By Tisaranee Gunasekara –
The beautification of Goabaya Rajapaksa is on full throttle. The names of his front organisations are indicative of the guise he intends to adopt as a presidential contender: The Light (Eliya) and The Intellectual Path (Viyathmaga). In a recent interview,[ii]he is photographed with a laden bookshelf forming the background – the erudite leader ready t guide the country towards the light along the intellectual path.
It would have been a harmless joke had it not been for the man’s past.
In Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s pantheon, no divinity is more important than the god of discipline. Freedom, he tells his future subjects, is of no use without discipline.[iii]The burden of his song is simple – under Rajapaksa rule, there was discipline; now there’s anarchy; once the presidency returns to the Family, the paradise of discipline will be regained.
Perhaps it’s time to recall a few vignettes of the paradise of discipline we lost.
On 24thNovember 2011, making the keynote speech at the inaugural National Conference on Reconciliation, Gotabaya Rajapaksa proclaimed Sri Lanka to be “one of the most secure and stable countries…in the entire world.”[iv]
Exactly a month later, on the Christmas Eve of 2011, in the Rajapaksa bastion of Tangalle, Khuram Shaikh, a British tourist, was hacked to death and his Russian companion gang raped. The culprits were Sampath Chandrapushpa Vidanapathirana, a Rajapaksa acolyte and the handpicked head of the Tangalle Pradesheeya Sabha, and his fellow thugs.
The criminals would have got away with it, had the victim not been a British national. As it was, the politico was arrested, released on bail, and within months, restored to his old job as the Chairman of the Tangalle PS (the effect this would have had on eyewitnesses who are locals are all too easy to imagine).
On 11thJuly 2013, the Chief Government whip Dinesh Gunawardena informed the parliament that Mr. Shaikh’s partner Victoria Tkacheva was neither raped nor sexually abused. When he was challenged, he washed his hands of that atrocious lie by saying, “I am presenting the answer given to me by the Ministry of Defence, based on police records submitted to them.”[v]Had it not been for the fact that Mahinda Rajapaksa was not desperate to avoid a boycott of the 2013 Hambantota Commonwealth, murdering-raping politico may not have been charged at all.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s defence would be that rapes and murders happen everywhere, including in his adopted motherland, the USA. They do. The difference was that the main suspect was a favoured acolyte of the ruling family, and political influence was used to delay and if not subvert justice.
In the paradise of discipline that was Rajapaksa-Sri Lanka, criminal politicians were not the exception but the norm.
On 8thOctober 2011, in Kolonnawa, a suburb of Colombo, a shooting war erupted when Duminda Silva, the monitoring MP of Defence Ministry,[vi]and his entourage attacked the entourage of Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra, a presidential advisor. Mr. Premachandra and several others were shot to death. Subsequent investigations revealed that Duminda Silva’s entourage included a well known criminal boss known as Dematagoda Chaminda. The international factors that played a key role in the Khuram Shaikh case were absent in the Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra case. It would take a governmental change and the restoration of judicial independence for Duminda Silva to be convicted or murder.
Then there was the case of planter Nihal Perera murdered on 5thJuly 2013. He had fallen foul of a local UPFA politico, Anil Dhammika Wijsesinghe, the former chairman of the Deraniyagala PS. “slashing the throat of the area Divisional Secretary after he refused to allocate two acres of land.”[vii]Mr. Perera had opposed the politico’s tree-felling racket. He was once beaten up in his own bungalow, probably as a warning. Later he was he was abducted, “beaten with clubs before being slashed with swords.”[viii]
That was how discipline reigned in the lost Rajapaksa paradise, the one Gotabhaya Rajapaksa is promising to restore.
