By Tisaranee Gunasekara –
“‘But he hasn’t got anything on,’ a little child said.” ~ Hans Christian Anderson (The Emperor’s New Clothes)
Mythic Inflation is a concept introduced by American mythologist Joseph Campbell to explain the emergence of a new kind of ruler, the secular king who is also the divinely mandated saviour of the land/people. In this non-hieratic tyrant state, “The role of the monarch, gained by human means, is represented as a manifestation of the will and the grace of the creator and supporter of the universe” (Occidental Mythologies).
After the victorious conclusion of the long Eelam War, a similar redefinition of Rajapaksa rule was attempted in Sri Lanka. Mahinda Rajapaksa was hailed as the king sent from on high with a mandate from the four brahmas to unite the land. Actor Jackson Anthony, in his role as tele-historian, provided a family tree for the Rajapaksas that stretches back to the Buddha by way of King Dutugemunu. If Gotabaya Rajapaksa becomes the SLPP presidential candidate (California Central District Court and US State Department permitting), he too will don this apocryphal mantle, depicting himself as the Buddha’s relative and the chosen one of the gods.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa spent the last four and a half years building his own support base. Through organisations such as Viyathmaga (The Intellectual Way) and Eliya (The Light), he has sought to gain a measure of political and organisational autonomy from his brothers. He cannot win the presidency without the unstinting support of Mahinda and Basil Rajapaksa. But if he becomes the executive president, he is unlikely to act as a mere cipher of Mahinda Rajapaksa. On the contrary, the next few years would be characterised by sibling rivalry and conflict as President Gotabaya and PM Mahinda, plus their respective cohorts, wives and sons, battle with each other for power and influence.
Mahinda Rajapaksa’s awareness of these future dangers might explain his reluctance to crown brother Gotabaya as his heir. Another reason for this reluctance could be his concerns about the political future of his eldest son. Namal Rajapaksa will be old enough to contest the 2024/5 presidential election. If Gotabaya Rajapaksa becomes the next executive president, the chances of him stepping aside in five years and gifting the candidacy to his nephew would be less than zero. He would want a second term, and he too has a son.
Mahinda Rajapaksa might be reluctant to crown his brother, but he seems unable to resist the increasingly vocal and public pressure from the Gotabaya camp. The lure of the presidency shattered the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration. The lure of the presidency is also creating fissures in the Rajapaksa clan. If Gotabaya Rajapaksa gains the presidency, inter-familial rivalry will become the new normal and a permanent source of instability.
Gotabahya’s Advent and Sajith’s Dream
As the citizenship status of Gotabaya Rajapaksa hangs in the balance, his supporters are on a mission, trying to portray him as a hero who is sacrificing foreign honours to save and serve Mother Lanka. A case in point is an internet poster by Viyath Maga containing a picture of Gotabaya Rajapaksa and a kaviya, written in the style of S Mahinda Thero. “When the merit-laden Motherland wants (me), why do I need the citizenship of another country?” the kaviya asks rhetorically. “I will abandon all honours and will return Mother, to (undertake) the endeavour of protecting you.”
Gotabaya Rajapaksa received no honours in the US; he was just an ordinary immigrant who worked hard and made good, like millions of others. He gained his American citizenship by paying taxes, sitting for exams, renouncing his links to his birth-land and swearing sole allegiance to the US. The only reason he is giving up that hard-earned citizenship, rather unwillingly, is because he must.
As his supporters hail Gotabhigamanaya (the advent of Gotabaya), it is apposite to wonder why this man, who is painting himself in the colours of lion, take early retirement from the army (probably on a full pension). Why did he abandon Mother Lanka for Uncle Sam when the Second Eelam War was raging? When the question was asked from him, the man of destiny blamed his wife. I didn’t want to do it, he said; she made me do it.
This blame-the-wife retelling is contained in an article appropriately titled, Ayoma wins the day (The Island – 30.6.2013). Based on an interview with Mr. Rajapaksa, the article goes to painful lengths to convince the reader of Gotabaya’s innocence and Ayoma’s guilt. When Lt. Col. Rajapaksa succumbed to his wife’s demands and decided to leave the army, everyone who’s anyone in the military establishment tried to make him change his mind. The then defence minister Ranjan Wijeratne even flew to Weli Oya to offer the Lt. Colonel a transfer away from operation duties. The offer was rejected. The Lt. Colonel, who was planning to retire from the army and leave the country, claimed that all he wanted to “to serve with his battalion, wherever it was deployed.”
Minister Wijeratne clearly saw through the sentimental hype. He appointed Lt. Col. Rajapaksa as the Deputy Commandant of the Kotalawala Defence Academy. The Lt. Colonel was in this safe enclave (where his battalion was, the article doesn’t tell), when Minister Wijeratne was killed by the LTTE in the heart of Colombo. As the article says, “Shortly after Minister Wijeratne’s assassination, Lt. Col Rajapaksa sent in his retirement papers.”
The article also mentions the names of several superiors of Lt. Col. Rajapaksa who played supporting roles in this saga. Most of them were killed by the LTTE when Gotabaya Rajapaksa was treading the path to American citizenship in the safe haven of California.
The beautification of Gotabaya Rajapaksa by his acolytes is as superficial as the beautification of Colombo by Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The focus is on optics; splash the paint and spread the glitter. The end result is easier on the eye, though underneath the shine, the beast is the same.
When Marianne David, Senior Editor of The Daily FT, complained about the harassment women are subject to in public places, the denizens of Gotabaya-land went into twitter-hysterics. Viyathmaga accused Ms. David of shaming Sri Lanka in the eyes of the world and impeding the recovery of tourism. Retired admiral Mohan Wijewickrama, a Gotabaya-acolyte, told Ms. David, “Please leave this country. You do not belong here.” (Economy Next – 11.7.2019).
