By Tisaranee Gunasekara –
“Did this ever happen?” – Homer (The Iliad)
It was the defining moment of a decisive election. Mahinda Rajapaksa tries to plunge into a crowd of supporters in Akuressa to hammer a man who grabbed his hand. The video shows a visibly angry Mr. Rajapaksa, his other hand balled into a fist, ready to take on the perpetrator of lèse majesté.
Soon after the video went viral, some Rajapaksa acolytes tried to depict the incident as a dry run for a future assassination attempt. Had the alleged finger-puller been a real or suspected enemy, he would not have escaped unscathed from the crowd. He was unharmed because the rest of the audience recognised him as a kindred spirit.
Mr. Rajapaksa said that he felt great pain (‘tharu penuna’ – I saw stars) when his finger was grabbed and there is no reason to doubt him. What is of relevance politically is his instinctive reaction to this injury. He did what anyone in a similar situation would have done, and tried to pull his hand away. But his reaction did not stop there. He went several steps further and did something most people, especially those who are older and more mature, would not have done; he raised his other hand threateningly and charged into the crowd to attack ‘the attacker’. Had his security guards and supporters not dragged him away, the country would have witnessed the unique spectacle of its ex-president hammering an unknown man, in public.
That instinctive reaction tells much about Mahinda Rajapaksa, man and politician. He is a fighter, which was one reason he could beat Vellupillai Pirapaharan at the latter’s own game. He is, perhaps, a good choice for a country at war, a country threatened by external or internal enemies. He is definitely not a wise choice for a country which is recovering from a long and debilitating war, a country which is faced with the task of building a consensual peace. As Mr. Rajapaksa’s instinctive reaction to a perceived injury demonstrates, he is a man who sees threats and enemies where there are none, a man who is prone to thoughtlessly violent solutions. That is precisely what this country does not need, at this historical moment.
Gratitude was theme of Mr. Rajapaksa’s 2010 presidential election campaign. An absolute majority of the electorate accepted that logic and voted him in. But Mr. Rajapaksa was a wartime leader and as such he was incapable of understanding, let alone handling, peacetime needs. He not only failed to implement political and socio-economic measures aimed at winning over the alienated Tamils. He implemented measures which infinitely exacerbated their alienation. Some measures were strategic and sourced in his own project of familial rule and dynastic succession such as garrisoning the North. Some were motivated by ideology, such as denying the existence of an ethnic problem and therefore the need for a political solution. But quite a few were like his Akuressa behaviour, angry and vengeful reactions to a real or perceived injury. An excellent case-in-point was banning the singing of the national anthem in Tamil; this move was a reaction to the cancellation of Mr. Rajapaksa’s second Oxford Union Speech due to protests by Tamil Diaspora groups.
But perhaps the most deadly legacy of Mr. Rajapaksa’s aggressive politics was the antagonising of the Muslim community.
The Unending Search for Suitable Enemies
For Lankan Tamils, the cruellest month had to be July. No defeat or tragedy which befell them was as universal as Black July. It was a general conflagration which spared no Tamil. Poor bottle-sellers and wealthy entrepreneurs, uneducated road-sweepers and highly qualified professionals, voters and politicians, Hindus and Christians, young and old, leftists and rightists, men and women, every Tamil was imperilled by it.
Last year, as Aluthgama burnt, it looked as if Black July will be repeated in June, this time with Lankan Muslims as its target. A private quarrel between a Buddhist monk, his Sinhala diver and three Muslims youths was exaggerated and depicted as an act of Muslim on Buddhist violence. Instead of moving swiftly to restore order, the Rajapaksa regime allowed the BBS to hold a public meeting in the middle of the simmering Aluthgama town. “In this country we still have a Sinhala police; we still have a Sinhala army. After today if a single Marakkalaya or some other paraya (alien) touches a single Sinhalese…..it will be their end,” [i] BBS live-wire, Bhikku Galagoda-Atte Gnanasara thundered, as the police and the army watched. That’s all the guardians of law and order could do, watch, because the power-wielders were on the side of the mob.
Almost as soon as the Eelam War was won, Sinhala-Buddhist extremist groups began inciting anti-Muslim hatred. The Rajapaksas responded with a nod and wink. In the resulting enabling environment, the BBS et al could say anything and do anything, with total impunity. Which policeman would lift a finger against the yellow-robed marauders, after Gotabaya Rajapaksa attended a BBS function and praised BBS monks for engaging in a “nationally important task”[ii]?
Until Black July erupted, armed Tami groups, including the LTTE, were starved of funds, arms, recruits, public sympathy and international support. Black July took care of every single one of those problems, spectacularly. The rest is blood-soaked, death-raddled history.
The Aluthgama mini-riot warned that Sri Lanka was rushing headlong towards another cliff-edge, this time of religious conflict.
Deliverance came unexpectedly. Mahinda Rajapaksa held a presidential election two years ahead of time, and lost it. Deprived of state-patronage the BBS et al receded into ineffectuality. Suddenly, and with unbelievable rapidity, the air cleared as racial and religious toxicity decreased drastically. The poison did not vanish completely, but it ebbed to normal, bearable, non-threatening levels.
