By Tisaranee Gunasekara –
In Terry Pratchett’s Small Gods, a god gets turned into a tortoise. Omnia is great god Om’s fief. Everyone worships him there, out of habit or in fear of his human enforcers. But no one believes in him. When belief diminishes, gods fade. Om would do anything, absolutely anything, to rekindle belief.
Like the Rajapaksas.
Two years after Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s spectacular victory, the Terminator appears more like a joker. The Family inc. is in trouble, haemorrhaging support, as a new opinion survey by the Institute of Health Policy reveals.
Of those Lankans who voted for Candidate Gotabaya in 2019 and the SLPP in 2020, one third – 33% – think they will not vote for Gotabaya Rajapaksa again.
The malaise runs deeper. Other findings point to a crisis of faith that is systemic. More than a quarter of Lankans (27%) wants to get out of the country. Amongst these, the young and the educated predominate. 48% of those who want to migrate are between years 18 to 29; and 53% are degree holders or above. Disenchantment with the Rajapaksas is morphing into a general loss of hope in a Lankan future.
The Pandemic is a contributory factor. But the main reason for the simmering discontent is economics. 72% of those surveyed expect general economic conditions to worsen in a year’s time. This belief is shared by 66% of disenchanted Gotabaya/SLPP voters. Of those still loyal to the Rajapaksas, 59% expect economic conditions to worsen in a year’s time. Only 25% of Rajapaksa loyalists believe that the state of the economy will improve in the coming year.
Of those surveyed, 65% said that their household economic situation worsened compared to the previous year. 66% of disenchanted Gotabaya/SLPP voters had experienced a similar decline. Of those still loyal to the Rajapaksas 56% said their household economic conditions deteriorated; only 11% reported an improvement in their personal economics. (Full report here)
The Rajapaksas sing of the motherland, race, and religion. But their real goals are familial and personal. They want to stay in power and they want to build a dynasty. How the Family Inc. responds to its eroding popularity and diminishing prospects would determine the tone and the tenor, the shape and the form of the next three years.
The One Country, One Law taskforce has commenced its operations in the North, proclaiming there are more important concerns than commemorating the dead and searching for the disappeared. The juxtaposition of this with the President’s inglorious Kelani Bridge speech indicates that racism and repression will form the cornerstones of the Rajapaksa’s survival strategy.
If Sri Lanka had a parliamentary system, a government change could have been effected before 2024, halting or at least minimising the downfall. The executive presidency precludes this possibility, especially after the 20th Amendment restored presidential powers. The country will have to suffer through three more years of this bumbling, malicious incompetence.
Call it a sign of the times. Five easy cooks that you can do without gas – that was the telling title of a recent article in a popular lifestyle website. Another website carried the picture of a chief monk of a temple in Mawanella standing in a gas queue. This was his fourth foray to get a cylinder of gas, the monk explained.
“It is the pride of kings which throws mankind into confusion,” wrote Thomas Paine in Commonsense. Sri Lanka of 2021 provides a classic example. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, aspiring to a global first, decided to turn Lankan agriculture fully organic from one farming season to the next. Did he dream of being feted in Washington and London for his historic achievement? Did he dream of making the keynote speech at the next UN climate summit, graciously advising global giants on how to turn their economies green in one swoop? Be that as it may, the cost of his uninformed ambition will be visited on the nation for years to come.
Having swept across the country’s agricultural lands with devastating effect, Cyclone Gotabaya has abated into a glowering pout. The private sector has been given permission to import chemical fertiliser sans subsidies. Given skyrocketing fertiliser prices internationally, the new decision may place fertiliser beyond the purchasing power of small and even medium scale farmers. So the crisis will continue, with many farmers forced to abandon their livelihoods and sell their lands, just to survive. A hike in rural poverty, landlessness, and unemployment may result, together with increased migration to urban areas and a further spurt in the numbers of those who want to migrate.
Given the political cost to themselves, will the Rajapaksas try to steer clear of such acts of extravagant folly in the next three years? Unlikely; the mistakes (from slashing taxes to the fertiliser fiasco) remain unacknowledged, and the Rajapaksas have a visceral dislike for expert opinions that go against their own inclinations and ambitions.
The unveiling of the Sanda Hiru Seya is significant in this regard. The symbolism of the project is in-your-face obvious. King Dutugemunu defeated King Elara and built Ruwanweliseya. King Mahinda defeated the Tigers and built Sanda Hiru Seya. The edifice in the historic Anuradhapura is obviously meant as a display of the essential unity of rata, jathiya, agama, and the ruling family. (Incidentally, Sinhala-Buddhist supermacism and Rajapaksa supremacism were not the only characteristics on display at the unveiling ceremony. The president and the prime minister occupied high chairs while their spouses were given conspicuously low chairs. Equality of any sort is alien to Rajapaksa ethos, including gender equality within the Sinhala-Buddhist space.)
According to the former commissioner of archaeology, Sanda Hiru Seya should never have been built in that archaeologically sensitive location. In a recent interview he revealed that he asked the then president Mahinda Rajapaksa not to build the edifice there or to build a smaller one. But his expert advice was ignored and he was compelled to give his permission to the project. (One wishes the Commissioner saved his professional integrity by resigning in protest, but fear is a great compeller).
