Colombo Telegraph

The Known Devil

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

“A kingdom for one sensible word! – Truly a hair-raising crowd!” –Nietzsche (Ecce Homo)

On Friday, Maithripala Sirisena’s Pelmedulla rally was stoned, while the candidate was speaking.

The next day, in Ginigathena, Mahinda Rajapaksa commented on the attack, derisively. Even worse, he indicated that the opposition stoned its own stage, as part of its ‘media-circus’: “Now recently just because a stone fell on the stage (there was) a big fuss. (I) do not know what (they) will do to themselves in a few days. This is a presidential election. Don’t treat this as a joke. I am telling my former secretary…”[i]

Less than 24 hours after Mr. Rajapaksa’s dismissive remarks, Mr. Sirisena’s rally was attacked again. This time the attackers came openly, in several Defender jeeps (the vehicle-of-choice of the thugs who haunted Moneragala during the Uva PC poll). They reportedly shot in the air, just after Mr. Sirisena’s speech ended[ii].

Will the president claim that Mr. Sirisena got his own supporters to shoot at his own meeting?

Last month, Basil Rajapaksa accused the opposition of staging attacks on its own meetings/supporters to win public sympathy.[iii] Last week, Nil Balakaya claimed that actors dressed in Nil Balakaya t-shirts staged the Kumbukgate attack on young artistes.

Now the President is singing the same self-exculpatory song. His comments can be dismissed as characteristic displays of puerility, except for what they might intend and portend.

The President’s comment that he does not know what else the Opposition will stage in the next several days is worrying. It indicates that whatever happens to the Opposition, the president of the country, who also happens to be the Commander-in-Chief and the controller of the police and the upper-judiciary, is likely to dismiss it as ‘self-inflicted’. This amounts to giving a green-light to attack the opposition. After all, if authorities indicate that any crime will be blamed on the victim, what is there to restrain potential criminals?

The President expected to cruise to victory. He is now struggling with the possible prospect of defeat. For the Rajapaksas ordinary life, life without power would be inconceivable. They are likely to do whatever it takes to win. Their effort may be unsuccessful, but it will be made.

Last week, during his second foray into the North, the President asked Tamils to vote for him because he is the ‘known devil’. Devil – that is a matter of opinion. Known he certainly is. And in this election season he is surpassing himself, in what devils are supposed to excel at – sow fear, hate and division.

In the final week of the campaign, selling the war has become almost the sole theme of the Rajapaksa platform. On Saturday, all television stations, state and private, (with the exception of Sirasa and TNL) carried a crude propaganda film about the war. It was an exercise in war-pornography; time and again footages of dead bodies, including those of babies, were displayed with meticulous care. The camera tried to highlight every bloody wound. Needless to say, no bodies of Tamil victims were on display.

Mahinda Rajapaksa goes to the North and tells Tamils to forget the past. In the South, he and his attendant-imps are incessantly reminding the Sinhalese of that same past.

The war is the only saleable political-commodity the Rajapaksas have. And they have no hesitation in flogging Sinhala corpses, to stay in power.

Since the only real hold Mahinda Rajapaksa has over Sinhalese is the war, if he wins, this country will never be allowed to escape the past. It will be compelled to relive the horrors and the enmities of the past. Whenever they feel the need to drum-up Sinhala support, the Rajapaksas will seek to incite fear and hatred of Tamils, of Muslims, of Christians.

Reconciliation is impossible if we cannot forget and forgive. And the Rajapaksas will never allow us to forget or forgive. The memory of the war is their equivalent of the beggar’s wound. They will keep on pricking it, digging it, infesting it, to stay in power.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa is right. We know him – and what he is capable of doing, including worsening the ethno-religious divides to the brink of violence and beyond.

We know him and that is why he must go.

Fathers and Kings

When the President turns up at a rally, his arrival is heralded by two children singing a song, hailing him as ‘our father’ and the ‘father of the country’ (‘ape appachchi’ and ‘rate appachchi’).

Kings were traditionally regarded as the fathers of their people, in the orient and the occident. That lie enabled monarchs to treat their subjects not as adults but as eternal juveniles, who must be led and guarded, rewarded and punished, for their own good. Hailing Mahinda Rajapaksa as father-cum-king is a deliberate attempt to exploit Lanka’s historical baggage and ontological memory in order to justify the transformation of an elected president into a de facto absolutist monarch.

There was more than a twinge of absolutism in the presidential system, particularly in placing a president above the law, for life. But the term-limit provision gave a way out to the country. The 17th Amendment weakened presidential powers and strengthened other branches to create a more balanced system. If it was implemented, Lankan presidency would have become more like presidencies in developed democracies.

The Rajapaksas deliberately destroyed all those restraints and turned the presidency into a de facto absolutist monarchy. Elections were to be mere exercises in rubber-stamping. Thanks to the SLFP’s inner-party rebellion this election has become anything but, which is why it is being condemned as a conspiracy and worse.

According to the latest CPA survey, Lankans – and Sinhalese – are beginning to realise this truth. In 2013, only 39.3% of Lankans supported term-limits. By December 2014, 48.5% of Lankans thought that the constitution should limit a President to a maximum of two terms, irrespective of his/her popularity.

In 2013, 36.8% of Lankans opposed term-limits; by December 2014, opposition to term-limits has decreased massively, to just 22%.

In 2011, 42.4% of Sinhalese opposed term-limits; by December 2014, only 25.5% of Sinhalese opposed term-limits. In 2011 only 33.6% of Sinhalese supported term-limits. By December 2014, Sinhala support for term-limits has gone up massively, to 43.6%.

By December 2014, only 29.3% of Lankans opposed the abolition of executive presidency while 39.9% supported its abolition (30.9% of the respondents refused to give a direct answer). 35.2% of Sinhalese support the abolition of the executive presidency while 35.6% oppose the abolition. All minorities support the abolition of the executive presidency by huge margins.

If the opposition wins, and is serious about keeping its promises, it can hold a referendum on abolishing executive presidency and win it, freely and fairly. The President is reportedly planning to dissolve the parliament soon (to stymie a victorious opposition); therefore the referendum can be held together with the parliamentary election.

Abolishing the executive presidency will free us from an institution which brings out the worst qualities in many politicians and help reopen democratic space. It will be an excellent way of reassuring the minorities without antagonising the majority. And it will help prevent the creation of known-devils in the future.

[i] Ada Derana – News at 8 – 3.1.2015 – the translation, a literal one, is mine


[iii] In the Sunday Divaina

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