That change indicated a fundamental truth. Anti-Muslim hatred did not come from below, from Sinhala society; it emanated from above, from power-wielders. Suspicion, aversion, perhaps even contempt and dislike, these feelings are organic on every side of the religo-racial divide; but not murderous hate. That was an artificial construct, a deadly drama staged for political purposes. When the producer-directors were ousted from power on January 9th, the manufactured-hate, deprived of life-support, died a natural death. Sri Lanka took a decisive step away from another disaster and towards a largely peaceful future.
Sri Lanka is a pluralist country. We need to develop peaceful mechanisms to deal with the problems and tensions unavoidable in a multi-ethnic, multi-religious society. It is the only possible path to a secure and stable future. Mahinda Rajapaksa did the opposite; he turned ordinary differences into implacable divisions and tried to benefit from the resulting extremisms.
This was where Sri Lanka was headed when the presidential election intervened. This is the journey the Rajapaksas will resume if they win on August 17th.
Protectors presuppose enemies and threats. Once the Tigers were defeated, standard religio-cultural differences were repackaged as threats and yet another minority targeted as the next enemy. The anti-Halal campaign, which erupted with virulent suddenness, sowed fear and hate by the bushel, and vanished with equal suddenness, was an excellent case in point.
There is an intimate connection between anti-democratic politics and religious extremism. Actual and would-be despots see in extreme versions of religion a weapon and a shield for their political projects. In Nigeria it was the encouragement accorded to extreme forms of Christianity by the country’s military rulers which paved the way for the creation of that horror, Boko Haram. In Iraq, Premier al-Maliki’s Shia-supremacism made it possible for the IS to grow from nothingness to the monster it is today. It is an open secret that Myanmar’s military rulers are enabling/supporting Monk Wirathu and his 969 Movement. He had openly come out against Aung Sang Suu Kyi (despite her unprincipled refusal to condemn anti-Muslim violence) warning that chaos will result if she wins the presidency[iii].
During a keynote speech at the Kotelawala Defence Academy in 2014, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa characterised Sri Lanka as a country confronted by a variety of threats and enemies. He made particular mention of Tamil extremists (national and international), left-wing extremists, Islamic extremists, criminal extremists, media extremists, Western extremists, anti-democratic extremists and irresponsible extremists[iv]. If the UPFA wins on August 17th, that brand of politics, which sees an enemy in anyone who is not a servile supporter of the Rajapaksas, will return, more combative and irrational than ever, determined to ensure that January 8th does not happen, ever again.
Character, Politics and National-fate
Mr. Rajapaksa is obviously incapable of understanding the difference between antagonistic and non-antagonistic contradictions. Any act, if it causes him a real or perceived injury, is seen as an act of aggression, enemy-action requiring a decapitating reaction. That was what Mr. Rajapaksa tried to do in Akureassa. He did not bother to think or reason; he acted, and acted violently.
That was, for instance, the way he responded when then Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake incurred his wrath.
Given Mr. Rajapaksa’s determination to take the country back to the past and his promises to ‘restore the rule of law’ the impeachment saga assumes a particular relevance. As US Ambassador Patricia Butenis said in a classified cable (dated 24th February 2010) Justice Bandaranaike was believed to be a Rajapaksa-loyalist[v]. Several of her controversial decisions indicated this bias. In February 2010, Dr. Bandaranayake headed a bench which rejected Gen. Sarath Fonseka’s fundamental rights petition asking for release from detention until investigations against him are completed. The court accepted the Attorney General’s rather curious contention that until the investigation is concluded it is not possible to determine whether there is any reason to detain Gen. Fonseka. In September 2010, another bench headed by her approved the controversial 18th Amendment, in 24 hours.
But Dr. Bandaranayake was no Mohan Peiris. She was biased but she was not an acolyte. And she did draw the line at rulings which blatantly violated the constitution. In December 2011, a bench headed by her decreed that the Town and Country Planning (Amendment) Bill cannot be presented to parliament without the consent of all the provincial councils as land is a devolved subject. This controversial bill would have given the Minister of Buddha Sasana and Religious Affairs the power to take over any private land just by declaring it a ‘Protection Area’, ‘Conservation Area’, Architectural or Historic area’ or ‘Sacred Area’. Then in September 2012, a bench headed by her made a similar ruling vis-a-vis Basil Rajapaksa’s Divineguma Bill.
Within months a bogus impeachment motion was brought against her and she was hounded out of her post.
Either you are with us totally or we will destroy you completely was a key premise of Rajapaksa thinking and Rajapaksa rule.
Going by electoral statistics and trends, the UPFA will not win the upcoming election; nor will it become the single largest party. Mr. Rajapaksa therefore will not become the prime minister. That is indeed fortunate, because back in power, he will plunge the country into a series of conflicts. He will battle with President Maithripala Sirisena for power and with the UNP and the JVP for Southern dominance. Inciting anti-minority sentiments will be a key weapon in both these conflicts. The country will become embroiled in a chaotic situation, as every institution (including the military) is divided along pro-Rajapaksa and anti-Rajapaksa lines. Even the SLFP will not be spared, if the hostile treatment meted to those SLFP candidates who are not out-and-out supporters of Mr. Rajapaksa is anything to go by.
Multiple confrontations, instability bordering on chaos, a country fractured beyond salvation, that is what a Prime Minister Rajapaksa will give us. He is not capable of anything else.
The security needs and concerns of a country at peace are diametrically opposite to those of a country at war. The last thing Sri Lanka needs today is the return of the Akuressa Man.
[ii] Sri Lanka Mirror – 10.3.2013