As the former commissioner said, by this time Mahinda Rajapaksa was being portrayed as king. And kings have this habit of thinking themselves as inerrant. Ignoring expert opinion is thus in Rajapaksa political blood. And in the pursuit of their own glory, nothing is off limits. So the tragicomedy of errors that characterised the last two years (and the previous Rajapaksa tenure) is likely to continue in the next three years.
Even in a country with well laid guardrails, an executive president can cause havoc, as the case of Donald Trump demonstrated. In a country like ours where democracy is not home-grown and strong institutional bulwarks are absent, the harm an executive president can do is immeasurably more. This is aggravated by our millennia long history of absolute kingship, which ended not with a popular rebellion like in France but with foreign invasion and occupation. The misbegotten desire for a king and the yearning to be turned from citizens to subjects (relieved of the responsibility of thinking and of choosing) probably stem from that unresolved history. Unhappy in our democratic present, we dream of returning to the monarchic past, deliberately misperceiving it as a lost paradise. This makes us particularly vulnerable to the grand declamations of ambitious and cunning politicians.
The opening of the new Kelani Bridge was probably scheduled to coincide with the second anniversary of the Gotabaya presidency. 24 hours before the gala ceremony, the absence of a bridge caused six deaths (four of them children) in Kinniya. If some of the billions spent on turning Hambantota into a megapolis were used to provide essential infrastructure to Lankan people, a bridge across the Kinniya lagoon would have been built years ago, preventing the ferry tragedy by making a ferry unnecessary.
A government that cares about the people it governs would have responded to this tragedy by re-examining its development priorities. A government that is at least concerned about optics would not have held a gala ceremony, even as the people of Kinniya were burying their beloved dead. Yet the Rajapaksas went ahead with the Kelani Bridge opening ceremony. That absence of intelligence and of empathy is a stark warning of the hell awaiting us in the next three years.
While the Rajapaksas are playing at royal families, something strange is happening at the ground level. The SLPP lost the budget vote in two of the pradesheeya sabhas it controls, in Mahawa and Lahugala. In the Ja-ela town council too, the budget was opposed by a majority of members.
The newly formed SLPP’s victory at the 2018 LG polls presaged the future. Are the budget defeats suffered by the SLPP in councils under its control a mere flash in the pan, or an omen? Either way, they provide a valuable lesson to all those who want to see Sri Lanka rescued from the Family Inc. Like in 2015, the Rajapaksas can be defeated only if the opposition forms a broad united front, a wide tent.
According to the Institute of Health Policy survey, of those who said they will not vote for Gotabaya Rajapaksa again, a majority said they will abstain in 2024 or refused to answer the question as who their choice will be.
The voters are rejecting the government. But they are not rallying round the opposition. The danger of massive abstentions working in the Rajapaksas’ favour is real. No wonder, given the underwhelming performance of the opposition.
When a particularly repellent SLPP parliamentarian responded to MP Rohini Wijeratne with a misogynistic and indecent outburst, his remarks were greeted with a few titters from his own side and a telling silence from the opposition. In that moment, no opposition parliamentarian rose to decry this denigrating of women and of the parliamentary tradition. That instinctive non-reaction says much about what is wrong with the opposition, a distressing lack of convictions and principles, of passion and feeling.
A protest was organised subsequently within the parliament, but in a distressing display of sectarianism, it was limited to the SJB. Did the SJB fail to inform other opposition parties of its protest? Did the other parties refuse to join? Whatever the answer, it demonstrates why the growing opposition to the government has not translated into a growing backing for the opposition.
The president publicly threatened to disenfranchise a large part of the opposition and the SLFP. He won’t be able to do it, but the publicly expressed desire is indicative of a new willingness to abuse the law and violate norms. The most recent custodial death is another signal of the growing lawlessness of the government. The killing of suspect LS Lasantha was known in advance. The president of the Bar Association e-mailed the IGP warning about the planned killing. Yet the killing happened. Not for the first time either. On May 12th the mother of another suspect, Kosgoda Tharaka, wrote to the Human Rights Commission through her lawyer, expressing fear for the life of her son and asking for protection. He was killed the next morning, while on a weapon-showing ride, just as she feared.
The two incidents show a willingness by the government to take the law into its hand blatantly, and heedless of the consequences (all this is while the regime is on its ‘best’ behaviour in order to save the GSP facility). This is mirrored by an increasing willingness on the part of the people to execute their own justice. The attack on the house of the area parliamentarian in response to the Kinniya tragedy is a case in point.
If protests turn violent, whatever the justification, the Rajapaksas will use it as an excuse to unleash repression on a massive scale. The Lion flag and the saffron robe would be their preferred methods to haul themselves out of the unpopularity pit they have dug for themselves. But if race and religion fail, if Muslim/Tamil/Christian enemies cannot bamboozle Sinhala-Buddhists in sufficient numbers, the Rajapaksas will not hesitate to resort to imprisonment and even murder on a large scale. Against their desire to hang on to power, even country, race, and religion will contend in vain.