By Tisaranee Gunasekara –
“And what country can preserve its liberties, if its rulers are not warned from time to time, that the people preserve the spirit of resistance?” – Thomas Jefferson[i]
Recently several websites exposed a Rajapaksa plan to send presidential campaign material, thinly disguised as New Year greetings, to all military members. Around 200,000 of these letters were reportedly brought to the General Post Office and soldiers were reportedly engaged in readying them for the post.
Transparency International Sri Lanka complained to the Elections Commissioner. The Commissioner, having verified the information, ordered the Post Master General not to send the letters. Another Rajapaksa attempt to violate election laws and abuse state property on a massive scale was foiled. The Orwellian military spokesman admitted that the New Year greeting contained a photograph of the President and tried to justify this blatant violation of election law on the grounds that Candidate Rajapaksa is also the Commander in Chief[ii].
The incident demonstrates, again, the Rajapaksa determination to retain power by whatever means possible. It also demonstrates that societal vigilance can foil at least some of the Rajapaksa machinations.
The Rajapaksas called an early election not to give voters a chance to freely choose their next leader, but as a means of further entrenching and re-legitimising dynastic rule. They were obviously hoping to run against a divided and bickering opposition and win, easily. The Maithripala-candidacy destroyed that well-laid plan. But even a united and committed opposition cannot prevail against a political opponent who uses the state as his political and personal fief, without societal support.
Ordinary employees would have leaked the information about the military’s illegal electioneering. There was a similar leak about a reported plan to illegally cast the votes of migrant workers. Someone informed the opposition that fugitive deputy minister Nishantha Muthuhettigama was heading towards the airport via the highway. These are all indications that at least a segment of society is willing, at considerable personal risk, to subvert Rajapaksa attempts to steal the election.
The outcome of this election will decide whether Sri Lanka takes a giant, and in all probability irreversible, step towards dynastic rule – or not. The outcome of this election will decide whether Sri Lanka (including the North) begins to hobble towards some kind of democratic normalcy – or not.
As the election campaign enters the end-phase, the political climate is turning increasingly stormy. Obviously the Rajapaksas thought of the election as a mere rubber stamp. They did not expect defeat but realise, too late, that defeat is possible. The increasingly shrill and inanely illogical rhetoric, comparing an exercise of popular franchise to a Western/Diaspora conspiracy, is indicative of this (somewhat belated) realisation. This week, Basil Rajapaksa surpassed his more intemperate brothers in fear mongering by comparing the election to the chaotic situation in Libya which led to the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi[iii].
Libya was created by arbitrarily meshing together several neighbouring pieces of the former Ottoman Empire. It began as a monarchy and turned into a tyranny via a coup. It had just got rid of a brutal despot, who ruled supreme for three decades. Sri Lanka may end up in a similar place, if Rajapaksa rule continues beyond January 8th. But fortunately we are not there yet. We still remember the not-so-distant past when an election meant a real choice and replacing a president/government with a new one was the norm (and not equated with treachery). The habits of peaceful resistance are still alive in us. Therefore there is no sense in comparing the current Lankan situation with the conditions which prevailed in Libya, Syria or Egypt, unless the Rajapaksas intend to hang onto power anti-constitutionally, post-defeat. (Interestingly the Rajapaksas never mention Tunisia, the vanguard of Arab Spring, which completed a peaceful and democratic transfer of power this week. More educated, tolerant and cosmopolitan than other Arab-Spring nations, Tunisians have opted for secularism and democracy – a sensible combination).
Why do the Rajapaksas make these inanely illogical comparisons? Is this mere rhetoric or a reflection of their actual thinking? Are they determined to hang on to power, even if they have to ignite a civil conflict? Are they going to respond to the democratic opposition the same way they responded to the anti-democratic LTTE?
After all, if you come to regard an election as a conspiracy, you may respond to an election the way you would respond to a conspiracy.
Safety in Diversity
The savage weather conditions and the million+ victims should have been the focus of the state, the government and society. Instead, the focus is on an election, held two years before time, for no purpose other than the myopically insatiable greed of one family.
Having called an untimely election, the Rajapaksas are displaying a disturbing willingness to win it by unseemly means.
In Sri Lanka, thanks to decades of multiparty democracy, neither the bureaucracy, nor the military is politically monolithic. There are government officials of all hues and there are military personnel of all hues. Consequently, if the Rajapaksas lose the popular vote and try to retain power unconstitutionally, they may find the task rather difficult, perhaps impossible. There are welcome signs that the Rajapaksa monopolisation of state power is being resisted from within the state itself – from the top Finance Ministry officials who reportedly informed the Treasury Secretary of their opposition to the rampant abuse of state property by Candidate Rajapaksa to the police inspector who resigned in protest against political interference (he is being persecuted by the power-wielders) and election officials who braved the wrath of a thuggish deputy minister in their determination to implement the law.
Maithripala candidacy was born in an act of unanticipated rebellion. That example seems to be giving rise to smaller acts of resistance and rebellion across state and society. The revelations by the rebels have made many people realise the truth about Rajapaksa rule – that it’s nothing more than government of one family by one family for one family.
Societal-stability or ethno-religious peace cannot be maintained at gunpoint. That is the future the Rajapaksas are offering the Sinhalese. They want to terrify the Sinhalese into trading in democracy and basic liberties for non-instability and non-war. They want the Sinhalese to believe that national security can be achieved only by garrisoning the entire country. They want the Sinhala-South to believe the country will break up if the de facto military occupation of the North and the East ends. They narrate stories of dragons and monsters to turn citizens into juvenile subjects. They will not democratise even marginally if they win; on the contrary they will tighten their stranglehold even further, to prevent other Maithripala Sirisenas and other Sarath Fonsekas from emerging. Claiming popular endorsement, they will make polity, judiciary, society and economy more unfree than ever before.
A scorpion’s poison is in its tail. The Rajapaksas may be willing to risk violent deluge to hang on to power but that does not mean they will prevail. Societal vigilance and resistance can prevent that horrendous future. The Rajapaksas can still be defeated democratically and sent home peacefully. But this may be our last chance to do that.
[i] Letter to William S. Smith, quoted in Thomas Jefferson on Democracy by Saul K Padover