The Guilty and the Innocent
When it comes to conjuring enemies, Gotabaya Rajapaksa is peerless. At a defence seminar in September 2013, he produced a stable-full of them.[ix]There were Tamil Extremists (International)who want “the division of Sri Lanka and the establishment of a separate state for Tamil Eelam,” and Tamil Extremists (National)who might empower radical elements to “once again attempt to take up arms against the state in the name of separation.” Then come Left wing Extremists, who were “involved in previous insurgencies. Some of these groups are trying to reorganise within Sri Lanka and mobilise people to once again take up extreme left wing causes.” No enemy-list would be complete without Islamic Extremists. Then comes the sui generisGota-touch, with Criminal Extremists,Media Extremists(who “portray demands by sections of the public to showcase the country in a negative light”),Anti-democratic Extremists(who “go beyond peaceful demonstrations and engage in violent protest, incite violence or act in other undemocratic ways”) and Irresponsible Extremists(who don’t exercise their democratic freedoms with responsibility”). Finally there’s that hardy perennial, Western Extremists(“There is a possibility that some western powers wish to have a Sri Lankan Government that is closely aligned with their interests. They may seek to influence Sri Lanka’s destiny so that it cannot pursue the independent course it is following at present”).
Naturally the likes of BBS were not included in the list. They, as per Gotabhaya-vision, are not extremists, but monks “engaged in a nationally important task.”[x]Mr. Rajapaksa was the Chief Guest at the opening of Meth Sevana, the Buddhist Leadership Academy of the BBS. Less than a month later, a monk-led mob torched the Fashion Bug outlet in Pepiliyana. That was not terrorism, but probably a ‘nationally important task.’
Haitha Madawala, a UPFA member of the Kelaniya PS? On January 5th2013, he was shot dead outside his house. His murderers rode a motorcycle, wore hoods, and got away. An attempt had been made to kill him one year previously, on January 7th2012. Subsequent to that attempt, Mr. Madawala fingered Mervyn Silva, a key Rajapaksa acolyte, and said that a “murder contract has been given to notorious underworld operatives Roshantha of Hikkaduwa and Majeed of Maligawatte…”[xi]Not a case of Criminal Extremism.
In 2013, Rohitha Rajapaksa hammered a referee at a rugby match in full view of spectators. Young Rohitha was incensed because his side lost the match.[xii]There was talk of an investigation, but nothing happened. Not a case of Irresponsible Extremism.
June 26th2012, a BBS mob surrounded the Ministry of Buddha Sasana demanding that the Minister cracks down on a rival Buddhist who ‘insulted Buddhism’ within two weeks. On January 21st, 2013, another BBS mob stormed a tourist hotel in Beruwala, where a private party was in progress, alleging that the hotel possessed a ‘Buddha Bar’. Not cases of Anti-democratic Extremism.
In June 2013 Last month an MOU was signed for the establishment of a university in Kaththankudi, as part of the Mahinda Chinthanaya: “The founding of the first University for Ulamas is to be funded by Saudi Arabia. GCE A/L qualified Moulavy graduates from Mathrasas will be admitted for studies at the university”[xiii]. The new university will turn out graduates who adhere to Wahabism. Nothing to do with Islamic Extremism.
In April 2014, the editor-in-chief of Lakbimawas interrogated by the CID. His ‘crime’ was carrying a funny caption over a picture of the wife of Gotabaya Rajapaksa. “…..Ayoma Rajapaksa was depicted buying goods at the New Year fair of the Civil Defence Department. The caption of the photo was…. ‘They aren’t fake money aren’t they?’”[xiv]The newspaper apologised the very next day, but to no avail. The sub-editor, directly responsible for the caption, was dismissed from the job[xv]. Subsequently the editor himself tended his resignation. That was a case of Media Extremism.
The aged grandmother of Dhanuna Tilakaratne, the then son-in-law of Gen. Sarath Fonseka, was dragged to the CID. Her crime – offering her fugitive grandson shelter for one night. What a purveyor of Irresponsible Extremism.
In May 2013, Sagarica Delgoda, the Resident Representative of the Friedrich Neumann Stiftung (FNS), was taken to the Fourth Floor and grilled for 8 hours over links between the FNS and the UNP. The FNS has had links with both the major parties, openly, for decades. But in Rajapaksa Sri Lanka, that probably came under Western Extremism.[xvi]
That was how the Rajapaksa paradise worked in practice – freedom for themselves and their acolytes; repression masquerading as discipline for everyone else. Impunity for the few and helplessness for the many – that was the state Gotabaya Rajapaksa recalls with such fondness and promises to bring back.