Mr. Wijewickrama’s Trumpian rant brings to mind an even more dangerous statement made by another Gotabaya-acolyte, retired general Kamal Gunaratne. Speaking at a Viyathmaga seminar in October 2017, Mr. Gunaratne branded as traitors anyone supporting a new constitution. He went on to claim that these traitors deserve death, and must be denied normal funeral rites, as the JVP notoriously did during the Second Insurgency.
These two incidents clearly forewarn what Sri Lanka will become under a Gotabaya presidency, a place of absolute and violent intolerance. Anyone incurring the ire of the saviour-president and his acolytes will be silenced, one way or the other.
Sajith Premadasa wants the UNP candidacy as much as Gotabaya Rajapaksa wants the SLPP candidacy. But while Gotabaya Rajapaksa makes no secret of his ambitions, Sajith Premadasa is rather coy about his.
Politics of entitlement and familial politics were anathema to Ranasinghe Premadasa. His son’s preferences seem antipodal. “I have been ready and working to take the country’s leadership from the day of birth,” Sajith Premadasa is quoted saying, after highly symbolic meetings with the chief prelates of Asgiriya and Malwatte (Lankadeepa – 23.7.2019). When asked about the UNP’s candidacy, he turned evasive. According to him what is on his mind is not the presidential election but how to build 1123 chaithyas (ibid).
Sajith Premadasa clearly believes that the masses are asses. Why else would he say that he is not thinking of the presidential election? Moreover, if he believes that building 1123 chaithyas is the need of the hour, he knows nothing of the state of Sri Lanka and the problems of her people. If Sri Lanka has a surfeit of anything other than corrupt and ignorant politicians, it is religious edifices.
Sajith Premadasa’s statement also reveals that he intends to use the religious card to gain the UNP’s candidacy and to win the presidency. Pandering to religion as a strategy would be both unprincipled and unintelligent. It will worsen the country’s ethno-religious divide, and help rather than hinder Rajapaksa victory. When it comes to ethno-religious politics Rajapaksas are peerless and unbeatable. It is their preserve, and anyone battling them on that field cannot but lose.
Irrespective of the identity of its candidate, the UNP’s failures will haunt the party come election time. Where was the UNP when the chief prelate of the Asgiriya chapter indirectly supported the stoning of all Lankan Muslims? Why is the UNP allowing the ACJU to scuttle MMDA reforms, again? Why is the UNP silent about the unjust incarceration of the young Sinhala-Buddhist writer, Shakthika Sathkumara, for writing a short story critical of a fictional Buddhist monk? How will the UNP explain the state’s inability to successfully prosecute the Trinco 5 case? Does the UNP think that by pandering to extremists, it can win electoral salvation? Doesn’t it understand that failing to stand up for the values of its core-supporters amounts to a radical loss of intelligent self-interest, a path not to victory but to self-inflicted defeat?
The Road to Impasse
Abolishing the executive presidency was the foundational pledge of the oppositional alliance that defeated the Rajapaksa behemoth in 2015. The failure to honour that promise has placed in jeopardy every single achievement of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration, notably the partial advances made in democratic restoration and establishment of the rule of law. These advances are significant, but fragile. They require space to take root and time to grow. But Sri Lanka is unlikely to have that space and time as the administration’s many failures reopen the door to Rajapaksa rule.
Had the government honoured another of its signature promises and achieved some success in redefining political culture, the bar for potential candidates for the presidency could have been set a little higher. Thanks to the duplicity, venality, cowardice and inefficiency of the current administration, any two-bit character, from politicians to retired soldiers, from entrepreneurs to tuition masters, can present himself as a candidate.
Just a couple of months ago, businessman Dhammika Perera was being touted as a possible ‘Common Candidate’ backed by the UNP. Hayles Free Zone, the company at the centre of the garbage importation scandal, is a subsidiary of the Hayles Group of which Mr. Perera is the majority shareholder and non-executive chairman. This is not the first time a Hayles subsidiary has been caught devastating the environment in search of a quick buck. In 2013, another Hayles subsidiary, Dip Products PLC, was at the centre of the Rathupaswala tragedy. The company was reportedly responsible for the contamination of ground water in 28 grama niladhari divisions. When the affected residents protested peacefully, the Rajapaksa administration responded by sending the army. Three people died and many were injured when the army shot at the protestors. What the fate of the country will be if such a businessman obtains the powers of presidency isn’t hard to imagine.
In the run up to the last presidential election the dominant consensus was pro-democratic, non-racist, progressive and secular. Today the dominant consensus seems to be pro-dictatorial, majoritarian supremacist, regressive and quasi-hieratic. The present moment is characterised by a strong love affair with the idea of the good tyrant. So we have a leading Buddhist prelate exhorting Gotabhaya Rajapaksa to ‘even be like Hitler.’ We also have Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith’s repeated broadsides against democracy and human rights. Clearly the Cardinal is a throwback to the pre-Vatican II era, when Pope Pius XI signed the Lateran Accords with Benito Mussolini and Cardinal Pirelli (the future Pope Pius XII) sought and won a Condorcet with Adolf Hitler. Since the Cardinal also seems to believe the crazy Divaina story that the Easter Sunday massacre was an international conspiracy and the IS leader is being held in an American camp, one can only surmise he knows not what he says.
As the government’s many failures are being equated with failures of democracy, the myth of the strong leader is regaining political traction. Saviours emerge from behind every bush, and under every rock offering salvation to an electorate that is too disenchanted or angry to be rational. When politicians, businessmen, retired military-men, and religious leaders sing the song of the strong leader, their aim is to return the country to a time when rulers could break every law and norm, commit crimes and make mistakes and yet don the mantle of infallibility. Because none would be free to say the Emperor is naked.