass shocked the world by announcing that he was once a member of the SS. Asked why he decided to confess after decades of denial, he replied that one morning, while shaving, he found himself whistling the tune of the Hitler Youth, and realised “how deeply the Third Reich had impressed itself upon him”[vi]. The degree to which the Rajapaksas were able to impose their thinking on the Lankan state became evident when the new Secretary to the Ministry of Defence issued a statement justifying the dubious financial practices of his Rajapaksa predecessor. He has since recanted, but his instinctive reaction indicates how deep and pervasive the malaise is.
Treating the state as the private preserve of the rulers led to a form of governance which was so completely unintelligent that it boomeranged on its very creators. Reclaiming the Lankans state from this abyss and restoring it to its original position constitute an urgent and indispensable task for the new government.
Historian Ibn Khaldun pointed out that, “……people as a rule approach great and high ranking persons with praise and encomiums. They embellish conditions and spread their fame. The information made public in such cases is not truthful.”[vii]
Until the Rajapaksas left power, most Lankans had only a hazy idea about what the clan was up to. By silencing the media, the Rajapaksas ensured that the populace remained uninformed and ignorant about the reality behind the patriotic and populist façade.
The new government has promised to remove all impediments to the right to information and the free flow or information. But laws are not enough. We must be willing to know, to become informed. And ‘knowing’ must not stop with knowing the crimes and the misdeeds of the Rajapaksas; it must extend to knowing any wrongdoing by current and future governments.
The country needs a civil service which abides by the law and the constitution and is capable of standing up to rulers who step outside these necessary confines. The country also needs a populace willing to become informed about and be critical about the wrongdoings not just of the opposing side but also of one’s own side.
The task is a Himalayan one. And it must begin now.
[vi] The Daily Beast – 9.5.2013
[vii] The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History (Abridged version)