In a recent interview, Gotabaya Rajapaksa reiterates the importance of stability. “A stable country is of paramount importance. It is fundamental to everything. Stability is very important. We have to ensure that there is a disciplined, stable and secure initial base for development. No investor, be it local or foreign, will invest if there is no stability.”
So how did this haven of stability work in practice? According to Fitch Ratings, post-war Sri Lanka was remarkably unsuccessful in attracting foreign direct investment (FDI); the average net FDI since 2009 is a miniscule 1.2% of GDP. “This is low in comparison with most regional peers and has fuelled a reliance on debt-creating capital….. This has kept the external debt burden at 57% of GDP which is much higher than all other emerging Asian markets, except Mongolia.”[xvii]
In 2013, The ILO warned that Sri Lanka’s income inequality was on the rise. This was confirmed by the government’s own statistics. Minister Sarath Amunugama revealed in parliament that the richest 20% of the country account for 54.1% of the national income while the bottom 20% receive just 4.5%.[xviii]According to the ILO’s Asia Pacific Labour Market Update of April 2013, “…in Sri Lanka youth unemployment rate was more than four times the overall unemployment rate….”[xix]Meanwhile, the 2013 budget gave a 300% tax break to super racing cars. The 2014 budget gave tax relief to designer pens, ties and bows and other branded consumer items. So much for pro-people economics.
Ironically, this past is unlikely to be a bar to Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s overweening ambition to sit in the presidential seat because many an anti-Rajapaksa Lankan would find it next to impossible to summon any enthusiasm for the alternative. The UNP’s four years in office have been a time of unintelligent governance. Max Weber defined politics as “a strong and slow boring of hard boards,” and opined that being a politician requires passion and perspective.[xx]The UNP lacks both. It public image is a disastrous combination of venality, inertia, and tedium. Its actions and inactions have made a mockery of the hopes of 2015 and given good governance a bad name. The UNP’s unique capacity to simultaneously kindle teeth-grinding irritation and jaw-aching boredom could keep a sizeable segment of the anti-Rajapaksa voters away from the polling booth. Unfortunately for Lankan democracy, such non-voting would be a form of voting. It could ensure a Rajapaksa victory, as happened at the at the local government election of 2018.
Mr. Sirisena’s shenanigans constitute a major blessing for the Rajapaksas. The President wants to hang drug offenders to prove he is tough on crime. He tries to trade on patriotism. He dreams of rolling back the democratic reforms he himself pioneered. For instance, his remarks indicate that the independent commissions he now wants are the same sort of independent commissions Mahinda Rajapaksa created via the 18thAmendment – commissions which exist to approve whatever the president wants, and are independent only where slavery is freedom, truth are lies and war is peace.
The main obstacles to Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s presidential ambition are twofold. First is inter-familial rivalry. Chamal Rajapaksa has expressed his own readiness to be the SLPP’s presidential candidate. Basil Rajapaksa is said to be evading the issue. Even if that problem is ironed out, there is the far more serious issue of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s US citizenship. It would be a case of poetic justice if the man who portrays himself as Sri Lanka’s supreme patriot finds himself barred from the presidential race because he took early retirement from the army while the country was still at war and sought greener pastures in the American empire.
[vi]“President Mahinda Rajapaksa has appointed three Monitoring Members of Parliament. Sajin de Vaas Gunawardane has been appointed as the Monitoring MP to the External Affairs Ministry while parliamentarians R Duminda Silva and Uditha Sanjaya Lokubandara were appointed as Monitoring MPs to the Defence Ministry.” (Ada Derana – 13.12.2010). Subsequently, MP Sajin Vaas Gunawardane assaulted the then Lankan High Commissioner to the UK, Chris Nonis, in public. Investigations carried out by the Rajapaksa government absolved him of all charges.